On Israel’s 64th Independence Day, it is worthwhile to look back at some of Israel’s most influential wines, which have helped to advance Israel’s image as a wine producing country of international quality.
These are some of the wines that charted the progress of Israel in the international court of public opinion. The coming list is a story of Israel through its wines – each one has contributed to the advance of Israel’s image in some way and each individual success was a stepping stone in the upward advance of the Israel wine industry. The list is made up from those wines that have drawn attention to Israel through awards, scores or recognition.
Carmel No. 1 1900
The first Israeli winner at a major wine show was the Carmel No.1 at the Paris World Fair at the beginning of the last century. It won a Gold Medal alongside the French First Growths. It confirmed the rebirth of a modern Israeli wine industry after 2,000 years.
Carmel Cabernet Sauvignon 1970 – Winemakers: Shimon Rosenthal/ Yaacov Avni
Israel’s first varietal wines – a Cabernet Sauvignon & a Sauvignon Blanc were first launched with the 1970 vintage. Golan Heights Winery introduced Merlot & Chardonnay in the late 1980’s.
Carmel Special Reserve 1976 – Winemaker: Feddie Stiller
This wine was Israel’s first really serious ‘fine’ wine. Aged in French oak barrels for two years and then aged in the bottle, it was only released in 1980. It was a long lasting wine, surprising connoisseurs, by being drinkable for up to 20 years. It was a definite milestone in the production of Israeli wine.
Yarden Sauvignon Blanc 1983 – Philip Steinschriber
This was the Golan Heights Winery’s first vintage and when this wine was launched it became known – particularly in America, as Israel’s first world class wine. The wine was a real breakthrough for Israel – light straw colored, aromatic and with good acidity – rather than the over oxidized, flabby, yellowing white wines that were produced up to then.
Yarden Cabernet Sauvignon 1984 – Mike Lake
This was the first Israeli wine to wine an international prize at the very highest level. It not only won the Gold Medal at the International Wines & Spirits Competition in London in 1987, but also The Winiarski Trophy (presented by Warren Winiarski of Stags Leap fame) as the best red wine in the competition. This was the first real proof to the wider wine world that Israeli wines were international class. To onlooking wine experts it was an astonishing result.
Yarden Sauvignon Blanc Late Harvest 1988 – Andrew Star
Israel’s first special dessert wine made from grapes naturally affected by botrytis. It was probably the most unique wine ever produced in Israel. It was never duplicated. Dessert wines were always regarded previously as low quality – their sweetness being too reminiscent of kiddush (sacramental) wines.
Yarden Merlot 1988 – Andrew Star
This was a wine that won the Grand Prix d’Honneur at Vinexpo. It was the second Vinexpo in a row that the Golan Heights Winery won this prestigious trophy, and they were to win this three times in a row. It was arguably the best award received for an Israeli Merlot.
Yarden Katzrin 1990 – Peter Stern/ Victor Schoenfeld
Yarden Katzrin was Israel’s first super de luxe red wine. The first vintage was 1990. It was Israel’s first ever $50 bottle of wine and later vintages were Israel’s first ever $100 bottle of wine. Usually made by a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc, it is only produced in especially good vintages – to date 1990, 1993, 1996, 2000, 2003 and 2004. This wine took Israeli wine onto a new plain.
Castel Grand Vin 1992 – Eli Ben Zaken
This wine was famous because it was Eli Ben Zaken’s first vintage, but it was also the one ‘discovered’ by Serena Sutcliffe, Master of Wine and Head of the Sotheby’s Wine Department. She referred to it as the best Israeli wine she had ever tasted. This encouraged Eli Ben Zaken to build his beautiful winery and the whole boutique winery revolution in the 1990’s.
Margalit Cabernet Sauvignon 1993 – Yair Margalit
Yair Margalit gained a reputation as the first really international class boutique winery being founded in 1989. He was Israel’s best known winemaker at this stage. However it was the 1993 that was regarded as his greatest wine. The wine drew attention to the quality of a smaller, less commercial style of winery and gave notice of the coming boutique winery explosion that was to follow. Recent tastings show the wine is still going strong 15 years later.
Yarden Blanc de Blancs N.V. – Victor Schoenfeld
In 1996 a champagne method sparkling wine became the best bottle fermented sparkling wine winning the Trophy at the IWSC in London. The wine was then non vintage, but today it is made as a vintage sparkling wine. This showed that Israel could triumph on the world scene with another wine style. The Yarden Blanc de Blancs won this same Trophy on two subsequent occasions too.
Castel Grand Vin 1997 – Eli Ben Zaken
Castel drew attention to Israel when the Grand Vin 1997 became Decanter Wine of the Month. Decanter, only second to the Wine Spectator in importance, then rarely tasted Israeli wine, let alone writing anything positive about them. Castel’s success was therefore even more noteworthy and they went on to achieve this three times.
Flam Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve 2000 – Golan Flam
This was one of four wines which were first recognized in Tom Stevenson’s Wine Report as Israel’s one of the ‘100 Most Exciting Wine Finds’. Made from Upper Galilee fruit, this Flam wine signaled the new quality boutique wineries being formed in Israel, were good enough to receive international recognition.
Yatir Winery 2003 – Eran Goldwasser
The flagship wine of Yatir Winery made from Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, grown in the high altitude Yatir Forest vineyards in the southern Judean Hills. This wine finished in first place in the first ever tasting of Israeli wines held by Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate. It was awarded 93 points, which then equaled the highest score ever given for an Israeli, kosher or Eastern Mediterranean wine by Robert Parker, the world’s most famous wine critic.
Carmel Sha’al Gewurztraminer Late Harvest 2004 – Lior Lacser
A special dessert wine that received a gold medal at the IWSC and a double gold at Terravino, but it is not for this reason it is on the list. It also received a review of 95 points from Howard Goldberg of the New York Times, Decanter and The Wine News. It was the highest score ever given to an Israeli wine by an international critic.
Clos de Gat Harel Syrah 2004 – Eyal Rotem
This Syrah won the Regional Trophy at the Decanter Fine Wines Awards. It was significant in that it was the first Israeli Syrah to wine an international award and the first significant award given to Israel by the prestigious Decanter World Wine Awards. It promises to be a variety suited to the Israeli climate.
Yarden Cabernet Sauvignon 2004 – Victor Schoenfeld
This was the first Israeli wine listed by the Wine Spectator’s as one of the top 100 wines of the year. It was a big breakthrough for Israel to be recognized on this prestigious list. The Yarden Cabernet Sauvignon has been one of the more consistent wines over the years and it was appropriate that this was the first Israeli wine to make it onto the Wine Spectator’s prestigious list.
“C” Blanc du Castel 2003 – Eli Ben Zaken
Though Israel as a country became mainly known for its red wines, this wine is arguably Israel’s finest Chardonnay. The 2003 became the first Israeli wine to receive over 90 points from the Wine Spectator, the most famous wine magazine in the world. The 2005 later became the highest scoring dry white wine in the Wine Advocate.
Carmel Single Vineyard Shiraz, Kayoumi Vineyard 2006 – Lior Lacser
This wine won both the Regional and International Trophy at the Decanter World Wine Awards beating the finest Syrahs from France, Shiraz’s from Australia and southern Rhone blends like Chateauneuf du Pape. Decanter termed it ‘the sensation of this year’s competition, or indeed of any year’s competition.’ It was arguably the finest award ever made for an Israeli wine in such a prestigious competition.
Yarden Rom 2006 – Victor Schoenfeld / Zelma Long
The first Yarden Rom was a joint winemaking venture between Golan Heights Winery’s experienced winemaker, Victor Schoenfeld and Californian winemaking icon, Zelma Long. Zelma Long is the Golan’s winemaking consultant. This wine received 96 points from the late Daniel Rogov, Israel’s most famous wine critic. It was the highest score Rogov ever gave for a wine.
Yarden Chardonnay, Odem Vineyard 2009 – Victor Schoenfeld
This wine won the prestigious Grand Gold Award at Vin Italy along with the Yarden HeightsWine. It was also significant in that it was made from an organically grown vineyard. This performance ensured the Golan Heights Winery won the Best Winery Award at Vin Italy. Undoubtedly the best award ever made for an Israeli winery. It also showed the Golan’s consistency and versatility. They have won Grand Gold Medals at Vin Italy for white, red. sparkling and dessert wines.
Recanati Special Reserve 2008 – Gil Shatzberg
This wine won no less than four gold medals in quality international competitions. It flagged up with great consistency that Israeli was producing world class wines and was recognized as such in a number of different arenas. Recanati proved to be a very consistent collector of gold medals worldwide.
This record may not be of the best wines Israel has produced – even though many of them are – but their influence in spreading the word of the quality and variety of Israel wines can not be underestimated.