To support my mission to get the word out about the quality of Israeli wines, I often host winery events and tours; so, it's not that uncommon for me to be asked which wineries I like to visit the most.
For those who haven't been following Israeli wines or kosher wines. These aren't the wines of twenty years ago or even ten years ago when Israeli and kosher wines often left wine connoisseurs disappointed. Israeli wines, kosher or not, often beat non-kosher wines from the best wine regions in the world in international competitions. Over 100 Israeli wines have won 90 point reviews and acclaim in magazines like Robert Parker, the Wine Spectator, the Wine Enthusiast and the UK's Decanter Magazine. Almost all the experts agree: Israeli wines and kosher wines are indistinguishable in quality from other regions and styles. No connoisseur can pick out a kosher from non-kosher wine in a blind tasting.
Although I like a good view as much as the next guy, I'm more into how good the wine is and how engaging the winemaker and staff are in explaining how their grapes and wine differ from the other hundreds of wineries in Israel. For the purposes of this blog I am going to step back and share, according to region, a good selection of wineries that I think both novices and connoisseurs would find rewarding. This is based on how hospitable the winery is, how good the wines are and how dynamic the experience of visiting this winery is.
The Golan Heights:
The highest altitude wine region in Israel with vineyards ranging from 400 to 1,100 meters is the Golan Heights. It's about 2 1/2 to 3 hours from Tel Aviv depending on the traffic, but the wineries appreciate the effort and visitors are rewarded with the wines from the most consistently good wines sourced from grapes from volcanic basalt soil.
The Golan Heights Winery, Katzrin, 04-696-8435
Now Israel's third largest winery, the GHW launched the Israeli wine renaissance with vineyards planted in 1976 and it first official vintage in 1983. Under winemaker Victor Schoenfeld, its Yarden, Gamla, Golan & Mt. Hermon labels have set a benchmark for other commercial wineries on how a big winery in Israel can rival boutique wineries for making quality wine. They have been rewarded with international recognition as one of the best wineries in the world - not just Israel. Their large center is one of the few in the Golan set-up to handle large bus loads of tourists, yet they also conduct amazing VIP tours and tastings. No single winery in Israel produces more quality wines to choose from. Their single vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlots and Syrahs are often some of Israel's best in their respective varietal categories and their sparkling wines could easily be mistaken as Champagne in a blind tasting. Dessert wines like their Heights Wine 1 have helped them win international competitions. There is also have a brew house nearby that features beers that winemakers have helped make.
Odem Mountain, Moshav Odem, 04-687-1122
The Alafasi family plays host at Israel's most northern & highest altitude winery. They make some great value for money wines, including their Chardonnay, Merlot, Cabernet & Shiraz. However, the stars are in their reserve series which include a special Cabernet Franc. Don't miss their Cherry Dessert wine made from both sweet and sour cherries (and ideal match for your next chocolate binge).
Bazelet HaGolan, Kidmat Tzvi (just north of Katzrin) 04-696-5010
This well respected boutique makes three varietals (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Chardonnay) and features them into seven typically impressive wines available for a tasting at their modest but charming center. I suggest calling ahead to make sure an English speaking guide is available if Hebrew is a challenge.
The Upper & Lower Galilee have grown into Israel's most prolific region for superior grapes. The quality is so good that several wineries located in the center of the country source their grapes from the Galilee instead of closer to their own winery.
Galil Mountain Winery, Kibbutz Yiron, 04-686-8748
A sister winery of the Golan Heights Winery (who is a 2/3 owner along with Kibbutz Yiron owning the other 1/3), this is one of the best value wineries in Israel. They make 14 atypical single varietals and blends, including good examples of Pinot Noir & Barbera. Considered one of the best value for money wineries, Galil is also the most architecturally striking of any large winery within view of the Lebanese border.
Tabor Winery, Kfar Tavor, 04-676-0444
Not so long ago this large winery seemed to lack vision or interesting wines. They should get an award for more than doubling their production and dramatically increasing their quality under journeyman winemaker Arieh Nesher. Thanks to new vineyards, they have a wide range of varietals and better grapes which result in better wines. Their Cabernet Franc dominant Keshet from their Adama II series is one of my favorites,. Their Roussanne also led the way for this new white grape in Israel and their range of dry and sweeter sparkling wines can be fun distractions as well.
Dalton, 04-698-7683, Adir 04-699-1039, Rimon 04-682-2325, Dalton Industrial Area near Kerem Ben Zimra
Within walking distance of each other or a 1 minute drive, are three very different wineries; Dalton, Adir and Rimon. Dalton was the first commercial winery in the Galilee coming up on 20 years. They make a wide range of wines with typically good values at each price point. They also make some rare varietals and blends for Israel including oak aged Sauvignon Blanc, Rhone & Bordeaux style red blends in their Alma series, Pinot Grigio, Viognier, Petite Sirah, Zinfandel and Moscato. They also have more standard varietals that are great.
Adir is much smaller than Dalton, featuring boutique red & dessert wines. Their visitor center features a wide assortment of cheeses and yogurts as the two families that own the winery also own a dairy. This is a good place to also catch a dairy lunch while on a day of tasting. Upper tier red wines are the focus of the winemaker here.
Rimon (Hebrew for pomegranate) is one of the fruit wineries that opts not to use grapes but only pomegranates. It's probably the most established of that lot and their line-up includes a dry fruit wine. Their sparkling and dessert wines are the best bets and are located in orchards just across the street from the industrial park that Adir and Dalton occupy. They also sell pomegranate juice if you want some non-alcoholic refreshment on your wine infused wanderlust.
Ramot Naftaly, 04-696-0371, Avidan, Trio & Moshav Ramot Naftaly
These three quality boutique wineries aren't just located in the same village but share the same visitor center. All three wineries have a range of quality wines, unique varietals and blends. Being under one roof makes this a good choice if you only want to stop at one location. Ramot Naftaly has been a pioneer for several varietals such as Barbera, Petit Verdot and Malbec. Avidan has been a leader in unique blends while Trio is making interesting value for money wines. With three wineries, you could spend a full day wine tasting and not have to worry about driving - always important to keep in mind when drinking alcoholic beverages.
Kishor Vineyard, Kishorit Village, 04-908-5198
This is possibly the nicest landscaped visitor center in a village with a social agenda to match the beauty of its scenery. Kishorit in Kibbutz Kishor helps supports adults with special needs. Winemaker Richard Davis from South Africa produces wines which get better and better each year so it's fun to return each year and taste what's next. Their recent semi-sweet Riesling was a pleasant surprise and one of the best examples of that noble white grape in Israel.
The Tulip and Maia wineries , Kiryat Tivon, Kfar Tikvah, 04-983-0573
Kfar Tikvah, "village of hope," is a village with several industries that support residents who are challenged adults that might not find work otherwise. Half the employees at Tulip and its sister brand Maia are residents of the village and their cheerful dispositions add to the charm and soul of well-crafted wines that could easily sell for more than the winery is asking. Winemaker David Bar-Ilan oversees both brands and his Tulip Syrah Reserve is one of the best Syrahs in Israel - at a very competitive price. Their Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cab Franc, White Franc and a range of other reds and whites are all good if not great value for money wines.
This guide focuses on the kosher wineries of the north. As such, all these wineries are closed on Saturdays and most religious holidays. Kosher wineries typically close early on Friday (typically by 3PM at the latest) so workers and guests can get home in time to prepare for the Sabbath.
If you are planning a wine tour, I suggest you call ahead as many wineries feature special events or have scheduled times if you want a tour instead of just a tasting. Prices for tastings often change so it's good to also confirm pricing on the phone when you call. Some wineries give rebates on the tasting charges if you buy wine.
David Rhodes, is Israel's only member of the IFWTWA (the International Food, Wine and Travel Writers Association) and a California trained sommelier who is the host of Rhodes to Israeli Wines on TLV1.fm radio and has visited most of Israel's over 300 wineries and can be reached at [email protected]