Holy Land Wines for the Holidays

By Downer, Elizabeth | Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA), March 21, 2013 | Go to article overview

Holy Land Wines for the Holidays


Downer, Elizabeth, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)


The origins of wine go back 7,000 years to Mesopotamia. For thousands of years, wine has been deeply embedded in the culture and the religion of our ancestors. It always has played a major role in the rites of both the Jewish and the Christian faiths. As we approach Passover and Easter, my wine thoughts head to the Holy Land where both religions were born.

For Jews, ritual wine must be kosher. Until the end of the 19th century, that meant a sweet wine made from table grapes. The wine used in Christian religious ceremonies also is normally sweet.

With waves of Jewish immigration from Europe into Palestine from 1879 to 1904, there was a substantial growth in agricultural settlements, including vineyards, at the same time that the demand for European-style wines arose. Baron Edmund de Rothschild, owner of Chateau Lafite in Bordeaux, financed the planting of vitis vinefera vineyards and sent teams of experts from Bordeaux to advise the new wineries on making fine wine. His vision was to make the Holy Land the source of kosher wines for Jews everywhere while sustaining the local settlers with a viable industry. With the intervention of phylloxera, the vineyards suffered and it was only in 1960 that producers successfully reintroduced the baron's Bordeaux and Rhone varieties.

The modern wine era began in 1982 when the first grapes in the Golan Heights were harvested and set off what became a wine revolution in the 1990s. With greater emphasis on vineyard management, New World winemaking technology and uncompromising standards of excellence, Israeli wines began to attract attention as world-class.

In the past 25 years, Israeli wine production has followed the California model of expansion. Presently there are 285 wineries producing 36 million bottles of table wine from 12,350 acres of grapes. Of these, 250 are boutique wineries that produce 100,000 bottles or less. Israeli wines are exported throughout the world with almost half coming to the United States. (Kosher wines also are made in the U.S., France, Spain and most every other wine-producing region.)

That Israeli wines can sit proudly among the finest of world wines is not news. I have been shouting for years that kosher wine no longer means sweet and syrupy. When made from vinifera grapes by wineries respecting the modern techniques, it is virtually indistinguishable from quality wines from other regions. After all, it is coming from the Mediterranean, legendary home to great wines.

Last week at my annual kosher wine tasting at Pinskers Judaica in Squirrel Hill, I was reminded again just how good Israeli wines can be. Since I began tasting at Pinskers about 8 years ago, the wine selection has increased 100-fold. What was a small metal rack displaying about 40 wines is now an inventory of 400 labels on shelves spread over three rooms and multiple storage spaces.

* Barkan Classic Chardonnay, 2011, $9

This crisp, well-balanced Chardonnay from the Samson region in central Israel displays pleasant apple and pear on the nose and good acidity and length in the mouth. There is no oak and no malolactic fermentation. Barkan is the second largest producer in the country, turning out 6.5 million bottles.

* Shiloh Chardonnay, 2011, $18.95

From vineyards east of Tel Aviv in Shomron region, this medium- weight chardonnay has a powerful nose of green apple and citrus and wet rocks. …

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