JERUSALEM (RNS) When wine merchants Avi Ben and Shmulik Cohen organized Jerusalem’s first wine festival in 2003, they were more concerned with the size of the crowd size than the quality of the wine.
At the time, the city was plagued by frequent suicide bombings, driving Israelis to spend their free time elsewhere. The two oenophiles figured a balmy summer festival in an outdoor sculpture garden would pump some life back into the local social scene.
And it did.
About 6,000 guests showed up to the three-evening event, as did 18 wine vendors. This year, the festival swelled to nearly 15,000 people and marked a turning point in the country’s kosher wine culture.
Guests filled their glasses with local reds and a number of complex blends as vintners seek to develop an indigenous wine industry — and signature national taste — that could rival those in Portugal or South Africa.
“It gets boring to always have Cabernet and Merlot,” said winemaker Yotam Sharon, who works for Barkan, Israel’s second-largest wine producer. “Part of the magic of wine is diversity — to always have new things to try. And within the Jewish community, there is more demand for quality wine. They’re limited to kosher, but they want the best wine possible.”
Oenophiles have tended to look down at wines with kosher labels, steadfastly refusing to sip from popular $4.99 bottles of Manischewitz at a Passover seder. In reality, the only difference in the kosher production process is that the winemaker has to be an Orthodox Jew.
Kosher certification can get tricky — and limit exporters’ options — when wine makers try to tap overseas markets. Jewish law says kosher wine is no longer kosher when handled by non-Jews, which makes it difficult for kosher restaurants or caterers who employ gentiles as wait staff.
The solution has been a process known as “mevushal,” where the bottles and their contents are pasteurized and, according to rabbinic interpretation, rendered unfit for pagan purposes. A gentile server could uncork and serve the wine without losing the bottle’s kosher status. The wine is still drinkable, but some vintners say the process puts the product’s quality at risk.
Even with the added steps, Israeli wines are trending toward obtaining a rabbinic seal of approval. About 70 percent of the vendors at the August festival were kosher, and organizers anticipate at least a 10 percent increase next year.
Tzora Vineyards, located in the Judean Hills, is one of the vineyards that decided to go kosher. “We knew it would open the market,” said manager Shula Solomon, who made the switch in 2002, nine years after the vineyard opened.
As kosher-keepers’ options continue to broaden, so do their palates.
“I drank kiddush (ceremonial Sabbath) wine, but nothing serious,” said Shmuel Unterberg, 27, of his wine knowledge prior to going to the festival for the first time three years ago. “I just drank what other people drank and thought, `This is fine, I’ll drink this.”‘
Unterberg now stocks his cellar with the new favorites he discovers each year at the wine festival.
That increased interest — and demand for varied tastes — has led companies like Barkan to experiment with an Israeli version of Pinotage, a South African red that’s a cross between Pinot Noir and Cinsaut.
“It’s one of the wines I’m really proud of,” Sharon said of Barkan’s Superieur Pinotage 2007, launched earlier this month. Only one other Israeli vineyard has tried to cultivate the Pinotage grape. “It took a lot of care, but we believe it’s worth it.”
Barkan, which produces 9 million bottles altogether annually, only produced 7,000 bottles of the Superior Pinotage. It’s priced at a relatively expensive $57.
“Unlike some other countries — Spain or Portugal — we don’t have a whole bunch of indigenous varieties,” Sharon shared. “Somehow, we have to figure out what would work best for us. The search is still ongoing.”
(BEGIN OPTIONAL TRIM)
Other Israeli vineyards have latched on to popular trends, such as the Tishbi Estate Winery in the city of Zichron Yaakov, south of Haifa, which three years ago was certified as the country’s first vegan winery.
“We make the wine very simple, very clean,” said winemaker Golan Tishbi, who started using vegan practices in 2001, including shunning additives such as egg whites or milk protein in the production process.
One festival crowd favorite was Tishbi’s 2006 Barbera Zinfandel, a Port-style sweet dessert wine, which is fortified with Red Muscat brandy and aged for 18 months in old barrels.
(END OPTIONAL TRIM)
Israeli winemakers admit that even with such advancements, they have a hard time standing out on the international wine stage.
“Once you take the kosher issue out of the question, it becomes almost impossible for Israel to be competitive,” Sharon said. “The only wines that can compete are, really, the very best.”
Still, reputable international critics have taken note of Israel’s progress in the kosher vineyards.
The Domaine du Castel vineyard in central Israel was awarded four stars in Hugh Johnson’s Wine Book 2010, and Yarden’s Cabernet Sauvignon was added to the Wine Spectator’s Annual Top 100 for the first time. Robert Parker’s latest Wine Buyer’s Guide spends nine pages on Israeli wines, whereas the previous edition did not feature even one Israeli wine.
“A lot of people say, `I don’t want to go with kosher wines, I want to go to Napa Valley,”‘ said Unterberg, the budding wine enthusiast. “But then when you go to Napa Valley, you see the (award) plaques, and a lot of the plaques belong to Israeli wineries. You don’t have to go a far distance to find a treasure, to find good wine. You can do it right at home.”