The history of the wine industry in Israel can be told in the history of the Carmel Winery. This granddaddy of Israel’s wineries predates the State of Israel and also predates the British Mandate. In 1820, when the region was under the rule of the Ottoman Empire and no wines were produced in the Holy Land, a group of pioneers from Romania came to work the land. They were initially unsuccessful in their efforts at farming, but sought support and advice from Baron Edmund de Rothschild who had purchased Chateau Lafite in his homeland, France. He saw the potential for growing grapes and making wines here and brought the first vines to be planted. However, the wine produced rapidly turned to vinegar. Subsequently, a great deal of money and energy were invested in an underground natural cooling system to combat the initial spoilage of the wine due to the high temperatures of the region. The then named Carmel Mizrachi Winery became the largest producer of Kosher wines in The Holy Land. These were known and drunk throughout the world, but the quality of the wines was mediocre at best.
About 10 years ago the Carmel Winery changed its name, management, and source of grapes, focusing more on the production of higher quality wines. They acquired two of what are now gems in their collection of vineyards, Kayoumi and Yatir, which produce small quantities of single vineyard wines. They also have nine wines, each from a specific wine growing region, and call these “Appellation.” The Carmel Wineries still produce more bottles of wine than any other winery in Israel, but they are more focused on higher quality wines than ever before.
They also have a unique interface with the wine drinking public. Rather than the usual wine tasting center, they have an integrated Wine Culture Center. This is a multifaceted program built around “Wine Workshops,” including a tour of the winery (which could even start in the vineyard) and a virtual tour of the faraway vineyards while drinking the vine they produce. Depending on the desires of the visitor, a meal in the restaurant of the Center, “Bistro de Carmel,” a Mediterraneal style diary restaurant, could also be included.
On our visit, Yossi Cohen, the manager of the Wine & Culture Shop, introduced me to the history of the winery as walked around the outside, and then Adam Montefiore Wine Development Director, elucidated in more depth, the changes in the winery which have brought it up in quality in recent years. We visited one of the original wine cask storage rooms deep underground and for me, it was “déjà vu all over again,” as I immediately knew that I had been there before. It was 21 years ago, when, as a volunteer at Kibbutz Hanaton, all of the kibbutzniks spent an evening of wine, food and song in this very same room. It was like a coming home for me, making this visit so very special.
After the tour, Naftali and I tasted three of the wines, two from the Appellation series (Petite Sirah and Carignan) and one of their very special wines called Mediterranean. This is a blend of grape varieties from this part of the world, including Carignan, Shiraz, Petit Verdot, Petite Sirah and a little Viognier, It is aged for 15 months in French oak barrels. I have yet to taste their flagship wine, Carmel Limited Edition. I cannot report anything about it other than the price, which is 250 shekels per bottle. Maybe someday I’ll get to taste it. In the meantime, we purchased two of the “Appellation” wines and in one of the posts to come, I will talk about tasting of them.