Esoteric Judaism has made its way into the world of wine in Israel. The mystical Kabbalah had its origins in the 11th and 12th centuries and, in more modern times, has become centered in the hill town of Tsfat (alternatively spelled Tzfat, Safed, and Tsefat) overlooking The Kinneret or Sea of Galilee. And out of this, the community known as Or Haganuz was established in 1989 by Rav Mordecai Sheinberger. Rav means Rabbi , and is also a term of great respect such as “Doctor” or “Professor” might connote. This man was the student of Rav Ashlag of Tsefat, who was a student of Rav ARI, Isaac ben Solomon Luria Ashkenazi, otherwise known as Isaac Luria. He is the father of contemporary Kabbalah. The name of the community and of the winery means “Secret Light,” which Kabbalah is also known as.
There they tell of a legend about the origin of grapes for wine. This is not what you read in Wikipedia and may or may not be true, but it makes for a nice story about wine grapes’ origin. As you might know, wine is held in holy esteem by Jews. It plays a key role in all celebrations from the ritual surgery performed on a male infant on the eighth day of his life and through the passage to manhood at age 13. It continues to play that role at weddings, and onward, including the weekly welcoming of every Sabbath and its closure at the end this holy day, not to mention every holiday. At each of these times a special blessing is said prior to the drinking of the wine. This dates back to biblical times some 4,000 years ago. So it must be that grapes were grown here in the land of Israel from antiquity and perhaps were spread to Europe by the Romans and Greeks who came here to conquer the Middle East. At Or Haganuz they believe that a grape vine planted in a terroir unfamiliar to the plant will be rejected. And this, they say, is the reason that each and every one of the many grape varieties is able to thrive here in Israel. They all came from here originally.
Another mystical “fable” is of the origin of the name of the grape variety, Chardonnay. Some say that this name is a transliteration of the original Hebrew name consisting of two words, Char-Adonnay. It is written in Hebrew שער אדוני (Gate of God), which is spoken, “Shaar Adonai.” Put them together and you have Chardonnay.
According to Giovani, who introduced us to the winery and the wines, the community is dedicated to study and work — study of the Torah and especially work to produce wine and bread. It is believed that these two foods can provide one’s body with all the sustenance that it needed to live. The prayer before doing/eating anything is a Jew’s means of connecting with The Almighty, and recognizing the specialness of Her/His nature. The blessing that is said before eating grapes is, like that before eating any fruit, and it thanks God for bringing forth fruit from the tree. But because there is special quality of this fermented drink that is made from grapes, before drinking wine, there is a special prayer which thanks God specifically for bringing forth the wine, the fruit of the vine. This is, likewise, true for wheat versus bread, when we thank God for bringing forth bread from the earth as a special prayer as opposed to a general prayer for other foods. These two wine and bread, therefore, hold a special place in the daily life of Jews everywhere.
The Or Haganuz Winery produces a number of wines of different styles with names that have been changing making it difficult to describe their series and types. One unique wine that Nurit absolutely loves, is what they call Nitzan, a mixture of 80% Cabernet Sauvignon and 20% Pomegranate juice. She says that the port-style wine made from Pomegranates by Rimon Winery that I love so much is too sweet for her and that the Nitzan’s lack of being overly sweet is appealing to her. For my part, it is neither a Cabernet Sauvignon nor a Pomegranate wine. Unlike the port-style wines, it is only 13% alcohol. It sells for 70 shekels (about $17) at the winery.
Their other unusual wine is a sweet wine called Har Sinai. It is frequently used for sacramental purposes and is a favorite of the ultra-orthodox “black hat” Haredi Jews as it carries the Badatz HaEda HaChareidit Kashrut certification, recognized by most as the strictest of all. Har Sinai is produced with an ancient technology using modern equipment. The wine is a blend of 80% Cabernet Sauvignon and 20% Merlot ripened grapes, separated and frozen for 3 days, then heated on an open olive wood fire. After a short fermentation the wine is transferred to wooden oak barrels which are put outside in the open air for a year. It has an aroma of raisins, cherries, plums, coffee grains, toasted oak wood and bitter sweet chocolate, is full bodied, with a soft, long, and pleasant finish. Its alcohol content is quite high at 15.5% and costs 100 shekels (about $25) at the winery.
There are a number of other wines, both blends and varietals, but none of which have received accolades by wine tasters, including israelwinetaster. Rogov had written about his tasting, and more recently, the wines have been discussed on the WineLovers Discussion Group. The importer of Or Haganuz wines in the United States has descriptions of a number of them on their web site.