The politics of Israeli wine
AT THE VIOLET restaurant, perfectly groomed women and rather redfaced men are slurping a flinty Chardonnay Reserve 2006 while tucking into a raviolo of shrimp and crab. Amid much lip-smacking and dramatic glass-swishing, the cream of Israel’s wine writers are here to taste the latest Recanati vinos at this bistro in Moshav Udim, near Netanya.
Having sampled the Sauvignon Blanc 2007 —“good citrus notes” — the bon vivants move on to a fruity Syrah Reserve 2005 and lamb with buttery bok choi and wild mushroom gnocchi.
Ironically, given such recommended pairings, all Recanati wines are kosher. But things have come along way since Palwins — a contraction of “Palestine Wine” — was pretty much the only booze on offer from the Holy Land.
“We have had four wine revolutions here,” says Eldad Levy of the On The Table culinary magazine, listing them as he chases porcini round his plate.
The first was when Baron Rothschild founded wineries in Zichron Yaakov and Rishon le Zion in the 1880s. Some 100 years later, winemakers started developing the Golan, producing such gems, recalls Eldad wistfully, as the 1985 Cabernet Sauvignon. Then came the boutique wineries of the 1990s, and just a few years ago, big wineries, such as Markan and Carmel, began investing in quality products.
“Now we make great wine, but it wasn’t always like that,” acknowledges Ido Levinson, a winemaker in Emek Hefer, near Hadera. “People are learning slowly.” The 29-year-old learnt his trade in Italy, France and Australia. “There’s a market here, but we need to look abroad too.”
But in Israel, even such bacchanalian pleasures are political. Wine is also produced in the West Bank — “most of it catpiss,” interjects a fellow diner. Theoretically, they have the best terroir for viniculture. But it is not so simple. One wine critic hints that Barkan moved to Hulda some seven years ago after problems with the EU.
“They still have some wines in Barkan, but no-one talks about them,” he continues darkly.
Pudding arrives: a Petit Syrah Zinfandel ’05 — “rich vanilla, spicy oak and blackberry” — and fresh mint icecream with intense bitter chocolate nuggets, a sweep of friable cocoa wafer and a crackly curl of spun sugar.
It has as much relation to the iconic Israeli puddings of Milky chocolate blancmange or marshmallow Crembo as the Syrah has with Palwins No 9.
Talk turns to the winemakers of the Golan. “They are not the messianic lot,” says Eldad. “For true peace, they’ll be the first to admit they will have to leave. But Syrians are not such fanatical Muslims. Maybe they will let us work the land — we might get a good leasing agreement, like Hong Kong.” In any case, he concludes, “if they have to move, they’ll move.” He shrugs. “So we’ll drink less wine. It’s not a tragedy. Wine can never, ever be a tragedy.”