Thanks to Israel’s temperate weather year-round, the local landscape gives way to a variety of grapes and harvesting the land is a part of the country’s core. With over 300 wineries and more than 2,800 years of wine-making history, Israel has created a name for itself in the wine world, both locally and abroad. Oenophiles can visit a range of both award-winning landmark and boutique wineries while enjoying everything from private wine tastings and cheese and chocolate samplings to chef-run restaurants, vineyard tours, and a true feel for the picturesque local land within a mere jaunt from Tel Aviv and/or Jerusalem. From up in the Golan Heights to deep down in the Negev, here are several of the most notable producers, divided by region.
At 1,200 meters above sea level, with a temperate climate and extremely rich soil, the Golan is home to about a dozen actively producing wineries. Most prominently, the Golan Heights Winery, located in the small town of Katzrin, is arguably the finest in the region – if not, nationwide. With Napa-native Victor Schoenfeld at the helm, the winery has been consistently winning some of the international wine industry’s top honors since its inception in the mid-80’s with its high quality, yet very affordable wines. Another aspect that sets the Golan Heights Winery apart from the rest is its socially-conscious focus. The winery cultivates Odem, a strictly organic vineyard and donates proceeds from their Gamla series to help preserve endangered species in the Gamla Nature Reserve. Pelter Winery, a family-operated estate with a decidedly contemporary approach, is also a standout in the region. The winery owner, Tal Pelter, crafts distinctive wines reminiscent of the vineyard’s rustic, quaint character.
Any viticulturist in the Galilee will tell you, it takes a lot of perfected elements to create a wine worth drinking. The rocky volcanic soil of the Galilee, coupled with its cool night breezes, produces a superior grape – and consequently, some of the more distinguished wines coming out of Israel. There are many renowned wineries located in the Galilee Region, but, without a doubt, the best place for visitors is the Galil Mountain Winery. Located just 300 meters from the Lebanese border, the winery’s stunning visitor’s center is worth the trip alone. Built into the landscape in a thoughtful and organic fashion, you can sip the winery’s 14 premium varietals and blends while taking in breathtaking views, overlooking the entire Galilee.
Mount Carmel Region
Rothschild’s legacy lives on in the Mount Carmel region, where Romanian and Lithuanian Jews settled in 1882 and quickly took to wine-making, under the patronage of the Baron. Today, the region boasts a high density of wineries – many of which are run by descendants of these immigrants, including the Tishbi Estate Winery, the most established of the group. Following a 100-year tradition of grape-growing cultivated by his great-great grandfather, who was commissioned by Rothschild himself to plant some of the first modern vineyards in Israel, Jonathan Tishbi founded the contemporary estate in 1984 and continues to run the winery with his wife and their adult children. Tishbi’s charming visitor’s center, spacious retail space/tasting room and delicious kosher dairy café overlooking the vineyards, make the Estate a fantastic place to visit and learn a bit more about wine. The winery produces four excellent lines of wine as well as a delicious brandy.
While Tishbi has developed into one of the larger producers in the region, Somek Winery champions the other end of the spectrum – a true boutique operation run by Barak Dahan, on the same family estate where his great-grandfather cultivated grapes back in the day. The scale of his operation creates truly intimate wines, blended to perfection by this fifth generation winemaker.
Jerusalem Hills Region
Nestled among the breathtaking views of the Judean Hills, two young, boutique wineries are making a solid name for themselves: Tzora Vineyards and Flam Winery. Flam is known for their innovative approach to wine-making. With a distinguished product line that could be called Mediterranean in style, the winery’s wines boast intense colors, fruity aromas and finely integrated oak. Tzora is one of the few small-scale kosher wineries in the country, and is known to be one of the leading ‘terroir’-driven wineries in the country. With wine made exclusively from the grapes of their three terraced vineyards outside of Jerusalem, Tzora’s wines express a rich palette of flavors and complexities that reflect their origin vineyards, and are named accordingly.
Deep in the heart of the Negev, a handful of wineries work hard to make the dessert bloom. Among them, the Yatir Winery, located at the foot of the archaeological site of Tel Arad, restores the tradition of wine-making to an area whose ruins have uncovered more than 180 ancient wine presses. The winery functions as a cooperation between the area’s grape growers and the Carmel Winery, producing upwards of 120,000 bottles each year.
Each featured winery is open to the public, but tours must be booked in advance. Note that there is usually a small, per-person fee for tastings. Alternately, private guided tours can be arranged.