Why Israel Needs A New Map — For Wine by the Forward

Why Israel Needs A New Map — For Wine

A new map of Israel is in the works — one that doesn’t include a green line. Indeed it is not a political or even a conventionally geographical bit of cartography. It is a map that divides Israel into small winemaking regions, taking into account topography, soil, and climate.

This map should help consumers and wine professionals understand where their wine comes from and add context behind its flavor characteristics. After all, labels on bottles of Israeli wine can raise as many questions for the American consumer as they answer. What are the properties of this wine? Is it full bodied or light? Fruity or dry? Mellow or tannic? Then there are questions of geography and politics: What does “Made in Israel” mean? Was the wine produced in the territories beyond the green line drawn as part of the 1949 Armistice Agreement?

Israel’s current wine map — the one that’s being revised — designates five regions: Galilee, Samaria, Samson, Judean Hills, and Negev. These regional names, printed on the labels of Israeli wine imported to the United States, indicate geographic area — but they hardly describe regionality as it pertains to the characteristics of the wines being grown there. Drawn in the 1970s, the map reflects the traditional regions of Israel. Today, many of the country’s top wines come from single vineyards, and terroir — the properties in the soil that contribute to the wine’s unique character — Matters.

According to Victor Schoenfeld, Chief Winemaker of Golan Heights Winery, “I think the sophistication of the Israeli Wine Industry has outstripped any existing wine map of Israel. There is a movement afoot for the winemakers themselves to develop a new map, at least as a tool for explaining about the different regions in Israel. Legal status of any map will come later. At the moment, there is no mechanism in Israel for even establishing new regions or sub-regions. That is an additional challenge we will have to face in the coming years.”

The Mediterranean climate of Israel may be one of the world’s warmest regions for growing wine, but there are no signs that the temperature is a hindrance to production. In fact, the number of wineries and the area of land “under vine” (in layman’s terms, made up of vineyards) increases with each harvest, as does the amount of wine being exported.

There is a climate of growth and optimism in this young wine industry, which indicates that challenges are being met with innovation and determination. The land — 263 miles north to south, spanning east-west from the Mediterranean Sea to the arid Jordan Rift Valley — encompasses a multitude of diverse microclimates.

A prominent feature of the newly framed terroir of Israel is the Central Mountain Range and the lands that lie in relation to it. On the current wine map, most of the range falls under the name Samaria (called Shomron in Hebrew). Palestinians and parts of the international community do not recognize Samaria as Israel. Samaria is part of the ancient, biblical kingdom of Israel, but its current status remains Israeli occupied territory. Yet the region is a hotbed for winemaking, as it is home to a number of indigenous grape varieties. Both Palestinian Hebron University and Israeli Ariel University are pursuing studies on indigenous grapes there.

This is the region likely to see the most change on the new map. First, it will be split from parcel west of Mt. Carmel, which exists at a lower altitude and is a warmer region on the coastal plain. It shares nothing in common with the higher-altitude central mountains.

Being labeled as Samaria does not serve this stretch of the coast well. Samaria mostly refers to the West Bank, of which the area between Zichron Ya’akov and Netanya are not a part: The green line weaves its way around the Central Mountain Range, traversing it near Jerusalem.

The Central Mountain Range is a vertical range of hills and mountains that extends from Jenin in the north, passing Nablus, Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Hebron, with a faceted chain of high-altitude areas and foothills. To the west of the central range lies the western slope and higher hills at 600–1,000 meters above sea level and the foothills at 200-300 meters. The eastern slope of the range sinks 1,200 meters to the Jordan Valley, which at its lowest point is minus-430 meters below sea level at the Dead Sea.

Altitude is important for growing grapes, especially in a warm climate where higher altitude providing a wide diurnal range, the variability of temperature between night and day, with warm days and cool nights which lead to a longer growing season and better fruit development. By comparison, Israel’s coastal plain, which lies alongside the Mediterranean, is warmer and sees a shorter growing season.

The proposed viticultural area of the Central Mountains resides in three distinct areas: One in the north surrounds Har Brach, an area with moderate rainfall and terra Rossa soils, currently a good growing area for merlot. The second is Gush Etzion, bordering the Judean desert, which has altitudes up to 950 meters and is more arid. The third region is Southern Hebron Mountain. A region with more desert like temperatures, high day temperatures and dry conditions.

New viticultural areas may help clarify terminology, which can be a bit muffled around this area, where wine is currently labeled as many things, from simply “Jerusalem” and “Jerusalem Mountains” (Psagot) to “Judean Hills” (Shiloh Winery). The Christian winery Cremisan, in Beit Jala, labels its wine as being from “Bethlehem,” and there are other Christian wineries not yet reaching the U.S., such as Taybeh, whose regional label says “Palestine.”

On the current wine map, the Golan Heights sits within the Galilee. At the time the map was drawn, the Golan Heights were not officially annexed by Israel, which happened in 1981.

The current Judean Hills region encompasses land that is both inside and outside the West Bank. For example, Psagot Winery is located in the West Bank, east of Jerusalem. This a very different region, though, from those inhabited by Domaine du Castel, Tzora, Flam, and Sphera — wineries that make up a partnership called the Judean Hills Quartet, which defines its viticultural area as being from West of Jerusalem to the Mediterranean Sea. Regardless of the West Bank question, it makes sense to split these areas on a new wine map because they have different altitudes and are different climatically.

Since the 2016 vintage, Recanati Winery, located in the coastal plain of the Heffer Valley, is making wine from indigenous grapes Marawi and Bittuni in its Ancient Varieties series. The grapes are sourced from Arab growers nearly 75 miles away in Bethlehem. The wine is labeled “Judean Hills, Bethlehem.”

Gvaot Winery makes wine from a blend of Hamdani and Jandali grapes that come from an unirrigated vineyard farmed by Arab growers, also near Bethlehem, the region in which these varieties were preserved as table grapes circa 650 CE.

Partnership between Israeli wineries and Arab farmers of ancient grapes is an example of peaceful coexistence in the West Bank. Also of note: Arab women make up a large part of the labor force for grape harvest in Israel. While there is pressure to be partisan — or to stay out of the matter — the parties that exist here understand that interest in these grapes will increase the demand. It is a sticky subject that many wish to avoid. For example, wines from the West Bank are avoided completely in “The New Israeli Wine Guide,” a book by Yair Gath and Gal Zohar, now in its 5th edition.

Looking forward, the new Israel Wine Standard, which defines quality controls in wine including what percentage of grapes must come from the designated region (it’s 85% in Israel and 75% in California), is paving the way for the new wine map in Israel. The existing Standard, written in 1988 and now outdated, is being rewritten by the Standards Institution of Israel. Updates are also underway for the wine map of Israel, which was created by the Wine and Grapes Board and is being revised in partnership with a group of prominent Israeli winemakers including Schoenfeld of Golan Heights Winery.

There seem to be merits to growing wine in the West Bank: high altitudes, volcanic soils, indigenous grapes. Most of it is made in Jewish settlements with the minority made by Arab Christians—but don’t call this wine “Israeli” to a Palestinian. For wine lovers seeking the worlds’ lost and ancient grape varieties, there is not necessarily a question of borders. As the wine industry expands and the wines get better, the new map will help consumers understand what’s out there in a growing industry that might, ideally, highlight the partnerships that can exist if you look beyond them.

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