It was an imaginative choice of venue to hold the first London tasting of 'Wines from Israel' in a hotel immediately opposite the BBC's Broadcasting House in London. As the Langham Hotel was itself a former BBC building in which your Correspondent Lovat Stephen had worked briefly long ago as a BBC Outside Broadcasting producer, it was Old Home Week for him, as he had also spent nearly two years of his wartime army service in Palestine.
The wine-tasting was billed as a "Re-birth of Israeli Wines" but the emphasis was not on the long off-and-on history of growing wine in Palestine so much as to take a close look at the wine coming from Israel in a new 21st Century. Today the State of Israel has 4,000 hectares (10,000 acres or 40,000 dunams) of vineyards, and is determined to increase its exports throughout the world.
Faced with some 50 different wines on the main tasting table, your Correspondent decided not to concentrate on the six Chardonnays and 14 Cabernet Sauvignons, but to meet Israeli wine through comparisons of their offerings in Sauvignon Blanc, Gewürztraminer and Shiraz.
Basically Israel has the Big Five producers, which account for 85% of the country's output with several million bottles a year each. These, together with the medium-sized vineyard groups produce 95% of Israel's wine, leaving just 5% to come from the small wineries (100,000 bottles annually) plus one hundred of what are described as boutique or garagiste vineyards.
In general terms, Israel is Mediterranean in climate. Its wine ranges from the new white wines produced in the cooler Golan Heights grown at some 1,000 metres (3,000 feet) to the almost desert conditions of the Negev. It benefits from winter rain (October to March) and hot dry summers (April to October). Irrigation is almost always necessary. Machine harvesting is the general rule.
Ownership of the vineyards and companies is a complicated matter, especially when it comes to the smaller companies and the boutique-sized vineyards.
Carmel Winery is the largest wine producer in Israel and also the largest producer of kosher wines in the world. It bottles towards 30 million bottles a year, and exports US$5,000,000 worth to 40 countries.
Carmel Winery was originally established by a generous grant from the Rothschilds, with an amount of money from Baron Edmond de Rothschild in 1882 far greater than the sum with which his father James had bought the famous Bordeaux Chateau Lafite in Pauillac a few years earlier.
Carmel is now 75% privately owned by a consortium of wine-growers and 25% by the Jewish Agency. Its vineyards are found in the famous Golan Heights in the very north of the country, through Rishon Le Zion near Tel Aviv, and down to Ramat Arad in the Negev.
Here Lovat Stephen, in the first of his comparative tastings, was able to try a 2004 Sauvignon Blanc from Carmel's Ramat Arad winery with a same year Sauvignon Blanc from Dalton Winery, one of the medium-sized companies which also has vineyards in several of Israel's five distinct regions.
These regions (with their names in English) are Galilee, Samaria, Samson, the Judean Hills and the Negev. In the Sauvignon comparison your correspondent found the Carmel slightly more forward, but with the Dalton one quite surprisingly more full-bodied.
Almost all the companies showing wines at the Langham Hotel that day also make approved kosher wines. To qualify as kosher, wine must be made and handled throughout by religious Jews if it is to be used as sacerdotal wine. This requires strict controls to guarantee its purity for export to Jewish communities throughout the world.
Still staying with the whites, my next comparison was between a Gewürtztraminer of Binyamina's Special Reserve 2003 and a 2004 Gewürztraminer from a much smaller boutique winery, Hamasrek. Both wines were from Galilee and were bottled at 13% vol. I think the Special Reserve bottle just outdistanced its younger and smaller rival.
An interesting Gewürtztraminer offering came from the Golan Heights Winery which was made in the style of classic ice-wine, from frozen clusters of this grape. It was recommended to accompany goose liver or rich desserts, though neither food was I think on offer at the tasting!
Ownership of the smaller wineries is hard to establish, many of the smaller ones being tied in with the neighbouring kibbutz, while the boutique and garagiste wines may be privately-owned by entrepreneurs or kibbutzim.
A fairly recent and typical Galilean medium-size group of five vineyards claims that each has a different mesoclimate, which allows the producer — Galil Mountain Winery — to produce blends with unique characteristics. These five vineyards (at Yiron, Malkiya, Yiftah, Misgav Am and Meron) were mostly only finally planted between 1995 and 2000, with four of them run from kibbutzim established in Israel's pioneering days in the 1940's.
As mentioned, your correspondent did not attempt to distinguish and master the fourteen Cabernet Sauvignons — though he tasted several — nor the six Chardonnays, but he did compare two carefully-chosen Shiraz bottles. These were a 2004 "Selection" bottle from the Teperberg Winery and a 2003 'Special Reserve' from Binyamina both from the Big Five-sized grouping.
Both bottles deserved their place on the tasting-table, and were good already.
But perhaps the thing that stood out from this tasting as a whole is that so many of the established varieties encountered at wine-tastings of this kind in London were almost all represented by Israel-grown grapes. In addition to those tasted there was Merlot, Pinotage, Pinot Noir, and even a non-vintage Muscat Dessert Wine, as well as that Gewürztraminer ice-wine from Golan Heights.
All in all, it became clear that Israel had made a very determined effort to present a genuine variety of good wines to impress British wine-writers and buyers — and in Lovat Stephen's case, doing so very successfully.