Held every summer in the Sculpture Garden of the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, the Israel Wine-Tasting Festival is the largest, most varied and most popular wine festival in Israel. The 2011 incarnation of the festival kicks off tonight, coinciding with the Tu B'av festival of love, and runs for an unprecedented four nights.
At an event as mainstream as this one, all types of wine-lovers are known to make appearances. David Rhodes, chair of the Kosher Wine Society's Israel branch, recommends that those looking to develop their palettes and not just to get sloshed, should "show up early - so you can talk to the winemakers while they have time." Rhodes tells GoJerusalem.com, "When it gets crowded, they don't pour their high-end wines as much, because kids just want to get drunk. At 19:00, they're a lot more hospitable and talkative."
Some 30 wineries are set to pour for thousands of visitors starting tonight, which means that once we take into account all of their various series, varietals and blends, we're talking about literally hundreds of wines to taste. Rhodes offers several tactics for rendering the array more manageable: Perform sweeps of the booths comparing the same varietal as bottled by several wineries, go multiple nights (duh!), compare the unique terroir flavors of wines from different regions, contrast commercial wineries with the hand-crafted boutiques.
We at GoJerusalem.com are, of course, partial to the wines grown, fermented and bottled locally. Not so many years ago, if one sought the makers of higher quality wines, one had to trek to the Carmel region in northern Israel. While Carmel has undergone a quality revolution and making great wines (several of which will be available for tasting at the festival), there are now also many great wines being made right outside Jerusalem. With its mountain air and bright sunlight, the Judea region and its Jerusalem hills have been home to wineries for thousands of years, and with Israel's seemingly inexorable march towards world-class lifestyle trimmings, the wineries of the greater Jerusalem area are garnering, and inflicting, a greater and greater buzz.
Compiled with invaluable help from Avi Hein of HaKerem: The Israeli Wine Blog, read on for GoJerusalem.com's picks for the best wineries of the Jerusalem region to check out at the Israeli Wine Festival this week.
As the number in its moniker implies, Teperberg is one of the oldest wineries in Israel. Founded in 1870 in Jerusalem's Old City, the winery later relocated to Motza, in the hills near the entrance to the city. The winery has recently moved again, to a newly constructed winery on Kibbutz Tzora, in the Jerusalem mountains.
Teperberg's mevushal (pasteurized) table wines, marketed as the Efrat series, are solid offerings, while its higher-end wines in the Silver, Terra, and Single Vineyard labels are top-notch, especially in the past five years.
In addition to bringing the first Malbec, a traditionally Argentinean grape, to Israel, Teperberg also makes excellent dessert wines, such as the late harvest Riesling. Teperberg is also one of only a few wineries in Israel to have a single-vineyard Sangiovese, a traditionally Italian varietal.
Ella Valley Vineyards
In the Ella Valley, in Kibbutz Netiv HaLamed Hey in the Jerusalem mountains, Ella began cultivating grapes in 1997 from the Judean Hills.
This boutique winery produces several hundred thousand bottles of wine each year in three series: Vineyard's Choice, Ella Valley Vineyards and EverRed, the latter designed for early drinking.
Ella Valley is well known for well-made red wines like Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah marked by deep complexity. They also make a Cabernet Franc and Pinot Noir that are worth tasting.
With its own vineyards in the Judean Hills providing Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Shiraz, Cabernet Franc and Chardonnay, Viognier, and Riesling, the Gush Etzion Winery's first release was in 1998.
In the August heat, it's advisable try one of Gush Etzion's whites - perhaps their organic Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc, or even their sweet dessert Chardonnay.
Active for six years now, the Tzuba winery bottles wines in three series: Hametzuda, Tel Tzuba, and Hama'ayan.
With a variety of grapes, including Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Shiraz, Malbec, Sangiovese, Viognier, and Sauvignon Blanc, they have something to suit every palette.
Tzuba makes one of Israel's best Sangiovese wines. A typical Italian varietal, this wine is perfect for a Mediterranean summer. For someone just getting into wine, an excellent entry point can be found in Tzuba's Semillion, a crisp, citrusy white.
Owned by members of the Shor family, who have been making wine in Jerusalem for hundreds of years, Zion Winery was founded in 1848 in Jerusalem's Old City.
In the past few years, Zion began making quality wines at every price range - in the Armon, Tidhar and Erez series - to suit both those new to wine and those with the most sophisticated palettes. Now located at Mishor Adumim, in the Judean Hills facing the Dead Sea, the winery now produces over two million bottles each year.
Zion's top-level Armon can compete with the best wines. For a complex red, they also offer a Carignon blend that showcases the flavors of the earthy Judean Hills.
Honorable mentions go to Jerusalem-area wineries Gvaot, Domaine Ventura, Agor and Katlkav, all of which are enjoying growing reputations. In addition, top big guys like Recenati and Tishbi, known for their headquarters elsewhere, do grow grapes in the hills of Jerusalem as well. While fancy cheese plates have been sold at the festival in recent years, Tishbi has recently landed an exclusive franchise to import gourmet Valrhona chocolates from France, so it's probably a good idea to save some room in the stomach for a few nibbles.
David Rhodes is offering guided tours of the festival for those who don't want to be distracted by the clutter and like a bit of extra background explanation. Between tours, he can be found at the Kosher Wine Society's booth, or can be reached at 052-702-WINE (9463).
To get the most from the festival, GoJerusalem.com recommends doing homework. An excellent starting point is the interactive map of Israel's wineries at HaKerem: The Israeli Wine Blog.