The Golan Heights
The next day’s excursion could not have been more different. Rather than the Mediterranean aridity of the Judean Hills, we passed by the Sea of Galilee (200 metres below sea level) on our way to the Golan Heights. Having swapped vehicles and proceeded with a very discreet armed guard, we were hosted by Victor Schoenfeld of the Golan Heights Winery. His associated nursery, the only licensed vine nursery in Israel, was a real eye-opener. Leaf roll is visibly a clear and present danger in Israel, but one that I feel sure that all involved will eliminate. The will to succeed in this regard is palpable. To this end the nursery deals with 35 different variations: 5 rootstocks and clones, an isolated spot away from commercial vineyards, high density planting, insect proofing, 3-4 years from import of material to sale of material, and every row has only one element of clone and rootstock. All of this to eliminate the number one pest that clearly troubles Israel’s 5,500 hectares of vines…a very small total when you think about it.
Victor was joined by Uri Heitz of Chateau Golan and together they explained their meteorological deductions they’ve been making in the region. Whilst dry, only 700 mm per annum and only 50 mm of that in the growing season, the substrate is quite unique in Israel. Five different types of soil characterise the Golan Heights, mostly basaltic and volcanic tuffeau, testament to a highly active geological past. They’re also good at retaining what little moisture exists. Over lunch amongst the vines we could hear heavy gunfire echoing from nearby Syria; a sad reminder in what was otherwise a tranquil experience.
The Upper Galilee
That evening we drove to Upper Galilee, to Mt Meiron, and the next morning visited Shvo at some 800m. Gabi Sadan is one of many new wave Israeli producers turning away from Bordeaux varieties and experimenting more with varieties perhaps more obviously suited to their climate: Grenache, Mourvèdre, and Syrah, but also Barbera, Chenin Blanc and Sauvignon Blanc. In this more humid environment disease pressure is greater than in other regions. However, westerly afternoon breezes appear to keep disease pressure largely under control. The changing geology continued, with terrarossa and, surprisingly, flint. Organic principles, visibly on the rise in Israel, were exhibited here.
Like many smaller producers whom we visited, Shvo are not Kosher. You can see this immediately with their cover crops; strictly forbidden to Kosher makers . We were mulling this over amongst ourselves as well as with producers, who were more than happy to delve into the benefits and drawbacks of Kosher production. Certainly making wine under Kosher principles provides a large and world-wide consumer base of conservative (but not observant) and observant and more orthodox Jewry. However, only observant Jews are permitted to handle winemaking equipment. This rules out the great majority of winemakers in their own wineries should they pursue Kosher winemaking. Instead they become adept puppet masters! Many producers admitted to the considerable challenges of making wine in a Kosher fashion but realised the worthwhile benefits not only within but outside of Israel. However, the majority of smaller producers (almost entirely secular) couldn not afford to hire additional (observant) winemakers, nor felt that the benefits outweighed the inherent difficulties, expense, or cultural obstacles. In essence, smaller winemakers need to be involved in every aspect of their wine. Personally, I find the whole subject fascinating. As a gentile I enjoyed seeing my objections and prejudices dissolve. Only practical disagreements remained.