The Story Of Israel In Three Sparkling Wines
12th September 2023
One can basically tell the story of Israeli fizz in three sparkling wines: The President’s, produced by Carmel Mizrahi, Yarden Blanc de Blancs made by the Golan Heights Winery and Raziel Brut Nature, a new expression by the Ben-Zaken family. The President’s was the dominant player from the 1950’s until the late 1980’s. Yarden Blanc de Blancs dates from the early 1990’s and Raziel’s sparkling wine was launched in the early 2020s!
Israel’s first important sparkling wine was The President’s. Carmel is the historic winery of Israel, which created a wine industry here and kept it afloat for 100 years. During this long period, Carmel literally was Israeli wine. The winery was founded by Baron Edmond de Rothschild, owner of Chateau Lafite. The first vineyards were planted in 1882 and then the two largest wineries in the country were built with deep underground cellars. Rishon Le Zion Cellars was established in 1890 and Zichron Ya’acov Cellars, in 1892. The Zichron winery is a truly historic place and it remains the oldest winery or factory building in Israel still in operation.
Carmel was the first Israeli winery to produce Traditional Method Sparkling Wine. It was an expensive undertaking needing a special work force as everything was done by hand. There was no market for expensive wine in those days, and certainly not for quality sparkling wine either. So, they eventually stopped production. It was just too unprofitable.
When I moved to Israel in 1989, Carmel President’s Sparkling Wine was Extra Dry, primarily from Colombard grapes and it was made by the Charmat or Cuve Close method. The winemaker specializing in sparkling wines was the appropriately named Koby Gat. (Gat in Hebrew means ancient wine press.) He was a Francophile, fluent in French and the agronomist of the winery, which then was by far the largest winery. However sparkling wines were not large sellers. More popular was the lightly sparkling, low alcohol Fantasia, which was a very successful brand. The interest from consumers was primarily for cheap pop wines, for use at weddings and family events. Corks were plastic, the wines were semi dry to semi sweet and they were made by what I call the Coca Cola method, with an injection of C02. There was no pretense of quality. The bubbles were big, frothy and dissipated quickly.
Soon the President’s Sparkling Wine was discontinued. The only remaining clue of a classic method sparkling wine past, were the old pupitres (racks) which could still be found used for decoration in various corners of the winery. The President’s was a wine which was in a way historic, whilst at the same time representing mediocrity and a fairly low bar as far as quality is concerned. Certainly, it was a representative of its time.
In 1991, Israel took a giant step forward to producing quality sparkling wine. As happened with every aspect of Israeli wine, the Golan Heights Winery was the pioneer who heralded the quality wine revolution. Founded in 1983, they were the first to bring New World technology and winemaking expertise from abroad in the form of UC Davis trained winemakers. They were the first to focus on high elevation vineyards and to ‘grow the wine’ in the vineyard. They also created a revolution in sparkling wine. They sent their young, new assistant winemaker, Victor Schoenfeld, to work for six months at Jacquesson Champagne to learn the secrets of the ‘Champenoise.’
Then the Golan invested in all the modern equipment to make traditional method sparkling wine. The process was mechanized and gyro-pallets were used instead of manual remuage. Their efforts resulted in three traditional method sparkling wines: Yarden Blanc de Blancs, Yarden Brut and Gamla Rose. These were Israel’s first international quality sparkling wines. By this time Victor Schoenfeld was the winemaker, appointed in 1992 and thirty one years later, he is still there. He is a legendary figure in Israeli wine, but possibly the wines he is most associated with are his sparkling wines.
At the 1996 International Wine & Spirit Competition in London, Israeli sparkling wine arrived on the international stage. Yarden Blanc de Blancs, then a non-vintage wine, won the “Trophy for The Best Bottle Fermented Sparkling Wine.” This high profile award was repeated in 2003 when Yarden Blanc de Blancs 1997, by then a vintage wine, won the same trophy. The 1999 vintage also won a prestigious trophy at Vinitaly in 2006. These prizes were to the immense credit of the Golan Heights Winery. It showed that Israeli sparkling wine could truly be world class. Later the Golan Heights Winery even sponsored the trophy it had won twice at the IWSC. It became known as “The Yarden Trophy For The Best Bottle Fermented Sparkling Wine.” One of the first winners of the “The Yarden Trophy” was a then little known winery by the name of Nyetimber!
Today, sparkling wines such as The President’s, Yarden Brut and Gamla Rose are history. The Yarden Blancs de Blancs (Brut), made from 100% Chardonnay, is the survivor from those early days. Today, the Golan Heights Winery also produce Yarden Rose Brut Vintage and Gamla Brut NV, but the best example of Victor’s skill is the Yarden Blanc de Blancs, which is aged on its tirage yeast for no less than five years. Now, there is a new addition, a rare, occasionally produced prestige sparkling wine called Yarden Katzrin Blanc de Blancs, Late Disgorged, which is aged on its tirage yeast for ten years before disgorging! However, the regular Yarden Blanc de Blancs is the standard. The Golan Heights Winery’s sparkling wines under the Yarden and Gamla label, are as high quality as any Champagne and a great deal better value. This is the finest expression of the art of sparkling wine possibly also in the whole Eastern Mediterranean. As far as the Golan Heights Winery is concerned, it remains one of the most technologically advanced wineries in the world. Their pioneering, advanced technology and the setting of new standards in Israel are beautifully illustrated by the Yarden Blanc de Blancs.
In the last ten years, sparkling wine in Israel has taken off. Anything with bubbles is experiencing new popularity. This can range from lightly sparkling Moscatos, frizzante Lambruscos, Cavas from Spain and Proseccos from Italy up to the finest prestige Champagnes. The latest fad is for Pet-Nats. One winery, Kerem Barak Winery, focuses on Pet-Nats, producing white, rose, orange, red and bottle aged Pet-Nats, from just about every grape variety you can think of. One of the benefits of this new interest in fizz, is that more Israeli wineries are now producing Traditional Method Sparkling Wines. Wineries like Dalton, Ella Valley, Psagot, Ramat Naftaly and Sphera are all producing quality sparkling wines, but in small quantities.
The first and so far, best of the boutique sparkling wine producers is Razi’el Winery, which takes Israeli sparkling wine in a different direction altogether. This is a comparatively new winery founded in 2017 at Ramat Razi’el, on the site of the Ben-Zaken family home. This was where Domaine du Castel, one of our very finest wineries, was situated until 2015. Through the successes of Castel, the owner-winemaker, Eli Ben-Zaken, taught us all about style, pursuit of quality, winery aesthetics and attention to detail. Castel was the most successful Israeli winery of the boutique winery boom and the pioneer of the Judean Hills. Razi’el is a new initiative by the Ben-Zaken family and Eli Ben-Zaken’s new baby. The winery has already received rave reviews. Raziel Red recently scored 97 points in jamessuckling.com, the best score in the tasting alongside Castel Grand Vin! Talking about keeping it in the family!
The Razi’el Winery have so far launched two sparkling wines made strictly by the traditional method. The first is the Razi’el Brut Nature – Zero Dosage NV, made from Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes. The focus here is on totally handmade, handcrafted wines. The fruit was aged in large 600 liter barrels. The wine is a beautiful expression of the sparkling winemaker’s art. In the same way Castel symbolized the boutique winery revolution in Israel, the Razi’el represents the artisan approach for making a high quality sparkling wine here. The launch is eagerly awaited.
You can actually tell the story of Israeli wine through these three wineries. Carmel Winery, the Golan Heights Winery and Domaine du Castel span the history and milestone events. Arguably Victor Schoenfeld and Eli Ben-Zaken are the two most significant and influential figures in Israeli wine over the last thirty years. They not only led the Israeli wine revolution and but were also most prominent in bringing the Israel wine story to the world. How appropriate it is that these same two people are responsible for making the finest Israeli sparkling wines in the last 130 years. The President’s, Yarden Blanc de Blancs and Raziel Brut Nature certainly tell a beautiful story……..and in a nutshell, it is the story of Israeli wine.
Images Belong To Yarden wines: Golan Heights Winery; Razi’el: Razi’el Winery. President’s: Carmel Winery – Glass of Bubbly was granted permission to use them.
Adam Sebag Montefiore
Wine trade veteran and winery insider turned wine writer. He has advanced Israeli wine for over 35 years. He is author of The Wine Route of Israel and Wines of Israel. He is also the biographer of the Golan Heights Winery and Domaine du Castel. He is regarded as the English voice of Israeli wine. www.adammontefiore.com