In France, it takes about five hours to drive from Bordeaux to Champagne, a distance of about 579 kilometers (around 359 miles).
It’s a far shorter ride between the two varietals in Israel’s Judean Hills region, where oenophiles can taste Castel’s Bordeaux and Raziel Winery’s Champagne within a 30-minute drive.
Castel, one of the first of Israel’s boutique wineries, is squarely located in the Judean Hills, the first Israeli wine region to earn the status of Appellation of Origin (AO).
There are some 30 wineries in these hills, where plans are afoot to publicize this now-official Israeli wine region, divided into the distinct appellations of Judean, the lower Judean Foothills and Judean Hills, named for elevations that are 400 meters (1,312 feet) high or more.
An appellation of origin is a legally defined and protected area, intended to convey that a product originates from that region and has qualities due to that geographical area. It often refers to wine and vineyards, but is also used for chocolate, coffee and Jaffa oranges.
Israel joined the Lisbon Agreement for the Protection of Appellations of Origin in 1958, in order to register Jaffa as the appellation of origin for citrus fruits grown in Israel.
The Israel Patent Office is the authority that can register appellations of origin in Israel. When Israel registered the Judean Hills, Judean Foothills and Judea as an appellation of origin in 2020, local wine producers could then label their wines as an appellation of origin wine if at least 85% of the grapes originate from the Judean Hills region. The Israeli appellation is then registered in 28 other countries that are members of the Lisbon Agreement.
“I think it’s about time that it happened,” said Tzuba winemaker Paul Dubbs, a South African immigrant who has been growing grapes for the last 26 years at Kibbutz Tzuba, on the western outskirts of Jerusalem. “I heard that the Judean Hills region was recognized by Brits as a region long before it officially became an appellation. It’s good for customers to know where their wine is coming from.”
The official appellation is a boon for Israeli tourism as well.
“I want to bill wine tourism,” said Anat Avia Niva, who handles culinary and wine tourism for Israel’s Tourism Ministry, at a recent conference for wineries in the Judean Hills. “This is a small country. It’s easy to get here for a few days and see two wine regions.”
The visits and tastings aren’t just for foreign tourists, either. On a recent weekday morning, Castel’s expansive deck overlooking the Judean Hills was full of American tourists, along with tables of businesspeople having meetings over a bottle and a cheese board and locals taking a relaxed lunchtime break at the kosher winery.
It’s a similar scene at Tzuba, where the winery’s tasting space overlooks the green hills, and more than one marriage proposal has taken place on a woodsy deck that’s part of the winery.
Meanwhile, the sounds of the next-door Kiftzuba amusement park can sometimes be faintly heard while tasting the winery’s higher-end Terasa or a crisp Chardonnay on a hot summer day.
Still, it feels a lot like California’s Napa Valley in these parts.
At least 10 wineries in these hills are open for daytime visits that can be booked on Ontopo, an Israeli, real-time online reservation network used by mostly finer venues, including wineries.
But it’s the appellation designation that could really catapult Judean wines into another sphere, according to local wineries.
“The appellation thing can really make us fly as a product, it offers amazing potential,” said Dubbs.
“With an official region, there’s a sense that everyone working together,” said Lihi Yehuda, who handles marketing for Castel.
Castel’s owner and founder, Eli Ben Zaken, now 78, is considered one of the pioneers of wineries in the area and in Israel, at least when considering the modern wine industry in this region.
Ben Zaken was an immigrant from Egypt via Italy who first opened Jerusalem restaurant Mamma Mia — one of the city’s first Italian eateries — and then planted grapevines in 1988 in his Ramat Raziel backyard, just outside the city.
His winery, Domaine du Castel, is one of the Judean Hills Quartet, which also includes nearby Tzora Vineyards, Flam Winery and Sphera, a foursome of local winemakers who have helped put Israeli wines — and the Judean Hills appellation — on the global map.
Castel built a new winery in 2015 at the Yad Lashmona moshav, where all three of the Ben Zaken children manage the business, including Eytan Ben Zaken, who is now the official winemaker alongside his father.
In 2017, Eli Ben Zaken began experimenting with sparkling wines, and now makes the Raziel Red, Raziel Rose and Champagne with Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes grown in the family’s Ramat Raziel homestead, marketed under the Castel brand.
“Eli wanted to make other things, and Ramat Raziel is like a playground for him,” said Yehuda.
Experimenting with new grapes and blends is the favored activity for these winemakers.
Castel’s vineyard isn’t organic, but they have been moving in that direction over the last few years. Yehuda likes to quote Ben Zaken, who says that he wants to return the land in better shape than he received it.
Their move to the larger, more modern winery in Yad Hashmona also allowed the opportunity to introduce some new technologies, that give the wines a “spa experience,” a “super-specific process that gets rid of risks in the wine,” said Yehuda.
There’s also an emphasis on lighter, easy-to-drink wines. In addition to the original Castel Gran Vin, the winery’s classic, first red wine, and the Petit Castel, a velvety vintage that matures in the barrels for 12 months, Castel now makes the La Vie Blanc du Castel, a blend of Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and a touch of Gewurztraminer; Rosé du Castel from Merlot, Malbec and Cabernet Franc, and La Vie Rouge du Castel, a fruity blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, Petit Verdot and Syrah.
“We’re adding younger wines to our list,” said Yehuda. “These are more daily wines, wines that are easy to drink and light on the palate.”
At Tzuba, which is also kosher, Dubbs produces 60,000 bottles each year, including his higher-end Terasa and Metzuda reds, as well as Sela, Syrah, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon and Rose. He’s also growing Petit Verdot, Carignan and Chenin Blanc grapes in the kibbutz experimental plot, largely because he finds his customers are younger and want to drink lighter, easier wines on a regular basis.
Each of the Tzuba vineyards grows a single kind of grape, and Dubbs thins the grapevines in order to develop “more approachable wines with lots of potential,” he said. “That’s what people are looking for.”
It’s a long way from how Dubbs first learned how to make wine back in Capetown with his father, who bottled sweet “kiddush” wine made with one kilo of grapes and one kilo of sugar. He came to Israel, looking for a kibbutz that was growing grapes and ended up at Tzuba, “pretty much by chance.”
At the time, the kibbutz had mostly apple and pear orchards, but were examining vineyards and the emerging wine industry. Tzuba still grows apples and pears, but both fruits require far more water than grapes, and it seems clear that vineyards are their future fruit of choice.
“We’re the Silicon state, and it’s the same with the wine industry,” said Dubbs. “We’ve achieved in 20 years what took the French generations. We’ve got a lot of talented winemakers and our agriculture is ahead of everyone else’s.”
The Tzuba winery is owned by the kibbutz, but kibbutz members don’t interfere in the business, leaving all the winery’s decisions to the board of directors, which includes four non-kibbutz members.
The kibbutz winery currently exports 30% of its wine, selling 20% at the tasting room and 40% in the local market.
In fact, said Dubbs, the winery has been approached by “six or seven millionaires who just want to be involved with an Israeli winery,” he said Dubbs. While they would be interested in an independent partner to make a strategic investment, they haven’t found the right person yet.
The appellation, however, could change all that, he thinks.
“People will see the appellation label in the wine shop and think about it,” he said. “They’ll want to buy Judean Hills.”
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