By Anna Harwood
Sukkot is infused with imagery and ritual celebrating the completed harvest. In modern Israel, Sukkot also falls around the end of the annual vine harvest and amidst the bottling and barreling of the season’s first offerings. As opposed to Europe’s dismal weather, which seriously impacted the quantity and quality of its vine harvest, Israel’s harvest is showing promise. The past year brought the blessing of late rains coupled with a balanced summer, enabling the ripening of the grapes. Given the variety of northern Israel’s undulating landscape, the harvest takes between 14 and 16 weeks, with each vineyard plot being harvested at the precise point of ripening.
For Israel’s leading winery, the Golan Heights Winery, the 2014 harvest brought additional cause for celebration, as this was the first year that grapes were harvested from vines developed and grown in their own independent nursery. The nursery is a first for Israel. Previously, vine seedlings were imported from the leading wine-growing countries and sold to wineries across Israel. While there is no doubt that the wines in Israel have become a refined delicacy, wineries still struggle with diseases that wipe out crops and ruin grape quality. In 2007, the Golan Heights Winery’s vine propagation facility was established in cooperation with ENTAV, France’s Association for Viticultural Improvement, the world’s oldest and largest bank of foundation plant material for wine vineyards.
The cooperation with ENTAV enabled specially chosen healthy, virus-free vine-propagation material to be brought to Israel to be bred and developed into the next generation of Israeli vines. “We set aside a large area of land and built fully netted and insect-proof greenhouses, something which is unique in the wine world,” explained Victor Schoenfeld, chief winemaker. “We carefully adopted ENTAV’s treatment and management standards, while developing our own growing methods, which are suited to the unique growing conditions in the netted greenhouse.”
The winery’s propagation area is vast, with those entering required to suit up in protective clothing, undergo disinfection, and stay clear of the developing vines. There are designated areas for different crops and different stages of growth, and dedicated wine growers tend to the vines around the clock. When the mother vines produce enough samplings, they are then planted in blocks across the Golan Heights. If these vines ever get struck by disease, the vine growers simply return to the now self-sufficient nursery and can take from the “clean” bank stock. This is the first time that Israel has had a completely independent, self-sustaining quality vine nursery.
In 2014, the winemakers were able to taste the first grapes from these vines, which will be used to produce wines under the Yarden, Gilgal, and Mount Hermon labels. “Seeing our own vines finally harvesting succulent grapes is a dream come true for the winery and a source of great pride for the entire Israeli wine industry,” said Yael Gai, international marketing manager for the Golan Heights Winery. As the winemakers begin to enjoy the fruits of seven years of intensive work, there are hopes that these Israeli-grown vines will begin to fill the entire wine region, both the Golan Heights Winery vineyards and additionally those of other wineries. Using home-grown, disease-free vines will hopefully eliminate the viruses currently plaguing vineyards across the country and boost the entire Israeli wine industry.
This year’s harvest was not all smooth sailing. The harvest began at the height of Operation Protective Edge, during which vast numbers of able-bodied men were called to the Gaza border. Likewise, fighting intensified on the Syrian side of Israel’s northern border, with the sound of shelling and firing resonating across the Golan Heights Winery’s northernmost vineyards. “We always try to keep our wine and politics separate,” explained Gai. “Our wine showcases the very best of Israel and it remains a source of great national pride. Obviously our winegrowers’ safety is paramount, and when our vineyards come in the line of fire we have to factor in safety to our harvesting schedule.” Thankfully, the Golan Heights region has managed
to remain relatively undamaged from the fighting and continues to host throngs of visitors traveling Israel’s wine route. Likewise, as the harvest proved to be a success, visitors arrived from across Israel to celebrate the harvest with wine tastings, music, and evening parties amongst the vines.
With the wine resulting from the 2014 harvest now being bottled, barreled, or fermented in state-of-the-art wine vats, the gems of the previous year’s harvest are now being unveiled. In honor of the New Year, the 2013 Yarden Chardonnay has now been released to international acclaim. Aged for seven months in oak barrels, the wine is further aged in the bottle, enabling its deliciously subtle oaky notes to develop along with bright citrus and pear characters. Another 2013 winner has been the Yarden Sauvignon Blanc, which proved to be one of the Golan Heights Winery’s best offerings of the 2013 vintage and additionally one of Israel’s best Sauvignon Blancs this year. This fresh and fruity wine displays a beautiful complexity full of enticing tropical notes.
While these, and many other 2013 offerings, fly off the shelves, the close of the festive season will herald the release of the first 2014 vintage wines, including the Yarden Gewürztraminer, Gilgal Riesling, and Yarden and Gilgal Sauvignon Blancs. These white wines will be the first to demonstrate the 2014 harvest’s promise and they also offer fresh and fruity choices for an evening with friends. Pair these wines with lighter, dairy, or poultry-based meals, or as the afternoon draws to a close, take a glass outside and sit back and enjoy the season. v