Israeli Wine Industry
Despite numerous challenges, ranging from terroir to politics, the Israelis have managed to surmount these obstacles and achieve remarkable success.
In a two-part series, I delve into the hurdles faced by the pioneers of the Israeli wine industry. From the very foundation of their vineyards to the intricacies of international diplomacy, these obstacles have tested their resilience and determination. However, what is truly inspiring is how they have emerged triumphant, carving out a distinct place for themselves on the global wine stage.
In the first part of the series, I explore the unique terroir challenges encountered by Israeli winemakers. The diverse landscape, climatic variations, and soil composition have posed significant hurdles, demanding innovative approaches and meticulous attention to detail. Despite these complexities, the Israeli vintners have demonstrated remarkable adaptability and resourcefulness, crafting exceptional wines that reflect their distinct sense of place.
The second part of the series focuses on one particular winery that has achieved extraordinary recognition on a global scale. This winery has managed to overcome the barriers that many others have faced. Through a combination of visionary leadership, unparalleled craftsmanship, and a deep understanding of consumer preferences, they have established themselves as a beacon of excellence within the Israeli wine industry.
I believe this two-part series will offer valuable insights and shed light on the remarkable journey of the Israeli wine industry. It serves as a testament to the resilience and determination of these winemakers, who have not only overcome challenges but also flourished in the face of adversity.
A Great Wine. It “Happens” to be Made in Israel
Israel’s winemaking industry has seen notable growth and recognition; however, it faces challenges when it comes to achieving global success. There are a few reasons why being good or great is not always enough to guarantee success for Israeli winemakers:
Market Competition: The global wine market is highly competitive, with established wine-producing countries like France, Italy, Spain, and others dominating the industry. Israeli wines often have to compete with well-established and well-known brands from these countries, making it challenging to gain market share and recognition.
Perception and Reputation: Despite the improving quality of Israeli wines, the perception and reputation of the country’s wine industry can still lag behind other well-known wine regions. Overcoming stereotypes and preconceived notions about the quality of Israeli wines can be a barrier to success in international markets.
Limited Production and Distribution: Israel’s wine production is relatively small compared to major wine-producing countries. This limited production can make it difficult for Israeli winemakers to achieve economies of scale and reach wider distribution networks. Exporting wines to international markets can be costly and challenging due to logistical factors and regulatory requirements.
Marketing and Branding: Effective marketing and branding play a crucial role in the success of any wine brand. Israeli winemakers may face difficulties in promoting their wines globally due to limited marketing budgets or the need for more sophisticated marketing strategies to build brand awareness and reach new consumers.
Despite these challenges, Israeli winemakers continue to produce exceptional wines, and their efforts have started to gain recognition throughout the international wine community. By focusing on quality, innovation, strategic partnerships, and effective marketing, Israeli winemakers are working towards achieving greater success and expanding their presence in the global wine market.
Israel has a rich history of winemaking that dates back thousands of years. During the time of the Roman Empire (6-135 CE), wine from Israel was highly sought after and exported to Rome and other regions. Some key characteristics of these wines from ancient Israel include:
Vintage and Dated Wines: The wines produced in ancient Israel were often vintage-dated and marked with the year of production. This practice allowed consumers to appreciate the age and maturation of the wine, a feature that was highly valued in Roman times.
Winemaker’s Name: The amphorae containing the wine had the name of the winemaker inscribed on them. This demonstrated a sense of pride and craftsmanship and allowed consumers to know the origin and reputation of the wine they were enjoying.
Thick and Sweet Wines: The taste preferences of the time leaned towards wines that were thick and sweet. These wines were likely produced from grapes that were harvested at a later stage of ripeness, resulting in a higher sugar content and a more viscous texture. The sweetness would have made the wines more palatable to the ancient Roman palate.
Water Addition: It was common in the ancient world to dilute wines with water (i.e., warm water, salt water)
before consumption. This practice was especially prevalent in Roman culture, where wines were often mixed with varying amounts of water and other ingredients (i.e., herbs and spices; frequently stored in resin-coated containers creating a flavor similar to restina) to achieve a desired taste and alcohol level.
The historical significance of Israeli wines during the time of the Roman Empire showcases the country’s long-standing winemaking traditions and expertise. However, as mentioned earlier, even with a strong historical foundation and excellent wines, success in the modern global wine market requires overcoming various challenges related to competition, perception, marketing, and distribution. Nevertheless, the heritage and knowledge passed down through generations of winemakers in Israel continue to be a valuable asset to the country’s wine industry.
In addition to centuries of experience, there are other factors that produce great wines – and Israel has them all:
Grape Varieties: Israeli wines often feature classic French and Italian grape varieties, similar to those found in other New World wine-producing countries. While there are few wines made from local indigenous grapes, the focus tends to be on internationally recognized varieties. This allows winemakers to leverage the characteristics and qualities associated with these grape varieties, which have been refined and perfected over centuries of winemaking.
Mediterranean Climatic Conditions: Israel’s climate is characterized by hot, humid summers and wet winters, which are ideal for grape cultivation. These standard Mediterranean climatic conditions contribute to the development of grapes with concentrated flavors and balanced acidity. In addition to climate, other factors such as vineyard location, slope, slope direction, soil properties, and farm practices play important roles in the vineyard’s overall ecosystem. These factors influence the grapes’ quality and can result in unique flavor profiles.
The Wine Cellar: The practices employed during wine processing in the cellar impact the final product. Winemakers carefully manage the fermentation process, including temperature control, yeast selection, and maceration techniques to achieve desired flavor profiles. Aging and storage conditions, such as the choice of oak barrels or stainless-steel tanks, also contribute to the development of specific wine styles. Regular monitoring and proper timing are crucial to ensure that each step of the winemaking process is executed accurately.
While there may not be a single recipe for producing the best wine, the combination of these factors, along with the expertise and experience of winemakers, contribute to the overall quality of Israeli wines. The commitment to proper timing, attention to detail, and continuous monitoring in the cellar help ensure that the wines reach their full potential.
There are several factors that limit Israel’s ability to compete effectively on the world wine stage. These include:
Limited vineyard acreage: Israel has a relatively small land area suitable for vine cultivation compared to countries like Italy, Spain, and France. This limits the quantity of grapes that can be grown and, subsequently, the volume of wine produced.
Climate challenges: Israel’s climate is generally characterized as Mediterranean, with hot and dry summers. While this climate is favorable for certain grape varieties, it can also present challenges such as water scarcity and the risk of vine diseases. These factors can impact the quality and quantity of grapes harvested.
Lack of international recognition: Compared to traditional wine-producing countries like Italy, France, and Spain, Israeli wines have a relatively short history and are less well-known internationally. Building a reputation and establishing recognition for Israeli wines takes time and concerted marketing efforts.
Limited domestic market: Israel has a relatively small population, and the domestic market for wine consumption is not as significant as in some other countries. This places greater emphasis on exporting for Israeli wineries to achieve economies of scale and profitability.
Geopolitical factors: Israel’s geopolitical situation, with its proximity to conflict zones, can sometimes impact trade and export activities. Political instability in the region can create uncertainties and logistical challenges that affect the wine industry.
Despite these limitations, Israeli winemakers have made significant progress in recent years, producing high-quality wines that have gained recognition in international competitions. With increasing investment in vineyards, winemaking techniques, and marketing efforts, Israel’s wine industry continues to evolve and improve its position on the world stage.
Where does Israel rank in the international wine marketplace? In 2021, Israeli exports were valued at $64.1M, making it the 29th largest exporter of wines in the world. In comparison, the top six wine-exporting countries (2021) were Italy ($8.4 billion), Spain ($3.5 billion), France ($13.1 billion), Chile ($2 billion), Australia ($1.7 billion), and US ($1.5 billion) (worldstopexports.com).
With approximately 40 million bottles produced annually, Israel’s wine production is relatively modest compared to global wine production levels. The 60,000 tons of wine grapes harvested each year indicate a significant effort in vineyard cultivation and grape production.
The presence of 350+/- mostly boutique operations and 70 commercial wineries showcase a diverse landscape of wine producers in Israel. This indicates a strong presence of smaller, specialized wineries that focus on producing limited quantities of high-quality wines. It is worth noting that the ten largest wineries in Israel control over 90 percent of production, suggesting a certain level of consolidation within the industry. This concentration of production among the largest players could be attributed to factors such as economies of scale, market dominance, or historical development.
Given the scale and structure of the Israeli wine industry, it is understandable why its export value is lower compared to major wine-producing countries. However, it’s important to note that the Israeli wine industry has been gaining recognition for its quality and uniqueness in recent years, and its export value has been increasing steadily.
With continued investment in vineyards, winemaking techniques, and marketing efforts, Israeli winemakers have the potential to further develop their industry and expand their presence on the global wine stage.
American consumers are surprised at the elevated price tag of wines from Israel. It is not the kosher part that raises the price; kosher vinification is identical to conventional winemaking except for kosher yeasts and the need for a supervisor to monitor the process. The premium price is linked to the generally high costs of living in Israel and the costs associated with making wine in this part of the world.
Some experts believe that the price of Israeli wines is linked to the youthfulness of the industry and the small local market. The total population of Israel is 8 million; subtract everyone under the legal drinking age of 18 and subtract Muslims (whose religion prohibits alcohol consumption) and this leaves a relatively small potential consumer market of approximately 4 million.
Winemakers in Israel import every single piece of equipment and this includes every tool needed, from crushing machines to barrels and corks. Overhead expenses are similar for a winery producing 30,000 bottles each year or 300,000 bottles. Other essentials for growing grapes, including land, and water, are very expensive in Israel. The industry is still paying for 40 years of investments (since the beginning of a local wine culture). European winemakers estimate that it takes 100-200 years to establish a loyal customer base, while the Israeli counterparts feel lucky if they have a second-generation loyal consumer.
Ensuring that vineyard and winemaking operations are kosher involves specific requirements related to the supervision of the production process by observant Jews and the presence of a mashgiah to certify the operations.
While the cost of maintaining kosher certification may not be a significant financial investment, it does involve additional considerations in terms of personnel and adherence to specific kosher guidelines. Having employees who come into contact with the grapes being observant Jews and having a mashgiah present can add a layer of complexity to the winemaking process.
Regarding the labeling and marketing of Israeli wines, it is interesting to note that some wines made in Israel are labeled as “KOSHER” rather than “ISRAEL” on shelves in American retail shops. This can create challenges in terms of building a distinct identity and increasing awareness of Israeli wines as a whole. It may lead to the wines being perceived primarily as kosher wines rather than being recognized for their quality and regional characteristics.
There are two types of kosher wine: mevushal and non-mevushal. Mevushal wines undergo a flash pasteurization process, allowing them to be handled by non-Orthodox Jews, while non-mevushal wines are higher quality wines made using traditional methods.
The KOSHER label may limit consumers’ ability to discern the higher-end options among kosher wines. Research suggests that premium Israeli wines are never mevushal, but the current retail marketing efforts fail to communicate this distinction, effectively, potentially clouding the perception of quality.
Instead of emphasizing the kosher label, wines from Israel should be listed as “wines from Israel” on menus with a focus on appreciating Israeli wines as excellent products without undue attention to the specific kosher certification (such as the OU symbol).
To establish a stronger presence in the marketplace, including on-premises, online wine shops, supermarkets, restaurants, and other establishments, and to increase overall exposure, it may be beneficial for Israeli wines to have a more prominent representation on an “ISRAEL” shelf or category. This would help highlight the diversity and uniqueness of Israeli wines beyond their kosher designation, allowing consumers to explore and appreciate the wines based on their specific terroir and winemaking techniques.
For example, products such as M&Ms, carry the Orthodox Union (OU) symbol but don’t significantly influence consumers’ purchasing decisions. Perhaps it is time for the American consumer to recognize Israeli wines for their quality and enjoy them without placing excessive emphasis on their kosher status.
© Dr. Elinor Garely. This copyright article, including photos, may not be reproduced without written permission from the author.