Today there are approximately 35 large-scale commercial wineries and 250 boutique wineries in Israel, and collectively they have helped bring the country to the attention of sophisticated wine drinkers the world over.
“An Israeli wine revolution began in the 1990s,” notes Adam Montefiore, the wine development director of the Carmel Winery, Israel’s largest wine producer. “It is still going on now, with quality and variety getting ever better.”
The dogged pursuit of wine quality, rather than quantity and volume, is central to this growth, suggests Montefiore, and small, boutique wineries led — and in some cases are still leading —the way.
“I don’t like the word boutique,” says Eli Ben-Zaken, the founder and father of the family winery Domaine du Castel. “I never did.”
Castel is generally thought of as the quintessential Israeli boutique winery success story, and it is widely credited with launching Israel’s boutique wine revolution. It is also widely considered by international wine critics as one of the very best wine producers in Israel.
“I’ve always liked to define Castel as a family winery,” Ben-Zaken notes. “The size of it was not of the first importance.”
When Ben-Zaken first ventured into making wine, what he dubbed “some wine for my friends” was only about 600 bottles. Last year, he notes by contrast, “we produced 300,000 bottles, but our purpose is still to make quality wine.”
Commercial success has allowed for growth, and facility upgrades and expansion, but, Ben-Zaken says, “we are quality driven.”
“The main difference between a boutique winery and a commercial winery,” suggests Montefiore, “is that in a boutique, there is usually one person or one family central to the whole project. The wineries are generally personal expressions of a dream that has come true, and their wines are illustrations of the individuality, character and style of the owner or winemaker.”
“I was running a successful Italian restaurant in Jerusalem [called “Mamma Mia”],” recalls Ben-Zaken. “I started growing wine as a hobby because I wanted something homegrown decent enough to serve with food,” he says.
He planted his vines in 1988 outside his home in Moshav Ramat Raziel, in the Judean Hills, harvested his first vintage in 1992 and released his first commercial wine in 1995.
“Castel,” Ben-Zaken notes with satisfaction, “raised the quality of wine in Israel and has shown the big guys, the large wineries, that there is a market for this in the Israeli public.” Of course, he finds the winery personally fulfilling for another reason: “I’m a Zionist, and I’m very proud to show that we can make wines as good as those in Europe.”
All the Castel wines are dependably good. As I write this, I’m in reverie over a glass of a far too young (but still readily purchasable). It’s a sample of: Domaine du Castel, Grand Vin, Judean Hills, Israel, 2013 ($75): This fabulous but still too young blend of 62 percent cabernet sauvignon, 22 percent petit verdot, 13 percent merlot and 3 percent cabernet franc, aged in 50 percent new French oak barrels for 20 months, is full and concentrated, and lusciously coats the palate with fine, delectable fruit, poise and balance. The wine really needs time to mature in the cellar, but with plenty of aeration it is hugely enjoyable and delicious now. Given its muscle and structure, I’ll hold off opening any more bottles until at least the end of the decade — I’m confident it’ll reward a little patience. Those without patience will not be disappointed in the least. Just give it time to breathe. Enjoy it slowly over the course of your leisurely and hopefully suitably elegant meal. L’chaim!