Located about 45 minutes north of Jerusalem, the settlement of Beit El in the Binyamin Region was established in the late 1970s and granted local council status in 1997. Just a year before, in 1996, Hillel Manne and his wife, Nina, moved to the area and began planting vineyards.
Having studied at the University of California at Davis and having experience in both agriculture and viticulture, Hillel Manne had a sense of the area’s great conditions for growing wine grapes. In addition to multiple references in the Tanach to Beit El (the site where Jacob wrestled with the angel, for example), there is archeological evidence of thousands of years of winemaking there.
Interestingly, much of the larger regional area — the West Bank — has increasingly proven itself as promising wine-growing land. From a wine perspective, as Adam Montefiore of the Carmel Winery, Israel’s largest, has compellingly argued, this area is more rightly known as Israel’s Central Mountains Region.
The area of Beit El offers shallow terra rosa soil on limestone, coupled with the topography, altitude (3,000 feet above sea level) and microclimate that is well-suited to red wine grape-growing. Israel’s warm climate makes for easy ripening while Beit El’s cool evenings help with the acid retention.
Initially, Manne sold his grapes to other wineries — but as can happen, the bug for making his own wine out of his own grapes soon developed. As the commercial prospects began to materialize, Manne decided to invest a little more deeply, and in 2012 he hired my friend Lewis Pasco as consulting winemaker.
Pasco was the founding and head winemaker of Recanati, where I met him, and has an excellent reputation in both Israel and the United States as a skilled winemaker; before that, Pasco was a highly regarded professional chef in the San Francisco Bay area.
Pasco’s positive effects on Beit El’s wines were immediate. Beit El has taken massive strides in quality since: The 2012 wines were surprisingly good, the 2013 wines were impressively good, while the 2014 wines are solid and delicious. Due to shmittah, the year when land is to lie fallow, according to the Torah, there was no 2015 vintage. Expectations are suitably high for the current vintage. The proof will be in the bottle.
Here are the two Beit El wines available:
Beit-El Winery, Cabernet Sauvignon, 2014 ($27): This enjoyable 100 percent cabernet offers strong and beautiful aromas and concentrated flavors of cherry, blueberry, currant and plum with some nice black pepper and a touch of anise on the finish. The tannins are still integrating, but while definitely felt, they are mild and balanced with the pure fruit and lively acidity. Give the wine plenty of time to breathe. Good now, it should benefit from another year. This should prove to be a solid crowd-pleaser.
Beit-El Winery, Cliff View Carignan, 2014 ($27): This rich 100 percent carignan is young, earthy, meaty, fruity and delicious now, with aromas and flavors of ripe blackberries, cranberries, sweet blueberries, vanilla, peppercorn (more flavorful than white, but less strong than black), a touch of star anise and hints of baking spice — something like allspice or nutmeg from the oak. The finish is long and pleasing. Fairly high alcohol (15.9 percent — on par for Israel), yet remains very food-friendly, too. Should reward with an additional three or four years of ageing, perhaps longer — but really enjoyable as is, so why wait? L’chaim!