Winemaking Across Israel, Then and Now

July 10th 2012

Although the modern wine industry in Israel is just over a century old, the country has a rich and ancient history of viticulture – just think about all the references to wine in the Bible! It seems that every excavation turns up more ancient wine presses that highlight what an important role it played in Israel thousands of years ago. Today, the country is home to hundreds of winemakers who are producing world class, award-winning wines.

There is evidence of winemaking in Israel dating back to biblical times. Grapes are mentioned in Deuteronomy as one of the seven blessed species of fruit, and Israel was located on a wine trade route between Mesopotamia and Egypt that boosted production. Although today’s Italian wines are considered by many to be the world’s best, in the ancient Roman period, there is evidence that the aristocracy sought out and imported wines from Israel.

Winemaking came to a near halt in the 7th century along with Muslim rule, since Islam forbids the consumption of alcohol. Wineries were shut down, and vineyards were pulled out at the roots. Except for in secret in a few private homes, there was virtually no winemaking in Israel for more than a millennium.

That all changed in the 1800s, when interest in making wine was sparked once again. There were a few attempts to start wineries in the mid 19th century, but it wasn’t until the end of the century that the base of the modern wine industry was formed with the help of Frenchman Baron Edmund de Rothschild. When he arrived, he brought French grapes and knowledge of winemaking, and opened up the Carmel Winery in Rishon LeZion in 1882. The Carmel Winery remains in operation today and gets the claim for being both the oldest and largest winery in Israel.

Today there are over 200 wineries in the country that produce about 36 million bottles of wine per year and export an estimated $26.7 million worth of wine internationally each year. There are five distinct wine regions, from the southern desert of the Negev to the very northern Golan, each of which exhibits its own distinct terroir. Be sure to include a few winery tours in your trip to Israel, as well as visits to ancient wine presses.