The land of milk and honey is now also one of fine wine and fabulous food

16 Nov

A week in Israel left this particular Wine Wanderer gobsmacked at the preponderance of high quality wine being produced and the constant emergence of new boutique wineries.    Fertile soil, a wealth of knowhow gained abroad and some genius self-taught entrepreneurs have made the land of milk and honey one also of rich reds and delicate whites which beautifully complement one of the world’s most innovative melting pot cuisines.

Bat Shlomo in the Carmel Valley  is where Jacob Rothschild arrived to restart wine production, which had died out during centuries of Moslem rule, to provide employment for poor Romanian immigrants at the turn of the 20th century.    It would be another 80 years before Israel would gear up to compete in th premium wine sector, and now a new high quality winery bearing the Bat Shlomo label has closed the circle.

For the moment, Bat Shlomo produces just one wine – a sauvignon blanc  made from grapes grown in the Jerusalem Hills – which can be enjoyed in a handful of fine restaurants and is otherwise sold direct.   It wil be a diferent story when the vines planted around Bat Shlomo itself mature and the winery starts producing a classic Bordeaux blend.  I enjoyed the sauv blanc at Israel’s finest classic seafood eatery, Mul Yam in Tel Aviv port,  and a week later with the country’s most avant-garde fish and seafood at the innovative Uri Buri in the old Crusader port of Akko.    

Uri Jeremias, one of the country’s top cooks, introduced me to another sauv blanc I didn’t know, the Pelter which is fine value for money.   Perfect with Uri’s salmon sashimi with wasabi ice-cream and his ceviche of tuna with rutabaga and radishes.   Both this place and Mul Yam, where I enjoyed the world’s best razor clams with a sprinkle of pink peppercorns and a few sprgs of samphire in the garlic butter, are strictly for the deep-pocketed, but they will delight and astonish seafood lovers.   Mul Yam also serves the divine Blanc de Castel, a Burgundy-style white to match anything made in Meursault or Montrachet, by the glass – a huge treat.

My favourite red on this trip was enjoyed high on a wild mountain top in the Galilee, overlooking a timeless landscape surrounded by 200 goats.   Here career shepherd Amnon and his wife Dalia, who has the exotic looks of a highly-decrated squaw, have created a paradise for gourmets prepared to book ahead and make the tortuous trip through Arab and Druze townships and down a dirt track to their farm.  Goats with the Wind has been equipped with verandahs where diners perch on cushions and kilims to enjoy spectacular salads, dairy and meat dishes, including much of the couple’s own produce.

We started with tiny dishes of labane – a kind of fromage frais enjoyed hereabouts since the time of Abraham – sprinkled with wild hyssop from the hillsides, and continued with a salad of sweet quince shredded with spinach and fresh ginger, sweet red and yellow tomatoes in sumptuous local olive oil, and several kinds of goat’s cheese.   Dalia also served a delicacy usually saved for the meat-eaters – pyramids of mashed poptatoe mixed with coconut which concealed a filling of mushrooms and cashews; they were briefly fried to brown just before serving.

The table was laid with a water jug bearing a bouquet of roses, giving the sensation if drinking rosewater, and just when we thought it couldnt get any better, Amnon produced a flask of wine from the farm’s own production.   Not the slightest bit rough or immature as might have been expected, given the rustic setting, it was as rich and smooth as many of the lovely cabernet sauvignon and merlot blends produced in the Galilee Hills.

It was a heady move from Tel Aviv to Buenos Aires via London, all in one day, and quite funny to be told in this other land of spectacular wine production that for them Israel’s premium wine industry is relatively mature at 30 years old.    The Argentinians have matched the Israelis in entrepreneurism and expertise in less than 20 years, and between them these two far-apart countries produce some of the Wanderers’ favourite wines in the world.   Watch this space for future reports from Salta, Mendoza and beyond.


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