Israel is a bewilderingly multifaceted destination, which has so much to offer, whether your journey is motivated by religion, history, beaches... or good food. But it's got plenty in store for a wine-lover, too.
Winemaking has long traditions in the region - I mean, even Jesus is said to have dabbled with it at a wedding once. Modern wine industry is, however, rather young and first wineries weren't founded until the late 19th century. Under one of the Muslim rulers all the vines had been ripped out, so Edmond James de Rotschild re-started the cultivation with vines from India - phylloxera being busy wreaking havoc in the vineyards all over Europe.
In Judaism wine has a significant ceremonial role and it's used to sanctify the beginning of Shabbat for one. There's a even very particular holiday in the Jewish calendar (Purim), when it's practically a divine command to get completely hammered!
Israel is a hot and arid land and that poses the wine-making certain challenges. Israeli wines have not enjoyed a particularly good reputation for being overly sweet, flat and jammy, but progress has been madesince the late 1960s.
In the Six Day War of 1967 Israel took over Golan Heights from Syria and these days the most prestigious wines come from there, along with Judean Hills and Carmel Mountains.
Carmel Mizrachi, founded by Rotschild in 1882 used to be the only commercial winery in Israel. It's still the largest in the country with nearly 50% share of the market.
Its monopoly only crumbled halfway through 1980s when a couple of new wineries entered the market. One of these was Tishbi.
Tishbi had been cultivating and supplying grapes to Carmel Mizrachi since 1925. In 1980 Israeli wine industry went through a bit of a crisis, resulting in grape prices soaring and wineries struggling to afford them. That is when Tishbi decided to have a go at making their own wine. Today they are the 5th largest winery in the country.
Tishbi's grapes come from 6 vineyards, each with their own microclimate. Golan Heights boast a volcanic terrain, Upper Galilee and Judean hills have limestone. Then there are the wineries of Lower Galilee, Zichron Ya'akov and Negev desert.
Annual production is about one million bottles. 20 % of goes to export, mostly to US and Canada.
Tishbi's portfolio has four series: Tishbi, Tishbi Estate, Tishbi Estate Singe Vineyard and Jonathan Tishbi Special Reserve.
The whites consist of Chardonnay, Viognier, Gewürtztraminer, Muscat Alexandroni, French Colombard, Emerald Riesling sekä Sauvignon Blanc. Johathan Tishbi Special Reserve-series also features a dry sparkling whine, made of French Colombard using the Method Traditionel.
Emphasis is on the reds, which constitute 75% of Israelis' wine consumption. Tishbi's reds are made using Carignan, Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Ruby Cabernet, Shiraz, Malbec and Pinot Noir.
In addition to wine Tishbi also produces an award-winning brandy which is used to fortify their Barbera Zinfandel dessert wine.
The reds go through 12-month aging process in (mostly) French oak, Special Reserve-series is aged for 24 months.
Located halfway between Binyamina and Zichron Ya'akov, about an hour's train ride from Tel Aviv Tishbi is definitely worth a visit, even if you're a wine novice. The staff is friendly and knowledgeable, which is unfortunately not something that can be taken for granted in Israel. Most of the wineries I contacted I never even heard back from.
I spent a jolly good day at Tishbi, tasting my way through dozen or so (!) of the wines. The dominating quality was their remarkable dryness, which in most cases was a bit too much for me, resulting in a rather bitter finish. Most of them would have probably benefited from being served with right kind of food?
Of the whites I liked Emerald Riesling the most (Viognier I felt fell a bit flat, Sauvignon Blanc's acidity was a tad too dominant robbing it from any real aromaticity, whereas French Riesling could have used a bit more acidity)- in addition to almost ashen earthiness I found it the most aromatic one.
Of the reds my favourite was Cabernet Franc with its warmth and very controlled peppery notes.
Most surprising and baffling was Pinot Noir, which is what I was looking forward to the most. My guide did mention it was going to be "a very different kind of Pinot Noir" and sure enough, that it was. Notes of dill and cranberry on the nose continued to a ripe berriness bordering on strawberry jam but the aforementioned dryness made for a too hard finish.
Tishbi is very much a family venture and source of pride for all those involved. This is immediately evident- starting from the warm atmosphere. The winery is run by the original founder's grandson Jonathan, with his son Golan as the wine-maker. The other son Michael is involved in cultivation side of things, whereas daughter Oshra is behind the Fine Foods- collection, featuring among other things glorious wine jellies (apparently sublime with cheese...!)
Towards the end of the day I was joined by Jonathan's delightful wife, with whom we explored the world of wine and chocolate. Tastings combining these two are among the most popular activities at the Visitor's centre. They are the importers of the world famous Valrhona chocolate, which they turn into the most delicious pralines.
But no, even that isn't all. They even have a French-style bakery where they make incredible sourdough bread. Apparently they spent a year perfecting the recipe and that is exactly what it is: perfect.
You can buy the bread to go (and you most certainly should!), but they also serve it at their restaurant, where I retired for a late lunch.
Restaurant (like the wines) is kosher- kosher halavi to be precise, meaning they don't serve meat (fish and dairy, yes). Though there was a BBQ food truck parked right outside it...!
I settled for an antipasti platter consisting of marinated and grilled veggies, dips and that luscious bread (49 NIS = roughly €11), which featured red pesto made of amazingly sweet dried tomatos. Simply divine in all its simplicity.
As the post-lunch serenity fell over me, the sun still bright and warm I found myself lazily swirling the remnants of the wine in my glass, feeling so completely content with life. There was nowhere in the world I'd have rather been!
Its versatility makes Tishbi an excellent one-stop shop for a foodie traveller and a truly blissful way to spend one's day. But hey, in case you manage to tear yourself away, do check out the idyllic town of Zichar Ya'akov closeby!
ANYONE FOR SECONDS?