In the book of John, we read of the wedding at Cana where Jesus miraculously turned water into wine. Jesus produced wine which was more delicious than that which the wedding guests had ever tasted before. Lying in the center of the Galilee region, Cana is situated in the heart of the ancient and modern Israeli wine-making country, an area which is still wowing wine enthusiasts today.
Throughout the Old and New Testament, the vine is the defining feature of ancient Israel. Noah was the first recorded viticulturist who ‘planted a vineyard’ following the great flood and when Moses sent the twelve spies to scout out the holy land, it was a bunch of grapes that they returned with.
It was in ancient Israel that the conquering Romans first learned about the art of winemaking and became so fond of wine that senior commanders ordered that grape extract, sugar and alcohol (i.e. wine concoction) be taken with them on all military expeditions. The Romans also shipped back to Rome the seeds of different grape varietals grown in Israel, which included the Shiraz variety that originated in the Shiraz region of ancient Persia.
Winemaking in Ancient Israel reached its peak during the time of Jesus and in the books of Mathew, Mark and Luke, Jesus refers to Israel as “God’s vineyard”. Travelling around Northern Israel spreading his good word, Jesus would have been surrounded by lush vineyards and copious wine presses, most notably around Gamla, the ancient Jewish capital of the region. In fact, the ancient coin used as the logo for the Golan Heights Winery’s collection of Gamla wines, features a cluster of grapes, indicative of the fact that winemaking was indeed one of the most vital components of Gamla’s activities.
In 636 AD, after more than three thousand years of production, wine making in Israel ceased when the Byzantine Christian Empire in Israel fell to the Muslim conquest. The vines were uprooted and there was a ban imposed on the consumption of alcohol.
While the mineral rich soils of Israel lay barren for many years, Baron Edmond James de Rothschild, the 19th century Zionistic son of the French-Jewish banking dynasty and connoisseur of fine wines, endeavored to resurrect Israel’s ancient winemaking prowess into a modern day reality. Israel’s wine industry flourished and in 1976 the outstanding agricultural properties of the Golan Heights were rediscovered by a group of agricultural experts and oenologists from the USA and Israel.
Shortly thereafter, local villages decided to unite and take advantage of this find by planting an array of high-quality grape varieties on the plateaus and setting up an advanced winemaking operation. The grapes that they planted (including Pinot Noir, Syrah and Gewürztraminer and other varieties that were heretofore unknown in Israel etc.) and the wine production process, which blended Old World and hi-tech concepts including the introduction of French oak barrels (aging of the wine), became the foundation for the new Golan Heights Winery in Katzrin near the aforementioned ancient city of Gamla.
The fledgling winery unveiled their first premium dry red wines to the local market in 1983. Several years later in 1987, the winery’s very first Yarden Cabernet Sauvignon-1984 was entered into London’s prestigious International Wine & Spirit Competition (IWSC). When the wine was lauded with a Gold Medal for its world-class quality, it not only stunned the “wine world”, which had not known about quality Israeli vintages for nearly 2000 years, it also triggered a revolution in Israel’s winemaking industry. The Golan Heights Winery process thus became the benchmark for the entire Israeli winemaking industry Many Israeli wineries abandoned the Coastal Plain in order to plant new vineyards in the higher elevations. The Golan Heights Winery also established ground-breaking marketing trends that eventually led to the creation of a local “wine culture.” Today, the Golan Heights Winery, via its Yarden, Gamla and Golan brands exports its fine wines to over 30 countries all over the globe and has recently won the Wine Enthusiast’s Wine Star award for best New World winery. This is an extremely coveted award and one never before won by an Israeli winery.
When travelling around Israel both the ancient and modern winemaking sites make for interesting visits. With over 250 wineries, Israel’s wine route is a holiday on its own but a good place to start is the northern region which contains the largest cluster of wineries and arguably the most impressive visitor centers. The First Aliya Museum in Zichron Yaacov and nearby Carmel winery tell the story of Baron Edmond de Rothschild and regeneration of the wine making industry. Traveling north, the Galil Mountain winery has an impressive visitor’s center showcasing their boutique blends and varietal wines with the process all visible from their elevated walkway. From here, the Galilee region is laid out before you and one can walk the path of Jesus in arguably the best area of wine production in the country.
No Israeli wine tour is complete without a visit to the Golan Heights Winery in Katzrin which offers tastings of some of the best wines in Israel. Their fascinating winery tour is a great starting point for exploring the wine country of the Golan Heights and from their visitor’s center it is possible to book vineyard tours on every mode of transport imaginable from horseback to quad-biking.
Every year Israel attracts hundreds of thousands of Christian tourists eager to visit the plenitude of holy sites doted around this wonderful country. Visiting the fantastic wineries that Israel has to offer not only offers new insight into the agricultural history of ancient Israel but also is a mouthwatering experience suitable for the whole family.
Anne Hartwood is a contributor to Travelujah-Holy Land tours, the leading Christian social network focused on connecting Christians to Israel.
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