In a climate of war and religious persecution, producing wine can be a dangerous business. But living with danger has been the norm for generations of Israeli and Lebanese winemakers, who are attempting to transcend the volatile political situation in the Middle East and nurture their bourgeoning wine industries.
The latest chapter in the Arab-Israeli conflict began in mid-July 2006 when
Hezbollah rockets rained down on northern Israel's Golan Heights - one of the country's premier winegrowing regions. "It was dangerous to go into the vineyards and there were fears
crop would be damaged," says Victor Schoenfeld, winemaker at Yarden Golan Heights.
A ceasefire came a month later, just in time to save the harvest, which began across the region that day.
For Schoenfeld, the shelling was the only
time the fighting has directly affected the Israeli wine industry - much of which is situated in the war zone .
The conflict has had much more subtle consequences, Schoenfeld says, such as cutting domestic consumption. "I n the six month s after the war,
the restaurants and the wine industry were hit hard. But Israel has bounced back from that."
Yarden Golan Heights Winery was established in 1983, which Schoenfeld describes as the "beginning of the quality wine boom in Israel". It is
owned by four kibbutzes and four moshavs (co-operatives) which manage 17 vineyards, 600ha in total, which rise from near the Sea of Galilee to the foot of
snowcapped Mount Hermon. Internationally, it is
best known for its Yarden, Gamla and Golan labels.
In 1998, around a third of the country's crop was Carignan, which
plummeted to 20% in 2005. Plantings of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot have recently "sky rocketed", Schoenfeld says, while Sauvignon Blanc
is down. Schoenfeld calls Emerald Riesling an "Israeli curiosity" and
says the nation's most popular white varietal in Europe
is Gewürztraminer. "The goal is not to make it in an Alsatian style - Israeli Gewürztraminer should be bursting with orange blossom, fresh mint, spice, lychee and honey," he adds.
high-altitude vineyard sites
over "hot, humid and sub-tropical" coastal plains, Schoenfeld says. In Yarden's vineyards, 11 weather stations measure the elements every second and the winery
precision agricultural technology to measure activity in the soil. "This knowledge translates to high quality wines," Schoenfeld says.
A lot of Israel's success is down to
international oenologists, according to Schoenfeld, who is himself American-born and a graduate of the University of California at Davis. "Israel is still a small industry that is fairly isolated, so having international consultants is
important to get fresh information coming in all the time ,
moving the industry forward."
In the UK, offering kosher wines has given Israel a strong Jewish consumer base, but it's not the only reason
Israeli wines have potential to become mainstream, Schoenfeld
says. "The wine industry is incredibly dynamic and there are more good quality producers than 20 years ago. More consumers are wanting something from interesting appellations and Israel fits the bill."
Over the border in Lebanon,
the conflict has also taken its toll.
For Giles Cooke MW from Alliance Wine, which imports Château Ka
to the UK, the publicity arising from the war hasn't impacted on consumer demand . "Much of the media coverage
has come from the adversity faced by Lebanese winemakers, so it seems
this does not have a negative effect," he says. "Added to this, few people in the west understand the nature of the conflict,
so they're not qualified to attribute blame to any side."
But Cooke admits that the
conflict has resulted in Alliance "being unable to visit the winery or vineyards".
Lebanon exports 6 million bottles a year and has 2,000ha under vine, with 18 major wineries harvesting some 7,000 tonnes. The UK is the biggest market for Lebanese wines, according to
the Ministry of Economy,
accounting for 30% of export sales, with France having 22% and the US 8%.
The majority of vines are grown in the city of Baalbek in the Bekaa Valley, and the most common varieties planted are Cinsault, Carignan, Cabernet Sauvignon, Mourvèdre, Grenache and Syrah.
Château Musar is the most widely distributed Lebanese wine, with its flagship red - a Cabernet Sauvignon/Cinsault/Grenache blend - found on the shelves of Tesco, Majestic and Waitrose.
But in the past 20 years, a handful of wineries have also emerged as leaders of the industry, with such names as Château Ksara, Château Kefraya and Clos St Thomas ones to look out for. At this year's International Wine Challenge, Lebanon was awarded four medals, including
silver for Château Ksara's Le Souverain 2004 and
Château Musar's G Hochar 2000.
Lebanon recently rejected a call by Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert for peace talks and demanded
Israel withdraw from disputed territory along its international borders, including the Golan Heights, suggest ing a truce
be-tween Lebanon and Israel is still a long way off. But the consistent and high-quality wine
coming out of both countries proves that, in the wine world at least, there can be stability in the Middle East.
Tasting table: wines from the region
2005 Yarden Chardonnay Odem Organic Vineyard, Galilee, Israel
Ripe lemon and pear on the nose, balanced with a smoky, flint minerality. Finishes with tropical fruit and a pleasing acidity.
2003 Yarden Katzrin, Galilee, Israel
This intense wine has black cherry and plum notes, with cassis, blackberry and fresh herbs on the palate.
Château Ka Source Blanche, Lebanon
Unusual spicy apricot notes combine with delicate gooseberry in this Muscat/Sauvignon Blanc/Semillon blend.
Kalvi Emir 2003, Ankara, Turkey
A lemon, citrus nose with orange and apricots in the mouth, combined with refreshing green apple. Intense acidity followed by a dry, long finish.
Kocabag Kalecik Karasi 2006,
A velvety wine boasting delicate strawberry notes with a surprising hint of hot spice and creamy vanilla.