“How did it all start?” Oren asked rhetorically, repeating my question back to me. “It started with insanity,” he answered himself with a chuckle. While most ambitious winemakers who are hungry with determination satisfy their cravings by simply making great wine, Oren wasn’t just interested in starting a prestigious winery. “The concept was to grow wine grapes here –– specifically here – in Israel’s southern coastal plain,” Oren exclaimed, “I didn’t just want to start another Israeli winery, but to pioneer a new wine region in Israel.”
The prevailing custom of winemakers located outside of Israel’s classic grape growing areas is to source their grapes from other already established grape growing regions, but Oren was uninspired by that cushy, safe route. “I wanted to find what was special about my area and found a new appellation in Israeli wine making,” he explained. A second generation child of Moshav Zrachia currently building his own house just 15 kilometers from the Mediterranean Sea, Oren was adamant that his home soil could be more than just another classic Israeli landscape of tomato and cucumber fields. Moreover, he was convinced that the popular notion that wine grapes grow best at high altitudes from chalky soils was just a strategic marketing myth that he was ready to disprove. So going against all odds and expert advice, Oren uprooted his family’s peach farm and planted a new vineyard in their stead.
Like an early explorer identifying a freshly discovered far away land, Oren named his virgin appellation “Tel Maresha” and started his voyage into uncharted territory. Oren decided to survey renowned wine regions around the world, looking for one that could resemble the terrain of his Israeli moshav in the southern coastal plain. 7,500 kilometers south of his home in Zrachia, past Ethiopia, Sudan, and Zimbabwe, between game reserves and rugby fields, lay the vineyards of one of the most respected wine producing countries in the world: South Africa. Similar to Oren’s home town, many successful wine regions in South Africa lack the classic attributes associated with winemaking. “I thought, if they can make great wines in low, hot, and humid areas in South Africa, why can’t we?” he recalled, describing his “aha moment”. Though it was clear to Oren that he couldn’t paste Cape Town onto Ashkelon, their apparent similarities would, at the very least. lend him a map and compass to navigate this exotic expedition.
“The rules of viticulture opposed just about everything we had known from our experience growing fruit trees,” Oren’s father, Shaul, told me, recalling the early days when he started the original family farm decades earlier. Wine grape cultivation was a stark transition for Shaul, who partnered with his son and took on many of the responsibilities in the vineyard. “As a traditional farmer, the idea that we didn’t simply want as much fruit as possible per acre was pretty shocking to me,” he recalled. Now, Shaul wouldn’t trade waking up to the view of his neatly trellised vineyard in his backyard for anything else in the world. With a new elegant visitor’s center and winery adjacent to the bustling vineyard, it is hard to imagine that just a few years ago this was an old-fashioned Moshav orchard.
“When you taste our wines you can tell that it’s something different,” Oren told me proudly, uncorking a bottle of his South African styled Chenin Blanc. “I’m not sure if it’s the proximity to the sea, the humidity, or the people, but this area produces wines with a twist that you can pick out of a hundred different glasses.” Oren’s courageous endeavor to produce a distinct product whose unique character strives to reflect the terrain and soul of his hometown is admirable and something he simply could not have achieved growing peaches. Oren is not concerned with competing wineries. On the contrary, he believes that developing Tel Maresha as a wine region is even more important than the possibility of rival vintners in the area. “I want to invite other winemakers to come and set up wineries in this region,” Oren exclaimed, “in years to come, I want Tel Maresha to be a popular appellation for quality Israeli wine.”
Tasting: Guvrin Stream 2013
One of South Africa’s most prized varietals is their signature Pinotage. For many years, Pinotage was used to produce low quality commercial wines, which put a stain on its developing reputation. However, recently, all of that has changed; elegantly crafted Pinotage wines have been a key factor in putting South Africa on the map of world class producers. Oren believes that, similar to its role in South Africa, Pinotage will become the Tel Guvrin appellation’s trademark grape as well. This half and half blend of Pinotage and Syrah joins two of the darkest colored grape varietals to create one deep and almost opaque pansy purple dyed wine. Mediterranean in its style and spice, this bottle holds within it not only the dreams of its maker, but the hopes for the entire region. Acquaint yourself with a new friend while opening this bottle — it will lend you plenty to talk about. Turn on Dave Matthews Band’s “Remember Two Things”, or Genesis’ “Foxtrot” while drinking this wine. Be sure to take a trip over to Oren at Maresha Winery in Zrachia.