For thousands of years, the observances have been the same. Friends and family join together in celebrating the Jews’ exodus from Egyptian slavery. In order to give praise and thanks for the deliverance of an entire people, the Passover seder ceremonially recalls both the trials and the precious freedom those of the Jewish faith experienced thousands of years ago.
Wine is an integral part of this ceremony, and in fact, four cups of wine are traditionally consumed as part of the seder. Each adult will drink one cup of wine for each of the four “Expressions of Redemption” recalled in the retelling of the Passover story each year. The kind of wine may vary – from dry to sweet, hailing from Israel or from New York – but the wine must be produced in accordance with the kashrut, or Jewish dietary laws. Kosher wine production follows strict rules, and labels even indicate which wines are Kosher and which are Kosher for Passover, meaning they conform to even more stringent rules. Kosher wines can be made anywhere in the world, and it’s easy to find Kosher wines from California, New York, Chile, France, Italy, Australia, and, of course, Israel.
Passover is about remembrance, about looking to the collective past. What is interesting is that wine – and specifically wine made in Israel – is just as tied to history as the celebration of Passover itself.
According to the Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the roots of wine made in Israel run deep – back to biblical times. Though many of the wines made thousands of years ago wouldn’t have been particularly palatable by today’s standards, wines were made and shipped to other countries from Israel. Though historians have often proclaimed the years after the Muslim conquests of 636CE as dry ones for the country, Kevin Begos, in his excellent article, “Time for Israeli Winemakers to Embrace Their Viticultural Heritage,” for Tabletmag.com, paraphrases Aren Maeir, an Israeli archaeologist: “assuming no one drank wine because of the Koran is a bit like suggesting that Christians always follow the Ten Commandments, or that no one drank during Prohibition.” While wine has been made in Israel continuously since biblical times, there was a definite point at which the winemaking game completely changed.
That point came in 1882, explains Elizabeth Downer in her Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article titled “Here’s the history of how Israel became a world wine powerhouse.” What happened in 1882? Baron Edmond de Rothschild, owner of first-growth Bordeaux property, Chateau Lafite Rothschild, planted Bordeaux grape varieties along the Mediterranean coast in the areas of Samaria and Samson. He founded a winery called Carmel, which produces wines to this day. Downer points out that most of the wines produced were sticky-sweet Kosher styles that aren’t favorites of connoisseurs.
The next big milestone for Israeli wines came as a result of the Six Day War in 1967, in which Israel captured the Golan Heights from Syria. Elizabeth Downer explains that an enologist (someone who studies wine and winemaking,) visiting from UC Davis, pointed out that the climate and soils of the Golan Heights are ideal for producing fine wines. The first grapes were planted there in 1976. Since then, with international cooperation from growers and winemakers all over the world, Israel has been producing outstanding wines by any measure.
The apex of international acclaim was achieved in 2008, when Yarden Cabernet Sauvignon 2004 appeared on Wine Spectator’s “Top 100 Wines of the Year” list.
One might think there’s nothing left for Israel to achieve in the world of wine, but just as Passover causes Jews all over the world to reflect on the past and its role in our lives, so, too, have Israeli winemakers been looking to the past for inspiration and clues about a more historical and possibly more authentic version of Israeli wines.
When Edmond de Rothschild directed the planting of international grape varieties, he disregarded the potential of native grape varieties, a choice that Kevin Begos explains disregarded the opinions of some of his advisors. These local varieties went largely ignored until around 2008, when the wines of Cremisan Cellars began attracting attention.
Founded in 1885, Cremisan Cellars occupies a unique space, both geographically and philosophically. The site of a Christian monastery, Cremisan physically straddles the Israeli-Palestinian border, all while producing wines made from indigenous varieties. Begos explains that Israeli scientist, Shivi Drori, funded in part by the Jewish National Fund, began exhaustive research into indigenous grape varieties, and identified at least twenty varieties, including the ones Cremisan uses.
Wine made from the ancient varieties like jandali, hamdani, and dabouki have even begun garnering attention from the wine press. In 2016, the Cremisan 2012 Hamdani-Jandali blend received an “outstanding” 90-point rating from Wine Spectator.
As Passover 2019 approaches, and as Jews everywhere begin the annual preparation for time-honored observances, it is worthwhile to contemplate the role of wine in Israel’s history. Not only is kosher wine integral to the Passover seder and brimming with symbolic significance, but Israeli wine itself invites us to reflect on history, our roots, and a peaceful, cooperative vision of the future.