May 25, 2024
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From Israel to Your Table: Harvesting the Holiness

Wine holds a special place in Jewish tradition. Whether to greet the Sabbath, to welcome a new baby into the fold, to bless the holy union of husband and wife, wine is a potent force in our communal life. The wine we use to mark our magic moments speaks volumes about our values.

For many people, Israeli wines are the only choice.

But as we drink wines from Israel, how much do we understand the process that brings the fruit of our homeland to our table as the finest vintage wine?

The winemaking process is a union of technology and art, one that combines the logistical act of harvesting and fermenting with the creative genius of seasoned winemakers. The process is a carefully orchestrated ballet between function and creativity in any country. In Israel, there is an added dimension from the inherent holiness of the land.

Wine has been produced in Israel since time immemorial. This ancient profession continues today. Pioneering wineries have brought the Israeli wine industry from a cottage industry to a force to be reckoned with on the international market. The Yarden Golan Heights Winery is the premier Israeli winery. Perched on the lush, green mountainsides in the Golan Heights region in northern Israel, the winery is producing the very best in Israeli wines. With cool winters bringing snow in the highlands and rains throughout, the Golan region is a perfect grape-growing country. Numerous international awards are testament to the Golan Heights Winery’s ability to harness natural forces to create outstanding wines.

Speaking with the renowned team at the winery opens a window into the process that brings the best of Israeli wines to a store near you. Visiting the winery during harvest season showed just how far winemaking has come since grapes were pressed under foot. In seeing the automated harvesters roll down the grapevines, it was clear that times have changed. The Golan’s climate allows for 14 to 16 weeks of harvesting. While the period for potential harvesting is long, each grape has a specific window of opportunity when that specific grape in that particular vineyard is ready to be harvested. As a result the winery uses cutting-edge monitoring technology to pinpoint the exact optimum time for harvesting.

Victor Schoenfeld, chief winemaker at the winery, outlined how. “We conduct daily checks and measurements to find the optimum moment for harvest,” Schoenfeld explains. “We make sure that the grapes demonstrate the perfect balance of sugar,[which turns into alcohol,] and acidity which will give the wine its freshness and vibrancy. We wait with trepidation, watching the lab results and hoping that we won’t miss the crucial harvesting point.”

Once Schoenfeld has determined the prime time for harvest, a whole army of workers move into action. Some grapes are harvested using mechanical harvesting machines. Others, like for sparkling wines, require greater precision and are picked by hand. “Harvest time is exhilarating but also exhausting. At some times we are all through the night,” says Schoenfeld.

Following the harvest, grapes are shipped from the vineyards to the winery. Here they are put on a conveyer belt to be sorted by an optical sorting machine, which separates perfectly ripe grapes from unwanted materials. Optical grape sorting is the latest in viticulture technology. The machine enables grapes to be sorted four times faster than it takes human sorters, producing a better-quality wine in less time.

Grapes are then crushed to release the juice. Once the grapes have been crushed, the next stage in the process differs for white and red wine. Juices intended for white wine are separated immediately from grape skins and stalks. While the juices for red wine are fermented initially together with their skins to give a rich color to the wine.

When the juice begins its journey through fermentation to become wine, the magic of winemaking begins. Whether wine is fermented entirely in steel vats or transferred to handmade oak barrels for aging, the eventual wine is created by individual winemakers tasting samples of the wine. It is their creative vision that mixes grapes from different vineyards to craft a mouthwatering blend.

The wine production process in Israel has another level of complication: careful adherence to the laws of kosher wine production, and the specific commandments that only apply within the land of Israel. All of the wines produced at the Yarden Golan Heights Winery feature a kosher stamp of approval from both Rabbi Auerbach and the internationally respected OK (Organized Kashrus—New York) symbol, and are not mevushal (cooked or diluted in any way). Rabbi Shalom Aronzon, the longtime kosher supervisor (mashgiach) at the winery, working under the auspices of Rabbi Auerbach, monitors the vines as closely as Schoenfeld.

Rabbi Aronzon’s task is to oversee the entire production process to ensure careful adherence to Jewish Law. He says, “Kosher winemaking in Israel is more complex today [than in ancient times]. There are both physical and spiritual issues that need to be dealt with throughout the year.” Rabbi Aronzon monitors each individual plant to ensure no grapes are removed before the three-year orlah period is completed after initial planting. He also removed the mandated tithes (trumah and ma’aser) from the crop to be used later for a special ceremony

This year there are additional requirements for the production of kosher-certified wines, due to the current shmittah year. On the seventh year in the shmittah cycle, Jewish Law dictates that the land of Israel should lie fallow for 12 months. All around Israel, this year observant farmers have either stopped entirely or reduced their usual agricultural routine. The winery is meticulous in its observance of the laws of shmittah. During this year’s harvest, Rabbi Aronzon instructs workers on the changes that need to be made to the harvesting process; during the section of the harvest done by hand, care is taken to make only a rough cut and not to prune meticulously. He also reminds workers to treat the grapes with extra care as any product harvested this year has added “holiness” (kedusha).

Rabbi Aronzon is involved at every stage of the wine production. For a wine to be certified kosher, it must only be touched by Shabbat-observant workers. A member of Rabbi Aronzon’s team brings samples to the winemakers for them to create their blends. During regular years it is the norm for winemakers to pour away excess. This year, to treat the special shmittah wine with respect, Rabbi Aronzon provides designated buckets to catch the unused wine.

Rabbi Aronzon feels the weight of his responsibility, not just to provide the finest quality kosher wines to consumers worldwide. “I feel it’s my responsibility to transmit the unique aspect of Jewish winemaking. We are the latest stage in the ancient tradition of winemaking in Israel,” he says.

This year, as your special moments arise, you can yet again mark the occasion with a bottle of delectable Israeli wine. Now with an added appreciation for the marriage of all things Israeli contained within the bottle: fearless development of cutting-edge modern technology, a love of our homeland, and a respect for the ancient traditions of our heritage.

Yarden Golan Heights wines are sold under the Yarden, Gilgal, Hermon and Golan labels internationally. They are available at all good wine shops bringing quality Israeli wines around the world to Jewish and non-Jewish consumers.

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