• A vineyard 800 meters above Mitzpe Ramon.

    Shmuel Koka, Shmuel Koka ©
  • L'chaim in Ramat Hanegev Winery.

    Ramat Hanegev Winery, Ramat Hanegev Winery ©
  • A vineyard blossoms in the Mitzpe Ramon springtime.

    Nissim Mevorach, Nissim Mevorach ©
  • Khachapuri and wine.

    Shota PR, Shota PR ©
  • Shota Restaurant, Mitzpe Ramon

    Shota PR, Shota PR ©

Four Cups of Wine: A Journey Through Israel's Exotic Wines

On the Passover Seder night, Jews around the world jump on the opportunity to try new exotic wines. Between the four cups we have to fill, each glass can take us on exotic trips to distant counties as we recount the story of our journey out of Egypt. Join us for a surprising journey through vineyards, wines and dreams - from the Sinai border to Georgia.

First cup - Desert air as clear as wine

Let's start in Southern Israel, in Kadesh Barnea on the Sinai border. The pastoral scene here is typical of the serene desert. Ramat Ha'Negev Winery, established by Alon Tzadok and his family is the first desert winery in the industry. In a brave move the family decided to open the winery in 1997 and declared it would rely on local produce alone. Though many in the industry were skeptical of their success, the Tzadoks succeeded in fulfilling their pioneer dream. Today, thanks to their determination and The Jewish Agency's Loan Funds (Ness Fund), their vineyard produces over 70 thousand bottles of fine wine annually.

But just how does good desert wine taste? Growing vines in this climate enables quick ripening and better preservation of their natural pH levels. The intense heat of the sun helps the fruit amass sugars and to become softer, rounder and ready for consuming earlier than usual. The winery keeps the delicate balance between man, nature and the elements of water, air and earth. The Tzadok family uses desalinated irrigation water only; no pesticides; and recylces the pruned branches and fruit waste as natural soil enrichers.

Yogev Tzadok (32) is the label's vintner. He is the second generation of winemakers at the Ramat Ha'negev Winery. The eldest of the Tzadok sons specialized in wine-making in Florence, Italy, and brought his Italian influences to the Negev wine: less alcohol, fewer ripened fruits, resulting in an overall more elegant wine.

Alon Tzadok, applied to the Loan Fund to enlarge his business and vineyard land area, and was given a substantial loan. In 2013, 80 tons of grapes were harvested, producing 70,000 bottles of wine. The grapes are harvested manually under Yogev's keen supervision.

Gilad, the young Tzadok brother, who tends to the marketing, explains: "This is the spirit of The Jewish Agency – a real Zionist enterprise to make wine out of sand.

"No one believed we could make high-quality wine, and export thirty percent of our yield. Recently, the winery underwent a rebranding process, and we planted a new vineyard which will bear fruit in two years. From next year we will plant another in close-by Mitzpe Ramon – a Chardonnay vineyard 800 meters above sea-level," he adds with a grin.

There is much for this enterprise to look forward to – for now, the winery is open during Pesach for visits, wine tasting and tours. 

Second Cup – Red Red Wine

Not yet Chateau De Mitzpe Ramon, but you'll be surprised to find that the local Young Community's Shmuel Koka enjoys producing high-quality specialty wine in the desert climate. Shmuel (38) was born and raised in Jerusalem. He moved to Mitzpe Ramon 14 years ago to study at Yeshiva Midbara Eden, where he met his wife and established their home together at the Young Community in Mitzpe Ramon.

"Our Young Community took a while to form as a mission driven community," explains Shmuel Koka. "Our decision to make our home here was not easy and the challenges we face are still big. Today, the young families in our community work alongside the long-time residents to improve and advance education, welfare and residence issues.

"When we moved to this desert town, we immediately thought of entrepreneurial opportunities: tourism, high-tech or agriculture. We applied to the Ministry of Agriculture and asked to grow a vineyard at 800 meters above sea-level, in this special climate.

"When our proposal was granted, we established the farmers' union Kerem Ramon with 14 members—in order to promote local professional Israeli agriculture, to make the desert bloom, and to develop the fields of education and welfare in the community (by transferring half of the vineyard's income to these projects).

"The entrepreneurship was not easy from neither a bureaucratic nor economic standpoint. The Jewish Agency recognized right away its importance and during the last three years supported the project with loans bringing it to eventual success."

Today, after four years, 350 dunam (about 87 acres) of wine are planted in the heart of the desert producing quality fruit and wine, and also yielding contracts with big Israeli names in the game like Barkan, Teperberg and Tavor. Recently, a new series was bottled in cooperation with Bazelet Winery in the Golan Heights. To the surprise of many, Mitzpe Ramon is proving itself as a high-quality wine area. 

Third Cup – Sweet, Aromatic and Deep

In Meitar, you will find Nissim Sarossi's vineyards, with a well-ripened touching, and sweet-like-wine story.

These days, Nissim (60) is planting a new vineyard and planning to open a winery in the Negev for ideological reasons. Hailing from the Negev, Nissim has returned to the soil of his childhood after 28 years in Gush Katif. It took him about eight years to overcome the hurdles of bureaucracy and get the land on which to plant his sweet dreams and good wine.

"One of the reasons I wanted to plant vineyards is that growing grapes is the most creative and pleasant jobs – I love pruning the branches, and tending the fruits," muses Nissim.

The new vineyard will have four types of grapes: Syrah, Chardonnay, Malbec, and Cabarnet.  Nissim thinks one man is enough to tame a vineyard, except during certain periods: "My friends and family promised to help and work with me on the project."

Wanting to embark on this new project, Nissim "looked online and heard from others about The Jewish Agency Loan Fund. The Ness Fund helped me get a loan with great return terms, and they also gave me financial guidance."

"The Negev is the best place to live," claims Nissim unequivocally. "In the past, people thought agriculture here is impossible because of water, but after years of hard work, we now know great agricultural products come from the Negev. I believe it's a great place to grow the best Israeli wine."

Fourth Cup – Message in a Bottle

From the southern desert we will go north to the country of Georgia – where some say wine finds its origins – or maybe we'll only go to the North of Israel where Kibbutz Shomrat's "Shota" restaurant specializes in Georgian food and wine.

Old friends, the owners decided to open in 2012 with help of The Jewish Agency's Loan Funds (Western Galilee Fund), and now they serve authentic Georgian dishes and experiences in Israel. Alongside the food, the restaurant has a great bar and good music. 

Bela, one of the owners tells us about the great wine culture the restaurant has created for its regular and new clientele: "We import special Georgian wine from a very high mountain region which yields about 60 types of wine. In the last three years, we have imported various types of wine, one of which has received an international prize for its quality.

One of the more known traditional Georgian drinks is the Chacha. This is a grape vodka made of the wine and grape residues, and can reach up to 75% alcohol.

"When we opened Shota, we decided to focus on authentic drinks," says Bela. "I have a lot of love and respect for wine. I traveled to Georgia to sample wine. There are a lot of fake products because of marketing of Georgian wine through Bulgaria, but we bring good quality wine from a winery 1,800 meters above sea level. The Chacha, though, is the highlight of our restaurant."

It's worth the journey to taste this unique product. The Chacha comes in a clay bottle, which keeps the wine at a certain temperature and deepens its flavors. In the local arena, Shota stocks Ampora, Dalton, and Chateau Golan wines.

13 Apr 2014 / 13 Nisan 5774 0
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Chen Mor is the Hebrew marketing and communications content writer at The Jewish Agency for Israel

Chen Mor has enjoyed working for The Jewish Agency for the past five years. She holds a Bachelor's Degree in International Relations and Central and Eastern European Studies and is currently working on her Masters Thesis in Conflict Research, Management and Resolution from The Hebrew University in Jerusalem.