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A Taste of Canaan
Israeli winemakers are starting from scratch in the Chinese market
By Jacques Fourrier | NO. 15 APRIL 13, 2017

Tal Gal-Cohen, an international wine expert appointed by Israel’s Foreign Ministry as a Wine Ambassador, introduces a vintage from Tulip, Israel's rising star in the wine industry, at the Israeli Embassy in Beijing on March 28 (COURTESY OF THE EMBASSY OF ISRAEL IN CHINA)

The fact that an Israeli wine master class was held in China for the first time is testament to the Chinese market's formidable power of attraction. Chinese wine distributors, sommeliers, importers and experts were invited to taste some of Israel's best vintages at the Israeli Embassy in Beijing on March 28.

The class was hosted by Tal Gal-Cohen, an international wine expert appointed by Israel's Foreign Ministry as a wine ambassador, and Ma Huiqin, professor at the China Agricultural University and a renowned consultant on wine projects in China.

An uphill battle

Israel might not be what springs to mind on a wine map traditionally dominated by Europe and more recently by new juggernauts such as California, Australia, New Zealand and Chile. Gal-Cohen faces an uphill battle to promote Israeli wine as new wine-producing countries—China among them—pull out all the stops to entice new generations of middle-class customers worldwide.

Gal-Cohen has made use of concepts in sync with Chinese culture—tradition and innovation—to coax the Chinese market into trying Israeli wine.

"Archaeologists found grape pips in Israel dating back 8,000 years and 5,000 years ago, [when] wine became a major industry," he said. Wine had been the economic mainstay of ancient Israel and a major product exported all over the Mediterranean region until Roman times.

Instability during the Middle Ages in Europe proved to be catastrophic to winemaking activities, and it was not until the end of the 19th century that Edmond de Rothschild, of France's Chateau Lafite fame, established the Carmel wineries. "The year 1882 was the renaissance of the wine industry in Israel, when Baron de Rothschild built the country's first two large-scale wineries," Gal-Cohen remarked.

Nowadays, Israel boasts some 400 wineries and 5,500 hectares of vineyards throughout five very distinctive regions, from the 1,100-meter high Golan Heights terroir in the north with its volcanic soil and abundant rainfall to the Negev Desert in the south.

Another part of Israel's tradition is its kosher wine. Carmel wineries used to churn out 30 million bottles of kosher wine a year in the 1970s and 1980s. "Jews around the world wouldn't drink non-kosher wine so we had to produce a kosher wine from the Holy Land," said Gal-Cohen, adding that despite these figures, Carmel wines were some of the best in Israel.

Like China, Israel is a new country with a long history. Similarly, when Israel was founded in 1948, the country had to rely on hard work and innovation. "Innovation is in our DNA," said Gal-Cohen enthusiastically. "A lot of our technologies have been introduced to France and Italy and in all the best wineries. We don't have specific universities to study winemaking, so people from all over the world come to Israel and share information. That's what makes Israeli wine so unique."

Among these technologies, Israel has developed modern drip irrigation systems with computerized underground probes and plastic tubes which release an exact amount of water. This ecologically friendly and energy-efficient method has been introduced in China among other countries.

Israel also promotes innovation with a twist. The country has been able to resuscitate an antique grape variety mentioned in the Talmud called Marawi. Researchers have extracted the DNA of desiccated vines, allowing winemakers to grow this indigenous grape. The first vintage, the Recanati 2014 Marawi, has yielded only 4,000 bottles. This dry white has been described as a "pure, ancient and candid expression of the Israeli terroir."

Selling wine to the Chinese is a challenge. Bordeaux continues its reign as an undisputed reference point for quality, even though New World wines have been gnawing away at its market share in China. But Israeli winemakers are starting from scratch in the Chinese market and may benefit from their novelty factor.

A niche market

"After all, even though there are differences, Cabernet Sauvignon is Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot is Merlot. I think the Israeli wine has a story to tell, going back 10,000 years," Gal-Cohen pointed out.

Drinking wine from the Holy Land would also have an appeal in terms of quality and uniqueness. "Producing a kosher wine means that we don't cut corners and that we do things properly," he added. "We have unique wine grapes and special blends, which are not common in many other places due to their regulatory environment."

Ma Huiqin has traveled some 20 times between Israel and China since receiving her doctor's degree in 1996. She has published a series of articles on Israeli wine in China.

"It's a very unique combination. The Israel wine industry is somewhere between the Old World in terms of tradition and the New World in terms of technology," she said. "Israeli wines are also very international; they somehow connect the Jews all over the world."

Recent figures show that Western countries account for 90 percent of Israel wine exports, with the U.S. representing a whopping 55 percent due to its large Jewish community.

Israeli wineries are testing the waters in China. "Some Israeli wineries export a few pallets a year to China but it's not a large amount, and wine production in Israel is not that huge," explained Gal-Cohen.

Ma Huiqin believes that Israeli wines can appeal to a niche market of connoisseurs in China. "Israeli wines are very fruity and the flavors of the berries are easily identifiable. There are opportunities for these wines to find their place on Chinese tables," she observed.

Ma Li is the manager of Mali's Wine Cellar in Beijing's Guomao area, one of the capital's leading cosmopolitan sectors. She started her business in 2011 and sells 500 different wines from all over the world. She had never tried Israeli wine before this event and was pleasantly surprised by its taste. "Israeli wine has an international flavor. I think the Chinese market will probably enjoy the Teperberg Devotage Malbec-Marselan," she said.

A promising vintage

This year marks the 25th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between China and Israel. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu brought along more than 100 technology executives and top business leaders on a three-day visit to Beijing from March 19 on the invitation of Chinese President Xi Jinping. Netanyahu said that Israel would serve as a "perfect partner for China for the development of technologies that change the way we live, how long we live, how healthy we live, the water we drink, the food we eat."

Israel has now become China's strategic partner and cooperation is booming. "Israel is located along the Silk Road Economic Belt, and Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region [a wine-producing region in northwest China along the Silk Road Economic Belt] is looking to collaborate with Israeli wineries," said Ma Huiqin.

Now more than ever, Israeli wine is ready to take on its competitors in China. The establishment of the Israeli wine master class in Beijing was a step in that direction.

"Israeli wine has a future in China," remarked Ma Li. "More time is needed though. French wines are promoted on a daily basis in China and Italian wines are now starting to make headway. Israeli wine needs more promotion as well as government support to find its bearings in the Chinese market."

The author is a French journalist based in Beijing

Copyedited by Bryan Michael Galvan

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