Thank you again to Ze'ev who made a keen intelligence-gathering here and led me to this moshav for this last Israeli story after foreseeing that there was a lot to learn and see there.
This story is about very important people for the wines of Israel, people who are very rarely in the spotlight, the growers. Even in France, I've never made a report on a grower although many do such an important job, and here I am in Israel reporting on one...
Growing grapes and making wine are still often very separate sectors in Israel, a country where contracted vineyards and purchased grapes are the norm. The growers have been more and more distancing themselves from the high-yields practices of the past, an era started when the Baron de Rotschild paid the growers exclusively by the volume of grapes without regard on the link between yields and quality. Here are these growers, the Nir brothers, who seem to work enthusiasticly, planting carefully-selected varieties on land leased by the State of Israel with samely carefully-chosen plots deemed to make the best of the terroir.
The open barn where all the tractors and machinery are stored may look humble and messy, but Amit and Shay Nir have set up here the largest grape-growing operation of Israel, and they sell grapes to some 40 wineries of all sizes who look for what is clearly becoming a terroir. Most of the buyers are small wineries and one is a major winery in Israel, Dalton. They sell the grapes at high price because they work on small surfaces starting at one dunam (1/10 of hectare) nestled at altitudes going from 630 meters to 740, with sun on 80% of the year. They have almost 1000 dunams (100 hectares or 247 acres) but 200 dunams are being planted or the terrain is being remodeled for planting, vines needing two years before beginning to produce grapes. This is always heavy investment to prepare the terrain with caterpillars, take away the rocks, some of them being very big, and wait years before the plantings take root and produce grapes.
They have the grapes picked by hand by extra staff hired for the harvest, in 20-kilo boxes, sometimes with 300-kilo boxes, depends of the type of grapes. The wineries send their trucks over here to take the boxes, cool trucks like Dalton winery which keeps its refrigerated truck all day here during the harvest so that the grapes can be collected progressively and arrive in the evening at the winery at 13° C.
They grow all kind of grapes he says, in white, Chardonnay, Johannesburg Riesling, Viognier. In red, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, and Mourvèdre. they have listed different types of soils on the valley, different expositions too, and plant in a given plot accordingly with a variety that they consider will yield the best results from the conditions. Shay points to a mountain or hill on the south and says that on the other side they have Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Here in the valley where we stand, they have Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot, plus Viognier over there he says, plus Chardonnay upper on the slope. He also points to Johannesburg Riesling on one side.
Shay learned the job in Israel while working here and there, then he also took courses and attended seminars, and in 1998 he went to UC Davis in California to learn both viticulture and winemaking.
Amit Nir joins us as we're enjoying the view on the vineyards further up on the valley, from under the cool shade of a beautiful tree. Amit says that he brought 10 years ago the huge stone sitting on the left of the tree after they took it out of the vineyard.
To explain their work as growers, Amit says that they actually grow bottle of wines on the vines. They intend to have the vines live 50 or 60 years and so make everything in order to have the vines become resistant and adapt to the particularly tough conditions of the climate. Sometimes this comes at the expense of the grapes, they'll make less grapes which means less money but the future is more important for them. They plant at a density of 400 per dunam or 4000 per hectare, that makes about one meter between vines and 2,5 meters between rows. It is a higher density compared to the Israeli norm which is 220/dunam.
Speaking of irrigation, Amit says that it could be possible to grow grapes here without irrigating, but the output would be very low, and as he sells grapes he needs to irrigate, at least a bit, to have enough grapes. The water comes through a pipe with a dripper at each foot. The amount of water brought this way to the vineyard is 500 cubic meters per hectare per year. For younger just-planted vines it's more, like 180 or 200 cubic-meter/hectare. Asked if they have custom management asked by winemakers, Amit says that every winemaker want to tell him what to do, but the smart winemakers don't tell him how to grow the grapes and they just say "just do the grapes like you did last year and it will be fine"....
About the grass and weeds management, they adapt their policy with the type of soil : when they have deep earthy soil, they leave the grass because they don't want the vines to capitalize on a humid subsoil, so they let the grass suck this surface water. Usually, they cut this grass after 3 weeks or so.
About the start of his grape-growing venture, Amit says that when he started, he worked with many wineries. Now he doesn't want to work with a single big winery, he prefer to work with several, medium and small wineries. Even though he has grown up in size, he wants to keep this partnership with the small wineries he used to work with at the beginning. He sells grapes to 12 winemakers, the biggest winery being Dalton and the smallest Srigin, a very small winery even on the boutique winery scale, making 4000 bottles or so. In comparison, he says, Dalton makes maybe 700 000 bottles... He works also with Pelter, Tulip, Agur, Psagot, to name a few well-known wineries in Israel. Ze'ev asks Amit if he expects to grow in size, to which he answers if you ask my wife, she will say it's enough like that... Another problem is that the government authority in charge of delivering the leased land gives the green light very seldomly and that there is a temptation to accept whatever additionnal land (in this valley or nearby) when offered, because tomorrow the administration may change its mind. For example as we speak about it, Amit shows a surface covered with bushes and rocks and says that he thinks it would make a good vineyard terrain.