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Acclaimed Israeli winery sets sights on the wider world

RAMAT RAZIEL, Israel — The wines produced at Domaine Du Castel near Jerusalem have turned the world of Kosher wine on its head, winning accolades from around the world, and now this small, family-owned winery has set its sites on the broader market.

A long climb through the winding hills to the southwest of Jerusalem leads to the vineyards of Tzuba, a nearby kibbutz where most of the winery's grapes are grown. Since before dawn, workers have been picking white Chardonnay grapes.

A few hundred metres (yards) away stands an ancient wine press. More than 2,000 years old, its presence is a testimony to the long-held tradition of winemaking in this region that dates back to biblical times.

"When the Romans conquered Judaea, they adopted the local viticulture knowhow. This whole area was a productive area which produced very high quality wines," explains Domaine Du Castel's 65-year-old owner, Eli Ben Zaken.

Although tradition of wine-making here goes back millennia, it is only relatively recently that the Judaean Hills have won international recognition.

Traditionally, the Golan Heights and the Galilee to the north have been considered as the best regions for wine in Israel.

But since the mid 90s, the Judaean Hills have carved out their own niche in the international wine market, with Castel now recognised as one of the 365 best vintages in the world, according to France's prestigious Bettane & Desseauve guide.

The small, winery has come a long way since 1988 when Ben Zaken planted his first vines on a hilltop next to his house in Ramat Raziel, a moshav, or collective village, some 17 kilometres (10 miles) from Jerusalem.

A self-taught vinegrower who set up his first press inside an old stable, Ben Zaken says he fell into the profession completely by chance.

Born in Egypt of a Moroccan father and an Italian mother, he spent his youth in Europe, variously living in England, Italy and Switzerland. It was there that his love of wine came into its own.

He moved to Israel after the Six Day War of 1967 where he held various agricultural jobs and owned an Italian restaurant in Jerusalem before trying his hand at winemaking.

In 1995, some seven years after planting his first vines, Ben Zaken proudly bottled his first batch -- around 600 bottles made from Cabernet and Merlot grapes -- "made mostly for friends," he says.

Not long after, one of the bottles fell into the hands of British expert Serena Sutcliffe, Master of Wine at Sotheby's in London, who described it as "absolutely terrific ... a real tour de force, brilliantly made."

"I had tears in my eyes," recalls Ben Zaken. "Over the next few days, I went everywhere with that fax in my pocket."

Since then more vines have been planted, with the winery relying entirely on locally grown grapes, most of them from its own vineyards, while others are grown up the road on Tzuba.

Israeli wines tend to be New World wines, but Castel is one of the few wineries to use an Old World approach. And it is also the first one to have adopted the French techniques of viticulture and wine-making.

"We cultivate 6,700 vines per hectare (2.5 acres) , compared with an average of 2,200 in the rest of Israel. In this way we manage to produce a dry wine in the European tradition, an Old World wine," explains Ben Zaken.

High in the ancient, terraced hillsides outside Jerusalem, row upon row of gnarled vines put their roots deep into the terra rossa, clay and limestone soils of Judaean Hills.

The shimmering summer heat, coupled with a permanent Mediterranean breeze helps these vines produce a low yield which has won Castel recognition internationally.

"What threatens the grapes in France is the summer rain which dilutes the taste," explains Marc Sarrabia, head vine grower at Tzuba which produces grapes for half a dozen Israeli wineries, including Castel.

"But here we don't have rain between April and October so we have perfect control over the irrigation and the quality of nutrition given to the vines," he says.

"Every year is a good year in Israel!"

Since 2003, all Castel wines have been designated as kosher -- with the entire process, from the pressing of the grapes to the bottling of the wine, strictly supervised by religiously observant Jews.

Going kosher was strictly a business decision: it has allowed Castel to target the global kosher wine market and increase exports.

Until relatively recently, kosher wines have been predominantly sweet, dessert-style wines -- a fact that has its roots in Jewish history.

"As Jews in the diaspora, we didn't own vineyards and wine drinking was very rare," says Ben Zaken, explaining that drinking wine was limited to a symbolic act during the Friday night ritual of kiddush which sanctifies the sabbath and other Jewish holidays.

"For kiddush, we had to make wine in small quantities so it was very rare and it had to be sweet so it would last the whole year. So, as a people, we stopped drinking," he says.

Now Ben Zaken is hoping that his award-winning kosher labels will buck the trend and get Jewish people drinking once again.

The winery now produces around 100,000 bottles a year -- its flagship Bordeaux-style red, the Grand Vin Castel, and its second label, Petit Castel, as well as a white Burgundy-style Chardonnay, the "C" Blanc du Castel.

The average price per bottle -- around 160 shekels (42 dollars, 32 euros) -- is high, admits Ben Zaken: "But it's still a lot cheaper than French wines of the same quality."

During an official visit to Israel by German Chancellor Angela Merkel in March 2008, a Grand Castel was served up during dinner with then Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

The chancellor was so impressed she promptly ordered 240 bottles to be sent home to Berlin.

"We have to focus on our niche but we want to show the world that there is another side to wine from the Holy Land," Ben Zaken says, "To show them that it is tasty, well made and influenced by the sun and by spices which are unique to the Israeli landscape."