Israel has come a long way since the main attraction in the Carmel region, located along the Mediterranean coast south of Haifa, was the Carmel Winery
, producer of the country's original sticky-sweet sacramental wines used for the Shabbat and holiday Kiddush.
Today, not only have the wines improved to the point of winning international awards, but the entire Carmel is being positioned as the next up-and-coming region for natural and culinary tourism. The attractions include an organic farm, a trendy micro-brewery and several boutique wineries, including one with the added bonus of pioneering chocolate wine tastings.
Take a day (or two) to visit some of Israel's newest splurges in the north; here's a quick itinerary that will keep you sated and bubbly.
Start your tour at the northern end of the Carmel region and work your way southward. Take advantage of the enormous breakfasts that Israeli hotels are famous for, because your first stop is the Amphorae Vineyard
, an organic winery that takes good care of both the health and palate of imbibers.
Established in 2000, Amphorae is located just off Highway 4 near the moshav (cooperative village) of Kerem Maharal. The winery building was designed to resemble an authentic Tuscan villa. Inside, on the first floor, is a stylish tasting room. Downstairs are the fermentation barrels and a dark wood chilled "library" of every wine ever produced there.
Winemaker Alon Domboya will be happy to explain to visitors what organic wine means. All the grapes are picked by hand, not machine, he says, which means Amphorae can work at a slower pace and choose only the grapes it wants. The grapes are then transported to the winery in refrigerated trucks so they don't start to ferment along the way. Amphorae's vineyards are planted in the Golan Heights and the hills outside Jerusalem ("the best," Domboya says). "The owners wanted to be hands-on and get involved in the entire process themselves, from picking to blending and working with the fermentation tanks," Domboya explains.
Amphorae produces 60,000 bottles a year. "We're small and we want to stay that way," says Domboya.
Located just next door to Amphorae is the Makura organic ranch
, which specializes in olives and olive oil. Proprietor Guy Rilov will be glad to show you around. In addition to individual visitors, he hosts a couple of school groups a week who come not only for the olives but to learn about the farm's 100 percent sustainable approach.
Guy Rilov in the olive garden of Makura organic ranch
Makura generates all the electricity it needs from solar panels, recycles its water in three large ponds with special plants to absorb microbes, composts leftovers and even employs Bio-Bees from Kibbutz Sde Eliyahu to fight off insects without pesticides.
All this is put to use on the farm's 400 acres, where Rilov grows eight varieties of olives, from which Makura produces 50,000 liters of olive oil a year. Most of the olives and oil are sold locally, although some is exported to Germany. Does Makura make a profit? Rilov, who has been a farmer for 35 years, says that's not the point. "It's become a way of life," he says.
A few miles south, also off Highway 4, is the Har Prachim organic farm. The name is a Hebrew translation from Blumenberg, which means "Flower Mountain." It's also the name of the farm's founder. There's not much to see here - it's mostly, well, a farm, with rows of cabbage, cucumbers, carrots and 17 other types of vegetables grown year round.
Local organic farms have taken off in Israel in recent years. Customers sign up with the farm and then, every week, receive a delivery box full of vegetables (and in the case of Har Prachim, also dairy products - hard and soft cheeses, milk and yogurt; the farm hosts 100 goats). With many of these community farms, you don't know what you're going to get in your box until it arrives. You may receive 10 squashes one week and after that, an abundance of avocado. So prepare to be flexible, not to mention creative.
The 500 customers of Har Prachim actually have to come to the farm to pick up their box, and they can choose what they want. This works well for off-the-beaten track tourists: a fruit and vegetable stand open to the public Mondays, Thursday and Friday mornings is located at the entrance to the farm and you can buy by the item. The Har Prachim staff will also cook up an organic breakfast for groups of 10 or more - call in advance.
As with all organic establishments, Har Prachim recycles its water and generates most of its electricity through solar cells. All products are kosher.
Continuing south, you run into the charming village of Zichron Yaakov, set high on a hill overlooking the sea. Zichron is the home of the venerable Carmel Winery
, which offers a tour, and also the lesser-known Pavo
micro-brewery (the name means "peacock" in Latin).
Pavo is the brainchild of Nachi Bargida, a long-time businessman who spent 22 years importing and exporting off-the-road and agricultural tires. Bargida was good at what he did, and at the age of 48, he decided to invest his own money ($1.5 million and growing, he says) into creating an organic micro-brewery with a German beerhouse ambience. You can sit outdoors and enjoy a band on Thursday nights, or tour the brewery itself. Pava opened at the end of 2010.
Bargida used his international travel experience to locate brewing machinery and expertise from a variety of countries with long beer experience in Europe. The brewhouse comes from Slovakia; the beer recipe itself was "reverse engineered" from one Bargida encountered in Bavaria. The most important ingredient in beer is actually water, Bargida explains. When he was starting out, he sent samples of the water to a lab in Germany. "They responded that the tap water here was not fit to clean a cat," he jokes. So the brewery built its own apparatus to distill the water.
There are five types of beer on tap. In addition, every month, Pava produces a special beer with a unique flavor; a favorite is the Indian-spiced beer with cardamom, Muscat flowers and saffron.
Pava's beers are sold at pubs and restaurants in the local Zichron Yaakov area and in Tel Aviv. You won't find them in the supermarket, although Bargida is working on a deal to distribute the beers at the Tel Aviv AM/PM chain. Pava produces 14,000 liters of beer a month. It's all strictly kosher with no sugar or artificial additives.
Bargida's motivation for building Pavo was not entirely about beer. "I wanted to show young people a different side to Israel, one that is not just conflict and holy sites," he says. He also had a more personal motivation. "After 22 years of constant travel, I wanted to be here, with my five children."
Chocolate and wine
Wine and chocolate tastings at Tishbi - an unbeatable combination
The last gustatory stop on your Carmel area tour is not organic but nevertheless delicious. The Tishbi boutique winery
, located in the small village of Binyamina, has been operating since 1984. A family business started by Jonathan Tishbi, it's now run by his grandchildren, including Golan Tishbi. Golan serves as the winemaker and gracious host at the winery's unique tasting room, which serves up high-quality wines and imported French Valrohan chocolate.
The 45-minute tasting pairs six wines with six chocolates in three glasses of various sizes. The wines range from dry white to a rich dessert Merlot, while the chocolates are each identified by which part of the world they hail from (there's a big difference in taste between Manjari chocolate from Madagascar and the Caribbean Caraibe) and the percentage of cocoa inside (up to 85%, as decadent as they come).
Tishbi instructs visitors to first break off a piece of chocolate and let it melt in their mouths before swirling the appropriate wine over the chocolate. You can wash the chocolate down with the wine (think of it as a very sweet pill) or swallow the chocolate afterward - just don't bite it! The larger the wine glass, the more of the fragrance you'll bring into the tasting experience. Tishbi says, after much trial and error, he's got the pairings down to a science (although some would argue it's more an arbitrary art).
Golan Tishbi's grandfather founded the Tishbi boutique winery.
The tasting costs NIS 30 (under $10). Tishbi winery has its own dairy restaurant right next door. Inside the eatery there are long butcher-block conference room-style tables; outside is more rustic, under a canopy of vines. Tishbi, which produces more than a million bottles of wine a year, sells its wares all over the world, and it's all kosher.
There's lots more to do in the Carmel: the Carmelim Tourism Board publishes a comprehensive map (in Hebrew only for now) that lists attractions from extreme sports (para-diving off the cliffs above Bonim Beach) to museums (the First Aliyah - wave of immigration - Museum in Zichron Yaakov) to a wide range of national parks with breathtaking views from the tops of the Carmel Mountain range.
And when you've had enough of hiking, skydiving or swimming, there's always more wine and chocolate waiting closer down to the ground.