Ella Valley, Israel, for wine lovers

Ella Valley Winery in Israel

Edan Barulfan sings the praises of wine production that is supposedly located where David triumphed over Goliath. See this guide to all the entries in our travel writing competition that have been published so far.

Early morning, late August; crouching between the vines of the Ella Valley, a small corner of the Israeli Judean Foothills wine region, I admire the ripe, tasty, purple-red grapes hanging on to the just picked cluster. Hand-picking the grapes besides me are teenagers on summer vacation sweating for some extra pocket money, a group of Palestinian workers from the village just across the border, and Shaike, supervising the whole operation. It is almost a decade now since I began harvesting grapes in this lovely, ancient wine-producing valley with my winemaker friends Lori and Shaike Lender for their boutique Zafririm Winery.

Ella Valley is splendidly located only a short drive between Israel's biblical capital Jerusalem, and modern, bustling, lively Tel-Aviv. The valley lies about 330 metres above sea level, enveloped by hills gently ascending no more than 100 metres from the valley floor. Ella is a triangular shaped valley stretching east to west, narrow and quite small, no more than seven kilometers long and varying between two km wide at its widest eastern side, to only 500 meters at the confined western entrance.

The valley is drained by a few wadis – dry riverbeds containing water only when heavy rain occurs, the Ella river being the main tributary. The rolling hills bordering the valley on the south are part of the Adulam-France National Park, introducing unadulterated beauty; natural woodlands, venerable oaks, picturesque vales, remnants of ancient villages and a network of underground caves.

The soil here is mostly shallow and stony brown rendzina, with varying amounts of clay and chalk. Moisture is preserved well into the spring and the beginning of summer. Annual precipitation is about 420 mm, none of it throughout the summer months, so vineyards are irrigated.

The Ella Valley is quite a warm environment; some would define it as too warm for growing quality grapes, although local wine proposes a different point of view. Daily temperatures in high summer often reach 34 degrees Celsius and may even surpass this quite frightening figure. However, due to its layout, the valley serves as a funnel, in the early mornings drawing in cool air sliding down from the much higher Judean Hills to the east, and in the evenings, sucking the cooler Mediterranean sea breeze from the west. This enables a large margin between day and night temperatures, with the latter averaging about 17 degrees in mid-summer, thus cooling the grapes and providing them with fortitude for the next intense day. Grapes are harvested late at night, usually around midnight, having already cooled down, or soon after dawn, before the big heat arrives.

The Ella Valley is also of great historical interest and importance. This is where young David slayed giant Goliath with only a slingshot in hand; here is the site where in 634 AD the Muslim conquerors defeated the Byzantine army and invaded the heart of the land, en route to Jerusalem. This is also the terrain in which brutal battles where fought during Israel's 1948 War of Independence. Within the valley and around it are many archaeological sites and mounds concealing long-forgotten settlements. A considerable amount of ancient wine presses serve as a reminder of a rich past of local viticulture.

Entering the valley you will hardly see any vines. Vineyards are planted off route 375 that runs through the valley, mostly along the dry riverbeds where grapes can enjoy the cool air streams rising up from the sea and descending down the mountains. The contrast between the cool mountain air and the warm valley often accounts for early morning fogs settling down and enabling the struggling grapes an important extra hour or so of respite from the scorching sun.

And there is wine, good wine. Most local wine is red; mainly from Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and Petit Sirah (Durif). The main white wine varieties are Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon. The valley's wine renaissance is actually a short story, beginning during the 1990s with the establishment of a handful of boutique wineries. Currently there are over a dozen, the majority being small, boutique family operations laid out in the moshavim (co-operative agricultural communities) and the sole kibbutz (collective community) of the Ella Valley. Most winemakers here, infatuated with their little wine heaven, confine themselves to grapes grown in and around the valley. Wine styles may vary, much like the personalities of their creators.

The valley may be warm, and it is definitely heartwarming. Nothing here seems fancy or extravagant, and this is the true magic and enchantment of the Ella Valley. The first impression is of simplicity and modesty; most of the moshavim wineries are actually former agricultural sheds situated alongside the owners' family homes, converted into small production and visitor areas which during harvest serve as working places as well. Be not confused however. Underneath this facade of unpretentiousness lie professionalism and thoroughness. As often is the custom in similarly minute wine regions, winemakers share data, ideas, knowhow and even equipment, and with harvest arriving, workers from different wineries work the vineyards simultaneously, or successively.

The atmosphere and welcome are always warm and generous. Most Ella Valley winemakers actually have day jobs. Shaike of Zafririm is an archaeologist, so it is no surprise he names his wine blends after local ruins. Leah Mettler is an artist and cartoonist, and Peter Marck of Hadar winery is lead contrabass player of the Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra; Gadi Sternbach owner of the eponymous winery is a former tour operator; Dr Amos Barzilay of Kela David is the local vet; and Moshe and Ann of Yaffo met and fell in love with wine as well as with each other, in Alsace. So there are numerous topics of conversation to share.

The wineries

Since some of the wineries are open only at weekends or by arrangement in advance, you would be well advised to make a call or send an email before visiting.

Ella Valley of Kibbutz Netiv HaLamed-Heh, is the largest wine operation in the area, producing about 300,000 bottles a year. The winery offers a lovely courtyard and tasting room (pictured top right) overlooking the adjacent barrique hall.

On the hills opposite is Moshav Neve Michael hosting two wineries:

Yaffo – first making wine in Jaffa (Yaffo in Hebrew), an old Tel Aviv quarter by the Mediterranean, Ann and Moshe later moved their home and winery here, enabling them to process their grapes as close as possible to the vineyards.

Roglit is a small, young, family winery. The wines are crafted in a small 60-year-old cellar, and tastings are carried out in the garden behind the family house, overlooking the vineyards surrounding the Ella wadi.

Moshav Givat Yeshayahu situated at the southwestern tip of the Ella Valley houses no fewer than four wineries, and actually more if you include a few more home ones:

Hans Sternbach is one of the veterans of Ella Valley winemaking. His sustainably grown grapes are planted in narrow Haklil Valley at the valley's western aspect. The establishment also presents an organic fruit and vegetable garden, a restaurant and a venue for small events.

Sphera is an oddity in its neighborhood, producing only white wines. The owner Doron Rav Hon is one of Israel's most esteemed winemakers. The modern winery building and visitors’ center offer a prestigious and polished experience.

Adulam is owned by a family of experienced vignerons who eventually decided to share their home winemaking experience. The small winery is surrounded by vineyards and olive groves.

Kela David (David's slingshot) is in a Tuscan-style building amidst the vineyards. The owner Dr Amos Barzilay discovered wine and cheese during his veterinarian studies in Italy and on return to Israel fulfilled his dream of producing them.

Zafririm, adopting the village name, is situated just a few kilometers uphill from Givat Yeshayahu. American-born Lori Lender and her husband Shaike, joint owners and winemakers, specialise in well-crafted blends that demand food.

Srigim is yet another location named after its village. The owner Uriel Harari, a tour guide by occupation, came to make wine through love of nature and the land. His wines are known for aging gracefully.

Moshav Agur with its three wineries is located a short way west of the valley along route 375. Though geographically not an integral part of the Ella Valley, it has quite similar terroir.

Agur was one the first wineries founded in the area and its wines are almost as colorful as their maker Shuki Yeshuv, a well-known advocate for terroir-expressive wines. All wines are blends. Each plot and variety fermented separately.

Hadar Loyal to the owner's profession and expertise as a musician, the winery often holds concerts and performances, accompanied by wines made from the estate's vineyard.

Mettler is a family farm growing grapes and other fruits, offering wine, home-brewed beer, meals, and romantic accommodation that faces the beautiful scenery of the valley below.