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Israel’s ‘flying chef’ touts Jewish state’s wines

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Israeli Consul General Joel Lion, left, with Egyptian Consul General Amin Meleika.

MONTREAL  — When he was growing up, Gil Hovav remembers there were two bottles of wine under the kitchen sink, beside the bottles of detergent.

“If you mistakenly drank the detergent, you really would not have noticed much difference. They tasted and smelled the same,” joked Hovav, one of Israel’s most popular food writers and TV cooking show hosts, who was recently in Canada under the auspices of the Israeli Foreign Ministry.

Hovav, born in Jerusalem in 1962, has witnessed a “revolution” in winemaking in Israel and he wants to share the good news with the world.

The ebullient Hovav is a great-grandson of Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, credited with the revival of Hebrew as a modern language, and the scion of an illustrious pioneering family.

He is devoting himself to the revival of the ancient vintner’s art and the education of Israelis in how to enjoy its fruits. He also wants Canadians to know that Israel is exporting very good wines these days.

“The Flying Chef,” as Hovav is called in Israel, was the special guest at a tasting of Israeli wines hosted by Consul General Joel Lion at his residence.

“Until the 1980s, there was really only one winemaker in Israel, Carmel, started by Baron de Rothschild, who established Israel’s modern wine industry.

“As he was French, he used French methods at his two wineries, near Haifa and in Rishon Letzion near Tel Aviv, but these methods were not best suited for the region.”

By the time Hovav was a boy, Israeli wine, mostly “factory” produced, had deteriorated to the point of being almost undrinkable, which probably explains why Israeli consumed very little of it.

The industry took a dramatic turn for the better around 1980 when some enterprising kibbutzniks went to California to learn modern viticulture and winemaking, he said.

Gradually, wineries began springing up throughout the country from the Golan Heights to the Negev Desert. The growth has been rapid in the past decade, he said. In 2000, there were 120 wineries; today there are 151 – most are kosher, but not all.

They range from industrial operations to boutiques, and even a few “garage” outfits are making decent wines and a range of grape varieties are being grown.

Hovav’s favourite comes from the Yatir winery owned by an observant Jew deep in the Negev, south of Beersheba, where the days are hot and the nights cold year-round.

“It’s a very Israeli wine, strong, not very polite, Californian with a French attitude.”

While in Montreal, Hovav was a guest on the popular Radio-Canada TV program Des kiwis et des hommes, which is shot at the Jean Talon Market. Hovav whipped up a spicy North African-inspired carrot salad, which he proclaimed as “reminiscent of the audacity, cheek and directness” of Israelis.

He’s actually not a trained chef, but a graduate in French literature from the Hebrew University, which came in handy while he was on the show.

A 2008 Yatir Cabarnet Sauvignon was among the wines sampled, and the general verdict was that this hearty, rustic vintage could stand up to the most assertive foods. It was the only wine tasted that is not yet available through the Société des alcools du Québec (SAQ).

Among the guests were two SAQ representatives, scouting possible additions to the provincially owned stores’ stock.  Israeli wines are selling quite well in Quebec, and not only in areas serving the Jewish community, they said, preferring not to be identified.

The wines, all of them kosher, which Lion generously poured, included a 2009 Ella Valley Chardonnay from the Judean Hills around Jerusalem, of which 700,000 bottles a year are produced.

This dry white is made by aging 75 per cent of the must in French oak, which gives its some character while allowing the fruitiness to come through the wood, said wine agent Gad Elbaz, who introduced it to the SAQ.

Also going down well was Ella Valley’s 2006 Merlot.

Another crowd-pleaser was a 2010 Tishbi Cabarnet/Petite Sirah from a coastal winery, south of the Carmel hills. Wine agent Elaine Blank revealed that this light-tasting vintage is a favourite of mega-real estate developer David Azrieli.

Its label – Segal’s – is unpretentious, but this distinctive Cabarnet Sauvignon is selling well throughout Quebec, said wine agent Harry Gross.

“We just don’t emphasize that it’s kosher [for the general market], because when people hear that, they think of Manischewitz, but that’s not the case anymore,” said Gross.

Sadly, the dégustation had to end, but it did so with a bang, offering a 2009 dessert Yarden Katzrin Chardonnay from the Golan Heights. Not the least bit syrupy, this golden nectar has a sparkling, almost effervescent quality.

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