Israel tries to woo Quebecers with wine

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More and different types of wines from Israel are making their way gradually onto the shelves of Société des alcools du Québec (SAQ), but these often award-winning products still suffer from an image problem.

Roni Saslove, one of Israel’s leading wine experts, who was trained in Canada, was in Montreal recently to persuade Quebecers that Israeli wines are not only for Jewish consumers.

Israeli winemaker Roni Saslove, left, sips wine with Consul General Ziv Nevo Kulman and Jerry Adler, right, director of the Israeli Ministry of Tourism office in Canada. JANICE ARNOLD PHOTO

The SAQ now stocks 20 Israeli wines, but they are relegated to the kosher section, which means the average customer tends to pass them by.

Brought to Canada by the Israeli Ministry of Tourism, as part of a 10-city North American tour, Saslove uncorked about a dozen different labels at a tasting event hosted at the residence of Consul General Ziv Nevo Kulman on May 9.

Saslove is the daughter of Barry Saslove, the Ottawa native who made aliyah in 1967 and founded the Saslove Winery, one of the first boutique wineries in the country, in the Upper Galilee in 1998. Today, there are more than 350 small wineries, which are increasingly surpassing the 40 commercial wineries, in terms of quality.


About 20 per cent of production is exported, Saslove said, with the United States and Canada being the biggest markets.

Roni Saslove followed in her father’s footsteps, completing her education in winemaking at Brock University’s Niagara campus. After Saslove Winery was sold a few years ago, she ran a chic wine bar in Tel Aviv called The Tasting Room.

Now, she travels abroad to educate people on the ever-expanding selection of wines produced in Israel. Most, but not all, are kosher, and varietals like Syrah and Merlot are becoming more common. In fact, about 40 different grapes are now grown in Israel.

Gad Elbaz, head of IsraVin, an agency that’s promoting several Israeli wines and spirits in Quebec, said that when he started in 2006, there were only three Israeli wines at the SAQ, the sole legal distributor of wine in the province.

Today, 20 wines from a dozen wineries are listed in its catalogue, with Cabernet-Sauvignons, Chardonnays and blends making up most of the selection. They range in price from the Ben Ami Cabernet-Sauvignon 2016 for $16.05, to Domaine du Castel’s Petit Castel 2015 at $56.50.

By contrast, the Liquor Control Board of Ontario lists 59 Israeli wines.

“The number at the SAQ is likely to increase soon,” said Elbaz. “The SAQ is looking to increase its selection of kosher wines generally, and it tends to favour Israel because it is winning more awards internationally.”

Quebecers drink the most wine per capita in Canada, he said, “and they tend to be very open to new things. The name Israel evokes curiosity.” He’d like to see Israel under its own national heading at SAQ stores.

All of the Israeli wines at the SAQ are kosher, but, significantly, 13 are not mevushal, or pasteurized, Elbaz points out. Saslove agrees that “cooking” the wine, even momentarily, has a negative effect on taste and such wines don’t age well.

Mevushal kosher wine, however, has the advantage of not being rendered non-kosher if it is handled by anyone other than a shomer Shabbat Jew after it is opened – a necessity for restaurants and caterers.

Saslove said heating techniques are being developed that do less damage.

Among those gathered for the tasting was one of Quebec’s top wine connoisseurs, Jean Authier. He is the retired owner of La Pinsonnière, an internationally top-rated hotel in the Charlevoix region, which is renowned for its cuisine and its wine cellar. At its peak, Authier had 12,000 bottles, yet only a handful were from Israel, even though he stocked kosher wines for his many Jewish-American guests.

“We just don’t know about Israeli wines,” said Authier, who found the selections presented by Saslove a revelation.

Authier explained his no-nonsense rating system: no good, acceptable, very good. “Technically, these are good, and good for the price,” he declared.

Elbaz does not believe that politics influences the SAQ. “I have never heard from the SAQ that they won’t bring in wines because they are from Israel,” Elbaz said.

He travels to wine shows around Quebec and finds that most people don’t know much about Israeli wines. But Quebecers are open to learning about them, he added. “In 10 years, I have yet to hear anyone mention the boycott.”

Israel, of course, has an ideal climate for vineyards, plus fertile soil. “Israeli wines are distinguished by their concentrated flavour, depth of colour and slightly higher alcohol content,” he said. “Israeli winemakers are judicious in their use of oak; they do not want to mask those good flavours with a lot of wood.”

It’s a myth that you can’t get a good dry kosher wine, Saslove insisted.

The wines tasted, many of which are not available at the SAQ, came from all over the country – from the Golan Heights to the desert. Israel lays claim to the most southerly vineyards in the northern hemisphere, she said.