NEVE ILAN, Israel - In the rolling pine-covered hills west of Jerusalem, winemaker Eran Pick checks on the vines he cultivates, plying an ancient trade which has been common to the area since biblical times.
"For 3,000 years wine has been produced in these hills," says Pick, 40, who is trained in a mix of New and Old World winemaking and worked in California and Bordeaux before joining Tzora Vineyards.
Established in 1993, Tzora was one of Israel's first boutique wineries - defined as those which produce fewer than 100,000 bottles per year.
"We have renewed this tradition in order to make a typically Israeli wine which will be at the level of the world's best wines," he says.
The vineyard produces 80,000 bottles annually, of which 15,000 are sold abroad.
Its output accounts for just a fraction of the 40 million bottles Israel produces each year from its 350 wineries, the vast majority of which are boutique enterprises.
Sales of Israeli wines bring in between US$300 (S$397) and US$350 million per year, around 10 per cent of which comes from overseas exports, according to wine expert Gabriel Geller.
The main importers are the United States, Britain and France.
According to French wine expert Marc Dworkin, Israel is "a small country where each wine-producing region is more interesting than the last." Geller says the quality of Israeli wines has changed markedly in recent years.
"It's a slow process but one that is constantly growing," he says.
"In recent years Israeli wines have been winning competitions all over the world."
Pioneered by Rothschild
Wine has been produced in the Holy Land for millennia but local production underwent a revival at the end of the 19th century, thanks to Baron Edmond James de Rothschild, a French Jewish billionaire philanthropist who owned the iconic Chateau Lafite in Bordeaux.
Rothschild planted the first major modern vineyard at Rishon LeTzion near Tel Aviv in 1882, establishing the Carmel Winery, which today produces more than 25 million bottles a year and holds a major share of the domestic market.
A century later, the Golan Heights Winery was founded. With the help of international experts, the winery began to innovate, shifting away from Israel's image as a producer of sweet wines for use in religious rites.
Within a decade, as Israelis began travelling overseas more frequently, getting a taste for French and Italian gastronomy and wine, the first boutique wineries were set up, although by the turn of the century, there were only about a dozen.