Q&A: An Unlikely Source

The Middle East is making a splash in the steadfast world of wine with a new wave of producers from Israel, Lebanon, and Syria, proving that “New Old World” wines can compete with neighbouring Europe – certainly if character is anything to go by.

London based Chef Yotam Ottolenghi has long been a booster of Mediterranean and Middle Eastern flavours and his sommelier Gal Zohar is equally passionate about making the wines from this region known to the rest of the world. Zohar, 36, is based between Tel Aviv and London and was recently made responsible for curating the wine sold on Ottolenghi's new web store – a great starting point for anyone ready to explore these exciting new tipples.

How long have you been in the wine business?

Depends when you start counting... more than 15 years really. I started working as a barman at 18 years old but it wasn't really until the age of 21 that I put (almost) everything aside for wine.

What was your entry point?

Working in restaurants as a barman I was always more interested in coffee and wine than cocktails or spirits. But it all came together when I started working in a Spanish restaurant that had an underground cellar. I started organising it and learned as much as I could on each and every bottle. The whole thing was magical then and still is today.

What is it like working with Yotam Ottolenghi?

Yotam is great, a friend first and foremost. One of the most impressive things about him is that although so much has changed in his life since we first met, he hasn't changed a bit. Well, except the fact that he now might try (and even enjoy) an orange wine!

What do Israeli and Palestinian grown wines have to offer? Why should we try them?

Israeli and Palestinian wines have an awful lot to offer. Israeli wines are getting better by the hour, with the help of a group of young, talented and uncompromising winemakers. Whilst one has to accept that Israel is a warm country, it is also important to understand that with the right approach in the vineyards, intriguing and elegant wines can be made. Interesting reds are made from Mediterranean varietals, while Chenin Blanc and Semillion yield exciting and unusual results.

While I'm no expert on Palestinian wines, I recently had the pleasant surprise of tasting some wines from Cremisan. Located in BeitJalla near Bethlehem they focus on indigenous Palestinian varietals. The best of the lot was a white made from a blend of Hamdani and Jandali. Crisp, fresh and with a nice complexity to it, this white was very original and dangerously drinkable too.

The bottom line is I think both regions offer original wines that make the near perfect match to Mediterranean food.

What is the wine industry like in the Middle East?

It's growing every day with more and more drinkers happy to try something different and unusual, and that is also very local.

The only concern is that Israeli's still drink very little. So the wine culture is developing but it is now time to work on drinking culture as well.

What are your golden rules to selecting wine?

I will select a wine only if it is very delicious, it offers good or great value for money and it tells me a story.

Tell us something we don't know about wine tasting.

The earlier in the day, the better.

If you could only drink one bottle of wine for the rest of your life, what would it be?

Ageno from La Stoppa. A delicious orange wine. Full of brett but so delicious...