Out of Golan: Deal ferments in wine capital of Middle East

GOLAN - In the January sunshine, high on the Golan Heights, a prize vintage is fermenting, while down in the visitors' centre, tourists queue for a 'taste of the promised land'.

If the politicians are to be believed the 'land' in question is promised no more. A deal is fermenting under which Israel may give some - or all - of the Golan Heights back to Syria, from which it captured the lands in 1967.

President Hafez al-Assad may not know it, but he stands to inherit one of the most modern wineries in the world. On the Golan's eastern-most flank nestle hundreds of acres of prime vineyards, planted by Israeli wine-growers, which, under any deal, are certain to be the first land returned to Syrian hands.

The wine-makers of the Golan, however, appear unperturbed by their uncertain future. Intoxicated, perhaps, with the success of their award-winning winery, they are expanding production, extending their vineyards, and promoting the Golan Heights as the wine capital of the Middle East.

The development of the Golan Winery has been an extraordinary enterprise, dreamt up by kibbutzniks who settled the Heights after the Six-Day War of 1967.

On a tiny industrial estate in the one-horse town of Kitzrin stands a full-blown California-style winery. The venture, begun 10 years ago, is shared by eight collective farms, all of which have vineyards.

In the grounds are 2,000- year-old stone carvings of grapes and grape leaves, relics of much earlier vintages, produced by the Jews who lived on the Golan before expulsion by the Romans.

Today their descendants use more sophisticated methods. The altitude of the vineyards, which ranges from 1,000 to 3,000 feet, creates micro-climates to suit different imported grape varieties, and the cold winters and dry summers are perfect for wine growing.

At harvest time in August the clatter of mechanical grape-pickers, chomping their way along the foothills of Mount Hermon, is the only sound heard after nightfall. The grapes must be harvested in darkness, when temperatures are low, to delay the start of fermentation until they reach the winery, 40 minutes away. The machines violently shake the greenery, going to within a few yards of the United Nations buffer zone which has kept Israeli and Syrian forces apart since the 1974 disengagement deal.

The Israelis cleared nearly 200 Syrian tanks from this area - known as the Valley of the Tears, the scene of a big battle - to cultivate prize Chardonnay and Sauvignon grapes, ideally suited to the volcanic soil.

The processing is assisted by the latest in wine technology - steel-clad vats and pneumatic presses are now as familiar to Golan tourists as the monuments to the dead of two recent wars. The timing is all. The grapes for rose wine must be left in their skins for just eight hours. In the warehouses the Sauvignon blanc and the Chardonnay ferment in imported oak barrels.

With an eye on the American kosher market, religious Jews must be specially employed for direct contact with the grapes and the winery's first harvest had to be left untouched.

Some connoisseurs criticise the artificial control of vintages. But the results have won world-wide acclaim and awards at the most prestigious festivals, even in France.

The demand for the wine is such that the winery has just announced a dollars 5m ( pounds 3.3m) expansion programme and six more vineyards are being dug.

Segev Yerovam, manager of the winery and a reserve tank commander, says he refuses to contemplate the worst. He is planning for growth. 'We should never give the land back. Syria doesn't need it; it is 2 per cent of Syrian land. We are not interested in compensation. We cannot be compensated for what we have achieved here. 'If we lose confidence customers will lose confidence in the wine,' he says. 'If we talk about it, it will happen. And anyhow, we don't know how long the negotiations will take. We cannot freeze everything now.'

The gauges on the presses may not know it yet, but time for the winery is running out. Yitzhak Rabin, Israel's Prime Minister, has signalled in recent weeks that he will trade vineyards for peace, thereby sealing the fate of the second brief flowering of Jewish Golan vines.