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JewishJournal.com

September 21, 2006

A dessert wine with a healthy finish

Pomegranates?

http://www.jewishjournal.com/food/article/a_dessert_wine_with_a_healthy_finish_20060922

If you've been to the supermarket lately, you've probably noticed that the hottest trend in the food industry is pomegranate products.
 
Several years before the trend got started, a family in Israel's Upper Galilee region began working to create a tastier and healthier version of the ancient fruit, only to cross their way into yet another huge food market. Their product: the world's first pomegranate wine fit to be sold to international wine connoisseurs.
 
The story began ten years ago, when father and son Gaby and Avi Nachmias, the third generation of a farming family who were founding members of Moshav Kerem Ben Zimra in the Galilee, began experimenting to create a new strain of pomegranates. Understanding the fruit's excellent therapeutic qualities, their goal was to engineer a "super fruit" that would be richer in vitamins and antioxidants, sweeter, and deeper in its red color than most pomegranate types.
 
By 2003, after several years of growing their new strain successfully, the family tried making 2,000 bottles of pomegranate dessert wine from their crop. Everyone who tasted it loved it, the family says, and they built a production line the following year to produce dry and dessert wines in commercial quantities.
 
That batch was also well received, and the following year the family founded the Rimon Winery, named after the Hebrew word for pomegranate, and began producing en masse and for the local and international markets.
 
"In general, pomegranates don't have enough natural sugar to ferment into alcohol on its own," Leo Open, Rimon's director of international marketing, said. "In the past, some people have added alcohol to pomegranate juice to create a form of liquor, but no one has successfully made wine. Our pomegranates are the only ones in the world that have enough sugar to do so naturally."
 
Rimon's orchards also benefit from ideal pomegranate-growing terrain, on a plain of basalt-rich soil high above sea level, just a short distance from the Lebanese border. Starting this year, the company began featuring a product line that includes a dry wine, a dessert wine, a heavier port wine with 19 percent alcoholic content, and a rose wine.
 
The family also produces pomegranate vinegar and a line of cosmetics made with oils extracted from the fruit. The winery's main task for now is building sales, with a strong emphasis on overseas exports.
 
"Earlier this year, we started exporting to the Far East, and we are now in touch with people in the United States, Europe and even South America. Getting a product known is a slow process, and there is plenty of bureaucracy, and a long supply chain of importers and distributors to contend with," Open says.
 
"We're in the very first stages, but things are moving. We expect to be available in U.S. markets before the end of the year."
 
The progress occurred despite the Israel-Hezbollah war, which saw missiles landing near the family's orchard every day. Open says the company wasn't too concerned that an attack could destroy its orchard.
 
"We were committed to getting through this and moving forward," he says. "The situation was tough for all businesses in the North, but we continued to make contact with distributors."
 
Pomegranates are one of Israel's oldest indigenous fruit species, and were mentioned in the Bible's praises of the land 3,500 years ago. The fruit has a strong place in Jewish tradition, and many have the custom of eating pomegranates on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year.
 
The fruit also features prominently in ancient Greek mythology, and are commonly eaten at Greek weddings and funerals. Nowadays, the sweet and tart pomegranate has become one of the fastest growing trends in the food industry.
 
According to product data service Productscan, some 215 new pomegranate-flavored foods and beverages were brought to market in the first seven months of 2006, compared to just 19 for the whole of 2002. Pomegranate flavors are finding their way to everything from natural fruit juices to chewing gum and even sausages.
 
The rise in popularity stems partly from growing medical interest in the crimson fruit's health benefits. Pomegranates are naturally high in polyphenols, powerful antioxidants that are helpful in fighting a variety of health problems ranging from cardiovascular diseases and inflammation to certain types of cancer.
 
Studies have even begun suggesting that the fruit may even be helpful in alleviating menopausal and post-menopausal symptoms in women (pomegranate is the only plant known to contain estrogen) and erectile dysfunction in men. Couple that with their naturally high levels of vitamins A, B and C, calcium and iron, and it's no wonder the fruit is being touted as a health panacea.
 
And, Open notes, the antioxidant content of pomegranates is three times higher than that of red grapes.
 
Rimon Wineries stands to grab the coattails of the surge in international wine sales. That market has been growing strongly since the early 1990s, and Israeli wines in particular have been undergoing a "revolution" in recent years.
 
Both local consumption and exports of Israeli-made wines are growing at more than 10 percent a year, while the rise of quality boutique wineries around the country is helping to increasing international recognition. Pomegranate wine, which is kosher for consumption by religious Jews with none of the rabbinic stringencies of grape wines, looks to fit nicely into this niche.
 
The process of making pomegranate wine is similar to that of most grape wines.
 
The winery gathers the fruit's juices into large steel tanks to ferment for about a month, and then ages them in the same types of French oak barrels used by most wine producers before the product is bottled and sold. The only point where the pomegranates need special treatment is at the beginning of production, when a specially-designed machine opens the fruits and scoops out its edible seeds, crushing them for their juice.
 
"Like with all wines, the fermentation process is totally natural," Open says. That being said, pomegranate wines clearly belong to a different class than the typical reds and whites, and Rimon recognizes that the market has to treat it as such, Open says.  
"We consider it a fruit wine, definitely not a liqueur, and it has to be appreciated in this way."
 
He adds, however, that feedback has been very good from wine experts," especially in North America.
 
In Israel, Rimon wines cost about the same as most fine wines, at $15.50-$24.50 per bottle. Distribution costs will certainly cause a price markup when they hit U.S. shops, but Open declines to give a price range.
 
In any case, Rimon shouldn't have to worry about competition for many years. "We spent a long time developing this wine," Open says. "It will be very difficult for anyone else to try to imitate it."
 
Zev Stub is a freelance writer for ISRAEL21c, a media organization focusing on 21st century Israel.

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