Everyone knows all about Jerusalem’s multitude of holy sites; historical places and interesting museums, but few people know that less than an hour’s drive away, visitors can enjoy a relaxing day touring boutique wineries and goat cheese farms set in scenery that rivals that of Provence or Tuscany.
The Judean hills surrounding Jerusalem are host to more than 25 wineries–almost all of them small, family-run operations that welcome visitors. (Recommended to call ahead to book your visit) The terrain of gently rolling hills and wide agricultural valleys filled with acres of vineyards will remind you that you’re in wine country.
Rent a car and head out west on the main Jerusalem-Tel Aviv highway. Before you go looking for fine wines, make a detour for arguably the best humous in Israel at any of the restaurants lining the road in the Israeli Arab town of Abu Ghosh. Swish it down with a sweet, cardamom flavored glass of Turkish coffee and your head and palate will be ready for the wine and cheese to follow.
Follow the brown signs to the 11th century Crusader Church in the center of the village for a look at some of the most finely preserved Crusader-era frescoes in the region.
Follow the signs out of Abu Ghosh toward Tel Aviv and at the gas station just before the entrance to Neve Ilan, take a moment to honor the king–at the Elvis Diner, where a giant gold-colored statue of Elvis in the parking lot stares down at curious visitors.
Back on the highway towards Tel Aviv, look for the Shaar Hagai interchange and the signs to Beit Shemesh. (Route 38) The majestic Eshtaol Forest will be on your right. Take a right at the Eshtaol junction onto Route 44 and look for the brown sign on the left to the Sculpture Road and the Tsora Lookout. Enjoy the scenic route that winds through the forest for about 6 miles and emerges on a small road that leads to the Mony (kosher) Winery at Dir Rafat Monastery. Members of the Artoul family will greet you and show you their vineyards as well as their small wine-making operation. Sample a few of the wines; browse the shelves filled with superb local olive oil, honey and olives and take your purchases outside to enjoy at one of the tables overlooking the vineyards and olive groves spread out in the valley.
Less than a mile down the hill is the Tzora Winery at Kibbutz Tzora. For 25 NIS visitors can taste the Shoresh or Neve Ilan wines, all grown with grapes from the kibbutz’s own estate. A selection of local cheeses and olives are on offer here too.
Drive back to the Eshtaol junction and onto Route 44 again. At the end of 44, make a left at the Nachshon Juntion onto Route 3. The moshav of Tal Shahar is at the first exit on the left. This is where you’ll find Shvil Eizim, a charming goat cheese farm and restaurant. Inside the moshav make a left at the first traffic circle and look for #18 on the left. It’s completely unmarked, but just drive down the driveway and you’ll arrive at the small farm. The selection of hard and soft goat cheeses is astonishing. They’re available to take home at the counter, but take the time to sit down at one of the white tables overlooking the bucolic view, and order a cheese platter or one of the outstanding dairy desserts.
After your meal, wander outside to see the goats who provided the basis for your culinary enjoyment before making your way back to Jerusalem.