#256 – September 4, 2013
With Rosh Hashana literally on our doorstop, I wanted to take this opportunity to wish you all a happy and sweet New Year, Shana Tova and a Ketiva Ve’Chatima Tova and best wishes for the coming year. May you, your families and loved ones all be blessed with health happiness and all that you wish for (including a kosher Château d’Yquem)! As you all know, I only write about wines that I enjoy, but to the extent I offended anyone over the past year with anything I did or said, within the context of this newsletter or otherwise, please know that it was not intentional and I hope you can forgive me for any such transgressions.
While obviously not a desirable situation, the thousands of years that the Jewish people have spent in exile (i.e. the Diaspora, otherwise known as galut), have resulted in an abundance of different customs surrounding much of the way we celebrate the Jewish Holidays. Rosh Hashana is no exception, and the list of different “symbols” consumed is vast and varied, including carrots, beets, leeks, fish, pomegranates and even the head of a sheep (tough to find in Manhattan). However for all the different customs, there is one theme that nearly attempts to fulfill – eating sweet foods so that the coming year will be a sweet one for all of us. These sweet foods run the gamut from the traditional honey we shmear on our challah and dip our apples into through the more esoteric meat and poultry many folks prepare with sweeter sauces and trimmings than usual. While I could regale you with tales of duck confit in sour-cherry sauce and cranberry brisket, this is Yossie’s Wine Recommendations and it wouldn’t really be a holiday without some truly terrific wines to help enhance the Chag.
Thankfully there continues to be an ever-increasing number of awe-inspiring kosher wines from which to choose, from delicate Pinot Noir and bracing Riesling through bold Cabernet Sauvignon and powerful Petit Verdot. However, in honor of Rosh Hashana and to ensure that we have an extra-sweet year, I wanted to talk about the crème de la crème – real dessert wines, complex, nuanced, with plenty of cellaring ability and downright delicious. Unfortunately there wines are not as popular as they should be, with newly sophisticated kosher wine drinkers shunning dessert/sweet wines as not quite good enough to spend real money on (à la dairy, fish and vegetable dishes in high-end restaurants). Part of the answer seems to derive from people’s stubborn association of kosher sweet wine with the likes of Manischewitz, Malaga or Bartanura’s infamously destructive blue-bottled Moscato D’Asti; as opposed to those delectably sweet yet sophisticated treats that contain enough acidity and depth to be enjoyed by the most sophisticated wine lover. As an added bonus, these are great wines to introduce non-wine drinkers to a more serious wine, as they are both sweet and accessible. While we can only fantasize about a kosher Chateau d’Yquem, there are an increasing number of kosher dessert wines from around the world that are more than worthy of your attention, palate and dollars. That said, they are among my favorite wines and I’m a sucker for any new dessert wine that comes to the market. While many of these wines are one-time purchases, given their somewhat lackluster quality, many are true hidden gems and most are small batch wines, adding to their rarity. Just to clarify, I am not talking about Concord, Malaga or even Moscato (about which you can read is prior satirical pieces here and here), but rather the really good stuff like Yatir’s hidden port made from Cabernet Sauvignon, the unfortunately discontinued Yarden Botrytis wine from the Golan Heights Winery and the Late Harvest Chardonnay from Shiloh winery.
While there are some bargains listed below, their scarcity and the required effort to produce many of these wines combine to make them a tad more expensive than your traditional red or white wines. However, I tend to use the various Jewish Holidays as a mini “Open That Bottle Night” (a tradition I have started to participate in on a monthly basis – more on that at a later date), finding the combination of the New Year, traditionally family-centric gatherings and tons of good food, to be a great excuse to crack open those really special (and typically expensive) bottles. So dig deep in your cellar for liquid gold and enjoy!
While all grapes contain sugar, the fermentation process undergone by the crushed grape juice as it converts to wine includes a process, whereby most of the grape’s natural sugar is converted into alcohol. In order to create a sweet dessert with enough alcohol and acidity to keep the wine from becoming flabby, a wine maker has a number of methods available. All of these can occur naturally without any intervention, but the wine maker also has a number of technological mechanics at his disposal to artificially recreate these natural occurrences under pristine conditions to best effect.
The common denominator for all these methods is that they increase the grape’s sugar levels by dehydrating the grape. The three most common methods are (i) leaving the grapes on the vines long past typical harvest (late-harvest wines), (ii) using frozen grapes (Icewine) or (iii) infecting the grapes with a fungus that sucks out the water (botrytis wines). An additional method involves fortifying the wine with additional alcohol during the fermentation process (thus stopping the fermentation of the remaining sugars) which gives us Port, and about which I have written previously in newsletter #124. I have briefly described these three methods below, and in honor of the Chag, provided tasting notes for some of my favorites in each category.
Of the three methodologies mentioned above, the easiest to produce are “late-harvest” wines. As may be inferred from their name, the sweetness in these wines is obtained by harvesting the grapes later than usual (usually early fall). At that point, the sugar level (or brix) is around 24-27% going up to 40% for some very late-harvested wines (the higher the brix, the sweeter the wine). Riesling is one of the most popular grapes used to make late-harvest wine, with good examples being the Teperberg Silver or Hagafen’s multiple late harvest White Riesling wines. Chardonnay and Gewürztraminer are two other popular grapes used for this purpose, with many of the Israeli versions utilizing Gewürztraminer as the preferred varietal.
Eiswein, or Icewine, is made from naturally or artificially frozen grapes. As the water in the grapes freezes, the sugars are concentrated in the remaining residue that is then pressed from the frozen grapes. This process results in significantly concentrated natural flavors and residual sugar. Unlike the Sauternes wines described below, grapes used to produce Icewine are typically botrytis-free, resulting in clean and pure fruit flavors with refreshing sweetness and tempering high acidity. Natural ice wines require a very cold freeze, which is sometimes governed by law (e.g. Canada requires -8C° or colder and Germany’s laws stipulate a freezing temperature of at least -7C°), and which must occur after the grapes are ripe. This means that the grapes may hang on the vines for several months following the normal harvest. As with most dessert wines, there is a risk involved (which, in addition to the lowered yield, is a substantial contributor to the higher prices for these wines). If the freeze does not come quickly enough, the grapes may rot and the crop will be lost. If the freeze is too severe, no juice can be extracted. As a result, natural harvests for ice wine are relatively rare (and very expensive). While in Austria, Germany and Canada, by law the freeze must occur naturally to be deemed ice wine, in many other countries (including Israel) cryoextraction (mechanical freezing) is used to simulate the effect of a freeze which allows the grapes to hang for far less extended periods. This is how Yarden’s Heightswine is made.
One of the most famous types of dessert wines is Sauternes, which are grown in the Sauternes district of Graves in southern Bordeaux and primarily produced from the Sémillon grape. The most famous of these wines is Chateau d’Yquem (pronounced d’ee kem) which is the only wine Sauternes to receive the elite Premier Cru Supérieur classification and one of whose wines holds the current record for the most expensive single-bottle of white wine ever sold (a 1811 Château d’Yquem at $117,000). The most famous aspect of these wines is that they are infected with Botrytis Cinerea, a fungus also known as the “Noble Rot”. In addition to draining the water from the grape, the fungus adds a distinct character to the wine, resulting in flavors of honey, heather and sunshine. These wines are very labor intensive as the grapes are hand-picked, sometimes over a long period, in order to ensure that only infected grapes are selected and, as a result, yields are exceedingly low resulting in very expensive wines (d’Yquem wines from certain vintages can go for up to $10,000 a bottle). Part of d’Yquem’s greatness is its extreme longevity, as bottles from 1893 are supposedly drinking well and as they age, these wines grow deeper, darker and more mature. As a result, among kosher wines, Sauternes is one of your best bets for long-term cellaring (together with Yarden’s Katzrin wines). In Israel, botrytis is found only sporadically and was only used naturally once – in the near mythical Yarden Late Harvest Sauvignon Blanc of 1988. I had the opportunity to taste this magnificent wine once, a number of years ago, and could never locate a bottle for sale. Yarden’s Noble Semillon (tasting note below) is made by infecting the grapes with the botrytis fungus in a controlled indoor building within the winery. However, as I alluded to above, this wine was discontinued with the 2007 vintage due to the extreme efforts required to make the wine and lack of corresponding appreciation among kosher wine aficionados. Many other wineries use small amounts of botrytis-infected grapes in their late-harvest wines. In addition to those from Sauternes, some other known botrytis wines include those from Barsac or the Aszú wines of Tokaj Hungary. Sauternes is a founding member of the perfect food-pairing club, matching so well with Foie Gras that one can’t help but wonder why we bother eating anything else at all.
Below are a number of highly recommended wines made using the three various methodologies described above (with a few new Port and Port-styled wines thrown in for good measure), all of which are classic choices to grace your Rosh Hashanah table. Given with their intense sweetness, typically higher price and appropriateness as a stand-alone dessert, these wines are regularly sold in half (i.e. 375 ml) or slightly larger (i.e. 500 ml) sized bottles.
Binyamina, Reserve, Gewurztraminer, Late Harvest Cluster Select, 2010: I first tasted the 2008 vintage of this wine while visiting Israel and loved it! Like Carmel’s Sha’al dessert wine, some (approximately 20%) of the grapes were infected with botrytis to great effect. A rich, ripe and luscious full-bodied wine with plenty of candied apricots, peaches, sweet citrus and dried fruit, some lychees, heather and honey all tempered by a hint of spiciness and good acidity that kept the richness in check and brighten up the palate substantially together with a hint of that delightful funk brought on by the botrytized grapes. Drink now through 2018, maybe even longer
Carmel, Single Vineyard – Sha’al, Late Harvest Gewürztraminer, 2009: An extremely well made wine with great balance between the sweetness and bracing acidity and a marked improvement over the already amazing 2006 vintage. While not a botrytis wine per se, approximately 20% of the grapes used in the wine were infected with the noble rot, giving it hints of heather and honey on the palate. Very concentrated with upfront sweetness, this one’s not afraid to come out swinging. You will find tingling spiciness and varietaly typical lychee fruits on the nose and palate along with apricots, peaches, kumquats and honeysuckle, with hints of honey and citrus on the lingering finish. A definite keeper that will cellar nicely for eight years or so.
Hagafen, Prix Vineyards, Napa Valley Late Harvest Chardonnay, 2006: Part of the “Prix Club” by Hagafen, this wine is simply amazing!! At this point, dark golden color and full-bodied with a near-viscous quality on the palate, this wine is made from Chardonnay grapes and the botrytis elements are felt throughout this wine. A very sweet wine but with enough acidity to keep the sweetness (resulting from the 18% residual sugar) from overpowering the wine and its aromas and flavors. On the nose apricots, citrus, apple orchards freshly “wet” from a summer rain, floral notes, and hints of caramel, spices and vanilla which follow through onto a delightful palate of sugar, more apples, limes all with intense hints of heathery botrytis onto the relatively long finish with plenty of controlled oak notes. The wine is drinking nicely now and should cellar for another two years or so, maybe longer (while nearly all my bottles seem to be doing well, I have heard declining reports on this wine from others so proceed to cellar at your own risk).
Golan Heights Winery, Yarden, Heightswine, 2009: I love this wine, which has been an annual, and consistent hit for the Golan Heights Winery since the first year it was produced. The name “Heightswine” is a play on its origin (the Golan Heights) and production method (creating Icewine); as the winery utilized cryoextraction to manually freeze the grapes in the winery as opposed to the natural occurrence of such freezing in colder climates. A rich and satisfying dessert wine made from Gewürztraminer grapes, producing aromas and flavors of honey, tart green apples, apricots and other dried summer fruits, slightly spicy candied ginger, tinged with pleasant and not overwhelming spices, with plenty of acidity keeping things lively and a long caressing and slightly creamy finish. Well worth trying.
Tzora, Or, 2008: The 2006 Or was Eran’s first wine that was all “his” and the 2008 is a limited edition wine (1625 bottles) that is only sold at the winery and was made in the “icewine style”. Made from 100% Gewurztraminer grapes from the Shoresh vineyard and with a surprisingly low 13% alcohol level, this medium bodied wine is loaded with rich notes of tropical fruit including pineapples, mango and guava with a nice note of pear, together with honey and heather, some lychee notes and a pleasing, characteristically-true, spiciness. The wine has enough acidity to keep the sweetness in check and light mineral undertones that add some additional complexity to this deliciously sweet treat. The 2011 is the current release but the 2008 is perfect right now and among my top dessert wines period. Drink now through 2018 [Shmittah].
Château Piada, Sauternes, 2006: 2001 was a brilliant year for Sauternes, and for many years, the 2001 vintage of this wine was my go-to “special” dessert wine (until I was introduced to the fabulous (with a price tag to match) Chateau Guiraud listed below) and I was happy to lay my hands on a bottle of the 2006 vintage which is nearly as good. A deliciously sweet wine that caresses you at every turn. On both the nose and palate you get long lingering notes of dried apricots, sugared almonds, citrus and a slight hint of white chocolate all balanced by great structure and bracing acidity. An extremely long finish with the typical botrytized honeyed toasted white bread flavor. Drinking amazingly well now, it should continue to cellar nicely for an additional eight years.
Golan Heights Winery, Yarden, Botrytis (Noble Semillon), 2007: The latest (and last) vintage of Yarden’s top dessert wine is full bodied and layered, loaded with the deep honey flavors typical of botrytis, a spicy background to keep things interesting and packed with bracing acidity that keeps the abundant sweetness from overwhelming the palate. Good botrytis funk together with heather, honeysuckle, marzipan, orange peel, lemon and subtle tropical fruit combine for a delightfully aromatic and rich wine with delightful hints of warm spices and a touch of crème brûlée, all leading into a long lingering finish (helpful at a half-bottle size). As opposed to the other botrytis wines listed here which contracted the fungus naturally on the vine, this wine was manually infected in a controlled environment at the winery. Enjoyable now, but will develop additional layers of complexity and should be at its best in a few years, after which continue to enjoy through 2020 (luckily there is plenty of the 2005 and 2006 for us to enjoy while we wait).
Chateau Guiraud, Sauternes 1er Cru, 2001: One of the best kosher Sauternes available and in my opinion, one of the best kosher dessert wines out there period! This dark, honey colored wine is loaded with aromas and flavors of peaches, apricot, apples, limes, clementines, all with a botrytis honeyed background and a tingling spiciness. Relatively thick on the tongue but in no way flabby and with a long lingering finish, this is a treat to be savored, as every sip will make you jump for joy as layer after layer of flavor presents itself. At its prime now, this wine should cellar nicely for another ten years at least. For some reason, the 1999 vintage is easier found and is a-l-m-o-s-t as good.
Chateau de Fesles, Bonnezeaux, 1997: In addition to the dessert wines from the famed Sauternes and Barsac regions, wines from Bonnezeaux can produce magnificent specimens of botrytis wines as well. This sensuous wine from the Layon Valley is more intensely sweet than typical Sauternes like the Guiraud above, but contains plenty of bracing acidity to rein in the abundant sweetness. Wonderful notes of nectarines, pineapple, white peaches, vanilla and honey along with hints of licorice. An awesome match to some of my all time favorite foods – Foie Gras, fruit tarts, salty cheeses or duck à l’Orange. Delicious now, I’d drink any remaining bottles in the next 1-2 years, as it probably doesn’t have much more peak cellaring time left (I finished my last, oh-so-magnificent bottle at a wine dinner a few weeks ago).
Domaine Netofa, Fine Ruby Port, 2010: As Port-styled wines sweep the nation, with more and more wineries jumping on the bandwagon of sweet dessert wines; Netofa launched a 2010 Ruby port with class and elegance. While there remain only two kosher Ports (i.e. made in the Douro region of Portugal) – Royal’s Porto Cordovero and the newly launched Porto Quevedo – both nice), the number of Port-style wines is growing exponentially. A blend of 80% Touriga Nacional (a varietal the kosher world has been seeing more often, including in the Yarden T2 and T2 wines and the Shirah Coalition) and 20% Tinta Roriz (a/k/a Tempranillo) with 20% alcohol, this is rich, deep and delicious dessert wine, that gets even better after it has been open for a few days. Aged in new French oak for two years, the wine presents with cloves, other warm spices, dates, chocolate, stewed plums, raisins, roasted nuts and with just enough acidity to keep things upbeat and long luscious lingering (say that three times fast) finish. Expect a four-year aged (“Vintage”) port to be released next year (along with a new vintage Ruby Port).
Quevedo, Ruby Port, n.v.: At under $20 and delicious, this wine is a YH Best Buy to boot! Made from a blend of typical Portuguese grapes including Touriga Nacional (30%), Touriga Franca (25%), Tinta Roriz (15%), Tinto Cão (5%) and Tinta Barroca (5%) (with the remaining 20% fleshed out with a host of other varietals). Made by a relatively new house founded in 1991, the family has winemaking traditions going back decades. While not a highly sophisticated Port, nor as complex as the Porto Cordovero LBV (2004), it is delicious and was very much enjoyed by the entire table – wine aficionados and “newbies” alike (an easy-drinking Port if you will). Plenty of bright red fruit on both the nose and rich palate with hints of dates, hazelnut, spices, vanilla and crème brûlée with some nice dark chocolate, more spices and ripe currants on the lingering finish. This improves massively over time; so open the bottle a few days before you plan to serve it for best effect.
Yatir, Fortified Cabernet Sauvignon, 2005: Despite having been tasted and reviewed by the late Daniel Rogov, I somehow missed this wine and was surprised to learn of its existence only eight months ago. Given the winery’s reputation, I did however jump at the opportunity and acquired the last six bottles the winery had without first tasting the wine – a rare occurrence for me but one that certainly paid off with the delicious and relatively rare wine. Made from 100% Cabernet Sauvignon that was fortified with brandy and aged in neutral oak barrels for approximately eight months, the full-bodied wine is simply dark and delicious. Plenty of sweet berries, prunes, hazelnuts, lavender on the slightly oxidized nose with much of the same on the robust and sweet full-bodied palate, where they are joined by dark espresso coffee beans, rich bittersweet chocolate and still integrating tannins that lend the wine plenty of power, stability and character, all balanced by plenty of acidity holding the sweetness very much in check. Delightful.
#256 – September 4, 2013