A Walk Down Memory Lane (Personal Israeli Milestone Wines)

#213 – April 26, 2012

As many of you know, today is Yom Ha’Atzmaut – Israel’s 64th Independence Day – Happy Birthday of Israel  On a personal front, Yom Ha’Atzmaut caps the most emotionally tumultuous period of the year for me, other than the Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur & Succot period which contains a similar dramatic shift between the serious, uplifting and joyous (though without the wrenching sadness).  During a period of time stretching just over a week long, we had Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day), Yom HaZikaron (Israel’s Memorial Day) and today’s Yom Ha’Atzmaut.  The dramatic shifts from the terrible sadness and promises of “Never Again” of Yom HaShoah to the honoring of those of gave their lives in defense of Israel on Yom HaZikaron to Yom Ha’Atzmaut’s joyous happiness can be somewhat jarring, even to those who have spent their entire life experiencing this roller-coaster week of emotional occasions.  However, as with many other Israeli experiences, the extremity of our emotions is what helps make Israel and the Israelis that populate it, the incredible and unique country we all love.

In honor of Israel’s birthday and greatly inspired by Adam Montefiore’s delightful article in this week’s Jerusalem Post (link at the end of the email), I have listed a bunch of great Israeli wines that represent personal milestones for me in my very enjoyable journey along Israel’s wine revolution.  While the list may seem a bit long to some of you, it is nowhere close to encompassing all the incredible Israeli wines I have enjoyed over the 20-odd years I have been enjoying Israeli wine and been on hand to personally witness the resurgence of the Israeli wine industry which is gradually taking its rightful place among the great emerging wine-producing regions of the world.  I note that this list is truly personal and focuses on these wines that are meaningful to me for one reason or another as opposed to the wines that have won medals or brought international fame to them or the industry as a whole (although many of the wines listed accomplished that as well).  Most of these wines are so special that I remember them and their impact from years ago without the need for any notes whatsoever.  That said, as one would expect given the paucity of great Israeli wines in the earlier years, a number of these mirror those listed by Adam in his article.

Looking over the list I noticed that the Golan Heights Winery is a clear stand-out with multiple wines to its credit.  Given it’s position as Israel’s top winery, this isn’t surprising, especially due to its extreme success in producing the largest number of truly ageable wines.  Also, recent vintages represent a large chunk of this list, representing the massive increase in Israeli wine making innovation taking place over the last five years or so.

Given that sharing both wine and related experiences is probably one of the most enjoyable aspects of being a wine lover, I’d love to hear from you which bottles of Israeli wine represent your own personal Israeli wine milestones.

Carmel, Special Reserve, Cabernet Sauvignon, 1976:  This was Israel’s first “real” wine and, for some folks, it lasted nearly two decades.  I had the pleasure of enjoying a bottle in 1990 and, while I didn’t have sufficient comparative wine tasting experience at that time to fully appreciate its greatness, it was a delicious and memorable bottle at the time it was enjoyed, only a few years after I started really “getting into wine (at the age of 16).  I still have the empty bottle!

Golan Heights Winery, Yarden, Cabernet Sauvignon, 1985:  The earliest vintage of Israel’s iconic and benchmark wine that I had the pleasure of tasting.  The first vintage was in 1984 (which was also the wine which won a number of important international awards and really first placed Israel on the international wine map (a process that we are still working on nearly 30 years later)).  For decades this wine, together with the Katzrin whose first vintage was 1990 – see below, was the only Israeli wine capable of long term aging and even today, it remains a reliable ageable wine and the benchmark against which most Israeli Cabernet Sauvignon wines are measured and priced (although, as discussed on multiple occasions, recent years have seen a new trend among Israeli winemakers away from it’s style).

Golan Heights Winery, Yarden, Late Harvest Sauvignon Blanc, 1988:  The only Israeli wine to ever be naturally effected by botrytis and a unique milestone in Israel’s incredible vinographic history.  I got to taste the wine only once, and was  equally overwhelmed by its historical importance and deliciously unique taste.

Golan Heights Winery, Yarden, Katzrin, 1990:  Israel’s first “Super Israeli”, which instantly became Israel’s ‘best’ wine, a title it held for many years (and many would say, still holds today).  I recently had a bottle of this wine from the 1990 vintage and, as you can see, it was still drinking quite nicely boding quite well for the ageability of subsequent vintages (in 1993, 1996, 2000, 2003, 2004 and 2007).

Chateau de Fesles, Bonnezeaux, 1997:  I didn’t “discover” this wine until I moved to NYC in 2004, but rapidly learned of it’s excellence and tried to stock up on it given its amazing reputation and ability for long-aging, despite its expensive cost (well-stored bottles likely still have a few years ahead of them).

Dalton, Reserve, Cabernet Sauvignon, 1997:  For a few years, this was my go-to high-end Cabernet Sauvignon, which provided many happy memories and delightful vinous experiences placing Dalton on a favored winery list.  Subsequently, the quality of Dalton deteriorated for a few years before coming back with a vengeance and transforming into the incredible winery we have today.

Golan Heights Winery, Yarden, Blanc de Blanc, 1998:  Though the current 2005 release may be my favorite vintage of this wine, surpassing even the terrific 1999 version I loved so much (not only because it was my anniversary year wine), the 1998 was the first vintage sparkling wine I experienced and it held a special place in my heart for many years.

Golan Heights Winery, Yarden, Cabernet Sauvignon, 1999:  Significant only on a personal level as 1999 is the year I got married and this wine is the only living Israeli wine from that vintage that Ayala and I enjoy every year on our anniversary.  While still drinking well, it is starting to get a little long in the tooth and it will soon be time to switch to one of the few other [French] kosher wines from that vintage that are still alive.

Tishbi, Special Reserve, Single Vineyard Ben Zimra, Cabernet Sauvignon, 1999:  Released together with two other single vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon wines from the same vintage (from the Sde Boker and Kfar Yuval vineyards) proving an innovation of single vineyard releases and amazing comparative tasting experience together with some nice aging ability.

Bustan, Merlot, 2000:  Among my first experiences of a boutique-winery wine, enjoyed during the initial stages of the boutique craze that overtook Israel during the 1990s.  Despite being released in small quantities, Avi Ben always had a good stock and they turned me onto this winery early on, a passion that has continued to this day, despite the “failure” of the wines to take hold here in the United States.

Carmel. Single Vineyard Ramat Arad, Cabernet Sauvignon, 2000:  Honestly, despite all empirical evidence to the contrary, this wine seemed to live forever and, for quite some time, was one of Israel’s best kosher wines for those in the know.  I got much pleasure from having enjoyed this on release, subsequently purchasing a number of bottles and enjoying its development over the years.

Galil Mountain, Yiron, 2000:  The first released vintage of this ubiquitous wine that reined as Israel’s primary QPR wine for years, easily providing the most wine for your shekels.  While it is no longer the only great wine at a decent price, it remains a contender even after a decade of potential competition.

Tabor, Meshcha, 2001:  A delicious wine that put Tabor on the quality wine making map and kept it there for a few years, unfortunately recently (in my opinion), falling from grace.

Golan Heights Winery, Yarden, Noble Semillon, Botrytis, 2001:  I believe this was one of Israel’s first botrytis wines after the magnificently unique 1988 one noted above, albeit made from late harvested grapes manually exposed to botrytis in the winery as opposed to naturally occurring botrytis as in the 1988 version.  In any event, a delightful dessert wine that instantly became and remains a personal favorite, with the most recently released vintage being from 2006.

Golan Heights Winery, Yarden, Single Vineyard Elrom, Cabernet Sauvignon, 2001:  At release, and maybe even still today, the best Cabernet Sauvignon ever made in Israel and the beginning of Israel’s “Single Vineyard” craze (although Tishbi had already championed and produced such wines with the 1999 vintage) which continues to be lead today by the Golan Heights Winery (although too much leading may not necessarily a good thing) accompanied by Carmel, Segal (with their delightful Dishon vineyard releases) and a few other wineries.

Castel, Grand Vin, 2002:  The first kosher release from the winery, which had been garnering international acclaim since Serena Sutcliffe of Sotheby’s “discovered” it in 1992.  For 2002, Castel produced a kosher and non-kosher version (the first kosher Petite Castel and “C” chardonnay did not arrive until the 2003 vintage); thereafter going “completely kosher”, and the rest is history.

Yatir, Yatir Forest, 2002:  While the 2003 vintage of this wine was arguably a “better wine”, the 2002 was the first vintage I tasted (2001 was the first vintage, though I tasted it at a later date) and it was love at first sip – literally!  Deep, rich and complex, it was among my first “mind-blowing” wines and the start of a long lasting love affair with the exceptional Yatir Winery that continues to this day (although without a varietal Cabernet Franc there is a limit to my patience).

Ella Valley Vineyards, Vineyards Choice, Cabernet Sauvignon, 2002:  Despite the so-called “curse” of the 2002 vintage (brought on be devastatingly hot (“sharav”) August temperatures), this wine excelled and stood out as a new and exciting addition to the Israeli wine scene (assisted by a huge [some say overdone] marketing push by the winery).  Championed to me by Avi Ben, I loaded up on the wine and enjoyed it for years, subsequently becoming a huge fan of the winery.

Binyamina, HaChoshen, Syrah, Odem, 2003:  A milestone wine for a number of reasons.  It was the first vintage for Binyamina’s upscale HaChoshen label, which, in some ways, represented their ascendance back to the top tier of Israeli wineries.  Interestingly enough, it was also one of the first Israeli Syrah wines to have some (2%) Viognier blended in, a practice now followed with many other top syrah wines including the delightful version from Recanati.

Carmel, Single Vineyard, Kayoumi, Shiraz, 2003:  The first vintage release from the magnificent Kayoumi vineyard (which ended up replacing for Carmel the previously immensely successful Ramat Arad one (that became part of Yatir) and the beginning of many great Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz and Riesling releases from the tremendously blessed parcel of earth.

Ella Valley Vineyards, Cabernet Franc, 2003:  The first release of what was destined to become my favorite Israeli expression of my favorite grape.  I just enjoyed the 2004 vintage of this wine last week – delightful!

Galil Mountain, Yiron, Syrah, 2003:  The first release of the Yiron companion and among the first times I realized that Syrah was going to be doing tremendous things on Israel’s unique terroir.

Tzora, Givat HaChalukim, Cabernet Sauvignon, 2003:  Despite going kosher in 2002, almost no wines were released from this vintage and this wine was the first I tasted from a winery, whose reputation for producing true, terroir-driven wines (before it became fashionable) was well-known.

Golan Heights Winery, Yarden, Viognier, 2004:  The first vintage of this wine was in 2003 but the 2004 vintage was the first one  I tasted.  Well crafted, exciting and new at the time, it really turned me on to Viognier, which became quite the “hot little grape” in Israel for a few years, culminating in the excellent Dalton Wild Yeast version I have loved so much.

Golan Heights Winery, Rom, 2006:  A new flagship wine for the Golan heights Winery, joining the Katzrin as one of Israel’s best and released to significant hype and fanfare substantially exacerbated by the late Daniel Rogov’s 96 point score – the highest ever for any Israeli wine and one of the top 3 scores for any kosher wine – ever by Daniel Rogov (or anyone else).  A collaboration between the Golan Heights Winery’s longtime winemaker Victor Schoenfeld and famed wine maker Zelma Long)

Carmel, Mediterranean, 2007:  Significant both by being a delicious wine that has aged really nicely and by its representation of Carmel’s leadership towards creating distinctly Israeli/Mediterranean wines that can represent Israeli on an international level as Israeli wines instead of the kosher label most Israeli wineries cannot seem to shake (even the non-kosher ones), although more and more wineries are seeing minor successes on this front, with Tzora being a prime example.

Recanati, Reserve, Wild Carignan, 2009:  While this wasn’t the first quality release of the Carignan grape that historically was produced in Israel’s in the largest quantities, it was certainly one of the most interesting and demonstrative of the new path Recanati is on, away from the California-styled wines championed by former winemaker Lewis Pasco, towards more subtle, refined and terroir-driven wines led by awesome wine making team, Gil & Ido.

Castel, Rosé, 2009:  The first Rose produced by one of Israel’s first Rose wines that had serious depth and complexity in addition to their crisp refreshingness.  I begged Eli Ben-Zaken to add Rose to his repertoire of wines and with the current 2011 release, I am hopeful it becomes a regular staple in their portfolio as it is quite the delicious wine and perfect for long, contemplative summer days and a great match for many foods.

Link to Adam Montefiore’s article in the Jerusalem Post