#201 – January 21, 2012
This week’s newsletter focuses on one of Israel’s largest wineries and one I haven’t profiled in many years, Barkan. The last time I discussed this winery was back in 2007 when it had just begun its path to redemption. Much has changed for Barkan since then – the majority of it positive, in fact, so much that Barkan earned the title of “Most Improved Winery” in last year’s annual 2010 round up newsletter.
Like Israel’s largest winery, Carmel, Barkan in recent years has made an effort to lose its label of a “Supermarket Winery” by creating a number of upper tier labels packed high-end and sophisticated wines. While Barkan has been mentioned in this newsletter a number of times over the years, it has primarily been to recommend wines from their lowest tiered label – Classic, which contains some serious YH Best Buy wines from time to time. Their “Altitude” label has also been showcased here and I included the +624 Cabernet Sauvignon in the last shipment of the Leket Wine Club on Chanukah.
In this week’s newsletter, we showcase Barkan’s flagship label – Superieur and their newly launched series of blends – Assemblage, that I had the opportunity to taste a few months ago at the Sommelier Expo in Israel.
Located in Hulda and publicly traded on the Tel-Aviv Stock Exchange, Barkan is Israel’s second largest winery producing, together with Segal its wholly owned sister winery, approximately 10,000,000 bottles annually. After years of producing mostly supermarket wines with the occasional monster hit in their Reserve series; under the auspices of head winemaker Ed Salzberg and winemakers Irit Boxter-Shank and Yotam Sharon and assisted by a massive capital infusion from their new majority owners – the Tempo Group, Barkan has trotted out an ever-increasing number of top-notch quality wines in a number of series. Recently Barkan has also been planting a large number of new vineyards, including a rather large one in the Negev desert from which we should start to see nice stuff within a few years.
The most recent and welcome example of Barkan’s innovation and creativity is their new series – Assemblage, discussed in detail below. With this new series, Barkan is now producing wine across five primary series: Superieur, Altitude, Assemblage, Reserve and Classic (in past years the Pinot Noir and Petite Sirah from this series have been grand YH Best Buys). In addition to innovating with their Altitude and Assemblage lines and similar to many other Israeli wineries, from time to time Barkan releases wines from more experimental varieties like Pinotage and Tempranillo.
Their sister winery Segal also produces a multitude of the labels, the most interesting of which are the magnificent Unfiltered Cabernet Sauvignon and their Single Vineyard wines from the Dishon and Dovev vineyards, all of which will be discussed in a stand-alone newsletter on Segal – coming soon.
Aptly named, the winery’s flagship label contains only those wines deemed exceptional and worthy of their status as the top dog in Barkan’s portfolio and generally released only in exceptional years (see the exception below for the 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon). Easily identifiable by the stark labeling and massive bottles, these are wines well-worth seeking out (some (but not all) of them also benefit from a number of cellaring years, gaining a certain level of complexity in the process). While later vintages of these wines have already been released, at the specific request of a number of readers I have focused this week on those vintages currently on the shelves in the United States (on the flip side, the Assemblage wines are currently only available in Israel) but as always, please feel free to ping me directly for notes on any particular wine you are interested in.
Barkan, Superieur, Shiraz, 2006: 2006 was the first vintage Barkan released a Superieur Shiraz and it’s a pretty good introduction to the fabulous stuff Barkan can do with the grape at an elite level. With 14% alcohol, the wine is made from 86% Shiraz grapes from the Kiryat Anavim vineyard in the Judean Hills to which 10% Cabernet Sauvignon from the Dishon vineyard and 4% Merlot from the Dovev vineyard (both hailing from the Upper Galilee) were blended in. The components were each aged separately in French oak (80% new) for 18 months before being blended and bottled. A rich red and black nose of currants and raspberries are matched nicely by spicy oak, anise, freshly cracked black pepper, leather and espresso. The medium bodied and elegant palate has round and well-integrated tannins that provide great structure for a core of ripe fruit, rich espresso, spicy notes, cedar and hints of chocolate. A lingering finish rounds out this wine. I don’t anticipate any further development for this wine so I’d drink it now or over the next year or two.
Barkan, Superieur, Cabernet Sauvignon, 2007: Comprised of 100% Cabernet Sauvignon grapes sourced from Barkan’s best Upper Galilee vineyards, this wine nearly died on the drawing board, as the winemaking team didn’t think it had what it took to make a Superieur wine. Luckily for us the winery’s winemaking team threw the viticultural equivalent of a Hail Mary pass and barreled the wine anyway (in mostly new French oak with 16% American oak blended in), as it underwent a substantial metamorphosis resulting in the amazing oenophilic treat we have today. An initially closed nose opens up nicely with some vigorous swirling (or decanting if you are so inclined) to show a smorgasbord of blackberries, rich cassis, raspberries, sweet spices, tobacco, a bit of pungent earthiness, some chocolate and a hint of mint. With 14.5% alcohol, the full-bodied palate is round and mouth filling, packed with big, near-sweet tannins wrapped around some subtle black fruit, baker’s chocolate, cedar box and tobacco leaf, leading into a long finish of fruit, more dark chocolate and rich dark espresso. Just coming into its own now, the wine can be enjoyed now through 2016, maybe a bit longer.
Barkan, Superieur, Pinotage, 2007: As the 2007 Pinotage in the Classic series is so good (see newsletter #135) and the reserve version is great, I didn’t expect there to be a Superieur version as well (typically lower tiered labels benefit from better grapes when the top series is skipped in any particular vintage year) but was happily surprised that 2007 was such a great year for Barkan’s Pinotage. Pinotage is a hybrid of Pinot Noir and Cinsault, pioneered and perfected in South Africa. Barkan is one of the few Israeli wineries that use this grape to produce a varietal wine and they do so deliciously from multiple plots in their Tel-Safi vineyards located in the Judean Hills. Blended with 5% each of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot from Barkan’s Upper Galilee vineyards, with each component aged separately before being blended and bottled, spending 17 months in new, mostly French oak (with ~20% American oak), resulting in an inky, near black, full-bodied wine with a rich nose of blackberries, currents and varietaly-true tar, heavy spice, lavender, spicy oak and smoked meat. Plenty of the same follows on the palate with less tar but welcome additions of more spices, herbs and totally integrated and near-sweet mouth-coating tannins. Drinking magnificently now, I’d finish up any bottles over the next 12-18 months.
Derived from the French word for assembling, the word refers to the artful selection of the best plots to be used when putting together the best blends of any particular Chateau or winery. Coincidentally, another meaning is an art form utilizing three-dimensional aspects providing a nice tie-in to the three blends in the series comprised of wines from different vineyards across Barkan’s portfolio. After focusing exclusively on varietal wines for years, Barkan opens another chapter in its impressive evolution to top-notch winery, with the launching of the Assemblage series, comprised of three blends spread across the 2008 and 2009 vintages.
With this series, Barkan is taking on two important developing trends in the Israeli wine industry, the importance of the blend over the varietal wine and the focus on terroir. Despite the fact that the categorization of Israel’s wine growing region is still in its infancy and completely unregulated (it is not in the same universe France’s AOC or even the US’s AVAs), Israel’s winemakers have followed the worldwide trend and adapted terroir as an integrally important aspect of the wines they produce (see last week’s discussion on the importance of marketing Israeli wines as possessing uniquely Mediterranean terroir). While many Israeli wineries have started to produce wines intending to showcase their unique terroir, the wineries have mostly focused on varietal wines that enable them to showcase the differences the terroir can have on the same grape made in the same style (i.e. the single vineyard wines of the Golan Heights Winery in the Yarden label or even Barkan’s own Altitude label). With the Assemblage series Barkan is taking a slightly different and pretty unique approach by trying to showcase terroir in a blended wine which allows the winemaker’s skill, creativity and imagination to shine by utilizing slightly offbeat blends for some of the wines (particularly the Tzapit). This approach is intended to indicate that the varietal used in the wines are far less important to the quality and success of the wine that the terroir and the winemakers blending decisions.
Another focus of the series was to provide food-friendly wines that are drinkable on release without requiring a lot of preparation – just pop the cork, pour and enjoy (as you will see from my notes, for the most part they succeeded). As with any new series, it will likely take a few vintages for us to appreciate the unique selected terroir but, given the deliciousness and quality of these first attempts, it’s a journey I anticipate being loaded with excitement and pleasure, something we wouldn’t have imagined coming from Barkan a few years back. Priced around $25 in Israel, we will need to wait and see how they are priced if and when they hit our shores (given that the Eitan and Reichan are from the Shmittah vintage of 2008, I expect only the Tzapit will show up in the US until the next vintages are released but stranger things have happened).
Barkan, Assemblage, Eitan, 2008: Named for the nearby Eitan Mountain, the grapes for this wine are grown at altitudes of 700 meters in the Southern Judean Hills near the aptly named Kiryat Anavim (literally “village of the grapes”). Despite their good intentions, this wine ended up being a single vineyard wine. A blend of 45% Syrah, 40% Merlot and 15% Cabernet Sauvignon, each aged separately in mostly used French oak for 12 months before being blended and bottled resulting in a 13.5% alcohol wine. A delicious and distinctly Mediterranean nose of tangy red fruit including cherries, plums, cassis, crushed thyme and other Mediterranean herbs, cigar box and tobacco leaf, chocolate and a hint of spicy oak. The medium to full bodied palate has a little less acidity than I would have liked (a common problem with wines from hot climates like Israel), well integrated tannins, red fruit, mocha, tobacco leaf, baker’s chocolate, more spicy oak, hints of smoked meat and some flinty minerals all culminating in a long and caressing finish with a pleasing bitterness rising on the finish. A pleasing and elegant wine that is eminently drinkable now and which should cellar comfortably through 2015 or even longer.
Barkan, Assemblage, Reichan, 2008: Sourced from a number of plots in top-quality vineyards in the Upper Galilee including one from the viticulturally famed Ben-Zimra area and intending to showcase the Upper Galilee terroir, Reichan is a blend of 70% Cabernet Sauvignon (from the same vineyards that gave us the +624 Altitude wine), 19% Merlot and 11% Shiraz (same components as the Eitan, just in different proportions), with each component aged separately in French oak (50% new) before being blended and bottled. The 70% Cabernet Sauvignon provides an instant reference point to your typical Israeli Cabernet Sauvignon with some nice nuances thrown in for good measure. A rich black and focused nose loaded with blackberries, black currants, black plums and black cherries (you get the point – it’s a black wine), accompanied by rich dark chocolate and toasty oak. Much more rich and extracted black fruit on the palate, all held together by muscular gripping tannins which bode well for the continued development and ageability of this wine and lend some rustic contrast to the near-sweet and very ripe black fruit, accompanied by toasty oak and cedar notes. A long finish of hazelnuts, espresso, more rich chocolate and a hint of forest underbrush (sousbois in French, who knew?) rounds out this tear. Give this one some time for the tannins to integrate and enjoy from 2013 through 2017.
Barkan, Assemblage, Tzapit, 2009: The only wine of the series hailing from the 2009 vintage, it is comprised primarily from to new varietals that are pretty uncommon in Israel – Marselan and Caladoc. Both wines are French hybrids developed by the French National Agronomic Research Institute in the 1960s with French commercial plantings starting in the 1990s. Marselan is a cross between Cabernet Sauvignon and Grenache, and Caladoc a cross between Malbec and Grenache. An unusual blend of 53% Marselan, 20% Caladoc, 15% Pinotage (flaunt it if you got it) and 12% Carignan from the relatively unknown Judean Valley region (Tel-Tzapit near Kiryat Gat), creates a distinctly Mediterranean wine. As with the other wines, each varietal was aged separately in French oak (25% new) for 12 months before being blended and bottled. The wine is a beautiful deep purple with a hugely aromatic nose that explodes out of the glass with sweet red fruit, chocolate covered raspberries, a hint of citrus together with roasted hazelnuts, a hint of freshly paved road and crushed herbs. A medium bodied and somewhat extracted palate with muscular tannins, that need time to settle down but showing great balance and structure. Most of the nose follows through onto the palate but without the tar or hazelnuts and picking up nice notes eucalyptus, grilled meat, cedar wood, spices, leather, white pepper balanced with a good jolt of acidity and a pleasing bitterness on a lingering finish of leather, earthiness and some burnt espresso. While drinkable now, give this wine another 6-8 months to continue to come together and then drink through 2015.