#158 – January 14, 2011
This week I want to talk about one of Israel’s largest wineries that is experiencing a resurgence of sorts. For years Binyamina was largely a “supermarket winery”, producing millions of bottles of mediocre table wines destined for the shelves of Israel’s largest retail supermarkets and of little interest to the sophisticated oenophile. Starting a couple of years ago, and coinciding with massive capital infusions which were wisely poured into the vineyards and spent on modern equipment and qualified wine making personal, Binyamina has picked itself up off the supermarket floor, dusted off its clothing and reinvented itself as a really good winery. The flow of new capital investment was mainly a result of the winery’s acquisition by the Israeli supermarket chain “Chatzi Chinam” (a popular discount chain). As with the acquisition of Barkan/Segal by Tempo, instead of the anticipated hit to quality, these chains have completely turned around the wineries, sometimes seemingly by sheer willpower (and very deep pockets).
Shepherded by their CEO – Ilan Hasson, Binyamina’s two winemakers, Sasson Ben-Aharon and the funny and gregarious Assaf Paz, produce top-shelf wines in their flagship labels while also producing nice wines at their lower labels which provide good value for your money. Some examples include the Teva Merlot and Moscato wines I recently wrote about, and their awesome late harvest Gewürztraminer (the 2009 vintage (reviewed below) is even better than the 2008 I loved so much).
The winery currently produces wines in four major labels – Avnei Hachoshen, Reserve, Yogev and Teva. They also produce a potpourri of other (really-)entry level wines under the Tiltan, Kramim, and Caesaria labels. Binyamina also owns the popular “Cave” label, but prefers to market it as a stand-alone wine/winery for marketing purposes (they get to charge more that way).
Avnei Hachoshen is Binyamina’s flagship label and is named after the gemstones on the breastplate of the Cohen Gadol. When this series had its debut with the 2003 vintage it was to great acclaim, with their Syrah being a tremendous hit. This series seemed to be having some off years for a while with a noticeable deterioration in quality, but fortunately seems to be heading back in the right direction. There are currently seven wines in this series, each named for a specific stone as follows: Shoham – Onyx (Chardonnay), Leshem – Opal (Sauvignon Blanc), Yashfeh – Jasper (a white blend), Odem – Ruby (Syrah), Tarshish – Aquamarine (Cabernet Sauvignon) and two red blends Sapir – Sapphire and Yahalom – Diamond (which was a very limited edition run).
The Reserve series is a mixed bag with their Zinfandel and late harvest Gewürztraminer being hits and other wines being a little boring and not as good. Tiltan (Hebrew for clover) blends varietal wines across three vintages and is made in very limited quantities but it worth trying. The “Yogev” series (which is “farmer” or “man of the soil” in Hebrew) was created to honor the folks growing the grapes and lists the names of the actual growers on each label. The Yogev series has six wines – all blends as follows: Cabernet Sauvignon blended with each of Zinfandel, Merlot, Shiraz and Petit Verdot, a Sauvignon Blanc-Chardonnay blend and a blend of French Colombard (45%), Muscat Alexander (15%) and Gewürztraminer (40%). While providing good value, I believe the only one to score a YH Best Buy has been the Cabernet Sauvignon-Petit Verdot, and some of these wines are better than others without great consistency across the series (or vintages). In addition to the wines reviewed below, I suggest trying the Teva Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz from the 2009 vintage as they are nice wines that provide excellent value.
I do believe there is one additional and crucial area in which Binyamina must improve in order for them to be able to legitimately play with the big boys and be taken seriously and that is consistency. While there are some great wines in each of the series, some of which are reviewed below, each series also had a bunch of duds and not all their wines are good – let alone, very good. As with Barkan, they still have some work ahead of them before they can be a Safe Bet Winery. I would also note that the majority of the Binyamina wines I have tasted were acquired in Israel and certain of their wines sold in the US are mevushal which could lead to different results than noted below.
Binyamina, Avnei Hachoshen, Odem-Ruby, Syrah, 2006: As with many Syrah wines, a small percentage (3%) of Viognier was added to the wine to increase the depth of color. A full bodied and lush wine, with deep rich purple color and a well balanced structure. Aged in French oak barrels for 15 months, the wine has ripe currants and raspberries, hints of cranberries and some smoky notes all overlaid with notes of freshly cracked ripe pepper and some toasty oak. A long finish with more red fruit rising on the backend rounds out this wine. The wine should continue to develop for another few years and I look forward to charting its development.
Binyamina Avnei Hachoshen, Yahalom-Diamond, 2007: A mentioned above, this was a limited edition run and a big success. A big, powerful and full-bodied blend of Cabernet Sauvignon (50%), Syrah (30%) and Petite Verdot (20%). Delicious right now but give it the time it deserves as it’s clearly destined for future greatness. Great structure and balance between the rich fruit, which included plums, blackberries and raspberries, the near-sweet wood, bold tannins and spicy background. Together with the Zinfandel, this wine represents Binyamina’s best and it brought me back to their heyday of the 2003 Syrah I loved so much (although that wine was more elegant to this one’s power). Great mouthfeel with plenty of dark chocolate, coffee and spiciness all leading into a long and generous finish that lingers.
Binyamina, Reserve, Gewurztraminer, Late Harvest Cluster Select, 2009: I first tasted the 2008 vintage of this wine while visiting Israel and loved it! I had the opportunity to taste the 2009 vintage at a recent tasting back in November held by the Israeli Economic Mission and was wowed by how different it was from the 2008 and by how much I liked it. Like Carmel’s Sha’al dessert wine, some of the grapes were infected with Botrytis to great effect. A rich, ripe and luscious wine with plenty of apricots and dried fruit, some lychees, heather and honey all tempered by good acidity that kept the richness in check. I haven’t yet seen it on sale in NYC, but will definitely load up on it when it appears – a highly recommended dessert wine and great alternative to the delicious Sha’al.
Binyamina, Reserve, Unoaked Chardonnay, 2009: Following the lead of many Israeli wineries to unoaked their wines, thus allowing the purity of the varietal fruit to shine through (Dalton and Recanati being two of my favorites), Binyamina produced both an oaked and unoaked chardonnay under the Reserve label. Tasting these two wines side-by-side makes for a fascinating comparison and great tasting experience (only the oaked chardonnay is mevushal). Plenty of tropical fruit, lime and crisp minerals abound in this wine, along with strong floral aromas. A light, delicious and appealing wine with plenty of complexity. The oaked version had plenty of buttery notes, wood and vanilla and more melon than citrus.
Binyamina, Reserve, Zinfandel, 2007: I really liked this wine and am anxious to taste the wine from the incredible 2008 vintage, which I hear is even better. A big Zinfandel that spent 15 months in both French and American oak, while managing to retain a relatively low 14% alcohol level and staying true to the varietal. Typical notes of black pepper and leather match up with ripe raspberries and strawberries. A medium finish with bittersweet chocolate and mint rounds out this powerful wine. I enjoyed the wine more on its own than as a match to food.
Binyamina, Reserve, Shiraz, 2007: As I have written before, I find myself drinking a lot of Syrah recently and think Israel is doing a really great job with the grape. It’s still a little unclear to me the direction in which Israel will end up with this varietal, but it’s a great adventure with more and more quality Syrah wines are being produced. Syrah is also a primary component in many of the Super-Israelis like the recently released Rom. A wine that is easy to drink right out of the bottle with a medium body and soft tannins beautifully integrated with blackberries, black cherries and some cassis along with some leather and hints of smoked meat. A medium finish with more fruit and leather rounds out this smooth and mouth filling wine.
#158 – January 14, 2011