Carmel Winery

#176 – June 16, 2011 (more recent update)

For this shipment of the Leket Wine Club we showcased one of Israel’s oldest wineries; one that has undergone the most impressive rejuvenation of a winery in recent times – the Carmel Winery.

Despite the fact that Israelis have over the last decade seriously increased their wine appreciation and consumption to an average annual consumption of 5 liters per person, they still lag behind other wine drinking countries such as the United States (11 liters per person) and France (60 liters per person), and the majority of wine sold in Israel is of the “supermarket” variety. Now these supermarket wines are not to be knocked as, in addition to providing the major wineries with the revenue stream that enables them to produce the high-end wines we love and enjoy, these wines play an important part in introducing new wine drinkers to the pleasures of wine consumption, priming them for more sophisticated wines later on. Therefore, the quality of lower level offerings from the major wineries is just as important as the magnificent flagship wines.

There was a period a few years ago when boutique wineries were all the rage and wine lovers tended to disregard the offerings of the larger wineries as uninteresting. However, the larger wineries have since risen to the challenge and are all now producing boutique-type wines in addition to the plethora of entry-level wines they all have in their portfolio and these days, Carmel Winery not only fits that description, it’s at the vanguard of the movement.

Carmel was established in 1882 with the help of Baron Rothschild, owner of the famed Château Lafite, as a vintner’s cooperative in Rishon Lezion. The Baron hoped that wine would play a big part in the economic security of the newly established Jewish settlements and invested a substantial amount of his personal time and fortune in building wineries and developing the local vineyards (the first vines planted were Château Lafite cuttings). Unfortunately, this economic benefit was not meant to be for a number of reasons. In addition to substantial over-planting (to such a degree that a few years into the endeavor, so many vineyards had been planted that many had to be uprooted and converted to other crops), two potential lucrative markets for Israeli wine evaporated in the early 1900s. The Russian wine market was suppressed by the 1917 revolution (and didn’t recover until the 1940s) and the American market evaporated in 1919 with the enactment of the 18th Amendment to the United States constitution resulting in Prohibition.

While Carmel has a rich past with 120 harvests under its belt (they have never missed a harvest which is pretty impressive considering Israel’s 120 year history) and multiple Israeli luminaries holding early positions there including Prime Ministers from Ben Gurion to Olmert, for most of its storied history it produced mainly sweet sacramental wines, grape juice and pure plonk. However, over the last ten years, Carmel underwent major financial, administrative and winemaking changes and moved into brand new facilities, all of which have resulted in its rebirth as a top notch wine making powerhouse producing magnificent wines such as its flagship Limited Edition Bordeaux-type blend and Single Vineyard wines from the magnificent Kayoumi (and other) vineyards.

Today Carmel accounts for just under 50% of Israel’s total wine production, producing approximately 15 million bottles a year across many series and price ranges, from grapes grown on over 3,000 acres spread across the country. In addition to the Limited Edition and Single Vineyard series, they produce wines under the following labels: Appellation (Regional), Private Collection, Ridge, Selected, Young Selected and a few other miscellaneous wines.

While the excellence of Carmel is obvious to anyone who tastes its flagship wines, it also shines through with their mid and lower tiered series of wines including the Appellation series and the Private Collection series. Long a graveyard for mediocre wines, the Private Collection series is now a beacon of light for any winery desiring top quality wines at affordable prices. The Private Collection Chardonnay we have included in this shipment is a clear indicator of the evolution of quality that Carmel in general and this series in particular has undergone and is a perfect wine with which to welcome the oncoming warmer spring weather we are experiencing.

Easily recognizable by its funky ancient animal labels, the wines of the Appellation series are interesting and consistently delicious across the board with every wine being a recommended one. It is in this series that Carmel’s creativity and desire to push the envelope of commercial wine making is most visible with great wines from previously unpopular varietals such as old vine Petite Sirah, Carignan and Cabernet Franc (which is included in this shipment) in addition to more mainstream Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay.
Additionally, with the guiding hand of their wine director, Adam Montefiore, Carmel is also at the forefront of Israel’s push towards terroir-based wines that are more reflective of Israel’s Mediterranean characteristics and less internationalized, with the delicious Mediterranean wine (included in this shipment) being the flag bearer of this push.

While Carmel’s resurgence has been underway for long enough that it is probably no longer news (in the same vein that kosher wine should really stop having to deal with the ever-present reference to Manischewitz), it has garnered substantial recognition from significant international wine authorities, including most recently the United Kingdom’s Decanter. In a massive honor for Carmel, the Single Vineyard Kayoumi Shiraz was awarded the 2010 Decanter World Wine Award for a Rhone varietal in the upper price category, and the Appellation Old Vine Petite Sirah 2006 won the Wine of the Month award for July 2010 (only the third Israeli wine to win this award).

Carmel, Mediterranean, 2007: Over the last couple of years, one of the hot discussion topics among Israeli/kosher wine aficionados has revolved around marketing practices for promoting the excellent Israeli wines beyond their current and natural “kosher” niche. Current prevailing wisdom is that in order to succeed, Israel needs to find an Israeli varietal that would help Israeli wines be promoted as Israeli/Mediterranean (as opposed to Israeli/kosher) – i.e. wines from Israel that are representative of Israel’s unique terrior and characteristics. Additionally, Carmel (together with other Israeli wineries) is following the worldwide trend of moving away from internationalized powerhouse wines to a more elegant style. As mentioned above, Carmel is at the forefront of this revolution and this wine (evidenced by its name) is a premier example. An interesting and elegant blend of 37% Carignan, 26% Shiraz, 20% Petit Verdot, 15% Petite Sirah and 2% Viognier, with the various varietals coming together beautifully. The sum is far greater than the parts as each grape contributes some of its unique persona to a great wine. Loads of fruit on the nose including plums, raspberries, cranberries and cassis, together with velvety and near sweet tannins. The palate mostly follows the nose with the pleasing addition of milk chocolate, earthy forest floor, cedar box, warm spices and tobacco leaf, which all blend together into an extremely well balanced and pleasing medley flavors. A long and caressing finish rounds out this delightful wine [included in the Kerem membership].

Carmel, Single Vineyard – Kayoumi, Cabernet Sauvignon, 2007: Carmel’s chief winemaker Lior Lacser must spend his nights sprinkling the Kayoumi vineyard with angel dust, as there is something truly magical about this vineyard which produces an incredible Shiraz in addition to this magnificent and powerful Cabernet Sauvignon. Both powerful and elegant, this wine is full-bodied with great structure and harmony among the wood, fruit, tannin and acid. Give this wine a little time in the glass to open up and you will be rewarded with aromas of red cherries and currants, gooseberries, tart plums and cigar box followed by a fruit and earthy palate with slightly darker fruits, tobacco leaf, bittersweet chocolate, mildly spicy oak and muscular yet well integrated mouth coating tannins. A long lingering finish reminds you that it’s time for the next glass [included in both memberships].

Carmel, Appellation, Cabernet Franc, 2007: I love Cabernet Franc wine and was quite happy that Carmel decided to revive it for this series (there hasn’t been one for years). In my opinion, Cabernet Franc is a top contender for “Israel’s Varietal”, as it seems to truly flourish on its soil. A medium bodied wine with plenty of red fruit on the nose and palate including cherries and dried cranberries with plenty of oak to provide a nice backbone of vanilla and tobacco leaf to back up the fruit. Much of the same on the palate with the additional and welcome hints of dark chocolate on the front end and tinged with mint and eucalyptus on the medium finish. Aged in French oak for ten months and blended with 8% of Petit Verdot and 7% Malbec that give it a distinct personality that is different from other 100% Israeli Cabernet Franc wines I have enjoyed [included in both memberships].

Carmel, Private Collection, Chardonnay, 2009: For decades the Private Collections wines were just that – wines that were so bad they needed to be kept private and not shown to or shared with anyone. Upon tasting this wine and others from the series, I was amazed at the leap in quality. A medium bodied Chardonnay with good acidity that manages to have nice oak influences without being burdened by it. Good apple, pear and citrus flavors on both the nose and palate with hints of melon coming through as well on the palate. An easy drinking and quite refreshing wine that is perfect for the newly arrived warm weather we are experiencing [included in the Kerem membership].