Flam Winery

#245 – April 17, 2013

After some delightful time off with my family for Pesach, with this week’s newsletter, we get back into the swing of things with a discussion of one of Israel’s most prestigious wineries – the Flam Winery.  Together with Saslove and Tulip, Flam was part of the trifecta of near-mythical Israeli boutique wineries that became kosher with the 2010 vintage.  While the entry level wines of Flam (which include the Rose, Blanc and Classico) have been available for two vintages already, it is only recently that the much anticipated Reserve wines became available in the United States.  Unfortunately, we are still nearly two years away from enjoying Flam’s new flagship wine – the exquisite Noble (more on that below).

Founded in 1998 and located in a quaint facility and picturesque area just outside Beit Shemesh, Flam is a true family winery, with every member taking part in its operation.  While the country is loaded with commercial wineries of all sizes, many of which are world-class and produce quality wines that would satisfy the criteria of even the most discerning wine lover, I feel that there is something to be said about family-owned wineries, where each member is truly invested in maintaining and improving the family’s honor, legacy and heritage.

The winery was founded by the Flam brothers – Golan and Gilad, with Golan, who was educated in Israel and Italy and apprenticed in wineries in both Tuscany and Australia acting as winemaker, and Gilad who manages business development and strategy.  Their mother Kami manages the winery and their sister Gefen is in charge of customer relations and marketing.  It is worth noting however, that the love of wine coursing through this family’s veins is undoubtedly driven by the passion and vinographic history of the winery’s “ace in the hole” – Flam Patriarch Yisrael Flam who consults, advises, helps out and kibbitzes.

For anyone involved in the Israeli wine industry, Yisrael needs no introduction, having spent more than 40 years working to improve the Israeli wine industry and one of the, if not the, principal wine figure in Israel.  Yisrael’s family moved to Israel from Russia in the aftermath of World War II and he joined the fledgling Israel Wine Institute after serving his time in the army.  Pioneering what is now de rigueur for any aspiring Israeli winemaker, Yisrael underwent training at UC Davis’ acclaimed Department of Oenology and Viticulture before returning to work at the Carmel Winery, ultimately becoming their Chief Winemaker in 1995, a position he held for a decade before retiring and joining his sons in their endeavor as a consultant.

Having “worked” in the vineyards alongside his father since he was a child and Yisrael was at UC Davis, winemaking is in Gilad’s blood and, quite obviously so.  Care and precision are two mainstays for Golan in his work and, as with all good wines, the work starts in the meticulously cultivated vineyards, which include plots in the acclaimed Upper Galilee vineyards of Dishon and Ben-Zimra as well as Mata in the Judean Hills.  The family spent a substantial amount of time sourcing their vineyards (which are all under long-term leases), meticulously choosing the best they found.  Golan spends an inordinate amount of time amongst the vines, pruning, thinning and otherwise caring for them, ensuring that the resulting grapes will truly honor the well-respected and hard earned Flam name.

Pre-2010, the winery produced six different wines in three different tiers.  The entry-level wines included a Rosé (predominantly and sometimes entirely, Cabernet Franc), Blanc – a blend of Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc and Classico – the winery’s entry level blend Bordeaux blend (comprised primarily of Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon (with some vintages including small quantities of Petit Verdot and/or Cabernet Franc).  Despite the Classico being Flam’s entry level wine, it is far superior to most other “entry-level” wines in quality and its price reflects this.  The next tier was the Superiore, a Syrah-based blend, followed by the Reserve line which included three varietal wines – Syrah, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon (the majority of which contain small percentages of other varietals in most vintages).  Together with becoming kosher, the 2010 vintage was also the end of the Superiore wine, as Golan decided that the vineyards utilized for that wine had finally matured enough, and were of sufficient quality to qualify for the Reserve Syrah.  While I have not tasted the non-kosher Superiore, the facts prove Golan’s decision was the right one, as the 2010 Reserve Syrah is delicious.

Additionally, last year Flam finally added a flagship wine to its portfolio – Noble, whose name (and inception) was inspired by the famous Vino Nobile di Montepulciano wine from Tuscany, one of Italy’s oldest wines.  The Noble is a Bordeaux blend comprised of the best grapes in Flam’s vineyards each year, which spend nearly two years in oak (one year in new French oak as separate components and another as the final blend) and the two more years of bottle aging in Flam’s cellar before release.  The inaugural (and non-kosher) version was the 2008 vintage and 2010 (and first kosher) vintage of Noble should be released in mid-2014.  Surprisingly for me – an avid Syrah lover, I found the Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon to be the best of the released wines I tasted and quite possibly one of Israel’s best Cabernet Sauvignon wines (with nearly two years of bottle aging ahead of the Noble, the jury is still out but see my tasting note below).

With production comfortably around 100,000 bottles annually (which is the “magic” number at which a winery “needs” to obtain kosher certification in order to remain financially viable), Flam has been and remains one of Israel’s absolute best wineries.  Besides the exceptional wines and the bastion of Israeli winemaking knowledge of Yisrael, there are a few core traits that make Flam the special (and beloved) winery that it is.  First, the passion they convey for their profession and the uncommon humility expressed by both Golan and Gilad is rare and refreshing.  They love what they do, do it at an extremely high level and don’t allow their egos to balloon to epic proportions like some other folks in the industry.  Indicative of the humility and quiet pride in their wines is the fact that it took ten years before they felt they understood their vineyards, grapes and winemaking process sufficiently to produce a flagship wine worthy of the Flam name.  Another way they differ from other top Israeli wineries is they have withstood the trend toward away from the Classic French varietals to more Mediterranean varietals including Carignan, Cabernet Franc, Grenache and others.  While I am a huge advocate of this trend, believing that Israel’s terroir is more suited to such varietals, Flam clearly knows what they are doing and it shows in the wines.

While all different, the wines have a clear and distinctive style that comfortably blends old-world / European winemaking with new world fruit and winemaking techniques, resulting in rich, deep and powerful wines that convey subtle elegance, a nice sense of place (a/k/a terroir), good potential for longevity and a hint of mystery.  The brothers also own and run a liquor import and distribution company which they started to hedge their bets on the winery (which was started against the recommendations of their father who didn’t think it was an easy money making endeavor, to say the least).  These days the importing company Hagafen, generates cash flow that helps ease the customary ups and downs many small wineries go through, enabling the family to focus on their mission – creating the best quality wines they can.

In any event, I highly recommend seeking out and trying their wines – you won’t be disappointed!

Flam, Rosé, 2012:  While the Reserve wines below are the first kosher ones available, we are already enjoying the third vintage of the delightful Flam Rosé, each of which has been highly enjoyable, albeit slightly different from vintage to vintage.  As Rosé becomes more and more popular, many Israeli wineries are dipping their toes (look for coming releases from Gvaot, Lueria and others and a sparkling Rosé from Yarden).  As with prior vintages, the wine is made from 100% Cabernet Franc from the Judean Hills (what’s not to love) which give this light to medium bodied wine some welcome bite, the nose is blessed with strawberry, melon, citrus peel, lavender, some bell pepper and other floral notes.  A fresh and refreshing palate of more strawberries, white stone fruit and pink grapefruit with great acidity and a hint of salinity and minerals combine to make a terrific, all-around wine and a perfect accompaniment to summer (or any other season for that matter – like Champagne, Rosé should be drunk much more often).  The only obstacle to my enjoying this wine on a daily basis is it’s relatively high ~$30 price tag, which places it in the same company as the exceptional Castel Rosé (both qualitatively and cost-wise).

Flam, Blanc, 2011:  During my delightful visit last year, I enjoyed a comparison tasting between the 2011 and 2012 Blanc wines (the 2012 was being bottled that day), with the more austere 2011 vintage more to my liking (I loved the 2012 as well and it is more of a “crowd-pleaser”).  As usual, the unoaked wine is a blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay from the Judean Hills, with this year’s vintage comprised of 58% and 42% respectively.  As with the Rosé above, the wine provides a great “double-trigger” of characteristics; combining a crisp and refreshing quaffer with a more complex wine, likely a result of the weightier Chardonnay giving the Sauvignon Blanc a platform on which to shine.  As with every Flam wine, the impeccable balance and structure of the wine is highly evident, a result of the extreme winemaking care put into these wines.  A lovely nose of citrus, tropical fruit, green apple, melon and nice minerals.  A medium bodied palate with much of the same ripe fruit is fleshed out with some pleasing herbaceousness and bracing acidity that keeps the wine balanced and refreshing with a lingering finish that has a hint of pleasing bitterness to it.

Flam, Blanc, 2012:  As with prior vintages, the wine is a Sauvignon Blanc (55%) and Chardonnay (45%) from the Judean Hills, however this year’s blend yielded a fruitier and less acidic wine, that will likely appeal to a wider crowd.  A rich nose of tropical fruit, tart apples, citrus peel and stony minerals leads into a medium bodied palate of more tropical fruit, cantaloupe, a slightly bitter streak of minerals that pleases and a hint of citrus.  The biting bitterness continues on the lingering finish and rounds out this highly pleasurable and refreshing wine in which there is certainly more than meets the eye.  Stock up and enjoy all summer long.

Flam, Classico, 2011:  The Classic is Flam’s entry level red wine, containing mostly Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, with smaller quantities of Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot blended in, mostly from the winery’s Judean Hills vineyards.  The wine is aged in French and American oak for ten months.  Of all the Flam wines, this is the one I drink the least for two primary reasons.  While having the same great balance and structure as the rest of the Flam family, the wine simply doesn’t excite the way the rest of the portfolio does.  At ~$30 in the US, there are other entry-level Bordeaux blends that do better.  That said, this is a really good wine that is simply slightly overpriced (hardly a rarity among Israeli boutique wineries) and is well worth trying.  Drink now through 2015.

Flam, Reserve, Syrah, 2010:  The first Reserve release for Flam and a wine that was well worth waiting for.  Made from Syrah grapes grown in the acclaimed Dishon and Kerem Ben-Zimra vineyards.  According to Golan, Dishon provides more floral notes while Kerem Ben-Zimra provides a “blacker” fruit profile.  Flam’s Syrah used to be blended with Cabernet Sauvignon for their intermediate “Superiore” label but the grapes have improved so much Golan felt they “deserved” to be in the Reserve label and I have to agree.  As with the other Reserve wines, it spent 12 months in oak and an additional ten months in the bottle prior to release (the Cabernet Sauvignon spends approximately 14 months in oak).  The wine has a rich nose of bright red fruit, with hints of blueberry, rich roasted meat, dark chocolate, smoke and freshly cracked black pepper.  A medium to full bodied palate has much of the same fruit profile with more black notes, pepper, roasted coffee grounds, plenty of spice and licorice bringing a haunting complexity that tantalizes.  A luxurious finish rounds out this treat.  As with every other Flam wine, the fruit and oak are very much in balance, with the oak providing strong support but not overpowering in any way.  A wine that can be slightly deceitful, alternating between fruit-loaded powerhouse and subtle elegance but always maintaining its composure and restraint.  Like some vintages of the Yatir Forest, this is truly an iron fist in velvet glove wine and one that is well worth stocking up on.  Drink now through 2018.

Flam, Reserve, Merlot, 2010:  As with the Cabernet Sauvignon wine below, this wine instantly became a competitor for Israel’s best Merlot wine, with a rich, deep and complex personality that makes you sit up and take notice (after saying wow quite a few times).  Blended with 10% Cabernet Sauvignon and 5% Cabernet Franc, all from the Dishon vineyard, the wine presents with a rich and extracted nose of black cherries, blackberries, cassis, a hint of blueberries, some bramble notes and spicy wood and warm spices that evolves as it warms up in your glass.  A full bodied palate provides much of the same fruit and spice, with wet earthy forest notes, graphite, cigar box and mouth-coating tannins that are already on their way to integrating and will provide support for this wine for years to come.  While enjoyable now, I’d give the wine six more months and then enjoy through 2017.

Flam, Reserve, Cabernet Sauvignon, 2010:  As with the newly released Merlot, this Cabernet Sauvignon, now easily competes for the best Cabernet Sauvignon in Israel.  A rich, opulent and powerful Cabernet Sauvignon that provides layers of complexity while maintaining its composure with poise and elegance.  85% Cabernet Sauvignon (split 60-40% between the Dishon and Kerem Ben-Zimra vineyards) and blended with 6% each of Merlot and Cabernet Franc and rounded out with 3% Petit Verdot, the wine spent 16 months in French oak as components before being blended in stainless steel and then bottle aged as a finished wine for an additional ten months prior to release (similar to the process for the Merlot).  The wine has a rich and opulent nose of ripe red and black berries, Mediterranean herbs, rich dark chocolate, notes of cedar and a nice overlay of spice.  A full bodied palate loaded with more rich fruit including blackberry, cherry, plum, cassis with subtle notes of raspberries and blueberries along with spicy wood, tobacco leaf, anise and caressing tannins that are still tight but bode extremely well for the future.  A lingering finish of minty chocolate, tobacco and more herbs lingers.  I wouldn’t crack this one for another 12-18 months, after which is should cellar nicely through 2022, likely longer.

Flam, Noble, 2010:  As a special treat during my last visit to Flam, I got to taste the 2010 Noble.  The Noble is Flam’s new flagship blend and the inaugural (non-kosher) 2008 vintage was released around eight months ago.  The wine is a blend of 85% Cabernet Sauvignon and 5% each of Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and Merlot.  Golan meticulously selected the absolute best grapes for each varietal from among Flam’s best plots.  Each of the components spent a year aging separately in new oak before being blended together and then spending an additional year in oak at which point the wine is bottled and spends another two years aging comfortably in the bottle in Flam’s cellar before release.  Given the excellence of the Cabernet Sauvignon above and the selection process for this wine, I expected something special (even taking into consideration the fact that there was nearly two years of bottle aging ahead) and wasn’t disappointed.  Reflective of the Flam’s winemaking philosophy, the wine is loaded with rich and extracted flavors while retaining elegance and poise, coupled with power and with what appears at this early stage to be substantial aging ability.  Besides the obvious youth of the wine and its obvious elegance, it is a bigger and more powerful wine than the Cabernet Sauvignon and should be spectacular when released (and for quite some time thereafter).  The nose was pretty closed at this point but slowly opened to reveal crushed red and black berries, rich cassis, black plums, blackberries and some blueberries, all in nice harmony with slightly spicy oak, roasted herbs, tobacco and a pleasing hint of fine dark chocolate.  The full-bodied palate was rich, deep and satisfying with layers of flavors, spices, mineral and velvety yet powerful tannins; seemingly changing every minute the wine spent in my glass.  A long and lingering finish with more fruit, dark chocolate, a hint of mint and cedar rounded out a wine that may contest for Israel’s top five when all is said and done.  Time will tell.  Start saving up and making room in your cellar for this wine’s anticipated release in mid-2014 at an ~240 NIS release price (only 5,000 bottles were made).  The wine truly lives up to Yisrael’s moniker for it “the Prime of the Premium” (which, as evidenced by the title of this newsletter, I found to be highly appropriate not only for the wine but for the entire winery)!