Golan Heights Winery

#231 – November 16, 2012
With life-threatening rockets raining down on friends, family and other civilians across Israel, I debated the appropriateness of distributing this week’s newsletter. Hamas terrorists continue to target innocent civilians by firing rockets at multiple cities in Israel, including Tel-Aviv and Jerusalem, while much of the clueless global community (who has never really comes to terms with Israel’s right to exist and defend itself) continues to make asinine comparisons between Israel’s right to defend itself while making every effort to spare civilian life with the direct targeting of civilians in an openly declared attempt to eradicate Israel from the face of the earth. As someone who grew up in Israel, the importance of continuing to live one’s life while being under threat is deeply ingrained (especially given the amount of time we Israelis spend under threat), driven by a strong desire to deny any victory to those attempting to hurt Israel and partially responsible for my decision to distribute a newsletter this week.

As I work on my annual year-end newsletters on the Israeli and Kosher Wine industries, including a look back on the year that was and my thoughts on the year to come, I am gratified to see Israeli and kosher wines (and wineries) continue to garner recognition from the premier mainstream wine writing community and collect important accolades and awards for their efforts and accomplishments.  The most recent and certainly one of the most impressive accomplishments in this arena to date, is this week’s award of the prestigious 2012 Wine Enthusiast Wine Star for New World Winery of the Year to Israel’s numero uno winery – the Golan Heights Winery.

In tribute to this grand and certainly well-deserved achievement, I wanted to talk about the Golan Heights Winery this week.  One of the things I enjoy most about writing this newsletter is introducing folks to newer and less known wineries (or wines).  While the proliferation of new boutique kosher wineries is an awesome development that enables us to experience a huge spread of wines, wine-making techniques, expressions of terrior and types of wines from around the world; a less fortunate by-product of this abundance is we tend to start regarding the larger, more “commercial” wineries (such as Barkan and Carmel) as passé.  As I continuously stress, this is a crying shame since these large scale wineries produce magnificent and many a time, small batch wines that are easily on par or better than the sought-after wines of the better boutiques, especially in the coveted area of true aging ability.

The Golan Heights Winery is the third-largest commercial winery in Israel (after the aforementioned Carmel and Barkan), currently producing approximately 40 different wines, most of them on a near-annual basis.  Despite relatively small differences between Israeli vintages, the winery only produces many of its über-premium wines in better vintage years when head winemaker Victor Schoenfeld feels that the resulting wines will do honor to the premium labels.  A by-product of this is that in such “off” years the winery’s “regular” Yarden wines (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah) get the benefit of the better grapes that would have otherwise gone into such premium wines, providing even better QPR than usual.  The winery is well-known and widely recognized for its innovation, technological prowess and desire to maintain the strictest control over every aspect of its winemaking, starting and primarily focusing on vineyard control, the Golan Heights Winery spearheads many technological improvements including climate monitoring stations, soil analysis, plant propagation and others.

As inferred above and dispute my love and adoration for some of my favorite Israeli wineries including Ella Valley, Gvaot and Yatir and the superlative-laden portfolio of wines Carmel is putting forth on a regular basis; the Golan Heights Winery remains, in my opinion, the gold standard for Israeli wineries.  Historically the winery is primarily responsible for the revolution in the kosher wine world that gave birth to the proliferation of excellent kosher wines from around the world and the elimination of thick and creamy Manischewitz as the first wine that comes to mind when (wine knowledgeable) folks hear the words “kosher wine” (although from the idiotic way almost every kosher wine-related article I read begins you wouldn’t know that).  The Cabernet Sauvignon from the Yarden series dating all the way back to the early 90s are drinking very well today (I will be enjoying a 1993 this weekend!), and remains the most consistently good and reasonably priced Israeli wine on the market today if you are looking for a wine with any serious cellaring capability.  Buying an annual case of the Yarden Cabernet Sauvignon and drinking a bottle a year provides one with the true oenophilic pleasure of watching something develop and mature (kind of like kid’s maturation but without the diapers, sleepless nights and exorbitant tuition costs).

The winery markets its wines under three labels – Yarden, Gamla and Golan.  Yarden represents the winery’s more serious wines, providing depth, complexity and sophistication in addition to substantial aging ability (at least relative to other kosher wines) while their Gamla series provides well-crafted, quality wines that are well priced, including a number of experimental varietals such as Nebbiolo.  The Golan series includes wines that are meant to be consumed very young and are crafted to be enjoyed right away by the less sophisticated wine consumer.

In 1990 they introduced a flagship wine – Katzrin – to be included under the Yarden label specifying that the wine would only be produced in exceptional vintages.  Subsequently a Katzrin was produced in each of the 1993, 1996, 2000, 2003, 2004, 2007 and 2008 vintage years (the recent string of releases only slightly diminishing the “exceptional” vintage claim, since all these wines are terrific with amazing aging potential).  A Katzrin labeled Chardonnay is produced even more frequently.  In 2001 another ultra-premium wine was introduced – the Cabernet Sauvignon from the El-Rom vineyard, heralding the inauguration of a Single Vineyard Series, also housed under the Yarden label (but which should be viewed as a stand-alone series).  The quality of this newly released wine quickly cemented the El-Rom vineyard as a prime piece of terrior, joining Kayoumi as undoubtedly one of the best vineyards in Israel.  Today the winery produces a number of Single Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah wines from different vineyards, in addition to one of my personal favorites, the Chardonnay from the winery’s only organic vineyard – the Odem Vineyard.

Not in any way shape or form a winery or winemaking team content to rest on its considerable laurels, another “flagship” wine – the Rom – was launched with the 2006 vintage to much fanfare (including the highest score Daniel Rogov ever granted a kosher wine), resulting from close collaboration between the winery’s chief winemaker Victor Schoenfeld and Zelma Long.

While the format of the weekly newsletter doesn’t provide the ability to list tasting notes for every one of the winery’s currently released recommended wines, I have included some of my recent favorites.  A search on my website will yield tasting notes for many more of the great wines from this winery including some of their world-class dessert wines and, as always, please feel free to email me with questions about any particular wine (as I have tasted nearly every wine produced by them).

Golan Heights Winery, Yarden, Blanc De Blancs, 2005:  Easily a YH Best Buy and the best substitute for a true kosher Champagne at a much lower price.  After successive (and successful) releases in 1998, 1999 and 2000, the last marketed vintage of this wine was the delicious 2001 vintage.  I am not sure why they waited four years to make another, but am happy they finally did!  If I needed to sum up this wine in one word it would be an easy task (even for me) – delicious.  Grapefruit, lime, apple, melon and hints of pineapple abound in this delicious wine which is bone dry and loaded with crisp acidity.  Toasted yeasty brioche and sharp, long-lasting bubbles make this wine a delight and an awesome match with almost any dish you care to throw its way.  Stock up while you can since, at around $25 a bottle, it won’t be around for long but should cellar comfortably through 2020

Golan Heights Winery, Yarden, Single Vineyard, Yonatan, Syrah, 2007:  Having nothing to do with my natural affinity for a vineyard named after my oldest son, the Yonatan vineyard seems to have been blessed with the same pixie dust that targeted Carmel’s Kayoumi vineyard and is on track to overtake the Elrom vineyard as one of Israel’s best.  While the Golan Heights Winery seems to have saturated itself with their single vineyard wines, it’s tough to argue with success, especially in the Syrah arena.  While I have never really liked their “regular” Yarden Syrah (and still don’t), their single vineyard Syrah wines have been fantastic (I have written often about the incredible 2004 Ortal Syrah).  A rich and concentrated wine with plenty of wood and extracted fruit, in the style we have come to expect from this series but with the elegance and balance of power that accompanies most of these wines as well.  Generous tannins provide a solid backbone for cherries, plums, raspberries on the nose, together with kirsch liquor and a spicy bite from the oak.  On the mid-palate a touch of savory notes creep in with wet forest earth and hints (forgive me) sweaty leather (in a good way – I promise).  While a delicious wine and incredible drinking experience, I got the feeling of a wine that was searching for a path, finding itself locked between Syrah and Shiraz influences so I’d give this one a year before opening after which is should continue to improve for a few more years and cellar through 2016.

Golan Heights Winery, Yarden, Single Vineyard, Yonatan, Cabernet Sauvignon, 2007:  While a nice touch, my adoration for this wine has nothing to do with the fact that the vineyard in which it was born shares the name of my oldest child.  A full bodied and somewhat intense wine that is loaded with the characteristic ripe rich fruit, solid tannins and hints of slightly spicy oak we have come to expect from this series.  Blackberries, cherries, black currants, plums, gooseberries are all present on both the nose and palate of this delicious and caressing wine that wows you with its elegance and power with every sip.  Hints of eucalyptus and Mediterranean herbs keep the wine grounded in its Israeli origins all leading into a long luxurious finish that tempts you to open another one of your specially reserved bottles.  Another rousing success in the Single Vineyard line of the Golan Heights winery, this full bodied wine is a delight that will continue to impress and bring pleasure for years to come.  I’d give the wine another year for the tannins to settle down and for the fruit to take its proper place but then the wine should cellar nicely through 2020.

Golan Heights Winery, Yarden, Single Vineyard, Elrom, Cabernet Sauvignon, 2008:  The first release of the Elrom Single Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon began as a special release with the 2001 vintage but has since evolved into nearly yearly releases, as the Golan Heights Winery seemingly saturates the market with their Single Vineyard wines.  However one may feel about this phenomenon, there is really no room for reservations with regard to anything coming out of the amazing Elrom vineyard and this wine is no exception – incredible.  While I am not as convinced as others that every 2008 wine is an oenophilic fantasy, this wine comes pretty close.  A big, rich and complex full-bodied wine that converts you to its charms the second it’s poured into your glass.  Rich black fruits of blackberries, currents and sweet cherries together with gripping tannins, plenty of oak, cedar and crushed Mediterranean herbs on both the nose and palate leading into a long lingering finish of black fruit, a hint of spicy oak, chocolate and a tint of mint.  With a round and mouth filling palate, this wine can actually be enjoyed now, however it would be a crime to do so as the amount of potential for growth in this wine is overwhelming and your cellaring patience will be rewarded in a few years as the various components of this wine continue to integrate and complement each other.  I’d wait at least 12-18 months before opening and would expect this wine to cellar nicely through 2019 [Shmittah].

Golan Heights Winery, Yarden, Katzrin, 2008:  After almost 20 years at the top, Israel’s top wine doesn’t show any sign of slowing down or relinquishing its crown.  Victor Schoenfeld worked his magic with a terrific vintage and providing us with liquid gold that embodies all a Moshiach Wine should be.  Easily one of Israel’s top all-around wines and destined to find its way onto my annual “Best Wines of” list for 2012.  A blend of 87% Cabernet Sauvignon and 13% Merlot from the winery’s best vineyards (including Ortal, El-Rom and Yonatan), I have been eagerly anticipating for a while now given its belonging to the 2008 vintage, one of Israel’s best to date.  The blending components spent 18 months in new French oak before being blended together and returned to the barrels for another 6 months.  While many of the Yarden wines tend to be a bite on the ripe and oaky side (while maintaining elegance and amazingness for the most part), this wine is deep, complex, layered and powerfully elegant with some much promise wrapped up in its lovely package of rich back and red fruit, cassis, oriental spices, black pepper, rich chocolate, gripping tannins, hints of orange peel, Mediterranean herbs, cedar, tobacco leaf and freshly brewed espresso that seems to go on forever with every 20 minutes bringing fresh notes and aromas.  Given the Katzrin’s proclivity to open up and reveal additional layers of aromas, flavors and complexity I requested that an additional pour be set aside for me in a separate class and I returned to taste this twice over the course of the evening, giving me some insight into what we can all expect form this wine.  Surprisingly approachable now (although I’d open it half a day in advance if enjoying now), this wine shouldn’t be touched for at least two years and, retaining its place as Israel’s best aging wine, should cellar through 2028, maybe longer.  Given the wine’s historical aging ability I am not planning on opening any of my bottles for at least five years.  Despite a hefty cost, this wine is probably the best oenophilic investment available for the kosher wine consumer (especially in large-format bottles) [Shmittah].

Golan Heights Winery, Yarden, Gewürztraminer, 2011:  A longtime favorite of mine (but not a traditional Gewürztraminer) that never seems to get any love or recognition.  A crying shame since this is a well-made wine with plenty of rich notes of lychee, rosewater, tropical fruits, some honeysuckle and warm spices leading into a medium bodied palate of ripe guava, pineapple and more lychee together with some citrus and a hint of spice with enough acidity to keep the wine fresh and lively leading into a nice finish of more fruit and spice.  Drink now through 2013.

Older Tasting Notes (May 28, 2010)

Golan Heights Winery, Gamla, Brut, n.v.: For years GHW produced a vintage Blanc de Blanc and Brut under the Yarden label but for almost a decade now only the Blanc de Blanc has been produced under that label and they have produced a Brut under the Gamla label (which is currently in some turmoil – stay tuned for further details). As you can see from the note below, they currently have both a non-vintage (made from combining grapes from several vintages – a common practice for sparkling wines) and a vintage wine reviewed below. This one a blend of 50% Pinot Noir and 50% Chardonnay with great acidity and bubbles coupled with green apples, toasted white bread and lime. A great food matcher and good with almost anything.

Golan Heights Winery, Gamla, Brut, 2007: More complex than its non-vintage sibling reviewed above, this wine has the traditional green apple and yeasty notes you would expect from a Champagne together with sharp bubbles that hang on for as long as you can resist sipping this delightful treat which is somehow lighter and fresher than the Yarden Blanc de Blanc but just as crisply dry.

Golan Heights Winery, Gamla, Nebbiolo, 2006: Another example of GHW being trend-setters and not afraid to experiment with new varietals. In this case the Nebbiolo grape which is a red Italian grape predominately associated with the Piedmont region where it is the primary component in Barolo and other wines. Loads of cherries and other black fruits together with hints of licorice and earthy notes but also with tannins that are still struggling to find their way among the oak and fruits. While tasty and approachable now, I would suggest giving this one at least another 12 months before opening. To the best of my knowledge, this wine is only available at the winery in limited quantities but I also have heard that it is served if some restaurants

Golan Heights Winery, Yarden, Gewurztraminer, 2009: In my opinion both the variety itself and definitely GHW’s version of it are among the most under appreciated wines out there. Simply delicious and quirky as well as a fine match to many difficult food-pairings; this Gewürztraminer attains almost perfect harmony among its fruits, flowers and bracing acidity. Loaded with notes of freshly bloomed spring flowers, lychees, and tropical fruit with a long finish this is a great summer wine that should be a year-round staple of your wine-drinking repertoire.

Golan Heights Winery, Yarden, Syrah, 2005: Looking back over my notes from the last couple years I realized that I had never written about two wines that were “groundbreaking” back in the day – their Syrah (not to be confused with the single-vineyard version we all know and love but that is a relative newcomer to the scene) and their Pinot Noir reviewed below. I was initially not a fan of their Syrah but over the years they adapted and seemed to have gotten things just right with this one (obviously the 2004 Ortal Syrah was great as well). An elegant wine that can easily be described as an iron fist hiding behind a velvet glove given its muscular tannins, spicy wood and nice hints of smoke. Nice blackberries, raspberries, dark chocolate and espresso backed up by more spice and a long, mouth-filling finish; make this wine quite a treat.

Golan Heights Winery, Yarden, Pinot Noir, 2005: Given their global positioning and abundance of sun, many Israeli wines are fruit bombs loaded with oak (even when well crafted and delicious) with Castel being a winery that stands out for its adherence to subdued elegance over blockbusterish fruit. Pinot Noir is a grape that requires careful cultivating and care in order to coax out its full bag of charms. While GHW’s version doesn’t seem to me to be a true representation of the genre it is a delicious and interesting wine nonetheless. A heavy wine that sits in the middle of your palate and demands attention. Redolent of grilled meat along with the more traditional berries and smoke lead into an incredibly long and fulfilling finish, this wine is a blockbuster – an “Israeli” Pinot if you would.