Hard Earned Success: Best Wines of 2011

#197 – December 23, 2011

As we close in on the end of the Gregorian calendar, we are blanketed by the media in all its iterations with multiple lists of the “best of” or “top 10” of any and everything under the planet from clothing and outrageous styles to restaurants and wine. While the lists can sometimes be a little “out there” (does anyone really care about the “Top 10 Outrageous Kanye West Moments”?), they do provide a nice look back at the year that was, commemorating those which deserve to be commemorated for better or for worse. In keeping with that tradition and in the hope of promoting those deserving wines, this newsletter contains the tasting notes for the best wines I tasted during 2011. As the selection process this year was surprisingly difficult, I have posted on my website the runners up to this list who are just as deserving of your attention and the list can be accessed here.

As would behoove any attorney worth his salt, a few appropriate qualifiers. Given that my day job limits the amount of time I have to dedicate to wine and my limited wallet puts a damper on the number of wines I get to taste each year, despite my best intentions I don’t taste every one of the approximately 1,500 kosher wines released every year. Also this list is derived only from wines I tasted for the first time this year and about which I have not written about in prior years (excluding barrel tastings or tasting where the wine was clearly not yet ready to drink) with one exception that actually brings the list to 11 wines – the 1990 Katzrin I opened in honor of Daniel Rogov’s (z”l) tribute dinner in Israel a short time before he passed away. As a result of these exclusions, there are plenty of great wines released this year that are not on this list and I’d love to hear from you which were your favorite wines this year.

Reflecting the international nature of this newsletter’s readership, a few of these wines are not available in the United States (like the Gvaot and Recanati Special Reserve White) and some are pretty tough to find even in the US, however these are all wines worthy of your perseverance and will be well-worth the time and money expenditure.

This year, in addition to the best wines and in honor of Chanukah, I have also included eight (one for each night) of the most exciting or interesting wines I tasted this year turning this week’s edition into quite the long one but worthy of your time – hope you enjoy and would love to hear your 2011 favorites!


Binyamina, The Cave, Old Vine Cabernet Sauvignon, 2007: I was never a big fan of Binyamina’s boutique Cave wines, finding them underwhelming and overpriced. This changed with the 2006 vintage that I loved and included it in my Pessach Shopping List. The party continues with this 2007 Single Version Old Vine version produced as a very limited edition (1,200 bottles) from the famed Kerem Ben-Zimra vineyard. A rich nose and palate of blackberries, plums and black cherries along with earthy notes of forest and cloves. Nice notes of sweet oak, tar, acid combine with well integrated yet powerful tannins for a deep, complex and rich wine with a long and caressing finish. I probably opened this wine a little too early which, while eminently enjoyable now, will continue to improve in the bottle for another for a few years and cellar comfortably through 2018.

Covenant, Solomon, Cabernet Sauvignon, 2008: Leslie Rudd finally granted Jeff his wish and allowed a Covenant wine to be made from his coveted and acclaimed Napa Valley grapes with darn good results. While produced in basically the same manner as the Covenant, the Solomon presents more fruit forward, Napa Valley-like, with really plush fruit (without being overly ripe), including plums, currants, blackberries, raspberries, black cherry, rich back earth and well integrated tannins. As with all Covenant wines, a deep and complex wine with layer after layer of fruit, wood and chocolate. One of the more expensive kosher wines at about $150, but a great comparison with the regular 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon that allows you to experience the difference the actual fruit can make in a wine. A wine blessed with longevity, I look forward to tasting this wine again over the coming years and will, g-d willing¸ serve it at Ilana’s Bat-Mitzvah in 10 years as this wine should cellar nicely through 2020.

Carmel, Limited Edition, 2007: I get to enjoy this wine less than I would like due to its cost but this is an awesomely elegant wine that I had the pleasure of tasting in the company of Adam Montefiore a few months ago. An amazing blend of Cabernet Sauvignon (57%), Petit Verdot (31%), Merlot (5%), Malbec (5%) and Cabernet Franc (2%), all from Carmel’s vineyards in the Upper Galilee and aged in French oak for 15 months with 13.5% alcohol. A smooth and generous wine with a ripe and extracted nose of rich and warm forest fruit, oriental spices, black pepper and some vanilla most of which follows onto a mouth filling palate of more fruit, some spicy oak, spices and some dark chocolate leading into a lingering finish. Highly enjoyable right now (especially in the right company), this wine will continue to develop for another year or so and should cellar comfortably through 2020.

Four Gates, Cabernet Franc, 2006: The 2005 vintage of this wine was my first tasting of a Four Gates wine and a delicious and true prelude to all those that followed. Probably among the nicest Cabernet Franc wines I have had and very different from some of the Israeli versions I love. A full-bodied wine with a packed nose that had those delicious green notes I love in Cabernet Franc, including green pepper and eucalyptus, together with floral notes, tobacco, red pepper (!?) cherries and raspberries, most of which continued on the palate, adding a nice herbaceous note, bittersweet chocolate, cedar wood; all opening up in consecutively delightful layers. The wine leaves you with a long velvety caressing finish and craving another bottle. A bottle that literally made me sit up and say – wow and weeping softly given that it is no longer available! Once the new vintage is released grab all you can (otherwise I will).

Golan Heights Winery, Yarden, Katzrin, 1990: Notwithstanding the proliferation in recent years of single vineyard wines from the Golan Heights Winery and the newly introduced and delicious Rom, in my opinion the Katzrin remains Israel’s reigning champ and stands alone as the undisputed flagship wine of Israel’s top winery. At 21 years of age, easily the oldest living Israeli wine I have enjoyed, drinking this wine was an incredible experience (the wine was stored in my Israeli cellar since release in about 1993 and transferred to my US cellar in 2004 when I moved to NYC from Israel). I opened the bottle in honor of Daniel Rogov, Israel’s top and unparalleled wine [and food] critic whose innumerable accomplishments were honored Tuesday night in Israel with almost every Israeli wine personality in attendance. My sadness at being unable to attend and honor Rogov’s achievements and incredible generosity of knowledge was only slightly tempered by the incredible wine and steak I enjoyed in the hope of providing a fitting tribute from the other side of the ocean (two inch rib eye from Park East butcher is about as good a kosher piece of meat you will ever find in your life – guaranteed). For many years, the Katzrin was GHW’s only “top” (read expensive) wine, released in “special” years with the older vintages being 1990, 1993, 1996, 2000 before the tempo increased somewhat with 2003, 2004, 2005 and 2007 releases. While the single vineyard and Rom wines are good, if I had to make a choice I would plunk down my hard earned shekels for the Katzrin over the others for its elegance and proven ageability.

I stood the wine upright in my cellar overnight, and removed it about four hours before I intended to enjoy it and opened it up an hour before serving. While there was a bit of sediment, the color of this majestic wine is still near-royal purple, with zero age-related browning. Deliciously muted notes of blackberries, currants, cherry and other, mostly black, forest fruits on the nose with hints of warm spices and vanilla in the background. On the palate supple tannins now completely integrated with the fruit, chocolate and wood, maintaining the near impeccable balance this wine has kept up over its years. A long finish with hints of oak and plenty of slightly minty dark chocolate. While this wine is probably not going to get any better, I’d go out on a limb and say that, if properly stored, it probably has a few years of enjoyment left (as it starts a stately decline). Mama Mia – this is a wine and a fitting tribute to the man who has done so much for Israeli wine and my personal knowledge of the wine world. Salut Rogov

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, 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 compliment each other. I’d wait at least 12-18 months before opening and would expect this wine to cellar nicely through 2019 [Shmitta].

Louis de Sacy, Grand Cru, Brut Champagne, n.v.: One of the things to be wary of when buying non-vintage Champagne is how long it has been sitting around since bottling (the bottles are stamped with a code indicating the bottling time but these are highly secret). I purchased this straight from the cellar of Sherry-Lehman thus guaranteeing myself a good result. Made from a traditional Champagne blend of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay (with some Pinot Meunier thrown in for good measure and character). Nice tangy berries including raspberries with plenty of lime and oranges to go with hazelnuts, some honey and yeasty bread all blend together for a delightful treat that went amazingly well with our celebratory dinner. Tons of tightly wound bubbles that lingered throughout the entire bottle also contributed to making this a wine to which I will return (especially now that my favorite Nicolas Feuillatte is no longer available.

Segal, Unfiltered, Cabernet Sauvignon, 2007: An unbelievably delicious wine whose popularity and cult-like following has unfortunately succeeded in overshadowing many of Segal’s other great wines, including one of my favorites – the single vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon from the Dishon vineyard. That said, while the price point for this wine may be a bit excessive the adoration it garners is well deserved, especially if one exhibits a bit of restraint and patience. If you allow this wine some graceful cellaring time to mature and for the oak influence of 25 months of aging to recede a bit, you will be rewarded with nothing short of magnificence. Full bodied, with tons of black currents, cherries, sweet blackberry and a hint of juicy plum on the nose along with background noises of spicy oak, rich dark chocolate, all of which are enveloped with a good jolt of acid and tannin granting the wine the balance and structure to be a great wine. The palate contains more of the same with more oak, roasted Mediterranean herbs, a tinge of green and some warm spices leading into a fruit and dark chocolate laden finish with more crushed herbs and a pleasing bitterness lingering. While eminently drinkable now, I’d give this wine another year before letting it loose and it should cellar nicely for another 8 years or so, maybe longer.

Tzora, Misty Hills, 2007: I have not written about this winery in over two years and it’s long overdue for some serious exposure on these pages. This will be rectified in a few weeks with a Tzora newsletter as I had the great opportunity to spend some quality time with Uri (managing Partner) and Eran (wine maker) on my recent trip and, in addition to tasting a nice selection of their wines, got some nice details on the wines and winery to be shared soon. The highly qualified flagship wine, a rich and full bodied blend of Cabernet Sauvignon (70%) and Syrah (30%) that really gets the juices flowing on any self-respecting wine lover. A ripe and juicy nose of rich red fruit that turns to back after a bit starts with raspberries, gooseberries and currants together with cherries and plums and then brings forth rich blackberries and black currents tinged with earthy minerals, warm spices that follow through onto a layered and loaded palate of more rich fruit, warm spices and a bit of good dark chocolate. Despite the relatively high 15% alcohol, there is no heat to be found and the once muscular tannins have integrated nicely providing a solid backbone to the inviting medley of fruit, spice and oak. Drinking perfectly right now the wine will likely last through 2015 or so.

Yatir, Yatir Forest, 2006: The undisputed flagship wine of Yatir and, in my opinion, a candidate for flagship of the Israeli wine industry generally. An undisputed champ every year, it’s scary to think what the amazing 2008 Shmittah vintage will yield for this wine. While the winery uses a different blend every year, Cabernet Sauvignon grapes are always the dominant ones used (the 2002 vintage was actually 100% Cabernet Sauvignon). This vintage is a blend of 50% Cabernet Sauvignon, 38% Petit Verdot and 12% Merlot. The superlatives for this wine go on and on but I will be brief since I am sure you got the point by now. The wine spent 16 months aging in predominately French oak (one-third new barrels), resulting in a wine that will easily make it to Zevi’s Bar-Mitzvah (thankfully all my kids were born in great vintages – 2001, 2006 & 2008). Plenty of red and black fruit on the nose including blackcurrants, raspberries, red cherries and plums with noticeable oak as well. The palate delivers in a big way, with a mouth-filling array of red (and some black) fruit, chocolate, grilled meat, more spicy oak, Mediterranean herbs reflecting the wine’s birthplace and a fleeting sweetness to the tannins that enchants. A long, lingering finish wraps you in chocolate, wood, vanilla, spice and all that is nice.

Yatir, Petit Verdot, 2008: For some reason Eran continues to taunt me by creating single varietals of all their blending agents except for Cabernet Franc (he doesn’t think it does well enough on its own to stand alone as a Yatir wine). However, it would be impossible to do anything but acquiesce to every decision Eran makes as everything from the House of Yatir is amazingly good and this wine is no exception but rather another well-deserved in an overflowing headdress of feathers. Blended with 15% of Cabernet Franc this wine has a delightful inky-black core of black forest fruit, Mediterranean herbs and hints of oak. The Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc were aged separately in French oak for 12 months and then blended. Rich blackberries, black plums and other rich black fruit combine with hints of roasted rosemary and tarragon, roasted coffee beans and a bit of oak. Plenty of robust tannins that still need some time to settle down but that bode extremely well for the future of this incredible wine. I’d give this wine 18 months at least to get its stuff in order after which is should cellar comfortably through 2019 [Shmitta].


Capçanes, La Flor de Flor, 2007: As the Peraj Ha’abib from Capcanes has long been my one of my favorite wines, I was very excited when they released this 100% Garnacha wine, with grapes from vines that are between 85-105 years old. The wine manages to be full-bodied, elegant and feminine in one fell swoop, while remaining rich, deep and concentrated. Well integrated, near-sweet tannins provide a solid backbone for layers of black cherries, plums, violets and other flowers, spices and some dark chocolate, with hints of smoky oak and flinty minerals. A long finish rounds out this wine that will probably be at its best in a year or so and cellar for up to another eight years after that.

Carmel, Mediterranean, 2008: A new wine by Carmel launched with the 2007 vintage and part of Carmel’s upper tier of wines which, in addition to this one includes their Limited Edition and Single Vineyard series. Over the last couple of years, one of the hot topics of discussion within wine-geek circles has been methodologies for promoting the increasingly excellent Israeli wines beyond their current and natural “kosher” niche. A prevailing trend is to promote these wines as being Mediterranean wines with a specific structure and terrior influence. I believe this was one of the driving forces behind this wine (evidenced, to some extent, by its name). An interesting blend of Carignan (30%), Shiraz (26%), Petit Verdot (20%), Petit Sirah (15%), Malbec (2%) and Viognier (2%)(!) that creates some interesting action on both the nose and palate. A similar blend to the inaugural 2007 vintage with only the 2% Malbec being addition the percentages of the other components changing only slightly and yielding a mostly similar wine with the intended individual characteristics remaining. Plenty of crushed blackberries and gooseberries, ripe plums, black cherries with some tangy notes matching up nicely to the spicy oak, bold tannins and white pepper. In keeping with the substantial 2008 vintage the fruit is slightly richer but the wine is in no way any less elegant. The wine spent 15 months in French oak. Whether Carmel and this wine succeed on their mission we can only hope and time will tell, but regardless, the wine is definitely another fine example of the great goings-on at Carmel. Drinkable now, the wine should stick around until 2018 [Shmitta].

Dalton, Petite Sirah, Estate, 2009: Dalton is rapidly on its way to challenging the Galil Mountain Winery for the best QPR wines. It’s producing some great wines in the Estate series and its first varietal release of a Petite Sirah is no exception. A very aromatic wine redolent of lavender with plenty of jammy fruits and black pepper on both the nose and palate. As opposed to some of the other Petite Sirah wines reviewed, this one was less characteristically true by being approachable out of the bottle with less robust tannins that were better integrated as well. A round and mouth-filling wine that is an YH Best Buy.

Ella Valley Vineyards, Petite Sirah, 2007: An extremely limited edition that was only available in Israel, I first tasted this a while back at a wine tasting organized by the Israeli economic mission to the US. I emailed Avi-Ben from the tasting to request a number of bottles which I was lucky enough to secure and a subsequent tasting of this wine only served to validate my opinion of its deliciousness! The first time Petite Sirah released by the winery and, like literally everything else they make, it is a success. Characteristically powerful tannins wrapped around gobs of jammy black fruit including blueberries, blackberries and cassis, together with some cigar box notes make this a wine to contend with. However, all that power is wrapped in an elegant velvet covering making this rich wine somewhat restrained and allowing you to take in all it has to offer. A medium to long finish rounds this one out.

Recanati, Reserve, Syrah/Viognier, 2009: Recanati is certainly making a huge splash on these lists with three respectable representations with this wine being my favorite of the three. The addition of 3% Viognier to this meaty Syrah really has a nice effect on this wine creating a huge nose of ripe red and slightly jammy fruit including cherries and currants with hints of flinty minerals backed up by well integrated solid tannins, freshly cracked black pepper all of which follow through onto the palate, all leading into a long and rich finish. One of the more interesting wines I have tasted this year and definitely indicative of the amazing things Gil and Ido are doing at Recanati.

Recanati, Reserve, Kerem Ba’al, Carignan, 2009: Given the success Carmel has had with its Old Vine Carignan, it was only a matter of time before another awesome expression of the varietal founds its way to the market. In addition to being over 30 years old, these are true bush vines from the Judean Hills, that have flourished since their planting without irrigation, pruning, support (known as the “goblet” system) or other methods of human meddling (Ba’al is loosely Hebrew for wild). As would be expected, these are low-yield vines of less than two tons per acre. A wine that gracefully straddles power and elegance. Muscular tannins that needed half an hour to an hour to soften up in my glass and allow the fruit and spice to shine through but very much in balance with the fruit. Plenty of blackberries, currents and other black forest fruit along with warm spices, chocolate, espresso, white pepper and anise on both the nose and palate, with a good jolt of balancing acidity leading into a medium finish that lingers nicely. The fruit is on the restrained side and elegant, which is consistent with Recanati’s recent direction away from fruit forward wines towards retrained Mediterranean elegance. Very different and delicious, this wine is another candidate for some serious cellaring. A limited edition wine with about 5,900 bottles produced.

Shirah, Power to the People, Syrah, 2009: Another hit from the Weiss brothers. If it is really true that many people select their wines solely based on the label – the future is bright for them as they have the most awesome wine labels of any kosher wine. Following closely on their One Two Punch and Syraph wines, the black velvet label is simply gorgeous. Luckily for us, at least in this instance you can judge a wine by its label, as the contents are well-worthy of the awesome label. The 2% of Viognier with which this wine was blended (and fermented) shines through far more than one would expect for 2%, as initially the nose and palate were dominated by peach, apricot and guava flavors and was almost medium bodied (far from what was expected after the blockbuster Syraph). After half an hour or so, the delicious California Syrah reared its beautiful head and rewarded us with plums, cherries and a hint of ripe raspberry accompanied by plenty of smoky wood, some warm spice, dark chocolate, anise all wrapped in well integrated tannins and delivering a round, mouth filling and delicious wine with a medium cigar and chocolate finish with a minty tang. Not a typical Syrah but a great drinking experience (available directly from the winery) and a wine that should cellar comfortably for at least five years if not longer (and will continue to develop for at least a few more coming together perfectly over the years).

Teperberg, Terra, Malbec, 2007: Another YH Best Buy and a nice attempt at a grape that has proven elusive in the kosher quality wine category (Royal and Rothschild co-produce another nice version – the Fleches). Still going strong with currants, cherries, blackberries, espresso, slightly smoky wood, vanilla and chocolate. This was my last bottle for the vintage and a good thing as it probably has 6-9 months left on it, not more.