Historical Connections (Personal Israeli Wine Milestones)

#331 – May 1, 2017

As you know, today we transition from Yom HaZikaron to Yom HaAtzmaut – Israel’s 69 Independence Day – so Happy Birthday of Israel! A little related tidbit I picked up this weekend is that due to Israel’s desire to avoid the desecration of Shabbat in connection with any national events, since 1952 Tuesday is the only day of the week on which Yom HaAtzmaut is celebrated Bo BaYom (on the actual date Israeli independence was declared – the fifth day of Iyar), which is why this year we celebrate it on the eve of the sixth day of Iyar. Yom HaAtzmaut caps one of the most emotionally tumultuous weeks of the year with Yom HaShoah and Yom HaZikaron (Israel’s Memorial Day) just ending and Yom HaAtzmaut coming right up. On a personal note, this week is easily the hardest for me to be living out of Israel, especially given the tremendous difference between how all three days (along with the coming Yom Yerushalayim) are commemorated in the US and Israel. It is during this week that the famous words of Yehuda HaLevi rings particularly true for me – “Libi Ba’Mizrach V’Anochi B’sof Ma’arav” (My heart is in the east and I am at the edge of the West)).

One of those glib memes floating around social media actually resonated with me as it explained the connection between these three powerfully emotional days we experience every year in rapid succession – Israel has two official remembrance days (Yom HaShoah and Yom HaZikaron . One is to remind us of the cost of having a Jewish state and the other serves to remind us the cost of not having one. The dramatic shift from Yom HaShoah’s deep anguish and strong feelings of “Never Again” to the monumentally important Yom HaZikaron where we honor those of gave their lives in defense of Israel, whose continued existence is paramount to protecting Jews everywhere (backing up the promise of never again) culminating with tonight’s joyous uplifting Yom HaAtzmaut (marked by the reciting of Hallel and notes of smoky grilled meat that permeate Israel for the next 24 hours) can be somewhat jarring, even to those who have spent their entire life experiencing this roller-coaster week of emotional occasions. However, as with many other Israeli experiences, the extremity of our emotions is what helps make Israel the incredible and unique country we all love so much.

My originally planned newsletter will come on Thursday but in honor of Israel’s birthday and taking inspiration for a delightful article by Adam Montefiore a few years ago, I have listed some Israel wines that are personal milestones for me in my continued journey through Israel’s ongoing wine revolution. While the list may seem a bit long to some of you, it is nowhere close to encompassing all the incredible Israeli wines I have enjoyed over the 26 years I have been enjoying Israeli wine. While my first exposure to quality wine was actually via French Bordeaux, growing up in Israel afforded me a first row seat to the resurgence of the Israeli wine industry as it retakes its rightful place among the great emerging wine-producing regions of the world (hopefully this newsletter has played at least some small part in this as well). I note that this list is truly personal and focuses on these wines that are meaningful to me for one reason or another as opposed to the wines that have won medals or brought international fame to them or the industry as a whole (although many of the wines listed accomplished that as well). Most of these wines are so special that I remember them and their impact from years ago without the need for any notes whatsoever.

Looking over the list, you will notice the disproportionate number of wines produced by the Golan Heights Winery. As the country’s leading winery for decades, this shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone, especially with its success in producing the largest number of truly ageable Israeli wines (the 2000 Katzrin we enjoyed last week in honor of the Rosh Chodesh Club’s fourth anniversary is a terrific example of this success). Recent years have seen the numbers shift, not only due to the increasing excellence showcased by other wineries who are managing to produce many cellar-worthy wines of their own on a consistent basis. Further analysis of the list shows the increase of notable wines in later vintages reflecting the tremendous proliferation of Israeli wineries and the exponential growth of available quality kosher wines produced by this tiny wine growing region with a winemaking history going back over 5,000 years. One additional interesting anecdote is the preponderance of white wines towards the end of the list which showcases the increasing popularity of white wines among Israeli drinkers the accompanying drive by Israeli wineries to satisfy this desire with quality options.

Given that sharing wine and related experiences is one of the most enjoyable aspects of being a wine lover, I’d really love to hear from you folks which are your own personal Israeli wine milestones!

Chag Samaech,

Carmel, Special Reserve, Cabernet Sauvignon, 1976: This was Israel’s first “real” wine and, for some folks, it lasted nearly two decades. I had the pleasure of enjoying a bottle in 1990 and, while I didn’t have sufficient comparative wine tasting experience at that time to fully appreciate its greatness, it was a delicious and memorable bottle at the time it was enjoyed, only a few years after I started really “getting into wine (at the age of 16). I still have the empty bottle!

Golan Heights Winery, Yarden, Cabernet Sauvignon, 1985: The earliest vintage of Israel’s iconic and benchmark wine that I had the pleasure of tasting. The first vintage was in 1984 (which was also the wine which won a number of important international awards and really first placed Israel on the international wine map (a process that we are still working on nearly 30 years later)). For decades this wine, together with the Katzrin whose first vintage was 1990 – see below, was the only Israeli wine capable of long term aging and even today, it remains a reliable ageable wine and the benchmark against which most Israeli Cabernet Sauvignon wines are measured and priced (although, as discussed on multiple occasions, recent years have seen a new trend among Israeli winemakers away from its style).

Golan Heights Winery, Yarden, Late Harvest Sauvignon Blanc, 1988: The only Israeli wine to ever be naturally effected by botrytis and a unique milestone in Israel’s incredible vinographic history. I got to taste the wine only once, and was equally overwhelmed by its historical importance and deliciously unique taste.

Golan Heights Winery, Yarden, Katzrin, 1990: Israel’s first “Super Israeli”, which instantly became Israel’s ‘best’ wine, a title it held for many years (and many would say, still holds today). I recently had a bottle of this wine from the 1990 vintage and, as you can see, it was still drinking quite nicely boding quite well for the ageability of subsequent vintages (in 1993, 1996, 2000, 2003, 2004, 2007, 2008, 2011 and 2012).

Dalton, Reserve, Cabernet Sauvignon, 1997: For a few years, this was my go-to high-end Cabernet Sauvignon, which provided many happy memories and delightful vinous experiences placing Dalton on a favored winery list. Subsequently, the quality of Dalton deteriorated for a few years before coming back with a vengeance and transforming into the incredible winery we have today.

Golan Heights Winery, Yarden, Blanc de Blanc, 1998: Though the 2007 release may be my favorite vintage of this wine earning it a place on the list below), surpassing even the terrific 1999 version I loved so much (not only because it was my anniversary year wine), the 1998 was the first vintage sparkling wine I experienced and it held a special place in my heart for many years.

Golan Heights Winery, Yarden, Cabernet Sauvignon, 1999: Significant only on a personal level as 1999 is the year I got married and this wine is the only living Israeli wine from that vintage that Ayala and I enjoy every year on our anniversary. While still drinking well, it is starting to get a little long in the tooth and it will soon be time to switch to one of the few other [French] kosher wines from that vintage that are still alive.

Tishbi, Special Reserve, Single Vineyard Ben Zimra, Cabernet Sauvignon, 1999: Released together with two other single vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon wines from the same vintage (from the Sde Boker and Kfar Yuval vineyards) proving an innovation of single vineyard releases and amazing comparative tasting experience together with some nice aging ability.

Bustan, Merlot, 2000: Among my first experiences of a boutique-winery wine, enjoyed during the initial stages of the boutique craze that overtook Israel during the 1990s. Despite being released in small quantities, Avi Ben always had a good stock and they turned me onto this winery early on, a passion that has continued to this day, despite the “failure” of the wines to take hold here in the United States.

Carmel. Single Vineyard Ramat Arad, Cabernet Sauvignon, 2000: Honestly, despite all empirical evidence to the contrary, this wine seemed to live forever and, for quite some time, was one of Israel’s best kosher wines for those in the know. I got much pleasure from having enjoyed this on release, subsequently purchasing a number of bottles and enjoying its development over the years.

Galil Mountain, Yiron, 2000: The first released vintage of this ubiquitous wine that reined as Israel’s primary QPR wine for years, easily providing the most wine for your shekels. While it is no longer the only great wine at a decent price, it remains a contender even after a decade of potential competition.

Tabor, Meshcha, 2001: A delicious wine that put Tabor on the quality wine making map and kept it there for a few years, unfortunately recently (in my opinion), falling from grace.

Golan Heights Winery, Yarden, Noble Semillon, Botrytis, 2001: I believe this was one of Israel’s first botrytis wines after the magnificently unique 1988 one noted above, albeit made from late harvested grapes manually exposed to botrytis in the winery as opposed to naturally occurring botrytis as in the 1988 version. In any event, a delightful dessert wine that instantly became and remains a personal favorite, with the most recently released *and unfortunately last) vintage being from 2007.

Golan Heights Winery, Yarden, Single Vineyard Elrom, Cabernet Sauvignon, 2001: At release, and maybe even still today, the best Cabernet Sauvignon ever made in Israel and the beginning of Israel’s “Single Vineyard” craze (although Tishbi had already championed and produced such wines with the 1999 vintage) which continues to be lead today by the Golan Heights Winery (although too much leading may not necessarily a good thing) accompanied by Carmel, Segal (with their delightful Dishon vineyard releases) and a few other wineries.

Castel, Grand Vin, 2002: The first kosher release from the winery, which had been garnering international acclaim since Serena Sutcliffe of Sotheby’s “discovered” it in 1992. For 2002, Castel produced a kosher and non-kosher version (the first kosher Petite Castel and “C” chardonnay did not arrive until the 2003 vintage); thereafter going “completely kosher” and the rest is history.  We recently enjoyed this wine and were delighted to see it was still going strong.

Yatir, Yatir Forest, 2002: While the 2003 vintage of this wine was arguably a “better wine”, the 2002 was the first vintage I tasted (2001 was the first vintage, though I tasted it at a later date) and it was love at first sip – literally! Deep, rich and complex, it was among my first “mind-blowing” wines and the start of a long lasting love affair with the exceptional Yatir Winery that continues to this day (although without a varietal Cabernet Franc there is a limit to my patience).

Ella Valley Vineyards, Vineyards Choice, Cabernet Sauvignon, 2002: Despite the so-called “curse” of the 2002 vintage (brought on by devastatingly hot (“sharav”) August temperatures), this wine excelled and stood out as a new and exciting addition to the Israeli wine scene (assisted by a huge [some say overdone] marketing push by the winery). Championed to me by Avi Ben, I loaded up on the wine and enjoyed it for years, subsequently becoming a huge fan of the winery.

Binyamina, HaChoshen, Syrah, Odem, 2003: A milestone wine for a number of reasons. It was the first vintage for Binyamina’s upscale HaChoshen label, which, in some ways, represented their ascendance back to the top tier of Israeli wineries. Interestingly enough, it was also one of the first Israeli Syrah wines to have some (2%) Viognier blended in, a practice now followed with many other top Syrah wines including the delightful version from Recanati.

Carmel, Single Vineyard, Kayoumi, Shiraz, 2003: The first vintage release from the magnificent Kayoumi vineyard (which ended up replacing for Carmel the previously immensely successful Ramat Arad one (that became part of Yatir) and the beginning of many great Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz and Riesling releases from the tremendously blessed parcel of earth.

Ella Valley Vineyards, Cabernet Franc, 2003: The first release of what was destined to become my favorite Israeli expression of my favorite grape. I just enjoyed the 2004 vintage of this wine last week – delightful!

Galil Mountain, Yiron, Syrah, 2003: The first release of the Yiron companion and among the first times I realized that Syrah was going to be doing tremendous things on Israel’s unique terroir.

Tzora, Givat HaChalukim, Cabernet Sauvignon, 2003: Despite going kosher in 2002, almost no wines were released from this vintage and this wine was the first I tasted from a winery, whose reputation for producing true, terroir-driven wines (before it became fashionable) was well-known.

Golan Heights Winery, Yarden, Viognier, 2004: The first vintage of this wine was in 2003 but the 2004 vintage was the first one I tasted. Well crafted, exciting and new at the time, it really turned me on to Viognier, which became quite the “hot little grape” in Israel for a few years, culminating in the excellent Dalton Wild Yeast version I have loved so much.

Golan Heights Winery, Rom, 2006: A new flagship wine for the Golan heights Winery, joining the Katzrin as one of Israel’s best and released to significant hype and fanfare substantially exacerbated by the late Daniel Rogov’s 96 point score – the highest ever for any Israeli wine and one of the top 3 scores for any kosher wine – ever by Daniel Rogov (or anyone else). A collaboration between the Golan Heights Winery’s longtime winemaker Victor Schoenfeld and famed wine maker Zelma Long)

Carmel, Mediterranean, 2007: Significant both by being a delicious wine that has aged really nicely and by its representation of Carmel’s leadership towards creating distinctly Israeli/Mediterranean wines that can represent Israeli on an international level as Israeli wines instead of the kosher label most Israeli wineries cannot seem to shake (even the non-kosher ones), although more and more wineries are seeing minor successes on this front, with Tzora being a prime example.

Golan Heights Winery, Yarden, Blanc de Blancs, 2007: While obviously not the first great sparkling wine produced by them, the 2007 was the best and rapidly became an RCC house-favorite and the sparkling wine I turn to most often (as an aside – we should all endeavor to drink sparkling wine much more often).

Recanati, Reserve, Wild Carignan, 2009: While this wasn’t the first quality release of the Carignan grape that historically was produced in Israel’s in the largest quantities, it was certainly one of the most interesting and demonstrative of the new path Recanati is on, away from the California-styled wines championed by former winemaker Lewis Pasco, towards more subtle, refined and terroir-driven wines led by awesome wine making team, Gil & Ido.

Gvaot, Gofna, Pinot Noir, 2009: While not the first Pinot Noir produced in Israel (or even the first really good one – the 2008 version from the Golan Heights Winery under the Yarden label is another stand out), this was the best and one which has become a regular part of Gvaot’s portfolio where it is released on a near-annual basis. The winemaker wisely avoided the trap of attempting to replicate the ethereal Burgundian style and instead focused on coaxing the maximum out of the grape as it developed under the hot Mediterannean sun. The results were delightful and blazed a path for other winemakers to try and follow.

Mia Luce, Rosso, 2009: The first official kosher vintage from this winery, whose talented winemaker’s “day job” is crafting the terrific wines of Recanati, it was another great interpretation of Israel’s resurgent Carignan. Taking advantage of his ability to use the same grapes as Recanati did, Kobi produced a wine is a dramatically different style – but just as good. Nearly ten years later the wine is still showing well and was an early indicator of the great things lying ahead for one of Israel’s greatest rising stars.

Castel, Rosé, 2009: The first Israeli Rose that had serious depth and complexity in addition to their crisp refreshingness. I begged Eli Ben-Zaken to add Rose to his repertoire of wines and with the current 2011 release, I am hopeful it becomes a regular staple in their portfolio as it is quite the delicious wine and perfect for long, contemplative summer days and a great match for many foods.

Flam, Noble, 2010: After establishing themselves as one of Israel’s greatest wineries, the Flam family wasn’t complacent enough to rest on their high-end and hard-earned laurels but rather surged ahead with a new flagship wine produced from their greatest plots. A Bordeaux blend that spends two years in the barrel and another two years aging in the bottles before release (while a great idea with plenty of practical reasoning, this is a first for an Israeli winery), it reflected in part the desire to continuously improve and innovate (not to mention the economic benefits of such a move).

Domaine Netofa, Fine Ruby Port, 2010: Domaine Netofa is one of Israel’s perennially underappreciated wineries, with Pierre producing top quality wines that don’t necessarily jive with the common expectations of kosher wine consumers. In addition to his fantastic Chenin Blanc-driven white wines and Rhone-focused red wines, he managed to produce a quality Port-style wine that immediately stood out among the many Israeli interpretations of this style. Reflecting the same care and quality control he brings to all his win (Israeli and French alike), the wine is a true delight and has become a mainstay of Domaine Netofa’s portfolio (which grew to include a LBV (Late Bottle Vintage) version as well.

Dalton, Single Vineyard, Semillon, Elkosh Vineyard, 2012:  Along with the following three wines – all white, this wine represents Israel’s renewed interest in white wines and continued excellence in coaxing the best of these varietals to slake the country’s thirst for refreshing and crisp white wines brought on by eight to nine months a year of hot Mediterannean sunshine. One of the only varietaly bottled Semillon wines; it was a delight that unfortunately has not been repeated as often as a like.

Tabor, Adama, Roussanne, 2012: With Tabor remerging as an Israeli powerhouse to be taken seriously, their continued experimentation with new varietals has been yielding great results and this initial release of Roussanne was one of the earliest indications of this new and welcome trend.

Tzora, Shoresh, White, 2013: Easily one of Israel’s top three wineries, winemaker (and now CEO) Eran Pick continues to show why the winery he helms has achieved sustained excellence for so long. Taking Sauvignon Blanc and turning into the winery’s showcase wine took guts but yielded dramatically amazing results, as the White Shoresh has turned into one of Israel’s best white wines ever since its initial release (get ‘em early as they tend to sell out quickly and are imported to the US is very limited quantities).

Recanati, Marawi, 2014: So much ink has been spilled about the importance of this wine (including by me), there is no need to go into great detail. Needless to say, the massive international recognition bestowed on the Israeli industry driven by this little wine was great for the country (even if the wine, in of itself, wasn’t a great wine). Derivative of Shivi Drori’s important research and drive to discover these ancient varietals, it also reflects Israeli curiosity and drive for innovation that has helped propel and keep Israel on the world’s stage for cutting technology and excellence.