#246 – 4/25/2013

I have spent a significant amount of time in these newsletters discussing the various trends the Israeli wine industry in undergoing, most recently in my end of 2012 newsletters, covering the past and the future of the Israeli wine industry.  Among these trends is utilization of different varietals at different points during Israel’s nearly 3000 year-old history of winemaking.  As a general matter, when I think of the different varietals produced in Israel during its more recent winemaking years, I place them into four different buckets (as with most musings, this isn’t an exact science and there plenty of overlaps).  Interestingly enough, the four buckets more-or-less coincide with four different stages in the evolution of Israel’s wine industry.

The first bucket includes the wines that combined to give Israeli wine a terrible name for so long.  This includes Kiddush (or sacramental) wine and the flabby, low acid wines made from high-yield Carignan (nothing like the quality versions I recommend here often), Concord, Chenin Blanc, Sémillon and other gems which were widely planted throughout Israel for years.  The second includes the classic Bordeaux varietals that were the catalyst for the launch of Israel’s wine revolution, as Israeli winemakers’ copied the success of their French counterparts with top-tier versions of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Chardonnay.  The third bucket includes the varietals that were forerunners to a real turning point for Israel – Syrah, Cabernet Franc and Carignan, along with Grenache, Mourvèdre and Chenin Blanc.  These varietals started getting serious love from Israeli winemakers in the last decade as the Israeli wine industry grappled with the problem of having Israeli wines marketed worldwide as Israeli instead of being banished to the corner under the “kosher” designation.  With a desire to find “Israel’s varietal” came a wave of experimentation and innovation that fueled this third bucket and gave rise to the fourth – the experiments.  As would be expected in a country built on innovation and chutzpa, the winemaking industry is no different, and winemakers across the country are constantly experimenting with successful and less successful varietals from around the world.  This fourth bucket includes well-known varietals such as Malbec, Sangiovese and Barbera and other, less known ones including Pinotage and Touriga Nacional.  The grapes are utilized in a host of ways and are bottled as single varietals, added to other wines to create better blends and are made into dessert wines in a host of methods including Port-style, late harvest and even icewine-style wines.

The topic of this week’s newsletter – Malbec, falls squarely into the fourth bucket of experimentation.  Despite its surging popularity and recent conquest of Argentina, there is relatively little Malbec being produced in Israel and nearly all Israeli Malbec wines are very recent additions to their respective winery’s portfolios (although, along with many other varietals, as the experimentation takes off, we are seeing it more and more).  That said, traditional Israeli chutzpa basically requires that some entrepreneurial winemakers try their hand at creating terrific Malbec from some of Israel’s best terroir, and with some succeeding quite nicely (both on a mass commercial level and with smaller batch delights) – the need for this newsletter was born.

Originally from Cahors, an interior region in the south of France, Malbec has a long history of being turned into quality wine; harkening back to the days of ancient Rome.  During the Middle Ages, this inky grape was the base of wines so dark they were known as “black wines”.  Over the years, substantial acreage across the region was planted with Malbec (locally referred to as “Côt”, “Côt Noir” or “Auxerrois”).  However, during the replanting in France which followed the phylloxera blight of the late 19th century that devastated most of Europe’s vineyards, (including most of France’s Malbec vines), Malbec wasn’t planted in the same quantity as before.  Compounding the issue, following a devastating frost in 1956 after which even less Malbec was replanted, Malbec’s prominence among France’s vineyard was further diminished (its susceptibility to disease exacerbated its losing ground to Cabernet Franc and Merlot as a primary Bordeaux blending agent).  The primary exclusion to this rule was Cahors, where Malbec was replanted in even greater quantities than before, both following the phylloxera blight and the killer frost.

For many years, Malbec’s primary role was as a blending agent in Bordeaux blends and other wines, its deep color, robust tannin and rich violet and plum-like flavors bringing some added “oomph” and complexity to the primarily Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot-based wines.  As Argentina’s success with the grape grew (see below), Cahors winemakers piggybacked on that success and started to make more single-varietal Malbec wines from the grapes historical birthplace (Cahor is a recognized AOC and requires a minimum of 70% to be designated Cahors).  Despite its robust appearance and deep flavors, the Malbec grape is actually a bit of a weakling (not a big surprise, given its history above), highly susceptible to many grape diseases including frost and mildew.  Further complicating one’s ability to produce high-quality Malbec wine, Malbec is a high-yielding grape, which usually results in lower intensity and aging ability, among other things.  As a result, excessive care must be taken in the vineyards to ensure the grapes’ survival and quality.

Despite having “migrated” to Argentina in the mid-19th century, its wasn’t until the late 1990’s that Argentinian winemakers began experimenting with quality Malbec wines, which experimentation ultimately resulted in the plush and plummy style of Malbec with mass appeal that rapidly overtook much of the world (seemingly stepping into what was previously Merlot’s position in the mass-market wine-guzzling, world), with the Mendoza region being recognized as Argentina’s premier Malbec-growing region.  Argentina’s Malbec is different from the French clones, growing in smaller clusters and producing smaller berries.  The flavor profile is also different, with Argentinian Malbec less tannic than its original French counterparts and presenting with lush mouth feel, redolent of ripe fruit flavors, resulting in an easy to drink wine that retains serious aging abilities.  Argentina’s recent success with the grape has resulted in a surge of popularity for the grape with winemakers from around the world planting Malbec in the hope of capitalizing on Argentina’s success.  These countries include the United States, where Malbec has been grown for 100 years (although until 20 years ago it was primarily used as a blending agent for “jug wine”), Chile (Argentina’s neighbor which produces more tannic and less popular versions of the wine), Italy and most recently Israel.

Despite the fact that much of Israel’s grape-growing regions have limestone soil, which is well-suited to Malbec, and the hot temperature protects Malbec from natural enemies like frost and mildew, there is still very little varietal Malbec being produced in Israel (only a few wineries utilize it in blends – the Castel Grand Vin being one example).  That said, as the fourth stage of Israeli winemaking experimentation continues to progress, we will likely see some slight increases in the number of wineries producing this temperamental grape, but it will likely still remain a niche play among a select group of winemakers.

For this week’s newsletter I have included tasting notes for a number of Israeli Malbecs (plus the sole quality kosher Argentinian option).  I recently tasted a number of Argentinian kosher Malbec wines that are not imported into the US (thank you GJ!), but they were unfortunately not up to par and I understand that, as with many other wine producing countries, the best kosher versions are exported to the United States, in many a case – 100% exported.  The Argentinian Flechas and Israeli Tishbi are easily available in the United States, while the Herzberg and Ramot Naftaly versions are only available in Israel (while Ramot Naftaly has recently been imported into the US, the imported portfolio doesn’t include the Malbec or their other top wines – the Barbera and Petit Verdot).

Three additional Malbecs that should be released soon include versions from the Golan Heights Winery (recent rumor), Gvaot and New York’s own City Winery.  I have only tasted the City Winery version which is delightful.  While I have not yet tasted the other two, given the track records of both the Golan Heights Winery and Gvaot, both are wines I am very much looking forward too – so stay tuned!

Flechas de los Andes, Gran Malbec, 2009:  If there was ever a classic BBQ wine with style, this is it.  The wine is the result of a successful partnership between Baron Rothschild and Laurent Dassault of Bordeaux fame and this third vintage of the wine is by far its most successful yet.  A wine that goes down easy but provides sufficient complexity to make it a crowd pleaser even for a “mixed crowd” (i.e. oenophile and non-wine enthusiasts).  A medium to full bodied wine with plush black fruit, grilled meat, tar, good bittersweet chocolate, rich espresso, pencil shavings and toasty oak on both the nose and palate.  A somewhat viscous wine that has a lot of perceived sweetness to it, from the fruit (think sweet blueberries picked and eaten straight off the bush on a hot August day and ripe figs), hints of caramel, lavender and “sweet” spices like cinnamon and nutmeg along with a hint of eucalyptus, all leading into a lingering finish of more sweet fruit with a pleasant spiciness.  Drinking really well now and meant to accompany a good hunk of meat (although it needs a decent amount of time in your glass or decanter to open up), this wine should cellar nicely until 2015.

Herzberg, Coteaux de Sitrya, Malbec, 2009:  I first tasted this wine a few years ago when I had it brought in especially for Sensi’s gala to benefit Meir Panim and really liked it.  Besides being a novelty (the only other Malbec was Teperberg’s inaugural 2007 version), the wine was delicious.  A nice nose of raspberries and red plums, some currants, sour cherries and some toasty oak.  A medium to full-bodied palate with plenty more red fruit, toasty oak, cedar, tobacco leaf, some minerals and mouth-coating tannin that brings everything together quite nicely, all leading into a caressing and lingering finish with more oak, roasted espresso and some sour cherries.  Drink now or over the next 12 months or so.  I also heard that Herzberg made a 100% Malbec Rosé in 2012 but have not tasted it yet (thanks DR).

Ramot Naftaly, Malbec, 2011 (advance tasting):  I wrote about Ramot Naftaly two years ago after enjoying them for the first time at the Sommelier Expo but didn’t get to experience their unique Malbec until after I had returned to the US.  I have since enjoyed the 2009, 2010 and the current, 2011, versions, all of which have been delightfully unique (both among themselves and in comparison to the other Israeli Malbec wines on the market).  While I typically don’t write about wines until they have been released (and I have tasted the released version), the 2010 vintage of this wine is completely sold out and tough to find making the 2011 the “current” version.  As I really enjoyed it, I felt it should be included here.  A nice nose of red fruit, currents and violets are tempered by some bramble and smoky oak lending depth and a hint of complexity.  A medium to full bodied palate has raspberries, cherries, currant and more bramble, wrapped in smoky notes of grilled meat, cigar box and some graphite, along with a nice dose of minerality and a touch of anise leading into a velvety finish of minerals, some fruit and more smoky oak.  Drink six months following release through 2016.

Teperberg, Terra, Malbec, 2009:  I enjoyed the inaugural 2007 vintage of this wine, which is traditionally not the easiest to grow; very few Israeli wineries make single varietal versions.  The 2009 vintage is just another indicator of the continuing improvement of this winery.  A full-bodied wine packed with mouth-watering acidity that makes for good food pairing, balanced with bright notes of black cherries, blackberries and notes of juicy plums on the nose and palate together with grilled meat, a slight hint of toasty & spicy oak, slightly saline minerals and some warm spices with a touch of Mediterranean herbs, leading into a medium to long finish with hints of chocolate, espresso and vanilla layered with more fruit.  A YH Best Buy that is delightful to drink now and which should cellar nicely through 2014, maybe longer.

Teperberg, Terra, Malbec, 2011:  The 2010 vintage is currently on the shelves but I recommend waiting for the 2011 version which is substantially better and an improvement on the 2009 vintage above which was the best Malbec Teperberg made, prior to the 2011 vintage.  An aromatic nose with more floral and lavender notes than the 2009 (or 2010) but with much of the same blackberries and plums, together with smoky oak, black pepper and cloves.  A full bodied and juicy palate with plenty of black fruit, spicy oak, caressing tanning that need time to integrate and chocolate are all held together in great balance.  The wine has a welcome higher dose of acidity than prior vintages keeping the fruit and oak alive on the palate and boding well for this wines future.  I’d wait 3-6 months before opening and then enjoy thorough 2016.

Tishbi, Estate, Single Vineyard, Malbec, 2009:  I first tasted this wine at the Sommelier Expo back in November 2011 and it has recently hit retail stores in the US.  The wine has a ripe nose of red and black fruits including ripe cherries and raspberries, a hint of blueberry, grilled meat, freshly paved asphalt, wet forest floor, sweet cedar and a substantial amount toasty oak that seems a bit off kilter at times and a little overpowering.  The full bodied palate has much of the same with some typical lavender and floral notes added to the mix, along with substantial tannins and some sweet cedar.  The palate is kept together nicely with good acidity and integrating tannins, all leading into a medium finish with more of the sweetish fruit and smoky oak accompanied by cigar box and a hint of vanilla.  A nice wine (although I have seen some bottle variation so be wary) that many wine aficionados rave about and others cannot stand – certainly one of the more polarizing wines I have encountered recently.  I am less enamored with it than others but it is still a good wine, worth trying and indicative of the recent improvements the winery is undergoing.