Matar Winery

#278 – September 23, 2014

Despite the fact that the Pelter Winery has been non-kosher since its first vintage in 2002, anyone even slightly involved with Israel’s wine industry has not only heard of this boutique winery, but is also aware of its ranking near the upper echelon of Israeli wineries. While the fact that Nir Pelter is making kosher wine should be garnering the same level of excitement among the cognoscente of kosher wine, the main reason this fact has flown somewhat blow the radar is that, unlike the “going-kosher” trifecta of 2010 (the vintage in which Flam, Tulip and Saslove all started making kosher wine), Nir Pelter chose a slightly different route following his decision to create wines that would be accessible to everyone, including the kosher consumer (and the wines are not yet exported to the US, a fact likely to change in the very near future). Matar actually made the news a few weeks ago when a “stray” Syrian tank shell landed on Matar’s new facility, wounding the mashgiach and damaging some equipment in addition to destroying some barrels of wine. Historically, when an Israeli winery hits the witching production number of 100,000 annual bottles and realizes that switching to kosher production is the most viable route towards maintaining profitability (by accessing the crucial kosher consumer market), they convert the entire winery to kosher production. Most wineries will do this in one fell swoop (like the aforementioned Flam and Tulip) while others will have had prior dalliances with kosher production before committing to it full time (like Castel which tested the waters by making kosher and non-kosher wines in 2002 before completely switching to kosher production with the 2003 vintage or Saslove which had been making a kosher wine under the Sagol label for a while before converting the entire winery to kosher production with the 2010 vintage). Pelter’s road to kosher production follows a model more similar to the path chosen by some of the Israeli wine industry’s behemoths like Carmel, the Golan Heights Winery, Binyamina and most recently (and on a smaller scale) – Tulip in which an entire new winery is created from scratch (although in Binyamina’s case, The Cave is more of a marketing tool than an actual winery). While this strategy is more in line with that of a mega-winery wanting to create a boutique-feel to its wines (akin to Carmel’s Yatir (and more recent “Kayoumi”) winery, Barkan’s Segal, Zion’s 1848 or the Golan Heights Winery’s creation of the Galil Mountain Winery); this strategy has also been utilized by smaller wineries desiring to create a different style of wines (while obviously being heavily driven by marketing and sales). The most recent example of this is Tulip‘s new Maia winery where Tulip has brought on a few Greek advisers to help them create Mediterranean wines tailor-made for Israel’s climate and culinary offerings (stay tuned for a complete newsletter on the new concept and wines coming soon).

While Matar is a distinctly different winery from Pelter, given the fact that it shares a winemaker, location, owners and an only very slightly different wine-making philosophy, a few words about the history of the [non-kosher] Pelter winery are in order as well. Pelter was founded in 2001 after winemaker Tal Pelter returned to Israel after his viticultural studies in Perth and a stint working for wineries in Australia’s famed Margaret River appellation. Initially located on the Pelter family’s land in Moshav Tsofit (right next to Kfar Saba), the winery started with an initial production for the 2002 vintage of 2,000 bottles of its acclaimed Sauvignon Blanc from vineyards located in the Judean Hills. After a few years of increasing production and rising popularity, the winery relocated in 2005 to its current home in Kibbutz Ein Zivan located in the Golan Heights. Pelter maintains a distribution facility in its original location in Tsofit where it also has a few customer appreciation events every year as well (the Tsofit location also services as Matar’s distribution needs). As the winery expanded, it was sourcing grapes from all over the country, starting from Chenin Blanc from Mitzpe Rimon in the south all the way up to its own vineyards located in the Golan Heights’ Quneitra region. The diversity of grapes allowed Tal to focus on creating the wines he was interested in – quality and approachable wines with a level of sophistication unmatched by most Israeli wineries. While every boutique winemaker tries to put a personal stamp on his wines, Tal has managed to infuse each and every one of his creations with a personal signature, many-a-time focusing on less popular and/or offbeat varietals and wines including the aforementioned Chenin Blanc or nearly 60 year old vines of French Columbard from the Binyamina area (to say that this varietal suffers from an image problem in Israel would be a huge understatement).

Similarly to Flam, Pelter is a true family endeavor with Tal joined by his brother Nir who functions as CEO, overseeing pretty much everything other than winemaking and the family patriarch Sam heading up overseas marketing and other family members being involved as well (all listed on Pelter’s website, including the children who have titles such as “Greenpeace representative” and the eight-year old Aya who is apparently in charge of acquisitions and technology). With a near cultish following in Israel, Pelter is well known for the quality, sophistication and individuality of their wines, evidenced in part by their placement in most of Israel’s high-end and non-kosher restaurants. One of their best known wines is a sparkler based, like Yarden’s Blanc de Blanc, on the methode champenoise. After hitting the 100,000 annual production number with the 2012 vintage, the Pelter family decided to expand their reach into the kosher market. However, and as discussed above, there was a desire to maintain “as is” the Pelter brand (and client base) they had worked on for so many years and an opportunity to deviate a little from Pelter’s winemaking style and provide a slightly different world-view with these new wines. Maintaining their desire and tradition of doing things the “right way” and despite the seemingly huge undertaking of building an entire new winery from scratch, within a very short period of time the brothers built a completely new winery right next door to Pelter – the Matar Winery, with Tal as winemaker (along with the requisite additional winemaking team required to produce kosher wines) and Nir once again assuming the CEO responsibilities. While Matar doesn’t currently have its own visitor center, one is expected to be completed shortly.

With an inaugural production of 20,000 bottles for the 2012 vintage, doubling to 40,000 in 2013 and a planned additional doubling to 80,000 bottles for the [pre-Shmittah] 2014 vintage, the Pelter brothers clearly aren’t messing around and expect Matar to be around for the long haul (with wines of this quality for a first vintage, this shouldn’t be an issue). As of now the plan is to reach and maintain a production level of 100,000 bottles and to skip production for the 2015 Shmittah vintage (a route many wineries are taking – stay tuned for a comprehensive newsletter on the topic coming soon), with an expectation of exporting between 20-30% of total production. In addition to a separate style, Mater will be making mostly different wines and utilizing mostly different varietals than Pelter. In instances where both wineries make the same varietal like Chardonnay, the wineries will endeavor to utilize a stylistically different approach with, for example, Pelter producing a unoaked version and Matar’s version seeing oak. To that end, a number of wines were “moved” out of Pelter and into Matar, including the existing varietal Petit Verdot and flagship “CB” blend). While Pelter’s wines are directed at the more sophisticated wine drinker (with an austere Sauvignon Blanc loaded with acid as an example), Matar’s wines are geared the palate and appreciation of a broader public (also taking into consideration the palate preferences of the general kosher wine consuming pubic). This shift is noticeable in a rounder and slightly less acidic (but amazing) Sauvignon Blanc-Semillon blend and the aforementioned Chardonnay which 40% spent 8 months in new French oak (as opposed to Pelter’s unoaked Chardonnay).

Listed below are the five Matar wines I tasted a few weeks ago. As with the winery’s name – Matar – Hebrew for dew (and unfortunately Spanish for murder), there is a meteorological theme running the names of most of the wines including the one wine I didn’t have a chance to taste – their flagship blend – CB (which is short for the Cumulonimbus storm cloud). Having been bottled only a few days prior to my visit, it was declared in bottle shock and not yet ready to be tasted but I expect to taste it shortly. Given the quality of the wines tasted, coupled with the winery’s well-earned reputation, I have no doubt it will be a wine worth talking about, so stay tuned. That said, the white wines I tasted seem to be on a higher level than the reds, while both were very very good and worthy of earning space on these pages. In addition to top tier wines, Matar has also poured considerable efforts and expense into a number of additional spirit-related projects (including the acquisition of high-end copper stills) including a unique date brandy, calvados and cognac – all of which are expected to be kosher, so stay tuned for more on that.

Matar, Sauvignon Blanc-Semillon, 2013: This wine is a blend of 85% Sauvignon Blanc and 15% Semillon from Matar’s vineyards in Quenetra (nicknamed the “Wind Vineyard” in part based on the high-altitude and prevailing [relatively] wintry conditions). A delightfully fresh nose of cut grass, plenty of citrus including grapefruit and freshly cut limes, and minerals are slightly rounded out with a hint of tropical fruit. A light to medium bodied round and mouth-filling palate has plenty of acid keeping things lively with sufficient fruit to keep the acid in check and maintain a very approachable and delicious wine with sufficient complexity and impeccable structure to excite the more sophisticated wine lover as well. A wine well worth seeking out and adding to your repertoire.

Matar, Chardonnay, 2013: Unlike Pelter’s unoaked Chardonnay, Matar’s version was partially (40%) inoculated in oak for eight months rounding out the fruit and giving it a bit more oomph. While the oak certainly helps move the Chardonnay from the Pelter philosophy to that of Matar’s, in this case it may have been just a wee bit too much oak for my taste. With 60% of the grapes coming from Kerem Ben-Zimra and the remaining 40% coming from the Golan Heights, the wine presents with a nose of tart green apples, tropical fruit, toasty oak and a hint of minerals, most of which continues onto the round, mouth-filling and medium bodied palate with nice acidity keeping both the fruit and oak in check and flinty minerals providing additional character to this well-made wine. After some time in the glass, the oaky notes recede a bit allowing the fruit to shine a little more and showcasing the great balance and sexy structure of the wine. I’d give this one 3-4 months before trying and then enjoy for 18 months thereafter.

Matar, Chenin Blanc, 2013: Matar joins an extremely small club of kosher Israeli wineries making quality Chenin Blanc (Netofa being one of the only viable contenders in addition to Tishbi’s exalted brandy), sourcing its grapes from Mitzpe Rimon in the south of Israel. One of the labels that was “moved” from Pelter to Matar, 10% of the wine spent three months in oak giving it a bit more body with some notes of caramel and vanilla. A limited run of less than 2,500 bottles, this wine isn’t intended for export but it worth seeking out next time you are in Israel or directly from Avi Ben (who also carries the rest of the Matar line). A clean nose of stone fruit including white peaches, apricots and clementines, together with floral notes and minerals follow through onto a medium bodied and welcoming palate with more white fruits, great and not overpowering acid that is nicely balanced with the fruit alongside roasted hazelnuts and a subtle backdrop of slightly smoky oak that round out this different but tasty wine. Another one worth searching out.

Matar, Cumulus, 2012: Named for those fluffy clouds (“fluffy” is my own scientific moniker for a more professional explanation, see here), this wine is a blend of (approximately) 33% Cabernet Sauvignon, 33% Merlot, 24% Cabernet Franc and 10% Petit Verdot which spent 14 months in French oak (1/3 each in new, one-year and two-year old barrels), with most of the grapes sourced from the Golan Heights and rounded out with some Galilee grapes. A rich nose of black fruit including crushed blackberries, cassis and plums, roasted Mediterranean herbs, freshly cracked pepper, a bit of graphite and toasty oak. A medium bodied and very approachable palate with gripping yet nicely integrated tannins is supported by plush black and red fruits, more toasty oak, earthy minerals, a pleasing spiciness and great acidic structure backing things up. Very enjoyable now, the wine should continue to evolve for the next two to three years after which it can be enjoyed through 2019, maybe longer.

Matar, Petit Verdot, 2013: Joining Yatir’s amazing Petit Verdot (now available in the US and easily earning a spot on my list below) is this treat from Matar (another one of the wines inherited from Pelter) made from 100% Petit Verdot mostly sourced from the Judean Hills with a bit of grapes coming from the Golan Heights. The wine spent 18 months in French oak (like the Cumulus, (1/3 each in new, one-year and two-year old barrels) resulting in a bog wine with gripping tannins providing a tight and well-balanced backbone for the deep rich black fruit, earthy minerals, a slightly bitter herbal streak, freshly paved asphalt, toasty oak, hazelnuts, freshly roasted espresso beans and rich baker’s chocolate. A big and powerful wine with great balance and structure that still needs some time in the bottle to come into its own. Get a few bottles and hold for 12-18 months before enjoying through 2019, likely longer.