Montefiore Winery

#253 – July 26, 2013

While unfortunately not the topic to which the press regarding Israel is dedicated these days, Israeli winemaking is easily one of the best things about the country (if not THE best) and an integral (and growing) part of its fabric.  In fact, Israeli winemaking has a tradition that goes back nearly 3,000 years, to the time of Noah (or earlier).  When I think about the history of winemaking in Israel I tend to divide it into three different time periods: the ancient, the modern and the recent; with the ancient encompassing biblical times through the Ottoman Empire when Israel’s winemaking came to a screeching halt (as vineyards were uprooted and winemaking prohibited as a result of strict Muslim rule), the modern, taking us through the mid-1980s and the recent, representing Israel’s quality wine revolution starting with the launch in the 1980s by the Golan Heights Winery of the internationally recognized and now near-iconic Yarden Cabernet Sauvignon wines.

While the topic of this week’s newsletter, the new Montefiore Winery, lands squarely within Israel’s recent winemaking revolution, its lineage traces back through a substantial portion of Israel’s modern period.  While the French founder of the Carmel winery – Baron Edmond de Rothschild, is the foreign benefactor most associated with Israel’s modern-day winemaking renaissance, his uncle’s brother in law – Sir Moses Montefiore, was laying the foundations for the industry at least 20 years before the Baron was born.  With such a rich and distinguished heritage behind the newly launched fledgling winery, a few words of history about Sir Moses seem proper before turning to winery and wines.

Born in Italy in 1784, Sir Moses Montefiore grew up in London and where he lived until his death in 1885 at 100 years of age (nearly unheard of in a time when the average lifespan was 50 years, and attributed somewhat tongue-in-cheek to his supposed custom of drinking a bottle of wine every day).  After making a fortune in the brokerage business (which included representing the Rothschild family, into which his sister married), he retired at the ripe old age of 40 and dedicated the remainder of his extremely long life to communal, civic and Jewish causes, including a brief stint as the Sherriff of London.  Montefiore spent substantial time, effort and funds attempting to alleviate Jewish pain and suffering around the world including traveling to the Sultan of Turkey to negotiate the release of blood libel victims and an attempt to free Edgardo Mortara.  While unsuccessful at the latter, the receptiveness to his many overtures on behalf of Jews around the world was not merely a result of his wealth and prominence, but also very much tied to his well-known high moral character and magnetic personality. As a result of his innumerable philanthropic and communal good deeds, he was awarded a baronetcy and knighted by Queen Victoria in 1838.

Although his good deeds and philanthropy spanned the globe, it was the Jews of Palestine who were the main beneficiaries of his substantial largesse.  He spent considerable time and effort attempting to promote Jewish agriculture in Palestine (only to be somewhat thwarted by Ottoman rules against non-Muslin land ownership).  Despite the dangers associated with overseas travel in those days, Sir Moses made seven trips to Israel over the years.  While his last trip remains was at the unbelievable age of 91, it was his first trip to Jerusalem in 1927 that changed the way he lived his life and brought about the decision to become strictly observant (to such a degree that he started to travel with his own personal shochet in order to have fresh kosher meat at all times – now that is living!).  In fact, Jerusalem was so dear to him that it was included in all the banners bearing his family crest and on an innumerable number of his personal possessions.

In 1860 Montefiore built the first residential area outside the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem, offering financial incentives to poor families to relocate to what was then considered a dangerous area.  This area became the two modern-day neighborhoods of Mishkenot Sha’ananim and Yemin Moshe (where Sir Moses built the still-standing Montefiore Windmill in order to provide affordable flour to Jerusalem’s poor Jewish residents); at the time, the neighborhood was referred to as Kerem Moshe Montefiore v’ Yehudit – Moshe and Yehudit (Sir Moses’ wife) Montefiore’s Vineyard or Kerem HaSar Moshe (Montefiore was referred to by the Jews of Palestine as “Minister” in recognition of all he did for them).  Sir Moses was considered so important to the Jews of Palestine that his picture graced the Shekel banknotes reintroduced in Israel the mid-1980s, along with such other Israeli luminaries as Herzl, Ben-Gurion and of course Baron Rothschild.

While Sir Moses Montefiore visited Israel a number of times, he never settled in the land he held so important to the future of the Jewish people.  It wasn’t until over 100 years after his death that a Montefiore finally made the Holy Land his permanent home.  Childless, Sir Moses’ heir was his nephew Joseph Sebag-Montefiore and it was his great-great grandson – the English-born Adam Montefiore of Carmel (who hardly needs any introduction) made aliyah in 1989 with his wife and three children.  He settled in Ra’anana and, with an extensive wine and spirits background, found work at the Carmel Winery – the very winery founded by Baron Rothschild, the family with whom Sir Moses had had a long and prosperous relationship.  After a few years, Adam moved to the then only other major winery in Israel – the Golan Heights Winery, rising to the position of export and marketing manager.  In 2002 he returned to Carmel, his current home, and was an integral part of Carmel’s massive transformation from plonk to quality.  Adam also writes a weekly column on Israeli wine for the Jerusalem Post and is widely considered one of Israel’s main “Wine Ambassadors” (besides being one of the nicest folks in the somewhat sharp-elbowed Israeli wine industry and a true gentleman).

While Adam continues to successfully combine two passions of Sir Moses – Israel and wine, it is the next generation that recently planted the Montefiore flag in Israel’s well-tread oenophilic path.  Two of Adam’s three children – Rachel and David, together with another Israeli wine veteran – Arnon Geva, founded the Montefiore Winery in 2010, coinciding with the 150th anniversary of “Sir Moses’ neighborhood” – Mishkenot Sha’ananim.  With such an illustrious ancestor and a pretty good father figure / role-model, it isn’t surprising that David and Rachel found their way into the wine business, while Arnon is no stranger to the Israeli wine industry, with an involvement going back nearly 20 years.

Arnon initiated the project and is the driving force behind the winery (which at this point is more of a wine venture than winery – more on that later), performing as its CEO.  Arnon was raised in Yemin Moshe (giving him an added connection to the winery’s spiritual birthplace) and was one of the founders of Domaine du Castel, where he spent over a decade helping make it one of Israel’s most successful and well-regarded boutique wineries before he moved to Carmel (have you noticed a trend yet?).  At Carmel, Arnon filled the position of International Business Director for both Carmel and Yatir, working with Adam on the Winery’s transformation and ascension into the “big leagues” of quality Israeli wines and spearheading the winery’s export efforts – a skill set he is utilizing at Montefiore, where 70%(!) of the wines are intended for export.  During this time he was also one of the pioneers behind the crowning of the Judean Hills as one of Israel’s prime wine growing regions.  David Montefiore is one of the country’s top bartenders, studied wine at London’s prestigious WSET, obtained overseas winery experience in Australia and Spain (at the renowned Capcanes Winery) and currently works for Tabor Winery as its director of Wine Culture.  Unlike David, who isn’t involved in the day-to-day affairs of the winery, his sister and remaining founding member – Rachel Montefiore, is head of sales and marketing for the fledging operation.  After a number of years as a top Israeli squash player (which included winning a gold medal at the 2005 Maccabiah Games), the “force (of wine) proved strong with her” and she transitioned into a wine-related career, mostly on the retail side, before ending up in her current position with Montefiore.

With the administrative side in good hands, the team needed a winemaker to actually make the wine and top-tier vineyards from which to source the grapes.  The founders also chose a winemaking philosophy that gave proper homage to Sir Moses’ love of Israel and emphasis on Jews making the most out of what they had on hand.  As such, Arnon and the Montefiores’ decided that the winery would only use vineyards located close to Jerusalem (e.g. from the Judean Hills) –the winery’s spiritual birthplace, and would strive to use grapes and make wines suited for the native Mediterranean climate and palate (continuing a relatively recent trend among many Israeli wineries, including Carmel).  The winemaker chosen to fulfill the mission of bringing Montefiore’s dream to fruition was Sam Soroka, the current winemaker at Mony Winery, located in the Judean Hills.  Originally from Canada and with oenological experience from France, Australia and California (where he worked for Krug) prior to working in Israel (initially at Carmel of course), Sam’s winemaking philosophy exhibited at Mony is not too dissimilar to that of Montefiore, while still allowing for some distinct character in the new wines.

For the time being, Sam is not only making the wines for Montefiore but they are also utilizing Mony’s facilities and vineyards for the wines until such time as Montefiore will have facilities of its own (not currently expected to be within the next few years), with the intention to be as close to Jerusalem as possible. In the interim, the winery will have an official presence at the Jerusalem Press club in Mishkenot Sha’ananim where guests will have the opportunity to learn about the winery and its history (and taste and purchase the wines).

The winery currently has an annual production of approximately 20,000 bottles, with 70% destined for export and the rest for Israeli restaurants (currently the only place to acquire the wines in Israel is the Duty Free at Ben-Gurion Airport or ordering through their well-designed and informative (English-only) website).  In addition to being listed at some of Israel’s top (non-kosher) restaurants; it is on the wine list of many great kosher restaurants including Scala (at the David Citadel Hotel) and La Regence (at the King David Hotel).  The winery recently released its first four wines – two unoaked and two “reserve-level” wines, with two additional wines in the works (see below).  The labels of the two entry-level wines are graced with the ancient windmill in Yemin Moshe while the “reserve-level” wines carry an historical picture of Mishkenot Sha’ananim.  Additionally, every bottle carries “Jerusalem” (in Hebrew) on it, it tribute to Montefiore’s habit of including the word on the family crest and many of his possessions.  In addition to the four current releases below, the winery expects to release two additional wines within the next six months or so.  The coming wines are a varietal Cabernet Sauvignon from the 2012 vintage is expected to join the “reserve-level” series (albeit with only six months in American oak instead of 14 in French) and its flagship and eponymously named wine – Kerem Moshe (Moses’ Vineyard) from the 2011 vintage which should be released around February 2014.  The wine is a Bordeaux-blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot and Syrah, with each component aged separately in French oak for 16 months and blended prior to bottling.

Montefiore, White, 2012:  A lively and refreshing blend of 70% Colombard and 30% Chardonnay with 13% AbV, that is somewhat reminiscent of Mony’s varietal Colombard wine and my personal favorite of the four wines I tasted.  While Colombard has somewhat of a bad reputation (resulting from past insipid wines produced in both California and Israel), it is certainly a wine suited for Israel’s climate and, as evidenced by this one, capable of producing delightfully refreshing wines.  An unoaked wine with an aromatic nose of tart green apples, citrus, floral and some creamy undertones on a medium bodied palate laden with bright fruit and well balanced with crisp acidity.  While not extremely complex, the crisp acidity, flinty minerals and a fuller body from the Chardonnay contribute to keep things intriguing.  An easy drinking wine for hot days and cool summer nights.

Montefiore, Red, 2012:  Utilizing three bold varietals (that are proving to be well suited to the Mediterranean) that are not usually blended together yielded mixed results.  A blend of 34% Malbec, 33% Shiraz and 33% Petite Sirah with 14% AbV, with notes of very ripe black fruit, a hint of blueberries, black tea with much of the same on the medium to full bodied palate with stewed black fruit and integrating tannins. While well made, it felt a little unsettled, almost as if the three varietals were jostling for dominance, and a somewhat short finish contributed to the unfinished feeling.  I would give this one 3-4 months before checking to see if the components learned to play nicely together.

Montefiore, Petite Syrah, 2010:  While not many Israeli winemakers make a straight varietal (it is a common blending varietal), Petite Sirah has started to proliferate in recent years with some really nice examples coming from Ella Valley, Dalton and Carmel and Montefiore adding itself to the list with a really lovely expression of the varietal.  As with the Syrah below, the wine is comprised of 100% Petite Sirah which was aged in French oak for 14 months and is 14% AbV.  As one would expect from Petite Sirah, the wine has plenty of personality with a big nose loaded with rich and ripe black fruit including plums, cassis and cherries together with violets, forest floor, espresso and green olives are matched with some Mediterranean herbs, licorice and dark chocolate to comprise a lively and aromatic nose loaded with brooding personality.  A full bodied palate has more black fruit, green notes, a pleasingly bitter mineral streak and rich dark chocolate that come together nicely on a rich and powerful palate.  Well-made, with great structure with a long lingering and fulfilling finish.  The wine improved over a few hours in the glass and was better the next morning so give it another six months or so (or at least a few hours of decanting) before opening.

Montefiore, Syrah, 2010:  My favorite of the four, this wine is made of 100% Syrah which was aged in mostly French oak for 14 months and is 14% AbV.  A lovely nose of near-sweet blackberry, black plums, cassis and warm spices lead onto a full bodied and plush elegant palate with more ripe fruit and caressing tannins with notes of smoky oak, mocha and good acidity, together with hint of blue (a common characteristic of Israeli 2010 red wines), all on a background of spicy oak, cedar and tobacco.  An elegant and lingering finish rounds out this wine.