Psagot Winery

#273 – June 27, 2014

Despite my best intentions and with over 75 kosher wineries in Israel alone, a significant amount of time may go by before I provide an updated newsletter on many well-deserving wineries (which is one of the reasons for my more frequent “quickies”).  Psagot is one of those wineries whose wines I taste and recommend frequently and recently visited but haven’t dedicated premium newsletter space to them in over three years.  With the recent welcome news that they have added winemaker Yaakov Oryah to the existing team (more on that below), I felt that time had come.

Following the trajectory of many Israeli winemakers, after being grape growers for a number of years and selling their product to a number of other wineries, Naama and Yaacov Berg decided to start utilizing the grapes themselves and founded Psagot Winery in 2002.  Founded on an ideology focused on the deep and long history of winemaking in Israel, this is evident in many ways including the ancient coin affixed to many of Psagot’s wine, the utilization of an ancient cave as the winery’s cellar where a Second Temple-dated wine press was found and included education aspects about the winery’s surrounding areas through the winery’s visitor center.  If Israeli winemakers could bring one aspect of Israel’s ancient winemaking history, it would undoubtedly be the increase in annual consumption for Israel’s current 4-7 liters to the nearly 300 liters consumed annually per person back in 70 A.D.

Initially located in Psagot proper, the winery moved into its current location just outside of Jerusalem’s Pisgat Zeev neighborhood in 2008.  The move had the unfortunate side effect of separating the winery from one of its most impressive natural assets – the “cave”.  During the building of the winery a cave was discovered underneath the vineyards and, once excavated, turned out to contain an ancient wine press dating back to the Second Temple. For many years the cave served as a majestic barrel room where Psagot’s wines aged gracefully in near perfect natural conditions, rarely utilizing the cooling system, as the temperature remains pretty constant: 12 C in the winter to 18 C in the summer and a glorious (for the wines) 90% humidity.  Following their relocation, the winemaking facilities and much of the storage was relocated to the new facility.  Despite this separation, Psagot is much better off these days, ensconced in an airy, beautiful and easily accessible location, replete with a large and well-equipped visitor center where one can enjoy many education events in addition to a delightful tasting experience.

Over the years the team at Psagot has grown, with the main players currently include founder Yaacov Berg who functions as a CEO with plenty of winemaking experience after being the de facto winemaker in the early days, winemaker Josh Hexter and newly appointed winemaker (or winemaker consultant) Yaakov Oryah, formerly of Assif (a/k/a Midbar) fame.  While at Assif, Yaakov made some of the most interesting wines in the country and was widely acclaimed to be among the country’s top white winemakers.  While his winery did not have kosher certification, his status as an ordained Orthodox rabbi and close and personal  relationship with many customers ensured that many kosher consumer enjoyed his wines, even without official certification (to the exclusion of any other winery with such status).  Psagot’s first commercial vintage was in 2003 and consisted of approximately 5,000 bottles with production these days crossing the respectable 200,000 mark with nearly 70% destined for export.  While the majority of the winery’s vineyards are located in close proximity to the wineries, occupying premium grape growing space in the Shomron and Judean Hills with most of them rising to nearly 900 meters above sea level.  Psagot also sources some grapes from the acclaimed Ben Zimra area located in Israel’s Upper Galilee.

Psagot doesn’t have “labels” or “series” per se, its wines can be divided into a number of groups starting with their white wine.  Psagot historically successfully a varietal Viognier and a Chardonnay with a fortified Viognier dessert wine as well.  A few years ago Psagot dropped the Viognier, leaving the Chardonnay wine reviewed below as its sole white wine.  With interest in white wines surging (as recently discussed in newsletter #271), I am sure this is going to change in the near future, especially with the addition of Yaakov Oryah, white winemaker extraordinaire!  The winery’s flagship wine is a Bordeaux blend called Edom with a Single Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon made only in select vintage years periodically vying for the title of Psagot’s best wine.  The inaugural 2007 vintage of the Single Vineyard wine was the best wine Psagot has made to date and I recently enjoyed it at a 25 course wine pairing dinner where it was drinking beautifully.  The winery also produces four varietal wines – Cabernet Sauvignon, merlot, Cabernet Franc and Shiraz. As you could imagine, I am highly partial to their Cabernet Franc.  A dessert wine called “Prat” rounds out their portfolio of wines and I am looking forward to seeing what new and exciting additions they come up with in the future.

One additional thing to note: as with most Israeli wineries exported to the United States, the available vintages in the US are different than those in Israel.  If you visit the winery’s website you will notice that the English version lists primarily the 2009 wines while the Hebrew version lists those from the 2011 vintage.  I have previously reviewed and recommended certain wines from both the 2009 and 2010 vintages (which I believe if the current vintage in the US), so my notes below are for the 2011 vintage.

Psagot, Chardonnay, 2012: as I wrote a few weeks ago, Israeli white wines continue to improve and this oaked 100% Chardonnay from Psagot is no exception to the qualitative leap Israeli white wines have taken recently.  The seven months in new provide the wine with a round and mouth-filling medium to full bodied palate replete with plenty of toasted oak, lip-smacking citrus, spicy apples, butterscotch, an oaky butteriness that caresses without overwhelming and provides subtle heft that carries the lovely tropical fruit, warm spices and citrus with grace and charm.  The spiciness and slightly bitter almond notes provide plenty of character and the ample acid keeps everything fresh and honest.

Psagot, Shiraz, 2011:  Despite Syrah and Shiraz being exactly the same thing, Israeli winemakers append the different monikers to wines based on their perceived (or desired) styles, with Syrah utilized for more Old World-styled wines whereas Shiraz is more typically used to label New-World, Australian-styled wines and this wine is no exception as it is definitely Australian in style with bold, black notes showing plenty of smoke, tar, roasted meat and power all is great balance.  Plenty of ripe black cherries, tart raspberries, cassis, a hint of blueberries, a nice overlay of cedar wood and roasted meat with spunky cracked black pepper giving it some pleasing bite and a lingering finish of spicy oak, more cedar and rich chocolate.  Drink now but give it some air first and enjoy though 2018.

Psagot, Merlot, 2011:  As I have repeatedly mentioned, excepting the marvelous Merlot from Ella Valley, some of the best quality Merlot in Israel is grown in the Shomron region and this version is no exception.  With 13 months in oak lending it plenty of complexity, the wine enjoys loads of rich, mostly red, fruit on both the nose and palate including tart raspberries, cranberry, cherries and plums, which are joined by lavender, roasted coffee beans, well-worn saddle leather, tobacco leaf, warm roasted herbs, flinty minerals, some cedar notes, Mediterranean olives and a lovely green note that tantalizes while remaining harmoniously balanced with the mineral, fruit and smoky oak.

Psagot, Cabernet Franc, 2011:  Together with the Cabernet Franc from Ella Valley Vineyards, this has long been one of my go-to wines for my favorite varietal.  Unlike many winemakers who confuse the Israeli green characteristics they want to avoid with the desired and varietally true green notes of Cabernet Franc they attempt to eliminate, the folks at Psagot aren’t trying to hide the green characteristics that made a Cabernet Franc what it is and fully deliver a locked and loaded wine with everything you could want in a cabernet franc.  A rich and approachable (yet sophisticated) wine with plenty of crushed, near-sweet, black forest fruit accompanied by tobacco leaf, cedar wood, burst espresso, rich dark chocolate and loads of well-balanced green notes included bell pepper and a tantalizing Herbaceousness.  Drink now and often through 2017, maybe longer.

Psagot, Edom, 2011:  While I find the Single Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon reviewed below to produce the winery’s finest results, the Edom is the flagship wine and the recipient of the finest grapes Psagot’s vineyards have to offer.  A Bordeaux blend of 60% Cabernet Sauvignon, 19% Cabernet Franc, 16% Merlot and 5% Petit Verdot, the wine is ripe, rich and deep with evolving layers of complexity that tantalize and reward patience – truly “good things come to those who wait”.  The wine spent 14 months in 70% new French oak yielding a nose of rich black forest fruit including plums, cherries and cassis along with earthy minerals and pepper and a full bodied palate with plenty more fruit, toasty oak, lead pencil, cedar, grilled meat, good baker’s chocolate, cracked black pepper and a green herbaceousness that pleases.  A long and caressing finish rounds out this wine.  While approachable now, the wine needs some serious decanting and will be much better in nine to 12 months, afterwards it should continue to improve and cellar nicely through 2018.

Psagot, Cabernet Sauvignon, 2011:  As with the other wines from the 2011 vintage, Psagot’s Cabernet Sauvignon is well crafted with plenty of ripe fruit, great balance and lovely layers of complexity that tantalize as they are slowly revealed over time (if you have the patience to wait).  The wine opens with a brooding nose of slightly sweet and mostly black fruit which opens up after some airtime, where it is joined by some herbs, smoky oak, mocha, cigar box and some dried red fruits, much of which continues on the full bodied palate where more toasted oak, baker’s chocolate, cedar and rich ripe fruit comingle beautifully and harmoniously.  A lingering finish makes me keep reaching for the bottle which is drinking very nicely now and should cellar through 2018, likely longer.

Psagot, Single Vineyard, Cabernet Sauvignon, 2010:  Commencing with its inaugural launch in 2007, the Single Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon has really earned its place as the best wine in Psagot’s formidable portfolio (not an easy task with the usually formidable Edom standing in its way year after year).  A rich, dense and layered wine that continues to reveal multiple layers of aromas and flavors with every passing minute.  If there were ever a wine to pour into a glass or decanter and sample every half an hour over the course of a day, this would be it.  The wine opens with a densely rich nose of (controlled) ripe, mostly black, fruit including currents, plums, blackberries and cassis accompanied by dark chocolate, mocha, cedar, mineral and slightly smoky oak, most of which follows though onto the full-bodied palate where its all backed by near-sweet tannins that still need some time to integrate while providing a solid backbone for the wines awesome structure and balance.  Drink now through 2019.