Rosh Hashana 2012 Selections

With the onset of the Jewish New year, this shipment of the wine club provides you with one of Israel’s true hidden gems that doesn’t get enough recognition due the more prestigious Grand Vin sibling, two newly imported wines including a newly kosher wine from the famed Saslove winery and a delicious dessert wine to help usher in a sweet new year.

Bazelet HaGolan Winery

Located on Moshav Kidmat Tzvi in the Golan Heights, Bazelet HaGolan winery was founded in 1998 by Yoav Levy and Assaf Kedem.  The pair split up a few years back, with Yoav remaining at the helm of Bazelet HaGolan, and Assaf starting his own (currently non-kosher) winery, “Assaf”.

Initially a non-kosher winery, Bazelet HaGolan produced only Cabernet Sauvignon wines for a number of years.  The winery became kosher with the 2004 vintage and subsequently added a number of additional wines to its repertoire including Merlot, Chardonnay and an occasional blend or two.  After making a number of successful wines with the 2005 and 2006 vintages, including a delightful 2006 Reserve Merlot, the winery went through a decline of sorts, with limited production of relatively mediocre wines for a number of vintages.  Thankfully and to their credit, starting with the 2009 vintage and continuing through the current releases of the 2010 vintage (including the Cabernet Sauvignon wine in this shipment) and the soon-to-be-released 2011 vintage, the winery has rebounded and is once again producing quality wines worthy of your attention, palate and wallet.

The winery is a mid-sized operation currently producing about 50,000 bottles in two series – Reserve and a table wine series labeled simply Bazelet HaGolan (sometimes referred to as “Bronze”).  Similar to a number of other Israeli wineries, the individualistic style of Bazelet’s current winemaker – Yoav – is very evident in every bottle, enabling it to stand out among ever-growing number of kosher wineries (for a complete list & updated map of Israel’s over 70 kosher wineries, take a look at my website at  The winery also produces a grappa that is very enjoyable as a digestif.

Bazelet HaGolan, Cabernet Sauvignon, 2010:  A medium to full bodied wine with nicely integrating tannins with a touch of bite that provide a nice backbone for the nose of lovely black fruit, baker’s chocolate, slight herbaceousness and spicy oak.  More black fruit and currants on the palate with good structure and balance between the bold tannins, characteristic fruit and hint of bitterness that pleases and leads into a medium finish.  A pretty wine that is drinking nicely now but could use some time to open in the glass at this stage and should cellar through 2014 [Eshkol shipment only].


On a completely different scale, Binyamina is another Israeli winery that has completely reinvented itself over the last few years.  Israel’s [fourth] largest winery and one of its oldest (founded in 1952 as Eliaz), the winery’s history is symbiotically intertwined with Israel’s.  After many years of producing millions of bottles of mediocre table wines destined for the shelves of Israel’s largest retail supermarkets and of little interest to the sophisticated oenophile, Binyamina is today a serious innovator, stocked with serious winemaking talent and producing some truly delightful and amazing wines including an old-vine Cabernet Sauvignon under the Cave label, an incredible Diamond blend in their Choshen series and some great wines in the Reserve series, including the delightful late-harvest Gewürztraminer included in this shipment, guaranteed to properly ensure a sweet new year! Besides the innovation and quality increases at the upper tiers, Binyamina continues to have success with a number of wines in their well-priced “Classic” series and newly introduced “Bin” wines.

Shepherded by their two winemakers, Sasson Ben-Aharon (who recently added general manager to his list of titles) and the funny and gregarious Assaf Paz, Binyamina currently produces wines in four major labels – Choshen (f/k/a Avnei Hachoshen), Reserve, Yogev and Teva.  They also produce a potpourri of other entry-level wines under the Tiltan, Kramim, and Caesaria labels.  Binyamina also owns the popular “Cave” label, but prefers to market it as a stand-alone wine/winery for marketing purposes.

Avnei Hachoshen is Binyamina’s flagship label, with seven wines each named for a gemstone on the breastplate of the Cohen Gadol (the High Priest).  The Reserve series has some really great wines, including the Zinfandel provided in this shipment and late harvest Gewürztraminer.  Tiltan (Hebrew for clover) blends varietal wines across three vintages and is made in very limited quantities but is worth trying. The “Yogev” series (which is “farmer” or “man of the soil” in Hebrew) includes six blends and was created to honor the folks growing the grapes and lists the names of the actual growers on each label.

Binyamina, Reserve, Late Harvest Cluster Select, Gewurztraminer, 2009:  Besides the sweetness achieved by leaving the grapes on the vines for an extended period of time (i.e. “late-harvest”), a small percentage of the grapes were infected with botrytis to great effect.  A rich, ripe and luscious wine with plenty of apricots and dried fruit, some lychees, heather and honey all tempered by good acidity that kept the richness in check. Feel free to cellar this one through 2018 [Eshkol shipment only].

Domaine du Castel

Out of Israel’s more than 250 wineries, Castel is easily the one that requires the least bit of introduction. After moving to Israel around the time of the Six-Day war and working in agriculture in Ramat Raziel for a number of years, Eli Ben-Zaken started Mama Mia in 1988 (a well-regarded Italian restaurant in Jerusalem of which I have many fond memories), and ran it for many years. Feeling that Israel lacked sufficient quality locally made wines to serve at Mama Mia, Eli planted his first vineyards in 1988 – the harbinger of much greatness to come.  After making wine for personal use for a number of years, leaving management of the restaurant to his son Eitan and pioneering the development of the Judean hills as a serious oenological region, Castel was founded in 1992 by Eli as a commercial winery with an initial release of 600 bottles.  While the wines were well received, it wasn’t until a bottle made it to the head of Sotheby’s wine department in London – acclaimed Master of Wine and renowned expert, Serena Sutcliffe (who adored it), that Castel really hit it big on the international stage.

With success and acclaim, production grew and once the winery hit approximately 100,000 bottles it became kosher with the 2002 vintage (there was a kosher and non-kosher line that year) leading to the expected increase in production and sales.  The winery’s success and continued recognition stems from a number of factors including astute marketing and promotion, a consistent look and lineup of wines, quality and most importantly, individuality of the wines themselves.  While more common these days, Castel was one of Israel’s first, and for many years, only, winery producing “old-world” style wines, showcasing restrained fruit and relatively limited oak as opposed to the prevalent style of the times – blockbuster fruit and judicious use of mostly new French oak.

Notwithstanding 17 years of production, new wines are introduced incredibly infrequently with Castel’s current portfolio including only four wines: its top tier Grand Vin – a Bordeaux type blend aged for 20-24 months in oak, the Petit Castel, also a blend, aged for 16 months in oak and intended for earlier drinking, the “C”(100% Chardonnay) and its most recent addition – a crisply dry and refreshing Rosé.

A true family winery, Eli the founder is also the chief wine maker, with his son Ariel assisting with the winemaking and holding the title of CEO, his other son Eitan is the winery’s COO and his daughter Ilana manages the winery’s efficient exporting efforts. The winery relies entirely on grapes grown in the area of the winery, mostly in their own vineyards which include Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay, Petit Verdot and small amounts of Cabernet Franc and Malbec that are included in certain vintages of both the Grand Vin and Petite Castel wines.  Historically, aging ability was the winery’s main Achilles Heel, but recent vintages have shown welcome improvement in this regard, a trend I expect to continue.

Domaine du Castel, Petite Castel, 2009:  An amazing wine that is second to the better-known Grand Vin in name (and price) only.  While the Grand Vin is a deeper, Bordeaux type wine, which will mature over the next couple of years, the Petit is an interesting wine, which, while it has aging potential, is a very approachable wine right now.  A medium bodied blend of 60% Merlot and 40% Cabernet Sauvignon that spent 16 months in French oak.  On a nose that takes a few minutes to open up but when it does it reveals rich notes of cassis, blackberry, eucalyptus and crushed sweet black fruit much of which continues on a round and mouth-filling palate with the addition of dark baker’s chocolate, a hint of red fruit joining the black, cedar and slightly sweet oak.  A long lingering and incredibly smooth finish with bittersweet chocolate, cigar-box, some spicy wood and pleasantly tingly bitterness at the end.  A very well balanced wine with good structure that should help the wine improve over the next few years.  Drink now through 2015 [both shipments].


After a few years of making wine on a smaller scale, Barry Saslove founded Saslove winery on Kibbutz Eyal in 1998.  Born and raised in Ottawa, Canada, Barry first came to Israel as a volunteer in the Six-Day war, later moving to Israel permanently and working as a computer engineer at Amdocs until calling it quits in 1991 and devoting himself to his passion of wine.  Like Castel, Saslove is the quintessential family winery.  Barry is the chief winemaker, with both his wife Nili and middle daughter Roni heavily involved.  While Roni’s main focus was initially PR and marketing she has been involved with every harvest at the winery in one way or another and after spending a year at Ontario’s Brock University learning winemaking (after obtaining a degree from the agricultural school at Hebrew University), recent years have seen her become more involved with the actual winemaking process including making her own wines including the delightfully refreshing Lavan and a recently released (non-kosher) Gewürztraminer in Icewine style, a trend expected to continue.  The winery has and continues to enjoy a long-standing fan base due, no doubt, at least in part to the delightful personalities of the Saslove family members involved.

From day one the Saslove winery has been at the forefront of innovation and experimentation among Israeli wineries, with a big focus on blends and barrels utilizing over ten different types of barrels (American, French, new, used, larger and smaller).  The winery places a large focus on the type of barrels used, and proudly promotes the use of oak staves or chips in their lower tiered wine meant for early drinking such as the Aviv Series, whose Marriage wine is reviewed below.  They were also among the first Israeli wineries to adopt synthetic corks as their line of defense against the dreaded bacteria TCA.  Despite his official title as head wine maker of the Saslove winery, thousands of folks in Israel consider Barry to be a wine educator par excellence (a title I’m pretty certain he would actually take more pride in than his well-deserving winemaker one).

Saslove has a number of highly acclaimed vineyards all located on the Upper Galilee including the famed Ben-Zimra area, with two of them organically farmed. With a current production of approximately 80,000 bottles annually, Saslove produces wine across three labels and sells approximately 30% of their production to other wineries: a table label called Aviv, which are meant to be “in your face” wines, consumed young and aged for six months with oak chips; a premium label – Adom – is usually aged for approximately 20 months in French oak; and the winery’s flagship label – Reserve –only produced in appropriate years from the best of the Adom barrels.  For now, kosher consumers will need to satisfy themselves with the newly released Aviv wines, but will have to wait at least another 12 months for the 2010 vintage of the Adom (and hopefully Reserve) wines to come to market.

Saslove, Aviv, Marriage, 2010:  The Marriage is easily my favorite red wine of Saslove’s current portfolio of available kosher wines I tasted.  A medium bodied Bordeaux blend that spent 6 months with American and French oak staves giving it a solid base of near-sweet tannins that are already well integrated with a lovely nose of cassis, cherries, red plums tinged with black pepper, spicy oak, black licorice and baker’s chocolate.  Plenty more fruit on the nose along with more spicy oak, solid tannins some pleasing herbal notes and espresso with a medium finish that lingers nicely.  As with the other Aviv wines meant for early drinking and not long-term cellaring, the wine is enjoyable now and should cellar nicely through 2015 [both shipments].