The Best and the Brightest

It is time for my annual rating of the best wines I tasted in 2013.  Being a lawyer by profession (and therefore a stickler for the rules), I am sticking to only to wines I tasted by December 31, 2013.  My most recent visit to Israel including attending the always incredible Sommelier Expo where I tasted a number of top notch new wines including Yarden’s 2013 Sauvignon Blanc, Lewis Pasco’s Pasco Project #1 and the Trio Carignan for the first time.  Alas, the expo and my winery visits occurred during the first week of 2014, disqualifying them and a number of others from the list (stay tuned as they may get mentioned in my next newsletter – the 2014 Crystal Ball).

As with prior years, in addition to the “best” wines of 2013, I have also included a list of the most interesting and exciting wines I tasted this year – many of which give more pleasure than some of their “near-perfect” brethren who are included in the more prestigious list.  The “Exciting/Interesting” list is also an indicator of the many new and exciting varietals with which (mostly) Israeli winemakers are experimenting to make success.  As someone who tastes a fair number of wines every year, it is the ones that are truly different that stand out and make you pay attention – a desirable quality in a world of wine that can sometimes be palatably mono-vino-tistic…

While obviously not news to any reader of Yossie’s Wine Recommendations, after tasting over 1400 different wines this year, I can safely say that the world of Israeli and kosher wine continues to improve and there are great things ahead for the industry.  The kosher wine consumer continues to develop and evolve and is learning to appreciate good wine for what it is (a topic much discussed in last week’s newsletter summarizing the important wine trends of 2013).  One noticeable thing that stood out for me when I was compiling these lists was that there were far less options for the best wines of the year, especially when compared to last year.  That said, there were more wines vying for a spot on the exciting/interesting list, indicating the creativity and experimentation that continues in the wonderful world of kosher wines and the number of white wines that were eligible for this category has never been higher.  The lack of top notch wines may be partially due to the recent mediocre at best vintages in question, but is nonetheless certainly something to pay attention to in the hope that it isn’t a harbinger of poor things to come.

While there remain many challenges and not all the existing wineries will be around for much longer (more on both these topics in my 2014 Crystal Ball newsletter next week), things are looking good.  My dislike and disregard for scoring wines made the process even more difficult (and slightly more subjective) as scores would have enabled me to compile the list rapidly, simply choosing the highest scoring wines of the past year.

Before we delve into the best wines of 2013 and as would behoove any attorney worth his salt, a few appropriate qualifiers and explanations to the lists below.  First, the list doesn’t include older vintages of wines I recently tasted including magnificent wines that are now in their prime like the Chateau de Fesles, Bonnezeaux, 1997 or the Yatir, Fortified Cabernet Sauvignon, 2005.  Given that my day job limits the amount of time I have to dedicate to wine and my limited wallet puts a damper on the number of wines I get to taste each year, despite my best intentions I don’t taste every one of the approximately 2,000 kosher wines released every year.  The list includes only wines I tasted for the first time this year and excludes barrel tastings of not yet final wines (like the unbelievable Flam, Noble 2010 and 2011), advance tastings of wines not yet released (like the 2004 Domaine Netofa Late Bottled Vintage  Port) and newly released wines I haven’t yet had a chance to taste (like the Montefiore, Kerem Moshe, 2011).  Additionally and reflecting the international nature of this newsletter’s readership, a number of these wines may not be available in the United States or Israel, as the better wines are sometimes made in small quantities and sell out fast or are not exported out of their country of production due to extremely limited quantities and high demand for near cult-like wines).  As a result of these exclusions, there are plenty of terrific wines (like the Shirah Rosé ) released that are not included on this list.

Below is my list – I’d love to hear from you on your best and favorite wines of 2013.

Best Wines of 2013 (in alphabetical Order)

Capcanes, la Flor del Flor de Primavera, Montsant, 2011:  The third release of this special wine from Capcanes, creator of one of my perennially favorite wines – the Peraj Ha’Abib.  Despite the slightly higher price point for the La Flor, I consider the Ha’abib the flagship wine, due to its consistency, ageability and my personal affection for it.  A feminine wine, made from 100% old-vine Grenache the wine opens up with an enticing nose of near-sweet red crushed berries with a hint of cassis, warm spices and earth giving the fruit a complexity that tantalizes.  The medium-bodied palate opens slowly to reveal a tantalizing array of red forest fruit, slightly smoky oak and those caressing-yet-powerful tannins that are the hallmark of this winery and its winemaking team.  The fruit, tannins and oak all combine with the impeccable balance and layered elegance we have come to expect from this delightful winery.  Drinking nicely now, the wine will continue to evolve and develop for the next two to three years and should cellar comfortably through 2018, maybe longer. Stay tuned for the coming release of a 2012 Carignan that is made from seriously old vines (some of which are over 105 years old) and was amazing out of the barrel when I tasted it earlier this year.

Domaine du Castel, Grand Vin, 2010:  Despite a somewhat difficult year for many Israeli winemakers, both Castel and Flam (see below) managed to produce some of their absolute best wines, with the 2010 Grand Vin being a truly spectacular wine (and one that justifies the brands near cult-like following).  A powerful nose loaded with blackberries, cassis, plum and some cherries, along with a hint of candied dried fruit, toasty oak, chocolate, wet forest floor and a hint of spice leads into a concentrated medium to full-bodied palate with plenty more rich fruit, oak and earthy minerals that are backed by nicely integrating tannins bold enough to carry this wine through its continuing development.  While velvet covered iron glove is a term not usually used for the Castel wines, the wine clearly fits that descriptor.  A long finish packed with more black fruit, tobacco, cedar, chocolate and minerals lingers for what seems like forever.  Drink now through 2017.

Flam, Reserve, Cabernet Sauvignon, 2010:  As with the newly released Merlot, this Cabernet Sauvignon, now easily competes for the best Cabernet Sauvignon in Israel.  A rich, opulent and powerful Cabernet Sauvignon that provides layers of complexity while maintaining its composure with poise and elegance.  85% Cabernet Sauvignon (split 60-40% between the Dishon and Kerem Ben-Zimra vineyards) and blended with 6% each of Merlot and Cabernet Franc and rounded out with 3% Petit Verdot, the wine spent 16 months in French oak as components before being blended in stainless steel and then bottle aged as a finished wine for an additional ten months prior to release (similar to the process for the Merlot).  The wine has a rich and opulent nose of ripe red and black berries, Mediterranean herbs, rich dark chocolate, notes of cedar and a nice overlay of spice.  A full bodied palate loaded with more rich fruit including blackberry, cherry, plum, cassis with subtle notes of raspberries and blueberries along with spicy wood, tobacco leaf, anise and caressing tannins that are still tight but bode extremely well for the future.  A lingering finish of minty chocolate, tobacco and more herbs lingers.  I wouldn’t crack this one for another 6-12 months, after which is should cellar nicely through 2020, likely longer.

Four Gates, Cabernet Sauvignon, 2009:  I believe this is the first Cabernet Sauvignon Binyamin made, with grapes from Betchart Vineyard on Monte Bello Ridge in the Santa Cruz Mountains (Four Gates does not grow any Cabernet Sauvignon on its own). Despite the grapes not coming from his famed and acid-packed inducing vineyards, the wine nonetheless manages to be easily identifiable as a Four Gates wine.  A big and bold near-sweet nose of rich blackberries, carries, dried cherries, raspberries, earthy minerals and cigar box with warm spices, a hint of black pepper and some chocolaty mint in the background.  A full bodied palate with big tannins that are beautifully integrated is loaded with more, mostly black, fruit, tobacco leaf, wet forest floor and a hint of bitter green notes combined with spicy oak and rich dark chocolate.  Warm spices come in at the end and lead into a rich and extracted finish that instantly makes you regret polishing off the bottle.  A truly terrific wine and one for the ages.  The wine is drinking magnificently now and may be hard to hold on to, but it should continue to improve and those with patience will be rewarded over the next few years as it comes into its own (but it isn’t going to last as long as his other classic wines).  Drink now through 2017.

Gvaot, Masada, 2010:  After championing this incredible winey for years, the general public seems to have finally realized what a true treasure Gvaot really is.  While its wines are certainly not popularly priced, they actually provide good QPR given their insanely high quality and sheer deliciousness.  The Masada is the winery’s flagship wine (stay tuned for an ethereal and insanely awesome 2012 Masada Pinot Noir as well) and has been well-deserving of this moniker since its inaugural launch.  A Bordeaux-blend styled mix of Cabernet Sauvignon (55%) and Merlot (30%) with some inky black and dense Shomron-grown Petit Verdot (15%) thrown in for good measure, the wine showcases a dense and rich nose of blackberries, currents, cassis, lavender and rich chocolate and slightly toasty oak from the 22 months the wine spent in French oak.  On the deep, complex and layered full-bodied palate there is plenty more concentrated black forest fruit, rich forest floor and bramble, a tinge of tartness accompanied by a backdrop of more rich chocolate, cigar box-tobacco leaf, spicy oak and still integrating tannins that bode well for the continuing development of this wine.  Approachable now, the wine will be much better in six to eight months and should cellar comfortably through 2018, maybe longer.

Herzog, Special Edition, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chalk Hill, 2009:  Not to be confused with Herzog’s “other” (and no less special) Chalk Hill wine, the Clone #6, this wine has been the flagship of Herzog’s Special Reserve for years with some early versions having truly tremendous ageability (a 1997 was recently very much enjoyed) and is pretty consistently an excellent wine.  A densely rich nose of blackberries, black cherries and plums with freshly cracked black pepper, cloves, baker’s chocolate and some spicy oak.  A full bodied palate has plenty more ripe black fruit, more spicy oak, some earthy minerals and cigar-box tobacco notes along with a pleasing and subtle hint of eucalyptus.  A lingering finish of black fruit and chocolate finished off this treat.  Drinking nicely now, the wine should continue to develop and evolve over the next 2-3 years and should cellar comfortably through 2018, maybe longer.

Lueria, Grand Vital, 2008:  A blend of Lueria’s finest grapes, carefully selected by Gidi, this vintage is comprised of Cabernet Sauvignon (70%), Merlot (20%) and Shiraz (10%) with a sense of purpose and elegance about it that seems to have finally come into its own.  Like a number of other wineries, Lueria (whether inadvertently or not) tends to tier its wines depending on how long they spent in oak.  As would befit the wineries flagship, the 2008 Grand Vital spend almost two years in French oak, which is slightly more noticeable like I would have liked but provides a supple backbone for the full bodied wine.  Plenty of near-candied like crushed ripe black forest fruit on the nose, together with currants, cherries, raspberries and a hint of plum is accompanied by sweet cedar and tobacco leaf, lightly-roasted espresso and saddle leather with much of the same on the palate, with well-integrated tannins and fruit and oak seemingly fighting for dominance at first before settling down and allowing the earthy notes to provide a nice addition and depth to this rich wine.  Some high-quality dark chocolate, earthy forest and near-sweet tannins round out this wine all leading into a lingering and caressing finish.  An elegant and well-made wine which is drinking nicely now, the wine needs a bit of airing out before enjoying and should cellar nicely through 2015, maybe longer (Shmittah).

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 flagship of the winery (not an easy task with the usually formidable Edom standing in its way year after year).  A rich, dense and layered wine which continues to reveal multiple layers of aromas and flavors with every passing minute.  If there were ever a wine to p0ur 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.  Drinking nicely now, the wine should continue to improve over the next 12-18 months and cellar nicely thorough 2018.

Recanati, Mediterranean Reserve, Carignan, 2011:  Starting with its inaugural launch for the 2009 vintage, this wine immediately thrust itself into the upper echelon of Israeli wines, while somehow managing to continue to remain under the radar, likely due to the fact that its flavor profile is very much out of the ordinary with a touch of Brett to boot.  All in, this is an incredible wine and, while remaining off the beaten path may not be good for business – it does mean that there is more of it available for me and other discerning wine lovers such as yourselves.  While the somewhat overpriced MSRP is a bit of a deterrent, this is a truly great wine that is well deserving of your attention.  A nice nose of both red and black fruit with tart raspberries and plums dominating along with notes of baker’s chocolate, garrigue and mocha from the nine months the wine spent in French oak.  Evidencing the creativity of Gil and Ido, this medium bodied wine has plenty more fruit on the well-defined palate where it is accompanied by grilled meat, coarsely ground black pepper, espresso, minerals and a hint of Mediterranean Herbs.  A long and lingering finish showcasing more spice and oak rounds out this treat.  Truly a wine I look forward to opening every time and a great accompaniment to food.  Drink now through 2015.

Recanati, Mediterranean Reserve, Syrah-Viognier, 2011:  Among the most distinctively amazing Syrah wines coming out of Israel these day, with a tremendous style it can truly call its own.  The third wine in Recanati’ newly branded Mediterranean series and just as superb and interesting as the other two, with its own distinctive personality (note that there is a miniscule percentage of Viognier included in the wine).  A vibrant nose that needs a few minutes to open up but is loaded with blackberries, plums, cranberries and some cassis along with incredible savory tannins and notes of grilled meat and freshly cracked black pepper with the Viognier providing a touch of refreshing lightness to the wine.  Elegant and simply delicious.  Drink now through 2015.

Yatir, Syrah, 2009:  After a few vintages where the quality of Yatir’s single varietal wines seemingly took a turn for the worse (other than the incredible Petit Verdot reviewed below), Eran Goldwasser produced this Syrah that is ne of the best wines to ever carry the Yatir label.  A rich and full-bodied wine with characteristically dark fruit, freshly cracked black pepper and freshly paved asphalt with plenty of roasted meat, cigar box and a hint of blue providing multiple layers of complexity.  Big and bold tannins combine with near impeccable balance that effectively guarantee that this wine will continue to tantalize and excite for a number of years to come.  Enjoy now through 2016.

Most Interesting / Exciting Wines of 2013 (in alphabetical Order)

Brobdingnagian, Grenache Blanc, 2012:  Continuing to amaze, Jonathan shows why he should really be on anyone’s shortlist for one of the top winemakers in the kosher wine world.  A delightful treat from an uncommon grape varietal, I went through my stash of this wine so quickly I barely knew what hit me.  With plenty of acidity combining with ripe and luscious fruit, this wine provides that rare combination that is immensely pleasing and highly compatible with a tremendous array of foods.  With a delightful nose of tropical fruits including melons, papaya and a hint of pineapple combined with delightful notes of citrus, the medium bodied palate is loaded with terrific acidity that keeps the fruit from overwhelming and creates a really substantial wine that manages to be fun as well and doesn’t really require much thought to enjoy.  The palate has more tropical fruit accompanied by a slightly herbal note and a creamy lusciousness that tantalizes until the slightly bitter finish reminds you that this is a wine with substance.  While the 14% AbV is going to be too much for some, I say bah humbug – drink and enjoy!

Dalton, Single Vineyard, Semillon, Elkosh Vineyard, 2012:  With Dalton’s excellence continuing to govern its innovation, this wine is yet another brick in their already delightful portfolio, showcasing their ability to make great wines at decent prices.  Together with a soon-to-be-released quality Pinot Grigio, Dalton continues to make rain where other settle for a few drops here and there (see their Zinfandel, Petite Sirah and Viognier as other examples). Fermented is old oak barrels where the wine spent four months, it wine opens with a delightful nose loaded with stone fruit, flinty minerals, tart citrus and a hint of tropical fruit, much of which continues on the medium bodied and slightly viscous palate that has plenty of acidity to keep the fruit honest and minerals that provide a subtle bitter complexity that tantalizes along with notes of grapefruit, lemons and a Herbaceousness that pleases.  A lingering finish of white peach, Mayer lemon and bitter minerals rounds out this subtly different and very stylish wine.  Drink now through 2016 and enjoy as the wine ages and takes on more mature notes.

Domaine du Castel, “C”, Chardonnay, 2012:  When I first tasted this wine out of the barrel I fell in love with it immediately and wished that it could have been bottled then and there (I had a similar experience with the Alexander 2012 Chardonnay as well), as the impeccable balance, complexity and sheer deliciousness was quite stunning.  After some additional time in the barrel, the wine retained its balance, structure and complexity and gained a stronger oak profile that, while many will undoubtedly love it, simply has too much toasty oak for my own personal tastes.  That said, this is a great wine and well worthy of your consideration.  The wine opens with a loaded nose of toasty oak, tart green apples, some guava, butterscotch and vanilla and continues onto a medium bodied palate with white peach, guava, a hint of pineapple, warm spices and more vanilla and toasted oak along with a streak of salinity and roasted nuts.  All of this with sufficient acidity to hold the package together beautifully and a long finish dominated by toasty oak, warm spices and roasted nuts. Drink now through 2016.

Domaine Netofa, Fine Ruby Port, 2010: As Port-styled wines sweep the nation, with more and more wineries jumping on the bandwagon of sweet dessert wines; Netofa launched a 2010 Ruby port with class and elegance.  While there remain only three kosher Ports (i.e. made in the Douro region of Portugal) – Royal’s two Porto Cordovero wines and the newly launched Porto Quevedo – both nice), the number of Port-style wines is growing exponentially.  A blend of 80% Touriga Nacional (a varietal the kosher world has been seeing more often, including in the Yarden T2 and wines and the Shirah Coalition) and 20% Tinta Roriz (a/k/a Tempranillo) with 20% alcohol, this is a rich, deep and delicious dessert wine, that gets even better after it has been open for a few days.  Aged in new French oak for two years, the wine presents with cloves, other warm spices, dates, chocolate, stewed plums, raisins, roasted nuts and with just enough acidity to keep things upbeat and long luscious lingering (say that three times fast) finish.  Expect a terrific our-year aged (“LBV”) port to be released shortly.

Domaine Rose Camille, Echo de Roses Camille, Pomerol, 2011:  A “second wine” only by virtue of the greatness of its older sibling – the Domaine Rose Camille, which is undoubtedly one of the greatest kosher French wines on the market (which may have to do with the fact that in vintages when a kosher wine is made (2005, 2006, 20011 and 2012 to date, with the 2012 not yet released) and certainly the top Merlot, the winery only makes kosher wine, enabling its winemaking to proceed in a “normal” course (as opposed to kosher “runs” at non-kosher wineries where the winemaking and fruit availability is more constrained).  A subtle nose of red fruit including tart raspberries and a hint of under ripe strawberries, with toasty oak, pungent earth and mineral are accompanied by lavender and floral notes that grow stronger as the wine opens in your glass.  A medium to- full-bodied palate has great balance between the mostly red fruit, toasty oak and minerals along with a searing tannic structure that bodes well for the wines potential aging.  A nice finish of more wood and tannin along with espresso and tobacco leaf rounds out this complex and incredible treat (which is relatively well-priced as well, and not only in relation to its insanely expensive older brother).  Nearly impenetrably closed right now, if you insist on opening decanting for 5-6 hours prior would significantly enhance your enjoyment of the wine.  Otherwise, give this one the respect it deserves and wait two years before opening and then enjoy through 2023, maybe longer.

Golan Heights Winery, Yarden, Brut Rosé, 2008:  While the official title of the wine is simply “Rosé” (without the Brut designation), I have included it to avoid confusion and to give the winery a hint that indicating what type of wine it is may be a good idea (especially since it’s a winery and not a Champagne “house”).  However, this minor detail should in no way, shape or form take anything away from the deliciousness of this wine.  With the 2007 Blanc de Blanc taking high honors last year, it is now time for the accompanying Rosé to step into the limelight.  Newly released after much anticipation (rumors of this wine have been swirling for years), it was certainly a wine well-worth waiting for.  A blend of Chardonnay (70%) and Pinot Noir (30%) that spent the last five years aging on its lees which contributed a substantially amount of complexity to this treat.  A nose loaded with all you might expect from a Rosé sparkle, with yeasty notes and toasted brioche accompanied by sun-kissed and freshly picked strawberries, red grapefruit and luscious citrus notes.  With a tight mousse and a medium-bodied palate loaded with acidity, the wine delights with more citrus, subtle red grapefruit, some tart apples and roasted hazelnuts.  A sexy wine that manages to be both serious and fun at the same time.  As of now, this wine is unlikely to be imported into the US so get as much of it as you can – it’s very much worth it.  Drink now through 2016, maybe longer.

Gvaot, Gofna Reserve, Chardonnay-Cabernet Sauvignon, 2012:  The first time I read about this wine a number of years ago I had the predictable bewildered reaction, as these two varietals are not typically combined.  That said, in Shivi’s exceptionally talented hands they yield a delicious and intriguing wine that is well worth trying at least once, even if the resulting wine will certainly not be to everyone’s taste.  Made from 85% Chardonnay and 15% Cabernet Sauvignon, the wine spent six months in oak benefiting from a tannic structure that combines with the lovely aromatic chardonnay to provide a singular experience.  Plenty of tropical fruit and spice on the nose with a medium to full bodied palate of tart apple, more tropical fruit, slightly smoky oak and a lingering finish of fruit and wood so seamlessly in harmony that it is incredible to behold.  A really delicious wine.  Drink now through 2015.

Recanati, Mediterranean Reserve, Marselan, 2012:  The newest addition to the truly terrific Mediterranean Reserve line showcases the continued pursuit of both creativity and excellence exhibited by Gil and Ido, with the help of newly crowned assistant winemaker Kobi Arbiv (a talented winemaker who produced his own wines under the “Mia Luce” label).  A relatively new varietal that is a cross between Cabernet Sauvignon and Grenache and named for the town in which it was created (Marseillan), the grape is barely used in Israel (I believe its first appearance was in the Tzafit wine from Barkan’s Assemblage series).  The grapes come from a single vineyard and the wine spent eight months in 60% new French oak and it a worthy addition to one of the best “series” of Israeli wine today.  An aromatic nose of mostly red fruit including tart raspberries, cranberries, a hint of blackberries and cassis, some slightly spicy oak, notes of dark chocolate and a hint of green notes with much of the same on the medium bodied soft palate where the near-sweet and nicely integrating tannins caress warmly and they are joined by tobacco, cedar, some warm herbs and some more minty chocolate.  A limited run of 4,000 bottles, it’s definitely worth getting a few bottles and enjoying.  Give the wine six months before opening and then enjoy through 2016.

Shirah, Coalition, 2011:  The second year the Weiss bothers produced this unique blend and, while another successful year, there is a distinct change in style from the 2010 vintage as one would expect from the different blend comprising the wine.  A blend this year of 60% Zinfandel, 12% each of Cabernet Franc and Merlot and 8% each of Touriga Nacional and Souza which results in a very different and intriguing wine that I enjoyed very much but may not be to everyone’s tastes.  A ripe and aromatic nose is loaded with strawberries, watermelon, some summer fruit, green pepper, eucalyptus, cigar box, espresso, spicy oak and cloves.  On the full bodied palate there is more oak, near-sweet tannins, more red summer fruits and a ton of spice.  A lingering finish with more spicy wood and minty baker’s chocolate finishes up this wine.  Drink now through 2015.

Tabor, Adama, Roussanne, 2012:  A new varietal from a winery not particularly known for innovation, this Roussanne is a delightfully young and friendly wine and a terrific comparative tasting partner to the quality Roussanne made by California’s Hagafen Winery (Binyamina also released a very nice version this year).  A nice nose of floral notes and pineapple, pear, guava and other tropical fruits together with flinty minerals, plenty of citrus pith and some black tea lead into a light to medium bodied palate with plenty tropical fruit, limes and tart apple with plenty of acidity to keep things lively and a note of honeysuckle lending the perception of some sweetness.  An unassuming great summer wine that pleases all year long.  Drink now.