#198 – December 30, 2011
As the holiday week comes to a close here in New York I am really looking forward to taking back my morning commute back from the tourists. Seriously folks, despite the big illuminated apple on top, it’s still just a store…
As usual, in connection with reviewing my notes and newsletters from the past year in connection with preparing my list of “Best Wines of 2011”, I reflected over the year that was and the varied important events that impacted the wonderful world of wine in general and more specifically, the kosher wine world with a particular focus on the country that provides the largest number of kosher wines by a significant margin – Israel. After my recent visit to Israel which included attending the amazing Sommelier Expo which provided the opportunity to taste a huge selection of Israel’s best and newest wines and visits to nearly 20 Israeli wineries, I came away with renewed optimism with respect to the Israeli wine industry as they continue to evolve and find the right path forward and I look forward to continuing to share their treasures with you for years to come. I was also gratified to see that many of the trends and predictions I discussed last year in my trends newsletter and the piece I wrote about the path forward for Israel’s wine industry were accurate and continue to be relevant. Unfortunately this is not indicative of any physic abilities, but rather people’s general resistance to change, requiring more than a year or two to effect large-scale but necessary changes to an entire industry. Rather than repeat much of this still relevant information in this already longer than usual newsletter, use the links above to check out the trends I discussed last year, most of which are still very relevant today and, together with this week’s topics, provide the direction I expect the kosher wine world to take over the coming years.
2011 brought with it winds of change across many aspects of the kosher wine world, including a number of top Israeli boutique wineries turning kosher, the launching of several interesting series of wines by established wineries, new exciting kosher wines from California, Spain and France and the proliferation of new wineries around the world. With all these exciting events, there is one event that dwarfs all the rest in its importance and potential impact on the entire industry of kosher wine and that is the passing of Israel’s top wine critic, Daniel Rogov z”l (whose real name was David Joroff), the potential impact of which is discussed in detail below.
This week’s newsletter discusses some of the more important trends of 2011 and their potential impact on the future of the kosher wine world. Next week’s newsletter will be a follow up newsletter that will expand on some of these trends and discuss in detail some of what we can expect 2012 to bring to our table. If that wasn’t enough excitement for you and as a follow up to my “Best Wines of 2011”, I have also included those wines that almost made the list and all are well worthy of your attention, palate and wallet.
IMPORTANT TRENDS OF 2011
Daniel Rogov z”l
As any reader of this newsletter or lover of kosher wine knows, Daniel Rogov passed away in early September. While much about him continues to be shrouded in mystery (just the way he would have liked it), numerous eulogies, comments and stories were written about him in the week’s following his passing, much of which I have collated here. His loss is significant for the kosher wine consumer in many ways, as he was the only person in the world who managed to taste a significant amount of the ever-increasing number kosher wines released each year. His barrel, advance, tasting and re-tasting notes for these wines which he generously provided for free to anyone who asked, most often through his wine forum but also through his regular articles in Ha’Aretz and other publications were an invaluable resource in making purchasing decisions, proving information about wines past, present and future. Rogov’s advance scouting also provided an early opportunity made many of us “in the know” with the opportunity to snag some of the more coveted and top-notch new releases before market frenzy (usually resulting from a high-Rogov score) set in.
However, in addition to the obvious impact his passing already has (and will continue to have) on the kosher wine consumer, I believe the impact his death will have on the entire kosher wine industry will be far more significant, if less obvious and likely longer to take effect. While obvious to me, I was surprised at the number of winemakers in Israel who were unaware of Rogov’s market power. While most of them acknowledged his importance as a wine critic, most were unaware of the weight his reviews and opinions carried both in Israel and abroad. This is due to many factors including that Rogov’s influence outside of Israel’s borders was far greater than within, a lack of understanding how the retailing of their product is viewed by the consumer and partially a result of hubris. The disparity in his range of influence results both from Rogov not being the only writer critiquing Israeli wines and from many of the negative opinions of him held by many in the industry (some jealousy driven, some legitimate). Living in the United States after living in Israel for over 20 years and staying intimately in touch with the Israeli wine industry I am acutely aware of Rogov’s ability to make or break a wine (or even a winery) which was unparalleled in the world of kosher wines and equal only to Parker’s past influence (now significantly waning) on the world of Bordeaux. A score of 90 or more from Daniel Rogov was promotional material enough to spike demand for a coveted wine which was usually followed by a price increase and a superlative like “best Israeli syrah” or “one of the best kosher wines ever” was sometimes enough to ensure that most people would only dream about the wine. Two examples that come to mind were his granting of a 96 to the 2006 Yarden Rom and his personal vendetta against the Hevron Heights Winery that led to nearly none of their wines ever getting scores over 84 (while most of their wines are not that great, the label inconsistency is maddening and the bottle variation troubling, there have been wines deserving of far better scores). In next week’s newsletter on what 2012 will bring, I will discuss in depth some of the changes I expect to see to the industry as a direct result of his passing.
Wineries Making Major Capital Investments
As the sophistication and interest of the kosher wine consumer continues to grow, more and more kosher wine consumers are starting to spend wine on quality table wine. In anticipation and response to this developing phenomenon, wineries around the world have spent lavishly by planting a huge number of new vineyards, building new wineries or cellars, putting up beautiful visitor centers, investing in designing labels and bottles or other expensive endeavors. While some of these expenditures were financed by foreign private investors taking partial or full ownership of these wineries, others funded these outlays out-of-pocket or with debt. The results of all this spending has been a multitude of new wineries and wines hitting the market and many wineries becoming attractive tourist destinations, even for these only marginally interested in wines. The beautiful outdoors, good food and drink, an attractive sitting area and sometimes even kid-friendly activities have helped to increase Israel’s wine tourism from North to South. However, these large cash outlays coupled with the Israeli short-term mentality has also created some substantial price increases, most notably among the newer wineries who price their wines at the premium level of Yatir or Castel without any track record to back up these prices.
While obviously a boon to the consumer, the massive proliferation of new wines and wineries has made it increasingly hard to stand out form the crowd which is a requirement for a winery that is in the business of selling its wine (all romantic notions aside and while we sometimes forget, wineries are still a business trying to turn a profit). One of the more obvious and easy ways to stand out is to increase the price of your wine since there are far few wines selling for $75 than for $30 and fewer wines means less competition – sad but very true and a sentiment echoed by many wineries.
An additional marketing aspect available to wineries is changing the label or bottle to attract more attention and stand out on the shelf, a tactic that many wineries seem to undertake with unfortunate frequency. While some of these changes clearly streamline a wineries labeling and are for the better (Carmel’s new attractive labels are a great example) and others obviously serve to attract the more affluent and trophy wine-seeking winos (see Alexander’s gold and silver colored plate-metal labels on their higher-end and correspondingly priced wines), it would behoove the marketing geniuses at these wineries to remember that consumers don’t like change and the success of Israel’s top wineries like Castel and Yatir, while mostly a result of them making incredible wines year after year, is also partially attributable to the fact that they make a limited number of wines and haven’t changed their labels since they were launched.
While the wineries in question are not necessarily those who overspent in recent years, as a direct result of economic uncertainty, many of the smaller boutique Israeli wineries are becoming kosher with increasing frequency. Most recently, this list includes Saslove, Tulip, Ramot Naftaly, Yaffo, Katz, Eyal and Flam with Asif (and others) to hopefully follow soon. While becoming kosher brings with it some additional expenses, it opens the door to a large number of new consumers and allows wines to be sold in Israel’s major supermarkets, most of which only carry kosher certified product and where most of Israel’s wine is still purchased. Regardless of the fact that the only reason these wineries are becoming kosher is economic necessity, as a kosher oenophile it is a move I welcome with open arms and hope and expect to see more of in the coming years.
New Direction for Israeli Wines
As discussed last year and currently led by wineries such as Carmel and Recanati, many Israeli wineries continue to move away from the fruit-forward and oak-laden wines of yesteryear towards more elegant and terroir driven wines and I expect (and hope) this trend to continue for a years to come. More elegance, subtlety and complexity will continue to replace in your face, oak-laced and fruit driven wines. However, as I mentioned last year, I don’t think the kosher consumer is quite ready for this shift yet and most wineries realize this, taking it slowly making slight changes year over year to their wines and are gradually bringing the consumer along with the rest of the world towards these subtler wines. Of course there are plenty of wineries making top-notch fruit-forward with plenty of wood used in a discerning manner and producing wonderful stuff and will continue to do so, which will provide consumers with even more choices.
Wineries also continue to experiment with varietals more appropriate for Israel’s unique climate including Petit Verdot, Petit Sirah and Cabernet Franc, utilizing them in stand-alone wines instead of simply blends. I think Grenache will likely be added to this mix at some point. We are also experiencing more and more wines with substantial aging ability (still mostly produced by the Golan Heights Winery), which is a welcome trend I will discuss in more depth next week, but a welcome one. Over the next few years I hope we will start seeing wines capable of lasting 30 years or more. I know Israeli wineries are capable of producing such wines, the question will be whether the consumer has an interest in such wines and will they be willing to pay a premium for them.
The Increased Importance of the North American Market
While North America has always been a significant export market for Israeli and other kosher wine from around the world, with the increased sophistication and interest described above, its importance has risen drastically in recent years. One indicator of this importance is, while many wineries have ceased producing mevushal wine as part of their efforts to revitalize their image as producers of quality wine, many such wineries continue to produce one or more mevushal versions solely for export. While I acknowledge the necessity of mevushal wines under certain circumstances, I have made my general view of the concept known on more than one occasion and am sadden by this phenomenon which leads to consumer confusion, perpetuates ignorance and provides more bad wine to a market just beginning to appreciate quality wines across the board. While the US market does provide some top-notch mevushal wines, namely in Hagafen’s Prix and Herzog’s Special Reserve lines, the Israeli versions are severely lacking for the most part, and are certainly nothing to write home about (mostly relating to which part of the winemaking process the flash-pasteurization occurs – more on that in a future newsletter).
Another aspect of the North American market is the ever increasingly importance of the importer/distributor. While Royal Wine Corporation has and continues to be the largest and most significant importer of kosher wines into the United States recent years have seen, together with the proliferation of new and newly kosher wineries, many new importers/distributors bringing in one or two smaller wineries resulting in a fractured market and a bit of difficulty in finding all the wonderful kosher wines available as retailers sometimes carry more of one importers wines over the other and some of the importers who aren’t focused and thus don’t “get” the kosher market, are less successful in getting their wines into the hands of the kosher consumer. While this is actually in line with the intention of some wineries like Tzora, others suffer from this like Recanati and Ella valley who get far less exposure to the kosher wine consumer than they deserve, given the quality and decent pricing of their wines.
Yossie’s Corkboard – Personal Reflections
On a personal note, the readership of Yossie’s Wine Recommendations continues to grow and Yossie’s Corkboard continues to attract attention, so I’d like to take this opportunity to thank you for your continued support! I am hoping to reach 5,000 subscribers this year so if you know anyone who is interested in wine, please have them sign up for the newsletter – it would be most appreciated. This coming year will also see some new features added to the website including a Q&A section. As always, any thoughts, comments, suggestions or recommendations to improve this newsletter or topics in which you are interested are always welcomed and most appreciated.
Listed below are full tasting notes for the great wines that just missed the cutoff for my list of the “Best Wines of 2011”.
I JUST MISSED MAKING YOSSIE’S LIST
Binyamina Avnei Hachoshen, Yahalom-Diamond, 2007: A mentioned above, this was a limited edition run and a big success. A big, powerful and full-bodied blend of Cabernet Sauvignon (50%), Syrah (30%) and Petite Verdot (20%). Delicious right now but give it the time it deserves as it’s clearly destined for future greatness. Great structure and balance between the rich fruit, which included plums, blackberries and raspberries, the near-sweet wood, bold tannins and spicy background. Together with the Zinfandel, this wine represents Binyamina’s best and it brought me back to their heyday of the 2003 Syrah I loved so much (although that wine was more elegant to this one’s power). Great mouthfeel with plenty of dark chocolate, coffee and spiciness all leading into a long and generous finish that lingers. The 2008 vintage is also amazing. The wine has now come into its own and is drinking amazingly well (after 15-25 minutes of breathing time) btu will continue to evolve for another 12-18 months and should cellar nicely through 2017.
Binyamina, Reserve, Late Harvest Cluster Select, Gewurztraminer, 2009: I first tasted the 2008 vintage of this wine while visiting Israel and loved it! I had the opportunity to taste the 2009 vintage at a recent tasting back in November held by the Israeli Economic Mission and was wowed by how different it was from the 2008 and by how much I liked it. Like Carmel’s Sha’al dessert wine, some 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. I haven’t yet seen it on sale in New York, but will definitely load up on it when it appears – a highly recommended dessert wine and great alternative to the delicious Sha’al. Feel free to cellar this one through 2018.
Carmel, Single Vineyard – Kayoumi, Cabernet Sauvignon, 2007: Carmel’s chief winemaker Lior Lacser must spend his nights sprinkling the Kayoumi vineyard with angel dust, as there is something truly magical about this vineyard which produces an incredible Shiraz in addition to this magnificent and powerful Cabernet Sauvignon. Both powerful and elegant, this wine is full-bodied with great structure and harmony among the wood, fruit, tannin and acid. Give this wine a little time in the glass to open up and you will be rewarded with aromas of red cherries and currants, gooseberries, tart plums and cigar box followed by a fruit and earthy palate with slightly darker fruits, tobacco leaf, bittersweet chocolate, mildly spicy oak and muscular yet well integrated mouth coating tannins. A long lingering finish reminds you that it’s time for the next glass. Drink now through 2015.
Ella Valley Vineyards, Merlot, 2005: Just another example of how, notwithstanding their magnificent Cabernet Franc, Merlot is what helps set this winery apart from all others. An easy example of a regular series wine that fully deserves to be elevated to their upper-tier Vineyard’s Choice label but it’s better for us this way since it stay eminently affordable. Muscular, robust, aggressive and bold are not your typical buzz words when talking about Merlot; but those traits combined with the wines elegance, depth, richness and complexity make for an absolute killer combo – give this some time in your glass and it really comes together. Tons of blackberries, raspberries and tangy sharp plums backed by pepper, wood and nice hints of chocolate. A well balanced structure and a long caressing finish loaded with fruit and hints of dark chocolate round this delight out. A wine with the rare combo of being food-friendly and big, bold and powerful.
Four Gates, Pinot Noir, n.v.: I don’t know if I have ever used beautiful to describe a wine but there really isn’t any other word to describe this medium bodied violet scented wine with a gentle nose. Blended with 50% each from the 2007 and 2008 vintages, this wine was great on its own but incredible with food. Plum, cherry, raspberry and cranberry on both the nose and palate with some nice hints of roasted herbs, toasted oak and kirsch. A medium and caressing finish rounded out this lovely wine.
Golan Heights Winery, Yarden, Single Vineyard, Yonatan, Cabernet Sauvignon, 2007: While a nice touch, my adoration for this wine has nothing to do with the fact that the vineyard in which it was born shares the name of my oldest child. A full bodied and somewhat intense wine that is loaded with the characteristic ripe rich fruit, solid tannins and hints of slightly spicy oak we have come to expect from this series. Blackberries, cherries, black currants, plums, gooseberries are all present on both the nose and palate of this delicious and caressing wine that wows you with its elegance and power with every sip. Hints of eucalyptus and Mediterranean herbs keep the wine grounded in its Israeli origins all leading into a long luxurious finish that tempts you to open another one of your specially reserved bottles. Another rousing success in the Single Vineyard line of the Golan Heights winery, this full bodied wine is a delight that will continue to impress and bring pleasure for years to come. I’d give the wine another year for the tannins to settle down and for the fruit to take its proper place but then the wine should cellar nicely through 2020.
Gvaot, Gofna, Pinot Noir, 2009: Gvaot’s first release of Pinot Noir in a limited edition of 550 bottles and a rousing success. Produced from vineyards at 720 meters above sea level where the delicate and high-maintenance grapes benefit from the natural protection of the valley’s walls. While, mostly resulting from terroir-based issues, Israel does not (and likely cannot) produce Pinot Noir at the Burgundian level, they are more and more succeeding at providing complex and pleasing versions of the varietal that make for nice food pairing and this bright wine is no exception, especially at a reasonable 12.5% alcohol. A medium bodied wine and sensual wine, whose depth of flavor and complexity is immediately recognizable on the rich nose of red fruit and wild flowers which follows through on the promise to a palate replete with cherries, raspberries, a tantalizing hint of strawberries, the typically Israeli crushed warm herbs and a nice spiciness from the 12 months in old French oak. Lovely right now, with great balance and elegant structure, this wine will continue to improve over the next year or two and should cellar nicely through 2017. Suggested retail in Israel is 170 NIS.
Gvaot, Masada, 2009: The winery’s flagship wine and justifiably so, produced in a limited run of 1,400 bottles. A wine whose punch has increased since its first release in 2005 (although the 2008 vintage is going to outlive this one). A full bodied and extracted blend of Cabernet Sauvignon (50%), Merlot (35%) and Petit Verdot (15%) whose whole is definitely greater than its parts. With robust tannins, those in balance with the spicy wood and fruit, this wine has a nice future ahead of it. Plenty of black forest fruit on both the nose and palate including black currents, black plums, blackberries and other crushed berries along with a delightful earthy funkiness and some Mediterranean herbs combine with a rich overlay of spicy wood from the 21 months in French oak and hints of dark chocolate. If you crack this one open now, I’d give it 15-25 minutes in your glass to open up and show its beauty but suggest giving the wine another 6 months or so before opening after which is will cellar nicely and continue to evolve through 2018. Suggested retail in Israel is 215 NIS but it can be had for less.
Hagafen, Prix, Mélange, 2006: When Hagafen released their inaugural release of this wine with the 2004 vintage excitement abounded in the kosher wine world. While nice, the 2005 vintage lacked the panache and depth of its older sibling. This vintage is closer to its 2004 brother than the 2005 wine, and the fact that this wine didn’t make the 2011 Top Ten list is a testament to the incredible kosher wines available over this past year. A plush and full bodied somewhat earthy blend, with well integrated and caressing tannins providing a solid backbone for a delicious array of elegant fruit including black currants, mulberries, rich raspberries and cassis along with licorice, eucalyptus, lavender and some minty dark chocolate. A long lingering finish of cedar, dark chocolate, earthy minerals and cigar box leaves you wishing you had another bottle right now. Great balance and beautiful structure, a little less acidity that I would have liked which will limit the shelf life of this wine; making its $75 (plus shipping) a little less justifiable but a delicious wine and a real treat nonetheless. A hint of old world soul in a Napa Valley body. The wine is finally drinking beautifully but give it 30 minutes to an open to open up first, and should cellar nicely though 2015.
Karmei Yosef (Bravdo), Shiraz, 2009: Given my admiration for this winery, I was delighted when their wines were finally imported into the United States and they introduced a delightful blend called “Coupage”. As with the 2007 vintage I previously reviewed, this is a full bodied wine with distinct Shiraz personality and a hint of the Mediterranean terroir of its birthplace. A big, intense and brambly wine, consistent with its Shiraz name, with muscular tannins and ample, slightly spicy, wood matched nicely by blackberries, cassis and juicy plums on both the nose and palate, together with Mediterranean herbs and hints of cigar-box cedar. A great wine right now, but give this one another year or so in the bottle and you will be rewarded by a smoother and more grown up wine. A definite keeper and happily decently priced (unlike many other recent boutiquey arrivals on our shores).
Recanati, Special Reserve, White, 2009: It took me awhile to get my hands on this wine due to its limited availability even in Israel (it isn’t sold in the US at all) but, given my love and adoration for its red sibling, I persisted and it paid off (thanks for searching AG). After many years of releasing their flagship Special Reserve wine, with the 2008 vintage, Recanati released a Special Reserve white blend to much acclaim (which I have not yet had the opportunity to taste). This wine will supposedly only be produced in appropriate years and apparently 2009 was such a year – in any event, the wine is delicious. A blend of Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Viognier, all from Recanati’s top tier Manara vineyard, the was aged in French oak for eight months giving it a bit of spiciness, aging ability, oaky creaminess, flinty minerals and a nice balance to the rich tropical fruits on both the nose and palate. Peach and apricot flavors abound, along with plenty of spring flowers some almond notes on the mid-palate all matched by mouth-watering acidity that brings the wood and fruit together harmoniously.
#198 – December 30, 2011