Through the Looking Glass

#240-241 – February 14-21, 2012

As a result of writing (approximately) one newsletter a week, usually focused on specific wineries, varietals or other vino-centric topics, I often write about a wine I tasted or winery I visited only many months after the actual visit or tasting occurred.  In an effort to provide a bit more timely information about some of the wines coming to market and at the request of a number of wineries, the following newsletter is a brief summary of my recent whirlwind trip to Israel, in which I visited 15 wineries over the course of four delightful days, and tasted over 100 different wines.  Fear not, the format of this newsletter is not changing to a blog, and coming newsletters will continue provide in-depth reviews of the wineries I visited in addition to detailed tasting notes on those wines I tasted and liked (as is my policy, wines tasted that I didn’t enjoy will simply not be mentioned).  Hopefully the summary that follows will provide some insight into the terrific wineries Israel has to offer and showcase some of the really great Israeli wines coming our way.  You can also check out my annotated map for full contact information, tasting notes and related articles on the more than 70 kosher Israeli wineries.

Given the fact that my family typically does not join me on these quickie tasting visits, I feel compelled to make the most of my time which explains why I packed four winery visits into each day of my trip.  Now, four visits may not sound like a lot, but when you are spending time chatting with the winery owner and/or winemaker, taking notes about the current and future plans for the winery, indulging in a bit of industry gossip and trying to taste anywhere between 5-30 wines during your visit, 2-3 visits a day is a lot.  Four is a little out there – but hey, someone has to do it.

Despite the relatively recent blossoming of the Judean Hills as one of Israel’s premier wine growing regions, it’s the northern regions that are most responsible for Israel’s rise to prominence as a well-regarded wine producing country, with the Golan and Upper Galilee containing some of Israel’s most prestigious and well known grape growing areas (including Kerem Ben Zimra, Manara and the near mythical vineyards of El-Rom and Kayoumi which have become synonymous with extremely high quality wine in recent years).  However, given the distance from the center of the country where I typically spend my time, I hadn’t visited the 30 odd wineries in the Northern regions of Israel in quite some time.  Needless to say, the time for a visit was well overdue and I was determined to make time for these über-important wineries on this trip.  Northern bound I was.


Domaine Netofa

The first winery I visited – Domaine Netofa, is also the only winery to date about which I have written a full blown article based on my most recent visit.  After failing to make my well-intentioned (if ill-advised) early-morning breakfast meeting, I headed up North for my first visit, en-route to the Golan Heights.  While Domaine Netofa is working on the construction of a wine tasting and education center at the entrance to Moshav Netofa, there is no formal winery (the wines are being made in the Or Haganuz facility 45 minutes away).  I met Pierre Miodownick (the winemaker) and Yair Teboulle for a full tasting of the winery’s current wines and a number of advance tastings as well – 12 wines in all.  Among the wines I enjoyed were the 2012 Rosé, which is currently being released in both Israel and the United States, which was less austere and minerally than the 2011, with a touch more sweetness and a round palate that will be very much enjoyed once New York shakes off its current Arctic chill and goes back to the global warming induced balmy winter days we have become accustomed to (although all my six-year old wants is more ice and snow).  Another wine that improved from the last vintage was the innovative Tinto (a blend of Touriga Nacional, which is getting more love recently among kosher winemakers, and Tempranillo) that was both different and delicious.  The Ruby Port-styled wine was a treat and the Red Latour 2012, which should be released shortly, is a terrific wine worth purchasing.  Softer and less tannic than prior vintages; the wine will be super-enjoyable off the bat and would make a nice accompaniment to your Pessach table.  Check out newsletter #238 for a full report on the winemaker, winery & all the wines.

Golan Heights Winery

After bidding adieu to Pierre and Yair, I made my way to the Colossus of Israeli wineries – the Golan Heights Winery.  While the winery is only the third largest in the country after Barkan and Carmel, I find it to be the country’s best, taking into account the various factors.  Unlike many of the smaller wineries I visited, including the aforementioned Domaine Netofa, tasting all the wines made by this winery in one sitting would be a gargantuan undertaking and a virtual impossibility (ignoring the massive potential for vertical tastings of still-drinkable vintages dating back to the late 80s).  As such, I had to “settle” for a carefully curated tasting of 11 wines intended to showcase the many things the winery does well.  While I did manage to snag a barrel tasting of the 2011 El-Rom Cabernet Sauvignon (making for a total of 12 wines), I missed out on the sparkling Rosé which has been taunting me for a while and will hopefully be released at some point.  We started off with the 2007 Blanc de Blanc which is one of the greatest they have ever made (a bold statement considering how delightful the 2005 version was) – a definite maturing improvement over the 2005.  As Tammany Hall would have said, a wine to exercise the “buy early and buy often” advice with.  We also tasted the new 2011 Odem and Katzrin Chardonnay wines, which always make a terrific comparative tasting (together with the Gamla and “regular” Yarden Chardonnay wines), showcasing the crazy, different possibilities available with the same winemaker, grape and vintage but different oak aging and wine making techniques.  Another highlight was the Cabernet Sauvignon wine from the newly launched Gamla Reserve series, to which the Gamla Brut has been moved as well (remember, Gamla in Israel is the Golan Height Winery’s middle label which in the United States in now marketed under the “Gilgal” label).  It is richer and more complex than the “regular” Gamla Cabernet Sauvignon and, while the Yarden Cabernet has more depth and complexity to it, I think many folks will enjoy the Gamla Reserve more, with its lusher (controlled) fruit and lower tannins.  I am not sure whether the series will be sold in the US, but definitely look for it on your next trip to Israel.

Other highlights included the dry and sweet versions of the winery’s Touriga Nacional wines (the 2009 2T and 2008 T2 respectively) as well as the recently released 2009 Elrom Cabernet Sauvignon.  While not as stupendous as the 2008 version, it remains after the Katzrin, one of the winery’s finest creations.  In addition to Tzvika Raish, I had the unbelievable luck of being joined for most of the tasting by Victor Schoenfeld, the winery’s head winemaker and one of the folks primary responsible for Israel’s wine revolution.  While tasting the wines was great, chatting about wine with Victor was unquestionably the highlight of my visit and one of the highlights of the entire trip!  Some of the tidbits included a 2000 Blanc de Blanc waiting for a “late disgorge” and the fact that the just-released 2007 Noble Semillon botrytised wine will be the last botrytis wine produced by the winery (at least for now).  Apparently the expense involved is simply too great and unfortunately for us aficionados, not too many people were buying the wine (cough, idiots, cough).  My 2004 and 2005 vintages are drinking amazingly, I plan on stocking up on 2006 and 2007 to tide me over and I recommend you do the same.  While there are plenty of top-notch late harvest kosher dessert wines on the market, other than the two kosher Sauternes (Piada and Guiraud) which were “true” botrytis (i.e. naturally occurring as opposed to induced in the winery), this was the only other widely available Botrytis kosher wine which will be sorely missed, at least by yours truly.  I really enjoyed the visit, and thanks again to Victor for his time and conversation!

Bazelet HaGolan

My next stop was the Bazelet HaGolan winery, conveniently located just a few minutes away.  While the Golan Heights Winery is a massive and industrial place (unfortunately Israeli regulations have deemed wineries “industrial” instead of “agricultural”, severely limiting the ability to create Estate Wineries located within the vineyards, which significantly enhances the romantic aspect of visiting a winery.  Bazelet HaGolan is a more intimate winery (making significantly less wine) and a completely different environment.  I unfortunately missed out on winemaker Yoav Levy, but was fortunate to be joined by the winery’s two Anglo “cellar rats”, Yechiel and Yaron.  With only four wines on the agenda and no barrel tastings, it was a quick and efficient visit.  While the winery is known predominately for their red wines, I was happy to discover and taste the extremely limited version of their 2011 Chardonnay, made from 100% Chardonnay grapes that spent nine months in oak.  Only 933 bottles were made so it might be tough to find.  While not an earth-shattering wine, it is always nice to “discover” something new, especially a nicely balanced Chardonnay.  We also tasted their 2010 Reserve Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon wines, and the entry-level “regular” 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon.

Ramot Naftaly

Despite the fact that it was getting late at this point, I was determined to make my next visit – Ramot Naftaly.  I first tasted the delightful wines made by Yitzchak Cohen at the 2011 Sommelier Expo (the winery “went kosher” with the 2009 vintage) and was hooked.  Yitzchak focuses on varietals that are much less popular, and thus common, in Israel and his “best” wines are the Barbera, Petit Verdot and Malbec (fear not, he makes some Cabernet Sauvignon as well – he does have to make a living).  Starting with the 2011 vintage, Yitzchak has also assisted the newly kosher winery – Trio in making their wines, providing the necessary infrastructure to make kosher wines.  With only six wines to be tasted (the mashgiach was gone for the day and was unavailable to pull samples) we got through the tasting relatively quickly and had plenty of time to catch up.  I especially enjoyed the 2010 Petit Verdot and 2010 Barbera.  Trio acquired all of the 2010 Shiraz to be bottled under their label, so we will have to wait for the soon-to-be-released 2011 vintage to enjoy Yitzchak’s intriguing Shiraz (I really liked the 2009 version).  What may have been the best tidbit garnered my visit was the fact that the newly invigorated “Israel Wine Direct” company (under new ownership/management) will be importing some of Ramot Naftaly’s wines into the United States.  Some of the wines were submitted to the blind tasting conducted on behalf of the Jewish Week for their annual “Kosher Wine Guide” which will be published in a few weeks and should be available shortly (if they aren’t already).

I ended the day with a pretty awesome meal that included quail, pigeon and lamb at “Makom B’sejera”.



My first winery of the second day was an old favorite – Dalton.  The magnificent 1997 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon remains a significant milestone in my oenophilic development and recent years have seen welcome qualitative improvements.  With owner Alex Haruni at the helm and Na’ama Sorkin as head winemaker, this winery continues to produce top-quality, delicious wines.  While Alex and Na’ama were gracious enough to provide 20 wines for an epic tasting, I was especially delighted to taste one in particular – the 2012 Viognier.  After depriving its many enthusiasts for two years (Dalton’s Viognier was utilized in its White Alma blend for the 2010 and 2011 vintages), Dalton once again made a varietal Viognier and it’s delicious.  Being bottled in March, it will hopefully grace our shores in time for prime summer white wine drinking season.  Similarly to Ella Valley, Dalton is a winery that I find gets overlooked sometimes.  While they make really nice wines, many of which are truly superb, they don’t seem to generate the same excitement as other wineries, a tremendously unfortunate situation for the consumer, who is missing out on great stuff (including some exciting wines like their Reserve Shiraz and “D” Petite Sirah).  In addition to the great winemaking going on at Dalton, they are a very reasonably priced winery, with a slew of YH Best Buy wines in their portfolio, including the aforementioned Viognier.  Some of the wines I enjoyed and am looking forward to include the 2012 Rosé, the 2011 “D” Petite Sirah – a perennial favorite of mine, the 2011 Alma Red wines (both the Bordeaux and Rhone blends), the 2010 Reserve Merlot (which is the first Reserve Merlot since the 2007 vintage and one that was worth waiting for) and two, new single vineyard wines – a Cabernet Sauvignon from Dalton’s famed Meron vineyard and a new Shiraz from a newly designated plot – Choshen vineyard (located in Safsufa).  All is all, a great visit and thanks to Alex and Na’ama for their time and gracious hospitality.

Adir Winery

My next visit was literally across the street from Dalton at Adir Winery, another winery I recently wrote about extensively (in newsletter #221).  While in comparison to Dalton, Adir is a relatively small winery; they recently crossed the 100,000 bottle-a-year threshold.  The winery is one of a number of business ventures maintained by the Rosenberg family and the beautiful visitor center showcases both the winery and the family’s dairy, providing wine with one of its most natural counterparts – cheese (not to mention the incredible soft serve goat milk ice-cream).  I have written about my affinity for their Blush Port on many occasions and had the opportunity to re-taste that wine along with the other seven wines produced by the winery.  Besides the Blush Port, the winery produces a “regular” port-style wine that is also worth trying and a decent fortified dessert wine that is well made (but not particularly special, although it did serve as a delicious sauce for the aforementioned ice cream).  Other than the winery’s flagship “Plato” which was from the 2009 vintage and the n.v. dessert wines, all the wines we tasted were from the 2010 vintage which is currently on the market.  The Chardonnay was nicely balanced with noticeable oaky butteriness and sufficient acidity and is worth trying.  The Plato is on the expensive side but with great aging potential and substantial development ahead of it, it makes for a good investment.  Other wines I really liked from Adir include their Shiraz which has great fruit without going overboard, good spice and a structure that bodes well for future development and my second favorite wine from the winery (after the Blush Port), the new “a” blend, which is situated below the Plato but above the “Kerem Ben Zimra” line of Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz and Chardonnay.  Made from 60% Shiraz, 25% Cabernet Sauvignon and 15% Cabernet Franc, it is a delicious wine that is sure to make my Annual Pessach Wine Buying Guide, which will be released in the next 2 weeks or so.  Most of the Adir wines are currently available in the United States and some of the wines will be available at the two coming tastings in Monsey this weekend and on March 3rd at City Winery – hope to see you there.

Lueria Winery

My next visit was to a small boutique winery whose wines I had first tasted at the 2011 Sommelier Expo and really enjoyed – Lueria.  I most recently wrote about their delightful Gewürztraminer, which made my “Most Interesting Wines of 2012” list.  For years the Sayada family of vintners grew high-quality grapes which were sold to many prestigious wineries until Gidi, the winemaker, decided that they should start making their own wines.  Since then, they have been significantly ramping up production from 20,000 bottles in 2010, 40,000 in 2011 and an expected 50,000 bottles for the 2012 vintage.  Despite this production, nearly 80% of the family’s grapes are sold to other wineries, although presumably Gidi gets first dibs on the best of the crop.  In addition to the bed and breakfast the family just completed (which houses the current tasting and wine education facility), Gidi is working on the construction of a massive visitor center to be situated on a small, man-made pond located just outside Safsufa, where the family (and the winery) reside.  The winery produces a number of wines, with their flagship wine being the 2008 Grand Vital, a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon (70%), Shiraz (20%) and Merlot (10%), a delicious wine which will continue to improve over the next few years.  In addition to their popular semi-dry Gewürztraminer, Lueria also produces a dry version which has been completely sold to a [non-kosher] restaurant in Yaffo.  I have not yet tasted the wine, but a bottle waits for my return to Jerusalem.  Other blends produced by the winery include a new, to be named, blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Shiraz which spent 12 months in oak, “Inon” which is a blend of the same varietals in different proportions and spent six months in oak and the Rosso, which is a blend of Sangiovese (50%), Barbera (20%), Shiraz (20%) and Cabernet Sauvignon (10%).  We tasted both the 2010 (which is the current release) and the 2011 (currently in stainless steel tanks).  The winery also makes a Chardonnay I didn’t taste and an “ice-wine style” dessert wine made from 100% Cabernet Sauvignon.

Both Gewürztraminer and dessert wines are becoming increasingly popular in Israel and are being made in increasingly high quality and quantity (especially Gewurztraminer-based dessert wines).  While not quite returning to our sweet-tooth roots of Cream Malaga, the kosher consumer does have a sweet tooth.  For wineries, making a dessert wine provides both a wine with higher margins (as they are traditionally more expensive) and the ability to utilize lower quality grapes, as the sugar and added alcohol hides a lot of flaws (for a number of wineries, sugar and alcohol have replaced over-oaking as the way to mask flaws in both the grapes and the winemaking process).  I’d love to see more wineries utilize top-notch grapes and really put some effort into the wines.  However, it is a business and, to date, the consumer hasn’t shown a willingness to pay extra for the work and expense that goes into making high-quality, complex dessert wines.

As the following day’s visits were with wineries located in the acclaimed Judean Hills region, I needed to spend some time driving south and was only able to squeeze three visits into this day.  I ended the day enroute to Beit Shemesh with an unforgettable meal at a newly discovered restaurant in Herzlia Pituach that is easily one of the best I have ever been to – Vino Socco.  With amazing herb crusted lamb chops, tornado Rossini and incredible petit fours for dessert, this place is a must for any foodie (and everyone else as well).  Pricy but oh-so worth it.

After the spectacular meal at Vino Socco in Herzlia Pituach, the culmination of a fantastic two days in Israel’s Northernmost wine regions; I headed South to the Judean Hills of Israel, another tremendous wine-growing region that has been garnering increased visibility and acclaim over the last few years.  As I had covered a number of terrific wineries in the area on my previous visit (including Tzora, Ella Valley and Agur), I was determined to try some of the many local wineries I had not visited in recent years (despite tasting the wines repeatedly over that time).


Flam Winery

Flam was part of the trifecta of near-mythical Israeli boutique wineries that “went kosher” with the 2010 vintage, together with Saslove and Tulip.  Since then, a number of Flam wines have become available, namely the Rosé, “Blanc” – a blend of Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc and “Classico” – the winery’s entry level blend of Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon (with some Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc added in some years).  Despite the Classico being Flam’s entry level wine, it is far superior to most other “entry-level” wines in quality and its price reflects this.  In addition to these three wines, the winery has three varietal wines in its Reserve series and a Flagship wine called Noble, of which the 2008 (non-kosher version) vintage was recently released after two years of bottle aging (following two years in oak).  While I had the opportunity to taste the Reserve Syrah last year and it was subsequently released a few months ago, the Reserve Merlot and Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon have only just been released; giving the kosher consumer more insight into what has made the Flam Winery the darling of Israeli wine aficionados for so many years.

Located just outside Beit Shemesh, when I arrived I was overjoyed to find that Yisrael Flam was there to greet me.  The patriarch of the Flam family, owners of one of Israel’s true “family wineries”, Yisrael spent over 35 years working at Carmel (including more than 15 as Carmel’s head winemaker) after obtaining professional training at UC Davis.  In 1998, Yisrael’s two sons (having grown up with a love and understanding of wine coursing through their veins), decided to open a boutique winery.  While Yisrael obviously provides some guidance and counseling, the show is run by the two boys, with Gilad functioning as CEO and Golan as winemaker.  These days production is about 100,000 bottles annually.  After chatting with Yisrael for a while, Golan and Gilad showed up and I was treated to a quick tour of the winery, where bottling was going on that day, and then we sat down for a tasting of the winery’s seven wines, including a sneak preview of the 2010 Noble, destined to be one of Israel’s greatest kosher wines.  I will say that the passion they convey for their profession and uncommon humility expressed by both Golan and Gilad is not only refreshing, but makes for a highly enjoyable tasting experience.  They love what they do, do it with a high level of skill and don’t allow their egos to balloon to mammoth proportions like some other folks in the industry.

We started with a comparison between the 2011 and 2012 Blanc wines (the 2012 was being bottled that day).  I enjoyed the 2011 version more, while the 2012 was fruitier and less acidic and thus more likely to appeal to a wider crowd.  That said, the 2012 was tasted straight from the bottling tank, so obviously a revisit is required.  While I intend to discuss recent vintages in depth in a coming newsletter, it was interesting that nearly every winemaker, regardless of region, had different thoughts on the quality of the last three, wildly different vintages – 2010, 2011 and 2012.  While we didn’t taste the 2012 Rosé on this visit, I had the opportunity to taste it at KFWE and before that during the judging for the aforementioned Jewish Week tasting panel.  It is a terrific Rosé, and one I would sip on a daily basis if not for the $30 price tag.  Of the three Reserve wines (Syrah, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon), while all are terrific wines, easily identifiable by their impeccable balance and European style with a hint of Israeli flair, surprisingly for me – an avid Syrah lover, the Cabernet Sauvignon was the best of the bunch and may very well be one of Israel’s best Cabernet Sauvignon wines.  Now, don’t get me wrong, the Syrah is an incredible expression of the grape and well worth purchasing, as is the Merlot.  To finish off my delightful visit, I got to taste the 2010 Noble, a blend of 85% Cabernet Sauvignon and 5% each of Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and Merlot, with the grapes utilized for the Noble being selected from the very best of the vineyards under Flam’s control.  Each of the components spent a year aging separately in oak before being blended together for another year in oak at which point the wine is bottled and spends another two years aging in the bottle before release.  Start saving up and making room in your cellar for this wine’s anticipated release in mid-2014 (as only 5,000 bottles were made).  The wine truly lives up to Yisrael’s moniker for it “the Prime of the Premium”!

Tzuba Winery

Despite it being my first winery of the three planned that day (with a hard stop later in the afternoon for my cousin’s wedding), I was already running behind schedule as I raced down the winding road to my next visit with Paul Dubb of Tzuba Winery.  Located on and owned by Kibbutz Tzuba, the winery is one of many businesses owned and operated by the Kibbutz, with others including the well-known game park “Kiftzuba” and its most profitable business – a factory that produces glass and is considered one of the top producers of bullet-proof and safety glass.  The Kibbutz owns a substantial number of vineyards, selling approximately 80% of its production to other wineries.  In addition to making 50,000 bottles of Tzuba labeled wine annually, Paul also makes a large amount of private label wines for other individuals and wineries.

Along with a few other changes, Tzuba is in the process of redoing its labels, with certain wines being sold in Israel using one label and under a different label in the US market.  As I was late, we only had time for a relatively quick tasting of seven wines; where Paul and I were joined by Eiton Green, the winery’s export manager.  I enjoyed the 2011 Tzuba Chardonnay and the wines of the Metzuda series (which includes a white blend of Sémillon and Sauvignon Blanc, a red blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc and the best of the bunch – the 2010 varietal Syrah).  In addition to the Chardonnay, the Tzuba series includes a Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, red blend and a n.v. dessert wine, made from 100% Chardonnay, blended across a number of vintages.  In addition to the current release, we also tasted an older library wine, comprised of the 2006 and 2007 vintages and made by Tzuba’s prior winemaker – Arkady Papilion (who is currently the winemaker at the non-kosher Amphorae Winery.

Castel Winery

As my cousin’s wedding was that evening, I had only scheduled three winery visits for the day.  However, after driving past Ramat Raziel on my way from Flam to Tzuba, I once again passed by the Castel Winery and, despite the lack of time and more importantly – an appointment, I decided to swing by and say hello anyway.  My advice to all of you when planning to visit wineries – do as I say (call ahead and coordinate your visit for the best results) and not as I did (dropping in on the delightfully friendly Ilana Ben-Zaken without an appointment).  As a result, I got to chat with Ilana for 15 minutes and toured the beautiful cellar but didn’t taste any of the wines (all of which I had recently tasted and written about anyway).  Oh well – it is always nice to meet and chat with the great folks in the Israeli wine industry.

Teperberg Winery

Despite my brief detour at Castel, I somehow had a bit of extra time on my hands and started contemplating adding a visit to either Tzora or Mony after Teperberg (before racing back to a friend’s house to change for the wedding, thankfully located very close by).  Had I known the incredible tasting of 28 wines that Shiki Rauchberger and Olivier Fratty planned for me at Teperberg, I wouldn’t have bothered, as any extra time rapidly disappeared in their delightful company (as it is, we only managed to taste through 19 wines).

One of Israel’s older wineries, it is only recently that Teperberg became worthy of the attention of any self-respecting oenophile.  For years the winery produced tons of plonk and Kiddush wine, despite some attempts during the 1990s to produce better quality table wines.  Only after bringing California-trained Shiki on board in 2002 did the winery start its qualitative quantum leap forward to a better future, filled with high-quality grapes and wine.  With annual production at approximately 5 million bottles (including grape juice, kiddush wine, the aforementioned plonk and the quality table wine), the winery has slowly been progressing towards utilizing only table wine grapes and producing only quality wine (and grape juice – a real money maker).  The winery currently expects to hit this target with the 2015 vintage, and we will all be better off with more quality (and well-priced) Teperberg wine on the market.  The winery owns approximately 3,500 dunam of vineyards (~865 acres), spread across the country, from the Upper Galilee, through the Shomron and all the way down South to Makhtesh Ramon.  Teperberg’s production of table wine is currently spread across five different labels, with an additional top tier label possible, if some of the wines currently in the barrel maintain their current quality levels.  Starting from the top, the labels are Reserve, Terra, Silver (completely mevushal), Teperberg and Efrat.  Given the limited amount of time, we had to triage the wines Shiki and Oliver had selected, winnowing down the nearly 30 wines on the table to a (only slightly) more manageable 19.  Even so, I took the last three top notch barrel samples with me to try again later (thankfully Teperberg uses glass hip flasks for their samples, which made for a fun way to surreptitiously taste barrel samples of extracted wines at the wedding, where only mevushal wine was served).

Teperberg is in the planning stages of a visitor center next to the current massive facility housing the winery, but until then, visiting the winery isn’t so easy; we conducted our tasting in a trailer-based conference room.  We started with a quintet of white (and rosé) wines, including one of Israel’s nicest Sauvignon Blanc wines to date – the unoaked Terra 2012 Sauvignon Blanc, sourced from vineyards located near Shiloh in the Shomron and a wine made as it should be, with crisp, refreshing acidity backing up a nice array of fruit and citrus notes.  The Terra 2011 Viognier can claim its place among Israel’s better expressions of the grape.  We also tasted the Terra 2012 Gewürztraminer and the Silver 2012 Rosé, as well as the winery’s acclaimed Malbec from the 2010 and 2011 (barrel sample) side by side.  Both Malbec wines were delightful and continue to be among Israel’s finest expression of this ornery grape, but the 2011 had some real finesse and elegance taming the big wine that was amazing, making this a wine to put on your “To Do” list.  Other comparative tastings included the Terra 2009 and 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon wines, and a 2009 v. 2010 comparison of the three varietal Reserve wines – Shiraz, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon.  Generally speaking, I liked the 2009 Reserve wines better (the 2010 wines are not yet released), but this was partly due to the extra year of bottle aging on the winery’s top-tier and somewhat extracted wines (while maintaining good balance and moderate alcohol levels – a welcome difference from many other Israeli wineries).  Having tasted through the winery’s dessert wines recently, the final wines at the tasting where the 2010 and 2011 Cabernet Franc and the 2011 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz wines, all barrel samples.  While all the wines showed promise, the 2010 Cabernet Franc was a real standout for me, coming from a small plot in the Shomron and showing clear [Israeli] Cabernet Franc characteristics, including delightful herbaceousness and tobacco leaf, all in good balance and without being overwhelming; another wine I am eagerly anticipating (and hoping it won’t be the first “expensive” Teperberg wine).  All in all, a terrific visit, a broad tasting and one that reaffirmed my belief that Teperberg will continue to be part of Israel’s ongoing quality wine revolution for years to come.

I finished up my day rushing to get ready and then enjoying my cousin’s wedding – Mazal Tov again to A&AS (and thank for providing the “excuse” for my visit)!

Hot on the heels of the Judean Hills emergence as a premier wine growing region comes Israel’s rocky Shomron region, which over the last few years has emerged as a real wine route with about ten wineries spread along Route 60 (excluding the 5-6 wineries South of Jerusalem).  I had made [apparently overly-ambitious] plans to visit five of these wineries, but ended up visiting four and tasting a slew of great wines as you will see below.


Psagot Winery

My first visit was to Psagot, a winery I have written about a lot over the years (even though my last full write up was over two years ago) – they even generously sponsored the house wine for a large Sensi6 event a few years back that benefited Leket Israel.  Founded by Ya’acov Berg in 2002 (with approximately 5,000 in their first commercial vintage of 2033), with Josh Hexter as resident winemaker and following an infusion of capital, the winery has expanded over the last few years, doubling its production from 2010 when it produced approximately 100,000 bottles to the 200,000 bottles currently anticipated for the 2012 vintage.  Most of the winery’s vineyards are located in the Shomron and Judean Hills, with some in the Upper Galilee located in the acclaimed Ben Zimra area.  After manhandling my GPS (recent construction in the area played havoc with directions even though the location on my map was spot on), I arrived at the winery for my tasting with Josh Hexter.  The famed natural cave that serves as the winery’s cellar and whose natural beauty is worthy of its own visit is located in Psagot proper and not on the winery grounds.  As such, I missed out on visiting this beauty but highly recommend making time for it on your next visit there.  After a quick tour of the facility (truth be told, there are only so many barrels and fermentation tanks one can look at), we sat down in the winery’s lovely tasting room (which overlooks the barrel room) for a tasting of 8 wines, including two barrel samples, comprising the wines currently available in the United States.

Having recently tasted the 2011 Chardonnay, we went straight to the red wines which are the primary focus of the winery (in addition to the Chardonnay, Psagot made a Viognier for a few vintages but no longer does).  The Cabernet Franc is a long-time favorite of mine and among the top Cabernet franc wines made in Israel (comprising a list that is constantly expanding) and the 2010 vintage is no exception – a delightful and recommended wine, worth stocking up on and enjoying over the next few years.  A fun comparative tasting was the “regular” Cabernet Sauvignon against the winery’s hit single vineyard version.  While it is often the case that the single vineyard versions are superior to varietal wines made from a blend of different plots and/or vineyards, the point of a single vineyard wine is to give the best expression to the terroir that can be coaxed out of the ground by the winemaker and not necessarily to make the best wine of the winery.  The single vineyard version is a much bigger wine with blacker fruit and without some of the green notes in the regular version.  Two other wines I really enjoyed were the Edom, which started out being a straight blend of 75% Cabernet Sauvignon and 25% Merlot, with Cabernet Franc joining the mix in 2006 and Petit Verdot coming aboard as well in 2007-8.  In the 2010 vintage, Merlot comprises the lowest percentage at 12%.  A rich, deep and extracted wine in great balance and with a lingering finish, the wine was a treat.  Another powerhouse delight was the 2010 Shiraz.  In addition to the slew of available wines, Josh also generously pulled barrel samples of the 2011 Shiraz and Edom, both of which showed great promise, ensuring that we will continue to see great things from Psagot in the years to come.

I was lucky enough that the time I finished up with Josh coincided with lunchtime for the wine seminar Psagot was hosting that morning (coincidentally I met my cousin there who was lecturing on various grape growing items).  Focusing on wine making and a host of agricultural related subjects relating to grape growing, all of the winemakers I was scheduled to meet later that day were in attendance, in addition to Lewis Pasco (founding winemaker of Recanati and now back in Israel after a few years in California, making his own wines and consulting for a number of wineries).  As it was a wine seminar, lunch was accompanied by a wine tasting!  With over 40 wines to sample and a need to make my next appointment, I only had the chance to try a few wines I hadn’t had before including two from Ferency, a number of Tel Arza wines and an interesting Cabernet Sauvignon from the “Research Winery”, among a host of others.

Tanya Winery

Despite calling and planning ahead, Tanya’s character of a winemaker – Yoram missed our appointment, leaving me in the good company of his daughter.  However, with Yoram not around, barrel tastings weren’t going to happen and, having recently (at IsraWinExpo last February) tasted the majority of wines on the market, I only did a quick tasting of a few wines and was on my way to my next visit with Shiloh.  After recently taking on a new partner who provided some additional capital, the winery is more heavily in vesting in placing its wines in restaurants (which makes up a substantial percentage of sales for many of the wineries), including spending more money on labels and marketing.  The winery also recently launched an entry level label called “Ivri” which I tasted as IsraWinExpo and wrote about at the time.  A full article on Tanya should be coming soon, so stay tuned.

Shiloh Winery

After finishing up at Tanya I made my way North to Shiloh for a visit with Amichai Luria and a tasting of eight wines.  Before we started tasting the wines I was treated to a grand tour of the winery, accompanied by detailed explanations of the way the winery utilizes the different sized fermentation tanks, types of barrels and other wine making equipment to the greatest advantage (together with some great conversation about Israel’s wine industry in general).  As I wrote a detailed article about Shiloh only a few months ago, I won’t go into much detail about the winery here, other than to add some new cool facts.  As I have mentioned in the past, in addition to a massive increase in the quality of wines over the last 3 vintages or so, one of the things that makes Shiloh unique is its increasing production of mevushal wines, with little noticeable differences between the mevushal and non-mevushal versions.  With his prior experience as a contractor, Amichai took upon himself to build a mevushaling machine that would satisfy the strict requirements of the kosher certification along with his personal wine making standards.  Together with a machinery shop, he built a machine to these standards and isn’t sharing any of the details nor is the machine available for “viewing”.  The entire process, including the hotly debated time of pasteurization (generally speaking, the earlier in the winemaking process you do the pasteurization, the better ability you have to control the quality of the wine) is a winery secret and Amichai isn’t telling.

In addition to a burning desire to make the highest quality wine possible, many winemakers develop a philosophy behind their winemaking that guides both the winemaking process and the types of wines produced by the winery.  For some it is distaste for oak, other focus on creating Mediterranean blends and/or focusing on Mediterranean varietals.  Some winemakers are focused on making subtle and elegant wines while others love to make big, bold, oak and fruit wines – to each their own.  Amichai’s focus is blending.  While Shuki from Agur makes only blended wines, Amichai takes it a few steps further, with a laser focus on taking the best pieces from every plot, even within varietals, to make the best wine he can.  Other aspects of his blending experiments include utilizing different barrels (and toast levels), different sized fermentation tanks as well as different fermentation times.  All in all, there seems to be a lot of experimenting going on, in order to produce the wines.

Owned by Meir Chomer (who also functions as CEO), the winery’s first commercial vintage was in 2005 (with 2006 comprising the first “full-blown” vintage) and it expects to produce approximately 80,000 bottles from the 2012 vintage (only gradually increasing production of the last few years by approximately 5,000 bottles a year).  While the labels are pretty well organized, the fact that the winery makes mevushal and non-mevushal versions of many wines (and, in many occasions, both are available in the United States), it can be tough to track which version is the recommended one (additionally, not every wine is produced every year – it depends on the quantity and quality of the grapes).  The labels include the entry level blend “Mor” (produced in both mevushal and non-mevushal versions), followed by the varietal Cabernet Sauvignon (produced in both mevushal and non-mevushal versions), Merlot and Barbera wines in the “Shor” series (which also included some blends until the 2008 vintage).  The reserve series goes by the name “Sod Reserve” (a/k/a “Secret Reserve”) and is currently comprised of a varietal Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz and Merlot (unfortunately the incredible 2007 Petite Sirah was a one-shot deal, with the Petite Sirah no going into the Mosaic and Legend).  Amichai considers Merlot to be Shiloh’s best grape and the Shomron is certainly producing some of Israel’s best Merlot wines, so he is certainly onto something there.  The Chardonnay and the winery’s “Mediterranean Blend” – Legend (produced in both mevushal and non-mevushal versions) are stand-alone wines and Amichai also produced a late-harvest Chardonnay dessert wine in the 2007 vintage, available only at the winery for about $65 (according to Amichai, there are ten kilos of grapes in each bottle, which spent two years in oak).  The flagship wine is the Mosaic, a blend of Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Petite Verdot and Petite Sirah.  The 2006 is the current vintage on the market, with the 2007 released in Israel as well.  There was no Mosaic in 2008 or 2009 and the 2010 version is expected to be released in two years.

Of the varied wines we tasted, I especially enjoyed the delightfully deep, complex and well-rounded 2007 Mosaic which is definitely worth seeking out as a special wine.  Another terrific wine was the Sod Reserve Merlot, which should continue to improve and come together for a number of years.  While I could certainly detect the difference between the mevushal and non-mevushal versions of the 2010 Legend, both were enjoyable and the comparative tasting provided serious pleasure to this wine geek.  While it was great to taste the Late Harvest Chardonnay since I had never had it before, I didn’t find it great enough to justify the hefty price tag, but It was certainly an interesting wine (and would make a great comparative tasting with Hagafen’s 2006 Prix Late Harvest Chardonnay).  All in all, a great and very informative tasting and I am looking forward to doing barrel tastings on my next visit.

Gvaot Winery

With all the time spent at Shiloh, I was dramatically late for Gvaot (which also resulted in my cancelling my planned visit at Tura winery) as I had to rush back to Jerusalem to make my planned dinner at the King David’s delightful La Regence restaurant (f/k/a the Grill Room back in the days of my youth).  Thankfully winemaker Shivi Drori and marketing chief Eliav Miller were accommodating and welcomed me to the winery’s tasting room for a broad sampling of the winery’s good stuff, including some coming surprises.  As with Shiloh, I recently wrote about the winery (and have been trumpeting their great wines for years), so check out my recent article for more details and specific tasting notes).  We tasted eight wines including the 2012 Gewurztraminer and Rosé, both delightful wines whose release I am eagerly anticipating.  Other highlights include the 2011 Gofna Reserve Pinot Noir which seemed to be suffering from bottle shock and I expect to retaste soon and confirm whether it is as successful as the wildly popular (and extremely limited) 2010 inaugural version.  The 2010 Masada was definitely deserving of its status as the winery’s flagship wine and was the best wine of the tasting until Shivi pulled out a barrel sample of a single vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon from “Plot 3” which may have been among the most intriguing versions of Cabernet Sauvignon I have recently tasted and a wine I am looking forward to retasting in a few months, after Shivi decides on the direction he will be taking with it.