Wine Country #2

#308 – December 21, 2015
This week’s newsletter outlines the second leg of a recent wine-driven trip, in which I continued to Israel (From Spain) and, over two days, managed to squeeze in visits to eight wineries.  Similar to my prior “Wine Country” newsletter, in order to provide up-to-date information with respect to recent offerings and happenings at the visited wineries, below is a brief summary of each visit, including with respect to the wines enjoyed and those you should especially be on the lookout for (obviously more detailed write-ups for each of the wineries will be forthcoming as well, simply at a later date).   For those who don’t want to read through the entire [somewhat lengthy] newsletter, but are interested in one or two specific wineries, note that this newsletter covers (in order): Castel, Tzora, Teperberg, Agur, Matar, Recanati, Carmel and Domaine Netofa.  I hope you enjoy!

After landing at three in the morning and spending a few hours catching up on [real] work, my first stop was at the newly erected Castel Winery located in Yad Hashmona just opposite Kiryat Ye’arim (a/k/a Telz-Stone) where I met with Ilana Ben-Zaken, the winery’s export manager and daughter of founder Eli Ben-Zaken.  After a brief tour of the newly erected facilities (including a humongous and gorgeous barrel room (with plenty of room for future growth) that includes the en vogue concrete tanks being utilized by more and more wineries) we settled in for a short tasting.  After over two decades of making wine on the family’s plot in sleepy Ramat Raziel, it was time to move to a larger and more approachable facility where the frequent visitors seeking out one of Israel’s top wineries wouldn’t continue to incur the wrath of the neighbors.

Having had moved into the facility only a week or so earlier, things were slightly disarray but I very much appreciated the time and effort taken to accommodate my request for a visit and tasting, despite all that was going on.  In addition to tasting the newly released 2013 Grand Vin which was recently awarded 94 points by Mark Squires (of Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate).  While you all know my personal view on wine scores, medals and awards (and the other wines with which it shared this specific recognition isn’t in the same league), the wine is likely the best one ever made by Castel and certainly deserves the many accolades it has already garnered.  Comprised of the typical Bordeaux blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot, Merlot and Cabernet Franc, the wine is beautifully made with a tight tannic structure in delightful balance with the 50% new French oak, rich, mostly black, fruit and a slightly earthy mineral feel to it.  While the wine definitely needs some time to integrate, I’d load up and stash many bottles away for future enjoyment.  We also tasted tank samples of the 2015 Rosé which was crisp and vibrant with a delightfully rich pink color.  Time will tell how the final wine will present but for now the wine was showing a little too sweet for my own personal tastes but is a well-made wine in its own right and will certainly be well received by many.  Two other wines we tasted were the 2014 “C” Chardonnay which presented in Castel’s characteristic style with oak influences ever-so-slightly bending the vibrant fruit to its well but in such a graceful manner as to barely be noticeable – another winning wine.  The Petit Castel, Castel’s “second wine’ in name only, is often overlooked and underappreciated given the long shadow thrown by its flagship sibling, and the 2013 was no exception, showcasing the same structure and balance of the award-winning Grand Vin with slightly less extracted fruit and a more approachable style, at least at this [relatively early] point in its life.

After spending years carefully crating and curating it’s exceptionally limited portfolio of wines (with the last addition being the Rosé introduced for the 2009 vintage), Castel will soon have some new surprises, two of which we barrel tasted as the last two wines of the tasting.  All in all, a great visit that showed that not only is nobody there is resting on their laurels, the winery continues to build and plan for a continued bright future – thank you Ilana!

After bidding adieu to Castel, I drove a few minutes to my next destination – Tzora (the Judean Hills “wine route” includes over ten wineries within a few minutes of each other, all of which are worth visiting (this map can be helpful in planning your next visit)).  Ever since tasting Tzora’s wines back in 2004 I have been a huge fan of the winery and after anticipating their ascent into the very upper echelon of Israeli wineries back in 2012, I am happy to see them safely ensconced among the top five Israeli wineries – full stop.

Together with the winery’s uber-talented and always enjoyable company Eran Pick, we tasted through eight wines, including a “mystery wine” that turned out to be the 2007 Misty Hills and clear proof (if any is still needed by now) of the absolute necessity of affording wines the aging time they deserve.  Similar to Castel, Tzora has an exceptionally carefully curated portfolio of terrific wines, easily identifiable not only from the outside by their elegant labels but also by their elegant structure and old-world characteristics of rich fruit, subtle oak influence, earthy minerals working together in harmony to provide a delicious and evocative experience.  Comprised of a top-notch team from top to bottom and backed by a wine-loving individual who knows what he has, the wines are usually excellent and always good.

We started with their two 2014 white wines – the Sauvignon Blanc White Shoresh and Chardonnay driven White Judean Hills – both excellent, with the White Shoresh continuing to claim one of the top three slots among Israeli white wines (an increasingly large niche driven by the long-awaited and very welcome “discovery” of white wines among the Israeli and kosher wine-drinking public).  We also barrel-tasted the 2015 Chardonnay which is currently showing so much promise that it might end up getting treated differently than the winery’s Chardonnay has in the past.  We also barrel tasted some 2015 Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot, both of which indicated that, while not as explosively as the last two Shmitah years, 2015 is going to be a very good year for at least a number of wineries.  After blind tasting the 2007 Misty Hills (which we had just had for Tishrei’s RCC and showcased beautifully integrated and caressing tannins setting up the rich black fruit, incredibly aromatic and slightly floral nose and full bodied and plush “grown up” palate of dark fruit and slightly bitter herbal notes with slightly toasty oak lingering in the background along with baker’s chocolate some warm Mediterranean herbs and plenty of spices, we also sampled the supple and powerfully elegant 2013 Red Shoresh which, while very impressive right now, will continue to benefit from some additional aging time.

After spending some quality time emptying my wallet while looting the wine shop’s shelves for some lingering treasures (including one of my favorites – the 2011 Red Shoresh), I bid goodbye to Eran, Uri and Shula and crossed the road to me next destination.

Despite the many obvious differences between Teperberg and its closet winery neighbor (size, style, history among others), they do share two important common characteristics – quality wines and outwardly modest but highly talented winemakers, with Shiki and Oliver holding the qualitative line on Teperberg’s continuing upward trek to a world in which the majority of wines they produce are quality table wines (the winery currently produces approximately 6 million bottles annually with about 50% represented by the five labels of table wines).  While prior tastings at Teperberg typically include a near-overwhelming 30 wines or so, given the limited time per winery in my frenzied two-day schedule (real work once again intruding), limited our tasting to a more manageable 13 wines which also enabled them to showcase the [once again] newly reorganized portfolio of labels.

Under the newly organized labels, Teperberg’s quality wines are divided into five series.  An unoaked, entry-level (and mevushal) series called Vision which contains six wines (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Shiraz, Malbec, a blend of Sauvignon Blanc and French Columbard and a semi-dry blend of Muscat of Alexandria and Viognier) with a shelf price of around 30 NIS.  Replacing Teperberg’s successful Silver mevushal series is the next label called “Impression” comprised of nine different wines (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Sangiovese, a semi-dry Cabernet Sauvignon, a Rosé (from Cabernet Sauvignon), Chardonnay, Gewürztraminer and a Late Harvest Riesling) with a shelf price of about 40 NIS in Israel.  The next three levels represent what the winery considers its more “serious wines”, with the first of these being a series of blended wines named “Inspire” and comprised of three red blends that spent approximately eight months in oak and two white blends with a shelf price of around 60 NIS.  Replacing the winery’s former top-tier Reserve series is the new “Essence” label which is comprised of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, a Port-styled wine and a not yet released (and thus still secret) varietal as well.  The expected retail price for this series will be between 90-100 NIS.  Finally the winery has added a new special/flagship label to house their best wines, including those previously released as Limited Edition wines and currently includes a Petite Sirah, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot with an expected shelf price (in Israel) of between 180-200 NIS.

With a relatively limited amount of time for the tasting, we focused on the wines in the higher series, comparatively tasting two vintages of each wine.  After utilizing the colder 2011 vintage year to shift towards more subtle and elegant wines in which the fruit, oak and alcohol levels took at least a side-by-side approach to the tannic structure, earth and minerals in the wine which please many oenophiles including yours truly but was less popular with the mass wine-buying crowd needed to support over 3 million annul bottles of wine; Teperberg has made a strategic/commercial decision to shift back to the heavier, richer and more fruit forward wines and this shift was certainly noticeable in my tasting (the more general shift among many Israeli wineries is a major focal point in my 2015 Year in Review newsletter coming in the next week or two).

After tasting the varietal Malbec from the Vision series which was a nice, soft and approachable wine with fresh black fruit, good acid and 13.5% AbV but a tad off balance we moved on to the three red blends of the Inspire series – “Integritage” (Grenache, Syrah, Merlot and Mourvèdre), “Meritage” (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc) and “Devotage” (Malbec and Marselan).  While all showcased the quality winemaking and care we have come to expect from Shiki, the wines all has significantly more sweet fruit than I would have expected and will be well-received by folks who prefer fruity and approachable quality wines.  We followed with a tasting of the Essence Merlot (2012 and 2013 vintages), Cabernet Sauvignon (2012 and 2013 vintages) and the to-be-released 2013 new varietal.  Once again (and especially on the heels of the 2011 Reserve Merlot I loved so much), it took some adjusting to the big, rich, alcoholic and glyceroly-sweet wines.  The wines are well-made and mostly well-balanced and I can certainly understand the sex-appeal of these wines and expect them to sell well but they aren’t the type of wine I would crack open to enjoy on a regular basis.  We finished the tasting with the winery’s “big guns” and went through the Legacy Cabernet Franc (2012 and 2013 vintages) and Petit Verdot (2012 and 2013 vintages) with the 2012 vintages being more subtle and expressive while the 2013 vintage (which still need time to settle down) showcasing bigger, richer and significantly more fruit forward.

I really have to thank both Shiki and Oliver for their time, accommodation and typically delightful company during the informative and fun tasting and would be remiss if I didn’t add a special shout-out thank you to Oliver who went out of his way to ensure I finally got to enjoy the fabled fricassee sandwiches I had heard so much about by having them delivered the next day to another winery I was visiting!

With the jet lag and 4 hours of sleep over the last two days finally catching up on me, I made the short drive over to Agur Winery to visit with winemaker, friend and delightful human being – Shuki Yashuv.  After switching importers a few years ago to Israel Wine Direct, his wines are more easily available in the United States are seem to be selling well.  While his eclectically delicious Agur Blanca is no more due to the vineyard being infested with a virus, his Rosé is and remains one of my favorites with a stand-out personality to match its creators’, and the 2014 vintage remains a non-pretentious wine that demands your attention while providing a delicious wine-drinking experience.  We also tasted his 2013 Layam, a popular “Mediterranean Blend” (style pioneered by Carmel Winery and emulated up and down Israel’s wine growing regions), 2012 Bordeaux blend-styled Kessem and 2012 flagship Special Reserve that needs some significant time to settle down but had structure and balance that bodes well for its future.

With sleep so desperately needed and after some welcome conversation with the always delightful Shuki, I bid him adieu and headed North where food and wine at Ra’anana’s popular “Brenner Strip” and then hopefully sleep awaited.

With Matar’s actual winery located in the far Norther part of the Golan and thus usually out of range for my super short hop winery trips to Israel, having their distribution center in Moshav Tsofit right across the road from Ra’anana certainly comes in handy.  I started off the day with an extensive tasting of nearly all Matar’s wines, spread across 2012 (the first vintage of kosher red wines they made), 2013 (the first vintage of kosher white wines) and 2014 (the current [and soon to be released] vintage on the market.  With my recent write up on the winery still very current, there isn’t much to add other than about the wines themselves (but I’d heavily reiterate the fact that the white wines from this winery easily slot into the top tier of Israeli white wines), so I will get right to it.

With Tal up North and Nir traveling, I was lucky enough to snag some time during the tasting with Gil Ben-Yadid, the winery’s marketing manager and very knowledgeable about the winery and wines.  During an interesting discussion about the winery’s direction and philosophy, we tasted 13 wines including the 2014 Sauvignon Blanc-Sémillon blend, Chenin Blanc and Chardonnay, all truly spectacular with the Chenin Blanc being my personal favorite from a purely delicious perspective.  Starting with the red wines, we then tasted a mini-vertical of the Cumulus from the 2012-2014 vintages, with the 2014 being a tank sample (bottling is expected in January) followed by the syrah-based 2013 Stratus and a tank sample of the 2104 (also expected to be bottled in January).  We then moved on to their highly regarded Petit Verdot (tasting the 2012-2014 vintages) and finished up with the winery’s flagship CB (for the Cumulonimbus cloud) from both 2012 and 2013 vintages.

While the winery continues to deny any philosophical shift in their style, the exceptionally well-made red wines certainly present closer to the typical [high-end] consumer’s preferences (with the CB and Petit Verdot being clear candidates for some aging before they will show their best [while still being deliciously approachable after a bit of air]), the white wines coming out of Matar are truly special and should all be enjoyed as often as you can afford to.

While I don’t typically visit a winery in order to taste a very small number of wines, I made a huge exception for one of my currently favorite wineries and slightly detoured out of my way up North to make a pit-stop at Recanati for the purpose of tasting one wine.  With the tremendous hype providing a medium of global vindication for Shivi’s (of Gvaot Winery) incredible research, the immense winemaking skills house at Recanati were the talent that brought his search to life by producing a viable version of Marawi, a varietal grown in Israel for nearly 3,000 year but utilized as a single [quality] varietal for the first time in many year (there have been 1-2 blends made previously utilizing the grape).

To some degree the wine has been a victim of its own success, with the complaints varying from the usage of a table grape to make wine, to criticism of the quality [for the most part solely relative to the hype] and of course the political idiots making hay out of the über-cool, cloak-and-daggerish”, Israeli-Palestinian storyline (besides the usual crew of peanut-gallery self-styled wine pundits who just like to complain/make noise).

With an exceptionally limited amount of available grapes, the wine was made in a very limited quantity of 2,600 bottles, all of which were designated for local restaurants (with a few presumably held back by the winery for press, trade and other promotional uses), I was privileged to be afforded the opportunity to taste the wine and can simply say to all the aforementioned malcontents – bah humbug.  First, the wine was never intended to be a high-end and complex wine.  Shivi is aiming to have commercially viable wines made from the indigenous varietals yielded by his research (check) and Recanati was aiming to make a wine that would provide pleasure while utilizing the cool story behind the history of the wine (check again).  While the 2014 vintage is a simple little quaffer that is as well made as you would expect having Gil, Ido and Kobi as its creators with a saline backbone and a medley of slightly uncommon notes, the 2015 barrel sample I tasted was amazing. Rich, layered and crisp with plenty of balancing acidity and a luscious vibrancy that bodes well for its release (for which you will have to wait about six months or so), I am already scheming how to increase my meager allocation of one bottle.

With a Palestinian farmer who had been growing the grapes as table grapes for decades, selling them to Recanati through Shivi’s research right-hand man as the middleman and never agreeing to meet the winemakers or even be publically identified, Recanati had zero control over the way the grapes were planted, tended, cared for or harvested, leading the quality of the wine to be an even greater achievement in my eyes.

While I won’t be drinking the 2014 Marawi on a regular basis (not only due to the single bottle I was allowed to purchase), I find the concept, research and viable success to be incredible and think additional successes have the potential to leverage Israel’s wine industry to [much] greater global recognition. Kudos to Shivi and the winemaking team and thank you Noam for making the bottle available for my tasting.

Despite the long note above, I was only at Recanati for about ½ before heading north to Carmel where I was going to taste with one of my favorite Israeli wine individuals – Adam Montefiore who had also arranged for a special guest to attend as well.  For the first time in over a decade of writing about Israeli wines, I was finally going to meet Carmel’s winemaker – Lior Lacser; an individual I had begun to believe might be a figment of Adam’s highly tuned and successful marketing machine brain…  I can now safely report that he exists, makes for delightful company and conversation in addition to his great wines.

With over forty wines in Carmel’s well-curated portfolio, Adam usually puts together a lineup representing some aspect of Carmel he is interested in showcasing (as a refresher, last time we focused solely on their lineup of white wines, starting with the entry level stuff which showed surprising quality all the way to the top including their beloved Riesling housed under the Single Vineyard Kayoumi label).  At this tasting we sampled 11 wines including the new 4 Vats wines and the not-yet-released “Rishon” Brandy.

Starting with their two white wines in the upper-tier Single Vineyard label, the Riesling was especially interesting as it represents the first vintage in which the wine was released with no residual sugar whatsoever, representing the level of confidence Lior finally feels with the quality of the grapes (prior progress was elevating the wine from the Appellation Level for the 2010 after six vintages) and it shows. Crisp, refreshing and with a nuanced complexity that is noticeable underneath the vibrant fruit and balancing acidity (representing a welcome addition to the still-quite limited world of bone-dry kosher Riesling wines).  The 2013 Admon Chardonnay is only the second vintage of the wine (which was previously blended into other Carmel Chardonnay wines) and was enjoyable with good balance between the tart green apples and controlled oak influence. I plan on aging 1-2 bottles as part of my desire to push some of the kosher available white wines and see what they can do.

We then moved on to the red wines, starting with the [non-mevushal version of the] unoaked 2014 Selected Cabernet Sauvignon followed by the Private Collection (yes, Private Collection still exists as a label, albeit totally revamped and of higher quality than those wines of yesteryear) version 30% of which spends eight to nine months in oak with the remainder aged in Carmel’s refurbished ancient concrete tanks, which together represent nearly 1.5 million bottles of production for Carmel. Now that is a lot of Cabernet Sauvignon (which unfortunately remains exceptionally popular in Israel despite the attempts of immensely enjoyable offerings of Petite Sirah, Petit Verdot, Cabernet Franc, Carignan, Chenin Blanc and others to claim some of its market share).  The intro-tasting was followed with Carmel’s new “4 Vats’ wine, a Mediterannean-blend of Marselan, Carignan and Grenache taken from four (two of Marselan and one each of the other two) cement tanks (Vats does sound cooler).  Envisioned by Carmel as a wine to be sold by the affordable glass in wine bars and restaurants, the wine is bright, loaded with fresh fruit and good acidity and will please many as a good accompaniment to food (but watch the 14% AbV that isn’t all that noticeable but can hit you later if you aren’t careful).  The slightly soft tannins, smoke and hint of minerals give the wine just enough character to ensure its popularity.  Not [yet] sold in the US but well-worth securing a few bottles for your drinking pleasure.  Additional wines tasted included the 2013 old-vine Petite Sirah from the new, intended for restaurant-series “Vineyards” which Lior suggests aging for a few years, the 2011 Kayoumi Cabernet Sauvignon (it’s back!) whose more subtle elegance was quite a pleasure and some older vintages of Carmel’s higher-end wines, the Mediterannean and Limited Edition (both frequent guests at the Rosh Chodesh Club).

We ended the tasting with a sneak peek at Carmel’s newest addition to its delicious line of brandies, with the “Rishon Brandy”.  With Carmel’s move out of their historic Rishon Le’Tzion facility complete (culminating with the “launch” [i.e. traditional fixing of the mezuzah] of the new production facility), Carmel is releasing the Rishon brandy to commemorate the end of the Brandy era that was born in that facility.  With a[nother] extremely limited production and a price tag of ~1,000 NIS, it complements Carmel’s current line which includes the Carmel 100, Carmel 120 and the Special Edition Rogov Brandy, about all of which I have written in the past.  With a gorgeous glass bottle clearly intended as a collector item, the brandy is quite good as well with a deep amber color derived from the oak aging, utilizing barrels ranging in age from 10-30 years the brandy is redolent of warm spiced nuts, dried apricots, slightly toasty oak, warm spices, walnuts, vanilla and honey with a long lingering finish or vanilla, rich honey and citrus along with more spicy nuts.  A contemplative beverage loaded with history that can be enjoyed for years to come.  All in all a fun and informative tasting – thank you again Adam and thanks Lior for your time and consideration.

Domaine Netofa
After bidding adieu to the dynamic duo, I got back in my car and drove [even further] North to my last winery visit of the day (to be followed by a two-hour drive South to Jerusalem for dinner) – Domaine Netofa where winemaker Pierre Miodownik and CEO  Yair Teboulle waited with three surprises.  The first was a “real” blind tasting incurred as a result of losing power within five minutes of my arrival, the second a terrific vertical tasting of nearly the white and red higher-end Latour wines and the last, some delightful nibbles of terrific cheese and the aforementioned d-e-l-i-c-i-o-u-s fricassee sandwiches so generously arranged for by Teperberg’s Oliver!

We started off with the 2012 and 2014 vintages of the top tier Latour White, made from 100% Chenin Blanc which showcased the wine’s ability (and effectiveness) of some additional bottle aging, with the 2012 showing more nuance, minerals and good viscosity on its full-bodied palate than its younger sibling.  After a mini vertical od the winery’s entry-level Domaine Netofa Red (2012-2014), we then went through a complete vertical of the Latour Red (2009-2014) which further evidenced what a crying shame it is that (1) the winery’s isn’t as popular as it should be and 92) the need to give higher-end wines the bottle time, patience and respect they need in order to present in their full glory, as intended by the winemaker.  Also enjoyed were the winery’s newly released varietal Syrah (the 2013 Dor) and obviously (as no Netofa tasting could be complete without them) a sampling of their Port-styled wines including the 2010 LBV.

Hope you enjoyed this [not-so] mini-report of my recent winery visits. Stay tuned for the end of the year trifecta and reports from Spain coming soon!