Wine Country

#251 – July 11, 2013

Given the nature of Yossie’s Wine Recommendations as a weekly email newsletter as opposed to a blog, it often happens that a wine I tasted or winery I visited will only be mentioned weeks or even 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, this week’s newsletter is a summary of my recent trip to Israel, in which I visited 15 wineries and tasted over 170 different wines over the course of five delightful days, including many advance and barrel tastings of wines “in progress” (which don’t get a full-blown tasting note until they are manifest themselves as finished wines, but are mentioned here in passing to give you a sense of what wines are coming your way).  While this newsletter will have more of a personal journey / blog-like feel to it, it is a off-type newsletter that is still in the realm of Yossie’s Corkboard’s primary goal of writing about wines and wineries I hope you enjoy.

As always, future newsletters will provide in-depth commentary and tasting notes on the individual wineries (many about whom I have not written about in two to three years [or ever]!!) and wines I tasted and enjoyed (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 75 kosher Israeli wineries.

Given the fact that my family typically does not join me on these quickie visits, I feel compelled to make the most of my time which explains why I packed three to 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, two to three visits a day is a lot.  Four is a little out there – but hey, someone has to do it!

My previous trip focused on two of Israel’s premier Northern wine regions – the Golan and the Upper Galilee, together with the Shomron.  As such and despite the fact that I missed a number of important wineries in the region (including Odem Mountain, Galil Mountain, Or Haganuz and others), this trip focused on other areas including the extended Judean Hills region which in recent years has blossomed into one of Israel’s premier wine growing regions.  For wineries I have written about in recent newsletters, I only included information about the wines we tasted and new information (to the extent applicable), and didn’t bother regurgitating the relevant information about the winery but you can click through on the links to read all about them.

For those who don’t want to read through the entire newsletter, but rather are interested in one or two specific wineries, note that this newsletter covers (in order): Tulip, Tishbi, Carmel, Alexander, Recanati, Saslove, Gat Shomron, Karmei Yosef-Bravdo, Domaine Herzberg, Castel, Ella Valley, Yaffo, Agur and Gush Etzion.  I hope you enjoy!

Tulip Winery

An unfortunate flight delay of a few hours due to technical difficulties with the plane’s entertainment setting resulted in the shelving of my carefully laid plans and canceling my scheduled visit to Binyamina winery.  I hope to make it there next time, especially with the recent news that former winemaker Assaf Paz resigned his position (and replaced Avi Feldstein as Head Winemaker at Segal Winery – necessitating a visit to Segal as well once Assaf gets settled in).  After collecting my rental car (always an interesting experience in Israel) I headed south towards Tulip Winery, assisted by Israel’s crowd-sourced GPS mapping system – Waze (hopefully with its recent acquisition by Google, we will soon be able to incorporate my annotated map into Waze which was far less helpful in finding the exact location of each and every winery).  Tulip is one of the three of wineries (along with Flam and Saslove) who became kosher with the 2010 vintage.  In addition to their portfolio of good wine, Tulip stands out by virtue of its location in Kfar Tikva, a vocational village for adults with special needs, and integration of the village’s residents into its workforce.  The Yitzchaki family who live in the neighboring village of Kiryat Tivon founded the winery in 2003.  From its inception, one of the main criteria of the Yitzchaki family for the winery (in addition to making top-notch wines) was to be involved with the local community, namely the residents of Kfar Tikva.  The winery provides employment for a number of the residents who assist in nearly all aspects of the winery’s day-to-day operations (very slight modifications were made in this regard when the winery acquired its kosher certification from the OK).  Starting with approximately 6,000 bottles of Merlot for the 2003 vintage, the winery slowly grew under the capable hands of its CEO – Roi Yitzchaki, to approximately 160,000 expected bottles for the 2012 vintage, with further growth (to 220,000 bottles) expected for the 2013 vintage.  The winery has multiple vineyards located in top-quality areas in Northern Israel including Kfar Yuval, Kerem Ben-Zimra and Meron.  The current winemaker is David Bar-Ilan (with whom, together with Roi, I had the pleasure of tasting the wines) who has been there for about a year after replacing Tamir Arzy – the prior winemaker.  Dr. Arkady Papikian, one of Israel’s top wine consultants (who is also the winemaker at the (non-kosher) Amphorae Winery), consults on Tulip’s wines and assists David with blending and other winemaking decisions.  David worked at Soreq winery in Israel and also at a number of wine-related retail locations before working at Amphorae for some time and then coming to Tulip.

Tulip creates wines in four to five different “series” as follows: the “White” series which includes two white blends (White Tulip and White Franc); the “Just” series which includes entry level varietal Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon wines; the eponymously named “Mostly” which includes 85% varietal wines blended with another wine (the Cabernet Franc has 15% Merlot and the Shiraz is blended with 15% Cabernet Sauvignon); the “Reserve” series which includes a Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah; and the “Black Tulip” which is a blend of the winery’s best grapes, aged in oak for 30 months (as such the first kosher vintage from 2010 will only shortly reach the United States but is well worth the wait).  In addition the winery is releasing a special wine in a limited run of 2600 bottles named “Creation DNA” (more aptly name “Assor” in Hebrew) to commemorate the winery’s tenth anniversary.  The wine contains grapes sourced from each and every plot owned by Tulip (hence the “DNA”) and will be part of a new series called “Creation” which will encompass mostly small lot experiments of David’s or other special wines, and is expected to be priced between the Reserve and Black labels.

With David and Roi, I tasted through nine wines including the two white wines, which were refreshing but somewhat less acidic than the 2011 versions, the two Just wines of which I enjoyed the Merlot more than the Cabernet Sauvignon and the 2011 Mostly Cabernet Franc which was lighter bodied, less oaky and even more enjoyable than the 2010 vintage which I had liked as well.  The two Reserve wines (2011 Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah) and the Black (2010 vintage) were somehow softer than I expected with nicely integrating tannins and the Cabernet Sauvignon exhibiting characteristic herbal notes.  The Creation DNA was a well-structured wine that still needs some time to come into its own but has the potential to evolve into a really good wine over the next 12 months or so – time will tell.  Thank you again David, Roi, Natan and the rest of the Tulip crew for a delightful visit and tasting.  I look forward to enjoying many more good wines from you!

Tishbi Winery

After bidding farewell to the good folks at Tulip, I headed south to Tishbi Winery to meet Jonathan Tishbi – winemaker and effective CEO.  Despite being one of Israel’s larger wineries, producing a little over one million bottles a year, it is still very much a family business, with multiple family members across three generations working there in varied capacities.  The history of the winery goes back to 1882 when Michael and Malka Chemeltzki immigrated to Israel from Lithuania and started working for Baron Rothschild as grape growers.  Israel’s famous poet – Chaim Nachman Bialik christened them Tishbi in 1925 (a Hebrew acronym for “Resident of Shefaya in Eretz Yisrael”).  In 1984, after watching the price of Muscat grapes (which represented the lion’s share of grapes grown by the family) drop precipitously, the family (headed by its current patriarch – Jonathan Tishbi (for whom the winery’s flagship label is named)) decided to resign from the Carmel grape grower cooperative to which they had belonged for decades and open a small winery.  Opening in 1985 as the Baron Winery, in honor of Baron Edmund Rothschild, the family later changed the name to the Tishbi Winery.

While the winery maintains a small visitor center on Zichron Ya’akov’s main thoroughfare where you can taste some wines, learn a bit about the winery and purchase the various edibles sold by the winery, the main attraction is the visitor center a few minutes down the road from Zichron where Tishbi has built a large visitor complex including a beautiful tasting room equipped with Riedel glassware, a restaurant with indoor and outdoor seating and a bakery, all geared towards providing a delicious upscale experience for the budding gourmet.  While Tishbi is first and foremost a winery, the family has spent a substantial amount of time, effort and money building up a complete food experience including incredible preserves, a partnership with the French chocolatier Valrhona and other epicuric endeavors.

However, this trip was wine focused and, as such, I met with winemaker Golan Tishbi and we tasted through 12 of the winery’s current offerings, including their famous Brandy, whose current incarnation has been aged for 16 years (prior releases were of 8 and 12 year brandies).  Tishbi currently produces approximately one million bottles annually, these spread across a number of labels.  The entry level series is called “Tishbi” and includes nearly ten unoaked varietal wines (including Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Shiraz, Viognier, Gewurztraminer and others) with one or two blends included as well.  The next series is the winery’s reserve label called “Estate” which also includes a number of specially designated single vineyard wines, with a number of recent releases from the 2007 vintage earning the love and adoration of many wine aficionados.  Included in this series are the single vineyard Malbec and organic Syrah, as well as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Shiraz and Pinot Noir, Petite Syrah, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and the most recently released – Carignan.  The winery’s flagship label is the Jonathan Tishbi / Special Reserve which is not produced every year and is now produced as a blend.  The Jonathan Tishbi series was one of Israel’s pioneers in the “Single Vineyard” arena, releasing for the 1999 vintage three Cabernet Sauvignon wines, each from a vineyard located in a different part of the country.  As mentioned above, Tishbi also produces a brandy that has garnered substantial acclaim (while being exceedingly expensive), a sparkling wine and two dessert wines – a Muscat and a blend of Barbera and Zinfandel.

Golan and I tasted four newly released 2012 wines from the Tishbi series (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon-Merlot blend and the 2010 Syrah) and a number of wines from the Estate series, including the 2008 Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, the 2007 Petite Syrah and Carignan (advance tasting) and the 2010 Single Vineyard Malbec.  We also did a comparison tasting of the 2007 and 2010 Jonathan Tishbi Special Reserve wines and the 16-year Brandy, with the 2007 Special Reserve and Brandy taking the top spots for me.

Following my visit, I rushed back to Hertzlia Pituach for an event at the US Ambassador’s house to benefit Leket Israel (and where, for some unfathomable reason, no wine was poured…).

Carmel Winery

The next morning I once again headed north towards Zichron Ya’acov to meet with Adam Montefiore at the Carmel Winery.  On my last visit to Carmel, Adam and I tasted through the premium wines of Carmel and Yatir so for this visit Adam put together a tasting of the current releases of all Carmel’s white wines.  I was actually very happy to have the opportunity, since on my own I rarely drink any of Carmel’s white wines other than the Kayoumi Riesling, a house favorite.  If nothing else, the tasting convinced me that I should be drinking more Carmel whites, as I was very pleasantly surprised by a few, including those in the lower-tiered “Private Collection” label (although I had previously been seduced by the entry-level Private Collection (“PC”) Chardonnay and even included it in the Carmel Showcase we did for the Leket Wine Club two years ago).

We started off with the PC Emerald Riesling, which was doubly interesting to me personally, as Emerald Riesling was a big part of what was wrong with Israel’s wine industry for many years.  Mainly produced as a semi-sweet wine, for years Emerald Riesling was Israel most popular wine, offering the sophistication of “wine” with the sweetness loved by Israelis.  It was not, however, a complex or even interesting varietal.  While it remains a semi-sweet quaffer –level wine, Carmel’s version is lighter on the residual sugar than many previous versions of the wine (from Carmel and otherwise), had decent acidity and lightly aromatic fruity notes that many entry-level wine drinkers will find pleasing, especially during Israel’s hot summer months.  We also tasted the Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and Viognier wines that rounded out the white wine selections in the PC series, with the Viognier being my personal favorite.  We then moved on to Carmel’s next level – the Appellation series.  With the red wines of this series, I have historically enjoyed the more esoteric wines (Carignan, Petite Sirah and Cabernet Franc) over the better-known ones (Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot).  The white wines in this series include Viognier, Gewürztraminer, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay, with the Chardonnay holding the most of my interest with its ever-so-slightly oaked body and solid structure throughout – a really well made and delicious wine.  Despite the fact that it could have used some more acidity, I also enjoyed the Gewürztraminer which, as I have discussed before, is rapidly becoming one of Israel’s most popular white wines.  We also tasted the 2011 Kayoumi Riesling about which I have written recently.  All in all, it was a great tasting and a rare opportunity to focus on Carmel’s white wines, which, other than the Kayoumi Riesling, are often unfairly regulated to “supermarket wine” status, a fact I hope will change after reading the above.

Alexander Winery

After thanking Adam for his hospitality and generous time I headed south towards Alexander Winery, located on Moshav Beit Yitzchak in the Hefer Valley.  Similar to Tulip and Tishbi, Alexander is yet another Israeli winery about whose wines I have written and reviewed in the past but never dedicated a complete newsletter to. Founded in 1996 by its current owner and winemaker – Yoram Shalom, Alexander is named for Yoram’s father and the winery’s varied labels are also named for various relatives of Yoram.  Yoram started the winery in the interest of continuing a winemaking tradition that had been in his family for over 100 years, going back to his grandfather’s home winemaking in Tunisia.  Starting with the 2006 vintage, Alexander became a kosher winery which has enabled it to increase exports and became a player in the lucrative (and frankly, quite crucial for Israeli wines) export market, with the United States receiving the lion’s share of all exported Alexander wines.

With vineyards located in top-tier grape growing areas including Kerem Ben Zimra and Kfar Shamai, Yoram produces wines across four series: Liza (his mother), Sandro (Alexander’s nickname), Reserve and the winery’s flagship label – Alexander the Great (of the famed metal, jewelry-like, labels).  Along with a number of new wines, Alexander will be releasing a new Reserve Chardonnay named for his recently deceased sister – Yvonne.  Liza includes two varietal white wines – Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc that typically spend some time in oak barrels.  Sandro is Alexander’s entry-level red blend which varies slightly year over year and typically spends just over a year in oak barrels.  The Reserve label includes a varietal Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz, Merlot (which is being discontinued and whose last vintage was 2009) and a blend under the name of Gaston which spends 24 months in oak barrels (the single varietal wines typically spend 18 months in oak).

The Alexander the Great label is the series for which the winery is best known and a number of factors contribute to this, including the aforementioned meticulously designed (by Yoram’s wife – Ilana) labels, the relatively expensive cost and the heavy oaky notes – a signature of the winery.  The Alexander the Great series currently includes a varietal Cabernet Sauvignon which spends nearly three years in oak, a “Grand Reserve” blend of mostly Cabernet Sauvignon with some Merlot and Shiraz added which spends two years in new oak and is then transferred into new oak barrels for another two-year stint and the Amarolo, an Amarone-styled wine for which the grapes spend approximately two months drying in the sun on straw mats before spending 40 months in oak and whose 2007 vintage made my list of Most Exciting Wines of 2012.  In addition to producing approximately 40,000 bottles annually under the Alexander label, Yoram makes a significant number of “private-label” wines for individuals, restaurants and wine stores (during my visit I had the opportunity to taste two private label wines Yoram created for a well-known Jerusalem-based wine store).

Alexander Winery has also been working diligently on a brand-new visitor center that Yoram expects to open soon and which will include rooms for wine tasting sessions and culinary-related seminars where Yoram hopes to entertain larger groups, as well as additional barrel rooms for his increasing production.  After getting a quick tour of the visitor center’s progress, Yoram and I descended into Alexander’s cellar for some barrel tastings of 11 wines.  We started with the Reserve Chardonnay which is 100% Chardonnay from Yoram’s Ben-Zimra vineyards.  I really liked the wine which was fresh, lively and well-made although it is expected to spend another six months or so in barrels and will obviously continue to evolve over that time.  We continued with the 2010 Reserve Cabernet Franc, Mourvèdre and Grenache (the latter two are expected to be blended with other wines and not released on their own) and then moved on to the Alexander the Great series and sampled the 2009 Grand Reserve and 2010 Amarolo.  A comparison tasting of the 2010 and 2011 vintages of the Alexander the Great Cabernet Sauvignon finished out what was ultimately a delightful and informative tasting.  To finish off the day Yoram poured a 2011 Petit Verdot (intended for blending as Yoram doesn’t think Petite Verdot can or should be made as a stand-alone wine).  All in all a great tasting and a heartfelt thank you to Yoram for taking the time on a busy Friday to show me around and pour me some of his wines.

Recanati Winery

After a restful and relaxing Shabbat during which I sampled a number of wines I “discovered” at Ra’anana’s local, kosher-only, wine shop (tasting notes to follow at a later date), I was ready to hit the wine trail again and started off the day (and week) with a visit to Recanati Winery, a long-time favorite and home to an exceptionally talented team of winemakers that includes Gil Shatsberg, Ido Lewinsohn and Kobi Arbiv.  While I have written about, enjoyed and heartily recommended many of Recanati’s wines over the years, it has been nearly three years since I wrote a stand-alone newsletter about Recanati, other than the mini-write ups in recent Leket Wine Club shipments (have no fear – an updated piece is coming soon).

In any event, I met Gil at the winery and we tasted through a nice selection of ten wines which included some barrel samples, advance tastings and some cool comparative tastings of wines that Recanati is making in both mevushal (for the US market) and non-mevushal versions (similar to the tasting I did at Dalton back in December).  We started off with a comparative tasting of mevushal and non-mevushal versions Recanati’s entry-level red blend – Yasmin (the mevushal version of the wine is pasteurized right before bottling) with the main discernible difference between the two being the non-mevushal version had slightly more vibrant red fruit and a little less oaky notes.  We then tasted the 2012 Cabernet and Shiraz (there is a mevushal version of the Shiraz as well which I have tasted and written about previously) both of which are very well made wines and, given their placement in Recanati’s entry level series, represent good value for money.  We then tasted the first Reserve Chardonnay from Recanati in some time (the quality of the fruit in recent years simply wasn’t sufficient for a stand-alone, reserve-level Chardonnay) and this vintage, which spent eight months in 40% French oak, was delicious (not yet filtered, it will be retasted before its schedule Rosh Hashanah release).  We also tasted the 2012 vintage of two of my favorite Recanati wines – the Syrah-Viognier and Wild Carignan, both in the Mediterranean Reserve series which showed great promise as well as the winery’s Special Reserve White which, while delightful and refreshing, with great balance and decent complexity – is way overpriced.  An exciting tasting of the winery’s newest wine – a varietal Marselan which will also be included in the Mediterranean Reserve series.  The wine spent eight months in French oak (60%) new and it had just come out of the barrel the day before, likely needing some recuperation time before a more accurate tasting but, like its brethren, showed great promise to be an interesting and exciting new addition to the series and indicative of the distinct and creative winemaking path that continues at Recanati.  Thanks again Gil for the time, conversation and delightful tasting!

Saslove Winery

While I have written about Saslove [relatively] recently after tasting their newly kosher releases at during the 2011 Sommelier Expo in Israel, the only wines released at the time were those from Saslove’s entry-level label Aviv and not the winery’s more prestigious and Reserved and Adom labels.  With the release of Saslove’s first upper-tier kosher wines (understandingly coinciding with the same releases from the other two wineries that became kosher for the 2010 vintage – Tulip & Flam) and the release of the winery’s first Rosé, I was happy to make my way to Saslove to meet and taste the new wines with Barry and Roni.  We tasted through seven wines (and I purchased a bottle of the 2011 Lavan which had sold out at the winery but was necessary to “complete” my tasting of current offerings).  We started with the newly released Rosé, a blend of Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon and some Petit Verdot in which the Shiraz was fermented separately from the other two (which were co-fermented).  The wine was well made with decent acidity and although a little sweeter than I personally prefer my Rosé wines, it was crisp, refreshing and enjoyable and will appeal to the legions of summer time Rosé drinkers looking for something refreshing with more complexity than much of the alcoholic Fanta passing for Rosé among many other wineries.  In addition to tasting the 2010 Adom Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz wines (I had tasted the 2010 Reserved on multiple prior occasions, including a few days before at City Winery at the “Wines of Israel’ tasting), we also tasted through the 2011 Aviv wines (other than the Lavan which I acquired and tasted alone a few days later) including the Marriage (a blend of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot, Cabernet Franc and Nebbiolo) and the varietal Merlot, Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon, all of which still need a bit of time to settle down.

Besides the delightful tasting in the quaint visitor center (protected from the smell of the many cows just outside the doors), I thoroughly enjoyed the informative and entertaining conversation with Barry and Roni – thank you again for your hospitality and time and I am looking forward to tasting the 2011 upper-tiered wines which are scheduled for release in March 2014!

Gat Shomron Winery

Gat Shomron is another winery that I first became acquainted with at the 2011 Sommelier Expo (if you haven’t realized already – it’s a great show and well worth attending) where I tasted their acclaimed Icewine-styled wines (one of which – the 2009 Viognier made my list of Most Interesting & Exciting Wines of 2012).  Having stayed in touch with Avigdor and Lior (co-owners &winemakers), it was finally time for a real visit.  Despite being located only a few minutes from Saslove, I managed to get slightly lost but thankfully Lior stuck around to meet me – thanks!

Gat Shomron was started in 2003 by Avigdor Sharon and Lior Nachum, two neighbors in Karnei Shomron who had each trained at the Ramat Gan College Wine Academy and had been making wine on their own for a number of years.  Starting with 1,500 bottles in 2003, production grew annually reaching approximately 12,000 bottles in 2011 and nearly tripling to 30,000 bottles for the 2012 vintage.  The winery is currently located in Avigdor’s home, spread out over a number of refrigerated containers and an add-on basement, but Lior and Avigdor are in the process of securing designated space in the Yishuv for a proper winery, along with the nowadays-required visitor center.  As the winery didn’t make very many Shmittah wines, a number of their offerings cross over vintages, such as the 2007/2009 Cabernet Sauvignon or the acclaimed 2006/2007 Merlot (each vintage fermented and aged separately, obviously for different periods of time).

Despite making a number of different wines over the years (it was delightful Carignan and Cabernet Franc wines that caught my eye a number of years ago), the Icewine-style wines are the ones that have really helped put Gat Shomron on the map and today, approximately 50% of production is dedicated to Icewine-style wines!  In addition to the aforementioned Viognier and Gewürztraminer wines, Lior is also making a late harvest Cabernet Sauvignon-Shiraz blend.  Lior was kind enough to procure nearly every wine on hand and, despite my tardiness and the relatively late hour, we ended up tasting close to 20 different wines.

While the abbreviated nature of this newsletter obviously precludes listing, let alone describing, the full list of wines we tasted, overall the wines showed an increase in consistency and quality while recognizing that this is a boutique winery that is still going through growing pains.  The winery produces its wines under the “Gat Shomron” label, with certain wines in certain vintages earning the Reserve designation based on the determination by Avigdor and Lior.  Among the Reserve wines we tasted were the 2009 Shiraz and aforementioned 2010 Late Harvest blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz.  We also barrel tasted a number of wines that are currently anticipated to receive the “Reserve” label but whose final designation will need to wait a little while longer as the wines continue to develop.  From among this crowd of potential Reserve-level wines, we tasted the 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot and the 2010 Shiraz.  Lior was also kind enough to share the 2011 Viognier and 2010 Gewürztraminer Icewine-styled wines (there are also a 2011 Gewürztraminer and 2010 Viognier in lesser quantities (and quality) which may likely be blended together, but the first-listed vintages will be the dominant ones).  Another interesting wine was their first Petite Sirah, made in a limited edition run of 300 bottles from the 2010 vintage which was sourced from vineyards in nearby Mevo Choron.  Nice structure with sweet oak in balance with the dark black fruit, floral notes, a slight herbal streak and lavender on both the nose and full bodied palate.  Definitely an up and coming winery that is worthy of your attention.  Thank you again Lior for your time, hospitality and a great tasting experience.

To round out a great day, I met a friend at one of Israel’s top kosher restaurants – Vino Socco in Hertzlia.  While my meal wasn’t as impeccable as last time (and the waiter a little “off”), it was still a great meal with awesome wines and delightful company, and I will most certainly return.

Karmei Yosef – Bravdo Winery

The next two days were dedicated to winery’s in the exalted Judean Hills region, which has rapidly evolved into one of Israel’s best, with many of the country’s top wineries located in close proximity to each other, making for a terrific and fairly convenient “Wine Route” (if you haven’t already, this map is a good resource for planning Israeli winery visits).  That said, the first two wineries of the day were slightly outside the accepted parameters of the “Judean Hills.  However, as Israel doesn’t [yet] have any established appellations, I feel comfortable with the expanded designation, at least for purposes of this newsletter.  My first stop of the day was the (doubly) eponymously named Karmei Yosef-Bravdo winery, located right outside Karmei Yosef.  Due to somewhat arcane rules and regulations (partially relating to the categorization of Israeli wineries as agricultural facilities), many smaller wineries are not allowed to have proper signage, making it difficult to safely make the turnoff from the main road without endangering the cars driving behind you at breakneck speed.  Thanks to my map, I found the turnoff and then proceeded to follow the tiny but helpful signs that led me through the vineyards over dirt and gravel paths until I reached the picturesque winery located among its very own vineyards, home to a newly constructed and not-yet-opened visitor center.

For our morning tasting I was lucky enough to be joined not only by Hadar, who is the marketing and export manager for the winery, but also by her father – Ben-Ami Bravdo, one of the two founder- winemakers (who also happened to be one of the country’s pre-eminent lecturers on oenology and until very recently, a fully tenured profession at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, with the other winemaker being his former prize student).  In addition to the two senior winemakers – Ben-Ami and Oded Shosheyov (who founded the winery in 1999 with an initial vintage of 2,800 bottles), Ben-Ami’s son-in-law Zori assists with the winemaking.  The winery is currently producing approximately 85,000 bottles annually across seven wines, with two having been added for the currently released 2011 and 2012 vintages (a mevushal version of the Coupage named Quadro and a Rosé, respectively).  The winery keeps approximately one-third of the grapes grown in the vineyards owned by Oded’s family with the remaining two-thirds sold to other wineries, with nearly 40% of that exported, mainly to the United States (along with many other wineries, the export market is increasingly taking up larger portions of production).

As the mashgiach was unavailable, we were unable to do any barrel tastings, but we did taste through the winery’s entire portfolio of wines, including the aforementioned two welcome new additions.  The 2012 Chardonnay may be the best Chardonnay produced by the winery to date, with a delightful nose of tropical fruit, tart green apple and a good dollop of minerals with some notes of spicy oak (the wine was fermented in oak barrels through malolactic fermentation).  The newly released Rosé, made from 100% Cabernet Franc had a slightly subdued nose of red fruit, watermelon and a hint of strawberries, decent acidity and the characteristically delightful streak of minerality shared by most of Karmei Yosef’s wines.  We then tasted through the varietal wines – Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, saving the full-bodied and muscular Shiraz for last.  I particularly enjoyed the Merlot.  We then followed with the winery’s 2011 Coupage blend, which I enjoyed more than the current (in the US) 2010 vintage.  For the 2011 vintage, the blend is comprised of 40% Cabernet Franc, 33% Shiraz and 27% Cabernet Sauvignon.  A the request of their importer, Happy Hearts, the winery produced for the first time a mevushal wines named Quadro (for the 2011 vintage), based on the Coupage with the blend slightly altered to incorporate Merlot and comprised of 35% Cabernet Franc, 25% Shiraz, 20% Merlot and 20% Cabernet Sauvignon.

As with Recanati, Psagot and others, more and more Israeli wineries are responding to their United States importer/distributor requests and creating mevushal wines to satisfy supposed high demand for such wines.  Personally, I am skeptical that there is sufficient demand for more expensive mevushal wines and am hesitant about the potential impact on a winery’s perceived quality from producing such wines, especially without the proper infrastructure (i.e. flash pasteurizing the wine before bottling, almost as an afterthought as opposed to intending the wine to be mevushal from the outset and initiating the flash pasteurization at earlier stage of the winemaking process) – time will tell.  The Quadro was certainly a nice wine, with a slightly muted nose but the same impeccable winemaking we have come to expect from the folks at Bravdo.  A big thank you again to Hadar and Ben-Ami for their gracious hospitality, invigorating conversation and tasting of top-notch wines!

Herzberg Winery

My next stop was Domaine Herzberg, a very small boutique winery located on Moshav Sitrya whose wines I first learned about from the late Daniel Rogov back in 2009 when Herzberg’s first releases received relatively high scores, usually a good indicator of quality winemaking.  After tasting my first Herzberg wines – a Merlot and Malbec (even more a rarity then than now) from the 2007 vintage, I knew that Herzberg was a winery to keep my eye on and I was happy to finally visit the winery and meet its owner – Max Herzberg – in person.

Founded by Max Herzberg in 2007, Herzberg winery is a true Estate Winery with the winery and vineyards located in the backyard of Max Herzberg’s home on Moshav Sitrya.  After making aliyah from France many years ago and prior to (and continuing today) the founding of Herzberg Winery, Max’s occupation was that of a successful Biotechnologist and serial entrepreneur, founding multiple biotech companies, many of which still receive consulting services from him these days and some of which he maintains the role of chairman.  However, after a highly-successful career, in 2005 Max decided to plant some vines in his back yard and try his hand at making wine.  After planting the two acres in his backyard with Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Shiraz and Malbec, Max made his first vintage in 2007 which was well received by friends and family (and Rogov) and his first commercial vintage in 2008.  In addition to the two acres in his backyard, Max also utilizes another acre of Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon grapes grown by a close neighbor of his, for total annual production of approximately 5,000 bottles, with no intention of growing that number any further.  Mainly self-taught, Max utilizes the professional assistance of two top Israeli winemaking consultants – Ittai Lahat (who teaches courses at the popular Tel-Chai college’s winemaking course) and Yotam Sharon, formerly a winemaker at Barkan winery, who now provides consulting services to many Israeli wineries.  Most of Max’s wines spend 12 months in oak barrels and then another year aging in the bottle before he releases them.  Herzberg produces wines in two labels – Herzberg, comprised of varietal wines (Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz, Malbec and Merlot along with a blend named “Asado” (in tribute to the proper cut of meat it is meat for) and a “Reserve” blend.  For the 2012 vintage, Max also produced a Rosé, in honor of his grandson’s bar-mitzvah which was served to all the guests in 350ml bottles and was not sold commercially.

After a quick tour of the small winery, we retreated to Max’s combination office and tasting room where we tasted through the 2010, 2011 and 2012 (in barrels) vintages.  While I very much enjoyed the 2009 wines (which Max graciously donated to the wine tasting I organized at Leket’s Sensi dinner two years ago), the later vintages show a marked increase in quality, complexity and most importantly for any up-and-coming boutique winery – consistency.

We started off with the aforementioned Rosé, of which max produced 200 bottles by harvesting some of the Malbec three weeks early and making it in the Saignée method, with 50% of the grapes having a little “skin time”.  A light-bodied and very dry Rosé wine with plenty of minerals and good acidity to go along with the summer red fruit and hints of candied cherries.  Next up were the 2010 wines Max still has left which included the Cabernet Sauvignon and the two blends – Asado, which is a blend of 50% Malbec and 25% each of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot which spent a year in 50% in new oak, and the Reserve, a blend of 50% Cabernet Sauvignon and 25% each of Merlot and Malbec which shows promise but needs some more time in the bottle before the components come together as intended.  We then moved on to an advance tasting of the 2011 wines, including the Malbec  and Reserve (comprised of the same blend as the 2010 vintage) which was delicious.  Max was kind enough to do a barrel tasting of his 2012 offerings which included his four varietals – Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz, Merlot and Malbec, all of which showed nicely and exhibited much of Domaine Herzberg’s near-characteristic mineral and graphite notes, along with the deep black fruit we are slowly becoming accustomed to.  All in all, a great tasting of an up-and-coming winery that is certainly worth seeking out and trying next time you are in Israel (while Max is looking to export, the wines are currently only available in Israel).

Castel Winery

After bidding adieu to Max I headed towards one of the crown jewels of the Israeli wine industry and one of the pioneering wineries that helped put the Judean Hills on the map as a serious and well-respected wine-growing region – Castel.  Upon arrival, I was met by Ilana Ben-Zaken, daughter of Founder and Winemaker Eli and Export Manager.  The winery is currently undergoing some personnel and administrative changes, losing a number of long-time employees, segueing from family owned and operated to a more “family owned and supervised” model (with the appointment of a new, non-family CEO – Eduardo Guthartz) As I recently wrote about Castel, please check out the above link for a detailed description of the winery.  As I had also tasted the winery’s current offerings a few days prior (together with Ilana) at the “Wines of Israel” exhibition at City Winery, this tasting focused less on the present and more on the past (with the tasting of some cool library wines) and the future (barrel tastings of the 2011 and 2012 offerings).

We started off with a quick tour of the winery, including its gorgeously impressive barrel room, where we also did a slew of barrel tastings.  Starting off with the winery’s only white wine – the 2012 Castel “C” Chardonnay, a 100% percent Chardonnay wine sourced from the acclaimed Tzuba vineyards, located right down the road.  Despite some recent controversies over the wine (many of the 2009 bottles suffered from reduction)and I had heard reports of the same in the 2011 vintage although that has not been my experience the last five times I tasted the wine –in Israel or the US), the 2012 is currently an amazing wine.  As with every vintage, the wine 12 months in oak (evenly split between new, 1-year and two-year old barrels) and is expected to be bottled within a few weeks and released around Rosh Hashanah time).  Fresh and lively, with great acidity and near impeccable balance, this is a delightful wine whose only fault is its relatively high price for an Israeli white wine.  We also barrel tasted the 2011 Grand Vin which should be bottled right around now and the 2012 Grand Vin and Petit Castel wines as well (I really enjoyed the 2011 Petit Castel – I recommend stocking up on it).  The 2011 and to a larger degree, the 2012 vintages are looking very good for many Israeli wineries, especially when compares to the lesser 2009 and 2010 vintages (for many wineries – more on recent Israeli vintage variation is coming in a future newsletter).  We then moved on to one of my favorite Castel wines – their crisply dry and refreshing Rosé.  After making only three wines since the winery’s founding, at the behest of his son, Eli agreed to make a Rosé in the 2009 vintage which was met with great excitement as Israeli Rosé wines to date had catered to the Israeli palate and been on the sweeter side, while the Castel version was bone-dry and made with added complexity (and cost), rare at the time among Israeli Rosé wines.  While no Rosé was made in 2010, 2011 saw the return of the popular wine and its appearance in 2012 cemented it as Castel’s “fourth” wine.  As I like tasting the same wines in Israel and the United States (finding more and more that there are distinct differences – to be reported on in a future newsletter), we also re-tasted the current releases including the 2011 Petit Castel and “C” Chardonnay which had a little more oak than I would like, but remains the most Burgundy-like of all Israeli Chardonnay with a distinct (and pleasurable) Israeli personality of its own.  We also tasted the 2010 Grand Vin which still needs some time to show its true colors.

We then moved on to the treat of the tasting – a number of library wines from Castel’s cellar.  We started with the 2006 “C” Chardonnay.  While the aging ability of Israeli wines has been rapidly improving over recent years, the white wines that have proven aging ability are far and few in between (the Yarden Chardonnay wines from the Golan Heights Winery are among the rare finds in this category), this wine was still alive and kicking.  While showing its age (along with a hefty dose of oak), the wine had retained its decent acidity and notes of tropical fruits.  We also tasted the 2006 Petit Castel which was on the south side of its peak but still showing interesting notes of black fruit, slightly spicy oak and Mediterranean Herbs with some minty baker’s chocolate on the medium finish.  To round out the tasting, we tasted the 2003 Grand Vin, the first vintage in which Castel was completely kosher (while the 2002 vintage was Castel’s first kosher one, it was done on a trail bases, with only a portion of the wines made kosher, resulting in kosher and non-kosher versions of Castel’s 2002 wines).  The 2003 was delightful with subtle tannins, nuances of black fruit, earth, some minerals and spicy oak.  All in all a great experience, plenty of industry gossip and most importantly, terrific wines that show Castel remains on top of its game.

I ended the day with dinner at one of Jerusalem (and Israel’s) top culinary kosher destinations- Scala (located at the David Citadel hotel).  A great culinary experience with a pretty good and well-curated wine list as well.

Ella Valley Winery

The following day started at one of my all-time favorite wineries, and one I have been writing about for years as a true underappreciated winery and unfortunately hidden gem – Ella Valley.  While the day started ominously with the changing of a flat tire in the blazing sun on the back roads of Ramat Beit-Shemesh, things looked up dramatically by the time I drove up to the gates of Ella Valley Winery for a comprehensive tasting of 15 wines, including advance tastings and barrel tastings of not yet documented wines.  Despite my best attempts and repeated cajoling, I could not get Lin to share some of her coming sparkling wines which are “not yet ready”…

After taking over the winemaking helm from Doron 18 months ago, there are still only a few wines on the market that are “Lin’s Wines” – wines that Lin had full responsibility over from harvest to release.  In addition to the 2011 Sauvignon Blanc which I have previously discussed, the 2011 Chardonnay and Rosé have now been released, as has the 2012 Sauvignon Blanc.  We tasted all three of these wines with all three wines exhibiting more fresh fruit and juicy exuberance than prior vintages, while maintaining the class and refinement we have come to expect from Ella Valley.  The 2012 Sauvignon Blanc was blended with 10% Sémillon to great success, yielding a fresh and lively wine with citrus, minerals and great acidity.  The Rosé was a big improvement on last year’s vintage and I really liked the 2011 Chardonnay as well.  The Rose is included in the winery’s entry-level series – EverRed (which also includes a white blend and 1-2 red wines, depending on the year), while the Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc are under the Estate label.  Recognizing my adoration of the winery’s 2008 Pinot Noir (one of Israel’s best examples of the varietal), Udi and Lin brought out a bottle of the inaugural 2005 vintage (there will be a 2010 version as well) which was very much alive and kicking, needing time in the glass to open up with still strong tannins.  We also tasted the 2009 Cabernet Franc and Syrah before moving on to the 2010 Merlot, long Ella Valley’s signature grape (the entire 2009 vintage of Merlot was sold to Japan – ping me if you have a bottle).  We also tasted the winery’s signature wine – the 2008 32/35 (we also tasted the 2010 version of this wine which may be among the winery’s best wines and is highly recommended once released).

After finishing up the bottle tastings, Lin and I moved to the barrel room and tasted the 2012 Chardonnay which is currently contemplated to receive the Premier “Vineyards Choice” designation (a choice I currently wholeheartedly agree with as the wine was delicious with great structure and fruit).  We also tasted the 2011 Cabernet Sauvignon which was the first red wine of Lin’s I tasted.  We also did a nice sampling of the 2012 red wines, many of which are still components and not the final wines (i.e. Cabernet Sauvignon from different plots which will be blended together to make the final wines) including samples of two different 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon wines, a Merlot and a Petit Verdot from Nes Harim which was quite good and bodes well for the future of the plot (2012 was only the second harvest) – I am looking forward to a varietal one day.  The winery recently released its 2010 Cabernet Franc and 2009 Petit Sirah which I have not yet tasted.

Yaffo Winery

My next stop was a winery I first tasted only recently and who had become kosher starting with the 2009 vintage in which they made a terrific varietal Carignan (unfortunately a one-time wine that isn’t expected to repeat) that was my first introduction to this winery.  Founded in Yaffo (hence the name) 1998 by Moshe Celniker, the winery relocated to its current location in the Judean Hills in order to be closer to the winery’s primary vineyards  and is currently producing approximately 40,000 bottles annually.  Moshe’s son Stephan studied winemaking in Israel and abroad and is now the winery’s official winemaker.  The winery currently produces four to five wines with a flagship blend called “Heritage” and a Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and Merlot-Syrah blend in the Yaffo label.

Stephan met me for the tasting, which we conducted outside facing some just-burnt foliage, the result of a fire that nearly consumed the winery just days earlier.  Our tasting started with the 2012 Chardonnay, sourced from the Zichron Ya’acov area.  Nice notes of green apple, pear and fig combined with some slightly toasty oak and lovely minerality were all backed up by good acidity creating a really nice wine.  We also tasted the 2010 versions of the Cabernet Sauvignon which spent 12 months in approximately 50% new oak and the equal blend of Syrah and Merlot, which were fermented and barrel aged separately before being blended and bottled.  We finished up the tasting with the winery’s flagship Heritage from the 2009 vintage, a blend of 70% Cabernet Sauvignon and 15% each of Syrah and Merlot which spent 24 months in oak and of which 5,000 bottles were produced.  A little softer than I expected the wine was round and mouth filling with some understated elegance and good fruit.  While not yet imported into the United States, Moshe and Stephan are working on that and Yaffo is definitely a winery worth seeking out and giving a try.

Agur Winery

Due to some unforeseen events, I had to reschedule (or cancel) a number of winery visits and Agur was to be my last winery visit of the day.  As I arrived Shuki and Co. were in the middle of rearranging their “visitor center” but we soon settled in for a tasting of a number of Agur’s wines.  Unfortunately the mashgiach was not around so, unlike last time, barrel tastings were out of the question.  After not being available in the United States for a number of years, many of Agur’s wines are now available, courtesy of Israel Wine Direct.

For our tasting Shuki brought out a number of current releases including the Agur Rosa, a delightfully dry Rosé wine comprised of 40% Cabernet Sauvignon, 40% Cabernet Franc and 20% Mourvèdre.  I am always happy to find dry and crisply refreshing Rosé wines, which typically go with the vast majority of lighter summer fare and are also very much enjoyed on their own.  The Agur Rosa easily earns its way in the rapidly growing cadre of Israeli Rosé wines of this nature.  We also comparatively tasted the 2008 and 2011 Kessem wines, with the 2008 representing the seamlessly integrated results of a blend Shuki aims for and also indicative of the many benefits of bottle aging.  Other wines tasted were the 2010 Special Reserve, Shuki’s flagship wine (this year a blend of 50% Cabernet Sauvignon, 35% Merlot, 10% Cabernet Franc and 5% Petit Verdot) which was approachable but will certainly benefit from some more time in the bottle and his newest addition to the portfolio – the 2011 Layam (of which the 2010 vintage was the inaugural wine).  The driver for this very enjoyable wine was Shuki’s desire for an Israeli-styled Côtes du Rhône and resulted in the planting of a Mourvèdre plot (which I hope will sustain many more Israeli wines in the coming years).  Shuki also planted some Grenache which will likely make its way into the Layam in coming vintages.  All in all, a distinctive boutique winery with some great wines, quality winemaking and a slightly eccentric winemaker who is always a delight to spend time with – go and visit!

Gush Etzion Winery

My last winery visit of this trip was to the Gush Etzion Winery, about which I had last dedicated prime newsletter real estate to over three years ago.  It was meant to be the beginning of a Southern Israel winery tour including Midbar and Yatir, but ended up being my solitary winery visit of the day due to unforeseen circumstances.  Located in a beautiful facility with outdoor space for events and an adjoining nice little restaurant, the winery is partially owned by its winemaker – Shraga Rosenberg who started making wine under the Gush Etzion name back in 2001 where, until 2004, he was making wine at Tishbi’s facility before opening up on his own in time for the 2005 vintage.  Tishbi is also a partial owner of the winery (together with a prominent American financier).  Prior to that Shraga made wine in his basement for a number of years.  Shraga is also assisted by Ittai Lahat.  The winery is currently producing between 40-50,000 bottles annually under three labels (which are marketed under their English translations in the United States).  Nachal Hapirim (Spring Valley) is the entry level series, comprised of blends, followed by Alon HaBoded (Lone Oak) which are the Reserve-level varietal wines including Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Syrah, Sauvignon Blanc, Gewürztraminer, Riesling (which may be ending) and Chardonnay (which isn’t produced every year).  The winery’s flagship label is Emek Bracha Blessed Valley) and is all blends.

Our tasting included 14 different wines, including current offerings, advance tastings and barrel tastings of some very interesting wines.  Among those early tastings I am most looking forward to seeing in final form was the 2012 White Emek Bracha (a blend of Chardonnay, Viognier and Roussanne) and the 2012 Nachal Hapirim Syrah-Mourvèdre blend.  Other wines I enjoyed were the 2011 White Emek Bracha and 2010 Alon HaBoded Cabernet Sauvignon (the 2008 vintage was also very nice).  The winery is clearly continuing its upward qualitative trend and I am looking forward to continued improvement and good things from this winery.

Once again, thank you Shraga for a great and informative tasting and I look forward to continued great things Gush Etzion Winery.

Ra’anana Wine Festival

While Gush Etzion was my last winery of the day (and trip) it was certainly not my last wine-related experience.  As is my wont, during the course of my trip I had acquired a number of bottles I was interested in trying, both at the wineries themselves and at various wine stores along the way (I find it hard to walk by a wine store without at least a quick peek inside).  Additionally, I was lucky that my trip coincided with Ra’anana’s annual wine festival.  While these festivals are usually not the best opportunity to do serious tastings, especially when they are outdoors, they are typically a great opportunity to socialize with other industry folk and actually drink (gasp) so nice wines.  The event was help in Ra’anana’s gorgeous municipal park on a hot and muggy evening.  Unfortunately there were nearly no industry folk there and very few interesting and/or new wines available for tasting, making it a less than interesting wine event for a budding aficionado.  That said, there were plenty of wineries showcasing their wares, a large number of food vendors offering delicious stuff for sale and a number of chocolate, olive oil and other gourmet purveyors to make for an interesting and enjoyable evening out.

Among the wines I ended up sampling were the three currently released wines from Bat Shlomo (a Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and Rosé), a number of wines from Tanya and Teperberg, along with some of Tishbi’s offerings I had missed when visiting the winery a few days earlier.  I also tried the latest vintage of Shiloh’ “Fort”, a port-styled wine.

All in all, a great (albeit exhausting) trip and one which I hope assisted in incentivizing you to go out and visit a winery or two (or ten) on your next trip to Israel!