Yatir Winery

#161 – February 4, 2011

In any wine-related conversation, inevitably one of the first questions I am asked is “what is your favorite wine?” or “what is your favorite winery?” Given my love and passion for all wines, I truly don’t have a favorite wine or even one I find myself drinking most often. That said, wineries whose wines I find myself feeling most passionate about are those that only make good to great wines and those with whom I have a long-standing relationship. Among these true favorites are Ella Valley and Bustan, with Gvaot, Karmei Yosef and Dalton not far behind. Consistency is a key requirement, as is producing well-made, elegant and distinctive wines. All that said, Yatir is at the top of my personal list and the topic of this week’s newsletter.

On to Yatir which I consider, along with the Golan Heights Winery, to be the best winery in Israel! I am still trying to figure out why, with very few exceptions, the Castel Winery (a fabulous winery in its own right) gets almost all of the international recognition and acclaim. Side note to all Israeli wineries – hire Castel’s PR team – they do a magnificent job! Located in the south of Israel at the tip of the Judean Hills, in an area with a history of wine making dating back over 2500 years, it is in close proximity to the incredibly beautiful Yatir Forest – truly a sight for sore eyes (and that is before you even start tasting their wines). Founded in 2000 as a joint venture between the Carmel Winery and a number of regional wine-growers, this was one of the first kosher boutique wineries that produced spectacular wine, which could compete with the then king of Israeli boutique wineries – the non-kosher Margalit Winery.

Notwithstanding Carmel’s ownership, head wine maker Eran Goldwasser is said to have complete autonomy over wine making decisions which bears out given the fact that Yatir was producing great wines long before Carmel started its meteoric ascent back to greatness. Now assisted by the winery’s manager, Yonatan Ben Dor, Eran manages to only produce fantastic wines – a tough feat for any winery.

First impressions are truly important and definitely affect my relationship with the wineries. Of the wineries listed above, Ella Valley’s 2002 Vineyard’s Choice Merlot, 1997 Dalton’s Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve, Bustan’s 2002 Cabernet Sauvignon, Karmei Yosef’s 2007 Shiraz and Gvaot’s 2005 Masada Merlot are all prime examples of great first impressions that had a lasting effect on my feelings for the winery. My first encounter with Yatir was no different, and their 2001 Forest was a revolutionary wine to me at that time. The 2001 vintage was a blend of 85% Cabernet Sauvignon and 15% Merlot – a big and powerful wine with an extraordinary elegance to it. A truly special wine (and one that is still hanging on to life today with dignity).

For many years, the only wines produced by Yatir were the Forest (Ya’ar Yatir) and a bold and complex blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Shiraz (in which the pieces come together beautifully into a great wine). In 2004, Yatir introduced an incredible Sauvignon Blanc wine that became an instant hit and followed that up the following year by introducing a single-varietal Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz that were just as successful. 2006 brought another major hit with a varietal Viognier. After this long string of amazing wines, I can only hope and pray that Eran sees fit to divert some of their Cabernet Franc grapes from blending and tries his hand at a varietal Cabernet Franc (at that point I may have to name my next kid after him!

While Yatir is easily a Safe Bet Winery, its one drawback is pricing. As with most things in life, with success came a little craziness, greed and ego, and the pricing on Yatir’s wines has escalated over the years. For some reason, the discrepancy between pricing in Israel and the US seems to be higher for Yatir than some other wineries, with their Sauvignon Blanc and Viognier going for over $30. A few years ago, the Yatir Forest was retailing for $115 until someone realized the stupidity of that and prices dropped back to a (ever-so-slightly) more reasonable $85. Great, great wines but nothing even remotely close to a YH Best Buy.

Shabbat Shalom,

Yatir, Sauvignon Blanc, 2009: By far my favorite Sauvignon Blanc wine, but unfortunately extremely overpriced in the United States (I’m not exactly sure why). Yatir’s red wines get a lot of attention, and justifiably so, but this one deserves to be a serious contender for space in your cellar (just have someone bring you back bottles from Israel). A superstar wine year after year, this latest vintage doesn’t disappoint. A complex and layered wine with hints of tropical fruits and citrus, together with traditional grassiness and a flinty edge to it that makes your palate stand up and say Wow. Plenty of bracing acidity to keep the fruit in check, the wine matches nicely with a heaping plate of latkes. One of the best Sauvignon Blancs I have tasted, and enough to make any “I only drink red wine” person change their tune.

Yatir, Viognier, 2009: I love Israeli Viognier which has a personality all of its own with somewhat atypical creamy notes. While I can only hope and pray for a kosher Condrieu to come my way, for now I am happy to make do with this wine along with the Viognier offerings of Yarden and Dalton. Following the world-wide trend of unoaked wines that has happily ensconced itself in Israel, this wine was not aged in oak, resulting in fruit and floral aromas that quite literally burst out of the glass as soon as the cork pops. The promise of all that deliciousness lingers on the palate, loaded with tropical fruits and citrus and curbed by generous acidity that keeps all the fruit nicely in check.

Yatir, Cabernet Sauvignon, 2006: A big wine composed of 85% Cabernet Sauvignon and 15% Petite Verdot (another varietal Yatir should produce with some of these blending grapes). Aged for 12 months in French oak the wine has a rich nose of blackberries, cassis, currants, cranberries and raspberries. Your first sip of this wine will make you jump for joy, given its super-rich and extracted flavors from the nose. Plenty of well integrated wood and tannins, along with dark chocolate that plays very well with the ripe but not-overwhelming fruit with a pleasant hint of greenness. A long, velvety finish rounds this one out, lingering on and on. An atlas of a wine that could carry the world on its back and one that I expect to enjoy for at least another 6-7 years.

Yatir, Merlot-Shiraz-Cabernet Sauvignon, 2006: Since the 2005 vintage, the blend had included more than its three namesake varieties (this one is comprised of 35% Merlot, 24% Shiraz, 20% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Malbec, 8% Cabernet Franc and 3%Petit Verdot which result in a terrific wine that was oak-aged (primarily in French oak) for 12 month. As with every other Yatir wine, a consistent hit year in and year out, and one that has proven to age gracefully (although probably without the staying power of its regal older brother – the Forest). A full-bodied wine with blackberries, currant and plums on both the nose and palate, together with mocha, cloves and other warm spices and a pleasant bitterness on the medium finish. A keeper and worth your $40.

Yatir, Yatir Forest, 2006: The undisputed flagship wine of Yatir and, in my opinion, a candidate for flagship of the Israeli wine industry generally. An undisputed champ every year, it’s scary to think what the amazing 2008 Shmittah vintage will yield for this wine. While the winery uses a different blend every year, Cabernet Sauvignon grapes are always the dominant ones used (the 2002 vintage was actually 100% Cabernet Sauvignon). This vintage is a blend of 50% Cabernet Sauvignon, 38% Petit Verdot and 12% Merlot. The superlatives for this wine go on and on but I will be brief since I am sure you got the point by now. The wine spent 16 months aging in predominately French oak (one-third new barrels), resulting in a wine that will easily make it to Zevi’s Bar-Mitzvah (thankfully all my kids were born in great vintages – 2001, 2006 & 2008). Plenty of red and black fruit on the nose including blackcurrants, raspberries, red cherries and plums with noticeable oak as well. The palate delivers in a big way, with a mouth-filling array of red (and some black) fruit, chocolate, grilled meat, more spicy oak, Mediterranean herbs reflecting the wine’s birthplace and a fleeting sweetness to the tannins that enchants. A long, lingering finish wraps you in chocolate, wood, vanilla, spice and all that is nice.

Yatir, Shiraz, 2005: A dark inky purple color, this full-bodied wine made from 100% Shiraz (although the 2006 vintage had 15% Petit Verdot blended in and the 2007 vintage came with 2% Viognier that, amazingly, is known to add body and color (!) to red wines). I heard rumors that it was going through a “dumb period” so I uncorked one of my last bottles and was delighted to find it as bold & beautiful as ever. This delicious wine has developed nicely in the bottle as a result from its terrific body and harmonious structure. Tons of big, bold black fruits tinged with plenty of smoky oak. Good overlay of grilled meat and earthiness round out this treat, and lead to a long finish. Relatively high in alcohol at 15% but not that noticeable given the elegant structure. Still young with easily 4-5 years of cellaring left.