Pinnacle of Success – The Best Wines of 2010

Immediately following December 1 of every year, we are assuaged with lists in magazines, newspapers, blogs and elsewhere, all touting the best of the previous year in all categories including movies, events, food and wine. To keep with that tradition and to try and get ahead of the scrum, this newsletter contains the tasting notes for the best wines I tasted during 2010.

As always, a couple of qualifiers. Given that my day job limits the amount of time I have to dedicate to drinking wine and my limited wallet puts a damper on the number of wines I get to taste each year, it is basically impossible for me to taste all the new kosher wines released each year which is currently hovering around the 1500 mark (that is not to say that I don’t make a concentrated and valiant effort to do so). Tasting is also subjective and, as always, this list reflects my personal opinion taking into consideration what I deem “best”. As a result, I am sure there are plenty of great wines released this year that are not on this list and I’d love to hear from you which were your favorite wines this year.

Reflecting the international nature of this newsletter’s readership, a few of these wines are not widely available in the United States (like the Bravdo and the Castel Rosé) and some are pretty tough to find even in the US (like the Syraph) but these wines are all worth of your perseverance and I highly suggest having a few shipped to you from Israel. I have also excluded from this list some of the spectacular wines I have tasted that had been aging in my cellar for a number of years, like the 2001 Elrom Cabernet Sauvignon – mama mia, and have focused on relatively newly released (or newly available wines).

Given the proliferation of exceptional kosher wines available, there are obviously many deserving wines that didn’t make this list but two special wines come to mind. The reason for their exclusion is noted below but you can bank on them making next years list. They are the Covenant, Solomon Vineyard, Cabernet Sauvignon, 2008 and the Capcanes, La Flor del Flor de Primavera. The Covenant wine is made with grapes from Leslie Rudd’s famed vineyard but, at $150 a bottle, I have not yet tasted any of my purchased bottles. The Capcanes I just tasted last night (pre-release) but need to taste it again, in a quieter setting before I’m ready to pen a detailed tasting note. Therefore, both these wines will have to wait until next year to be acknowledged and (probably) showered with appropriate accolades.

I included a bit about the wineries themselves to the extent there were lessor known and, given that these are the best of the year, the notes are obviously a little longer and more effusive than usual – enjoy!

Shabbat Shalom,

Capcanes, Peraj Ha’abib, Monsant, 2005: This is probably my favorite non-Israeli wine of all times and is an incredible wine – hands down!! The usual blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and three Spanish varieties of grapes, this wine is a full bodied, complex, elegant and layered wine, consistently excellent, year after year. One to drink slowly and taste how the flavors change in the glass over the course of 10 minutes to half an hour. Flavors and aromas of black forest fruit and berries, coffee, oak and vanilla with toasty wood notes and then more blueberries and herbs on mid-palate. The wine finishes with a flourish leading into an extremely long and slightly minty finish. An absolute and unmitigated pleasure and one that will probably be around for another decade or so in Magnum format.

Carmel, Limited Edition, 2005: Carmel’s flagship wine continues to excel and excite with a luscious blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot, Merlot and Cabernet Franc (the Cabernet Franc being a new addition to the blend coming in at 3%) all coming together beautifully in a full-bodied and supremely elegant wine. On the nose a massive first attack of black forest fruit including juicy cherries, plums and blackberries along hints of freshly ground white pepper. A very elegant and well balanced wine that is also deep, complex, layered and continues to tease and delight with every passing minute you allow it to open in your glass. Give this one some breathing room in your glass and you will be rewarded with dark minty chocolate, freshly roasted coffee and black licorice tinged with those awesome vanilla notes you get from freshly baked rugalach. A long and velvety finish lingers on and on.

Castel, Rosé du Castel, 2009: Castel Winery has long been the favorite winery of many wine aficionados. While I love their wines and truly appreciate their elegance, balance and structure; Castel is not among my all-time favorite wineries, a fact mostly based on personal preferences and wine-making style (I tend to prefer Israeli style over French). All that said, their first Rosé wine, like all their other offerings, is a resounding success and well worth seeking out. Unfortunately only 3000 bottles were made of this first run, none of which were imported into the US. However, if you can get your hands on a bottle or two from Israel as I did, you will be richly rewarded as this Rosé, made from 100% Merlot and drunk well chilled is wonderful. Almost orange in color – crisply dry, loaded with strawberries, guava and sunshine with just the right balance of acidity, tannins and spice to get everything bouncing around nicely on your palate, it actually evolved over the hour or so it took us to get through the bottle. A perfect picnic wine (other than its more-expensive-than-usual-for-a-Rosé price tag of about NIS 80), and one that is guaranteed to enhance any outdoor summer experience. At 14%, the wine is carrying a little more alcohol than I would like for an outdoor summer wine but (other than for its potential affect on you) it isn’t noticeable.

Castel, Grand Vin, 2006: The Grand Vin continues to be one of the very best Israeli wines available today and the 2006 is one of their best ever. An excellent Bordeaux-type wine with a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc, serves up a distinctly different wine than most versions of Israeli Cabernet Sauvignon, deliver in a full-bodied, rich, supremely elegant and complex wine. A silky smooth wine with velvety tannins coating the palate and opening up in the black forest fruits, plums and a spicy underlay. On second waft you get hit with juicy plums, some earthiness, along with Mediterranean herbs and some green pepper backing them up. A very long finish that carries a hint of mint along with the earthy overtones and some bitterness. While the lack of long-term cellaring remains the Achilles heel of this winery, the 2006 vintage should cellar nicely for another 4 years or so.

Covenant, Lavan, Russian River, 2008: Jeff Morgan continues to demonstrate his extraordinary winemaking abilities (in addition to his writing skills) with another delicious blockbuster of a wine. Lavan is a worthy addition to Covenant’s portfolio, comfortably taking its place with the incredible Covenant and the sophisticated Red “C”. The grapes came from the Bacigalupi Vineyard and the wine was made with the help of David Ramey (the noted winemaker of Ramey Wine Cellars). This wine has a delightful nose of luscious fruits including apples, pears, apricots and mangoes those following for the most part onto the (ever-so) slightly sweet palate. A delightfully long finish. They seemed to have relatively clear of an oak overload which make this wine even more so pleasant, allowing us to more fully experience the fruit and structural nuances. I found this to be an utterly delicious wine and am quite thankful that it is priced closer to the Red C than the Covenant!

Golan Heights Winery, Yarden, Rom, 2006: Two things hit me right off the bat with this wine – the first was how utterly approachable it was at release and right out of the bottle; and the other was how strongly the Syrah dominated the nose and palate of this wine. An interesting blend of 37% Syrah, 34% Cabernet Sauvignon and 29% Merlot, the wine was the result of collaboration between GHW’s chief winemaker Victor Shoenfeld and Zelma Long. Zelma has been assisting GHW for almost 20 years and was one of the first vintners to make the direct link between wine growing and wine quality through extensive experiments in the vineyard resulting in GHW’s current focus on individual vineyards and their different qualities and characteristics. The name Rom means summit in Hebrew meant to reference the culmination of their partnership over the years. Tons of fruit on the first attack including red cherries, juicy blueberries, tangy raspberries with loads of juicy Syrah notes reaching out of the glass in a full-frontal attack. Notwithstanding the abundance of fruit, the great structure and body on this wine indicate its cellarability and potential for elegance. I look forward to opening a bottle in about 8 months from now.

Golan Heights Winery, Yarden, Single Vineyard – Ortal, Syrah, 2004: A wine that is finally starting to come into its own. Part of the incredible Yarden Single Vineyard series by the Golan Heights Winery that seems to produce one blockbuster wine after another, this wine takes its place comfortably among its other exalted brethren. By far the most delicious Israeli Syrah I have ever tasted. This full bodied wine can only be described as lusciously opulent and exceedingly elegant. Even at release the wine was delicious (I couldn’t resist opening a bottle as soon as the package from Avi Ben arrived). The structure and balance of the wine’s tannins, fruit and wood made it clear that an even more amazing wine awaited and all it was asking in return was for a bit of patience. While great now, I’d give this bottle yet another year before opening and it should cellar nicely for another 10 years– I really look forward to tasting this wine in 24 months. A ton of fresh, juicy fruit on the nose which gives way to plums, cherries, currants and tangy raspberries all backed up beautifully with earthy tones, toasty (but not judicious) oak and lightly smoked spices.

Karmei Yosef, Shiraz, Bravdo, 2007: The winery is located in the vineyards of the yishuv of Karmei Yosef which is in the Judean Mountains enroute to Jerusalem. By the time the winery became kosher in 2007 production had grown to a little over 20,000 with additional, significant, increases in production planned over the next few years. The winery is currently producing a Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Shiraz, and Chardonnay. This is my favorite Karmei Yosef wine to date given its very distinctive personality. A somewhat earthy wine balanced nicely by blackberries, gooseberries and black plums to go along with a white pepper overlay and a slight but pleasant bitterness. Probably could use another year or so in the bottle to allow the somewhat robust tannins time to find themselves but drinking very nicely now and the 16% alcohol content not as noticeable as one would think.

Psagot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Single Vineyard, 2007: Probably the best wine to date from this winery. A full bodied wine that still needs some time for the wood and tannins to settle down and play nicely with the fruit but the good balance bodes well for this wines delightful future. I would give it another 6-8 months in the bottle before opening but if opened now, it can still very much be enjoyed with some swirling and waiting 10 minutes or so between pouring and drinking. Rich and juicy black forest fruits on both the nose and palate mingle with a slight bitterness and hints of espresso. The wine recently scored an 88 from Parker’s Wine Advocate but deserved a much higher score. I find that WA tends to underscore Israeli wines which could be a result of their unfamiliarity with (or personal dislike of) the green notes that are part of Israel’s terrior and which I feel provides Israeli wines with a delicious individuality.

Recanati, Special Reserve, 2006: My son Zevi’s first taste of wine was the excellent 2003 vintage at his Bris. Recanati’s excellence gets at least partial credit for Zevi’s clear preference for excellent dry red wine, for which I am most appreciative. While the 2005 wine was a blockbuster, the 2006 is a more elegant but still intense wine and was made under Lewis’ regime, so it probably doesn’t showcase the new direction of the winery as much as the 2008 blend will (which included almost 20% Petit Sirah whereby the 2009 has no Cabernet Sauvignon). Among the best priced so called “Super-Israelis” and a longtime favorite of mine, the Special Reserve continues to go from strength to strength. Every year sees different components and percentages making up this treat with the 2006 vintage comprised of 82% Cabernet Sauvignon and 18% Merlot and aged for almost two years in oak. The 2006 has plenty of robust tannins that are still in the process of getting acquainted with the fruit and acidity, but so far seem to be playing nice in the sandbox with the other kids. It presents with a bold and elegant structure that vindicates my loading up on this wine (in honor of Zevi’s birth year – hopefully to be enjoyed with the GHW’s Rom at his Bar-Mitzvah). I would hold off opening this wine for at least another year, probably closer to two, in order to allow for the various pieces to come together as they were intended. Dark royal purple in color, this is a softly full-bodied wine with a rich nose of blackberries, currants and black plums, together with cassis, slightly pungent forest floor and espresso, leading into a palate loaded with more black forest fruit, asphalt, fine bittersweet chocolate, spices and almost sweet cigars.

Syraph, 2008: These wines are made by former employees of the Herzog Winery – Shimon and Gabe (Gavriel) Weiss. After sourcing some Syrah from the Laetitia vineyard from San Luis Obispo county and Grenache from the Cuyama Valley in Santa Barbara, they produced four barrels of mouth-wateringly delicious wine (approximately 80-100 cases). Outside of Port, their wines are those with the highest alcohol levels I have ever tasted with the Syraph clocking in at a mean 16.85% and the One|Two with a slightly lower 15.83% but, somehow the Weiss Brothers managed to keep them from becoming overly “hot” – the fruit and wood have the alcohol completely under control. Given the deliciousness of the wine, you just need to be careful how much of it you drink… I am very much looking forward to their next endeavor! A blend of 85% Syrah and 15% Grenache with the muscular Syrah somewhat dominating the Grenache. Crazy alcohol at 16.85% and made with super-ripe grapes, the nose on this wine screams “I’m from California” at you and is locked, cocked and ready to rock. Tons of juicy black plums, blackberries and ripe cherries on both the nose and palate surround a hearty oak and tannic core that bodes for some nice cellaring ahead, all of which is supplemented with great spice and milk chocolate. The Syrah brings notes of graphite and freshly paved road to the party, livening things up considerably and nicely tempering the milk chocolate notes. A really long finish lingers and makes you wonder where the bottle went until the pounding in your head reminds you to find some friends with which to share your next bottle.

Yatir, Yatir Forest, 2005: Yatir has long been one of my all-time, absolute favorite wineries and their flagship wine continues to shine year after year. Having recently driven the kosher wine market into a state of near-frenzy with insane price hikes, it has now receded back to more-or-less, acceptable levels. Regardless of price, nothing can detract from the absolute pleasure one derives from this spectacular wine which is drinking awesomely right now and fully enjoyed over Chag. A deep, opulent, rich and luscious wine whose bountifulness cannot be contained. A blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot and Merlot, this dark, inky colored wine is perfectly balanced and very elegant with black forest fruits and cherries mixed with light hints of both white and freshly ground black pepper and underlying hints of oak, pine trees and bursting with currants, raspberries and blueberries. A caressing wine that calls for pour after pour until the bottle is gone (way to fast), with only the lingering dark rich espresso and eucalyptus scented finish tinged a pleasant lingering bitterness. Peaking as we speak, this wine should continue to cellar for another 5 years or so – a very special treat.