Rothschild & Montefiore At Carmel

The Baroness Ariane de Rothschild visited Rishon Le Zion as guest of the Mayor, Dov Tzur. The visit marked 80 years since the death of Baron Edmond de Rothschild and 132 years since the founding of Rishon Le Zion. The Mayor presented her with Honorary Citizenship of Rishon Le Zion.

Montefiore presents Rothschild with Carmel WineShe also visited Carmel Winery’s Rishon Le Zion Cellars. She was hosted on a brief tour by Adam Montefiore, who presented her with a bottle of Carmel’s prestige wine, Carmel Limited Edition 2008.

Montefiore told the story of how Baron Edmond de Rothschild insisted on bringing the Bordeaux varieties to Israel back in the late 1880’s. He wanted to make an Israeli Grand Vin. All his agronomists and viticulturists were against it, but he insisted. He sent cuttings from Chateau Lafite and the varieties were duly planted. Unfortunately the initiative failed for a number of reasons.

However when the Carmel Limited Edition was launched, it was based on the five Bordeaux varieties: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Petit Verdot, Cabernet Franc and Malbec. So in the end, the Baron’s dream came true but it took over one hundred years!

The Carmel Limited Edition is one of Israel’s finest Bordeaux style blends. The 2008 scored 91 points in Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate, and the wine has scored 90 points or more in five years out of a possible six.

The Baroness is very wine knowledgeable and asked many questions. She is the wife of Benjamin de Rothschild, who is the great grandson of the original Baron Edmond de Rothschild.

Roths meets mont The Rothschild’s are the world’s number one wine family, and like the Lafite & Mouton Rothschilds, Benjamin and Ariane de Rothschild have their own wine interests. They own the ‘Companie Vinicole Baron Edmond de Rothschild’ that makes wine in Bordeaux (Chateau Clarke, Chateau des Laurets), Argentina (Flechas de Los Andes), New Zealand (Rimapere) and South Africa (Rupert & Rothschild). They are now also making wine in Spain.

The meeting between Rothschild and Montefiore was also the meeting of two families. Baron Edmond de Rothschild and Sir Moses Montefiore were major historical figures in the development of Israel in the 19th century.

Zvi Segal of Segal Winery (Hebrew)

This video is about Zvi Segal, patriarch of the Segal Family, one of the early winemaking families in Israel.

 

Tura Winery (Hebrew)

Roni Saslove – Winemaker and manager of the Tasting Room

Check out this clip on Roni Saslove, winemaker and manager of The Tasting Room, one of the newest wineries that opened up in Tel Aviv’s renovated Sarona complex. A great place to visit in a beautiful setting, only a few steps from Tel Aviv’s Azrieli Center and business district. The Tasting Room is probably the best wine shop in Israel to get a wine tasting. In addition, I’ve had the pleasure to meet Roni a few times and she is truly one of Israel’s top wine professionals.

16th Annual Judean Hills Wine Festival, Thursday October 23rd, 2014

The Judean Hills hosts its 16th Annual Wine Festival, Thursday Night at Mini-Israel starting at 730PM to go as late as 11PM.

Some Wines Are More Obvious than Others from the Judean Hills
Some Wines Are More Obvious than Others from the Judean Hills

Not only is it the longest continuous running annual wine event in Israel, it recognizes the Judean Hills as the most established wine appellation as it not only stresses wines made in the region but wines sourced from local grapes so guests can taste for themselves what makes this one of the most esteemed wine regions in Israel.
Cost of the event is 60 NIS, which is very reasonable considering the amount of premium wineries pouring which rarely can be found being poured elsewhere. As noted below, 12 of the wineries are kosher so someone who only wants to try kosher wines will have plenty to choose from and taste as most wineries will have at least 2-3 wines they’re pouring if not more. So if you have an ounce of each (if you’re swallowing) that’s 24 to 36 tastes or about one to one and half bottles of wine. Quite a deal for 60 NIS (about $17) as a taster or imbiber. Of course, if you’re open to tasting both the kosher and non kosher there’s more wine than you’re liver can handle so do what I do and try one wine from each booth and then go back if you wish to try more if you have any time and constitution remaining.

Agur (K)
Anatot
Bar Giora
Bravdo (K)
Castel (K)
Ella Valley (K)
Kadma
Katlav (K)
Katz (K)
Kela David
Kerem Barak
La Terra Promessa
Latroun
Mony (K)
Navot
Nevo (K)
Seahorse
Soreq
Sphera
Srigim
Sternbach
Teperberg 1870 (K)
Tzora (K)
Tzuba (K)
Yaffo (K)
Yehuda
Zafarim

Regional festivals are a great opportunity to really embrace and experience wines from one particular region and get a sense of what wines an area does best.

Come find your favorite wine, winery or style of wine from the Judean Hills whether its’s a white Chardonnay from Bravdo, Tzuba, Yaffo or Castel or Sphera or a red Blend from Katlav, Zafarim, Tzuba or La Terra Promessa you will find plenty of wines to choose from and no shortage of wines to praise.

David Rhodes can be reached at 053-432-9463 (053-HEB-WINE) or at [email protected]

Matar Winery – Something New (and kosher) from the Pelter’s

Despite the fact that the Pelter Winery has been non-kosher since its first vintage in 2002, anyone even slightly involved with Israel’s wine industry has not only heard of this boutique winery, but is also aware of its ranking near the upper echelon of Israeli wineries.  While the fact that Nir Pelter is making kosher wine should be garnering the same level of excitement among the cognoscente of kosher wine, the main reason this fact has flown somewhat blow the radar is that, unlike the “going-kosher” trifecta of 2010 (the vintage in which Flam, Tulip and Saslove all started making kosher wine), Nir Pelter chose a slightly different route following his decision to create wines that would be accessible to everyone, including the kosher consumer (and the wines are not yet exported to the US, a fact likely to change in the very near future).  Matar actually made the news a few weeks ago when a “stray” Syrian tank shell landed on Matar’s new facility, wounding the mashgiach and damaging some equipment in addition to destroying some barrels of wine.  Historically, when an Israeli winery hits the witching production number of 100,000 annual bottles and realizes that switching to kosher production is the most viable route towards maintaining profitability (by accessing the crucial kosher consumer market), they convert the entire winery to kosher production.  Most wineries will do this in one fell swoop (like the aforementioned Flam and Tulip) while others will have had prior dalliances with kosher production before committing to it full time (like Castel which tested the waters by making kosher and non-kosher wines in 2002 before completely switching to kosher production with the 2003 vintage or Saslove which had been making a kosher wine under the Sagol label for a while before converting the entire winery to kosher production with the 2010 vintage).  Pelter’s road to kosher production follows a model more similar to the path chosen by some of the Israeli wine industry’s behemoths like Carmel, the Golan Heights Winery, Binyamina and most recently (and on a smaller scale) – Tulip in which an entire new winery is created from scratch (although in Binyamina’s case, The Cave is more of a marketing tool than an actual winery).  While this strategy is more in line with that of a mega-winery wanting to create a boutique-feel to its wines (akin to Carmel’s Yatir (and more recent “Kayoumi”) winery, Barkan’s Segal, Zion’s 1848 or the Golan Heights Winery’s creation of the Galil Mountain Winery); this strategy has also been utilized by smaller wineries desiring to create a different style of wines (while obviously being heavily driven by marketing and sales).  The most recent example of this is Tulip’s new Maia winery where Tulip has brought on a few Greek advisors to help them create Mediterranean wines tailor-made for Israel’s climate and culinary offerings (stay tuned for a complete newsletter on the new concept and wines coming soon).

While Matar is a distinctly different winery from Pelter, given the fact that it shares a winemaker, location, owners and an only very slightly different wine-making philosophy, a few words about the history of the [non-kosher] Pelter winery are in order as well.  Pelter was founded in 2001 after winemaker Tal Pelter retuned to Israel after his viticultural studies in Perth and a stint working for wineries in Australia’s famed Margaret River appellation.  Initially located on the Pelter family’s land in Moshav Tsofit (right next to Kfar Saba), the winery started with an initial production for the 2002 vintage of 2,000 bottles of its acclaimed Sauvignon Blanc from vineyards located in the Judean Hills.  After a few years of increasing production and rising popularity, the winery relocated in 2005 to its current home in Kibuutz Ein Zivan located in the Golan Heights.  Pelter maintains a distribution facility in its original location in Tsofit where it also has a few customer appreciation events every year as well (the Tsofit location also services as Matar’s distribution needs).  As the winery expanded, it was sourcing grapes from all over the country, starting from Chenin Blanc from Mitzpe Rimon in the south all the way up to its own vineyards located in the Golan Heights’ Quneitra region.  The diversity of grapes allowed Tal to focus on creating the wines he was interested in – quality and approachable wines with a level of sophistication unmatched by most Israeli wineries.  While every boutique winemaker tries to put a personal stamp on his wines, Tal has managed to infuse each and every one of his creations with a personal signature, many-a-time focusing on less popular and/or offbeat varietals and wines including the aforementioned Chenin Blanc or nearly 60 year old vines of French Columbard from the Binyamina area (to say that this varietal suffers from an image problem in Israel would be a huge understatement).

Similarly to Flam, Pelter is a true family endeavor with Tal joined by his brother Nir who functions as CEO, overseeing pretty much everything other than winemaking and he family patriarch Sam heading up overseas marketing and other family members being involved as well (all listed on Pelter’s website, including the children who have titles such as “Greenpeace representative” and the eight-year old Aya who is in charge of acquisitions and technology).  With a new cultish following in Israel, Pelter is well known for the quality, sophistication and individuality of their wines, evidenced in part by their placement in most of Israel high-end and non-kosher restaurants.  One of their best known wines is a sparkler based, like Yarden’s Blanc de Blanc, on the méthode Champenoise. After hitting the 100,000 annual production number with the 2012 vintage, the Pelter family decided to expand their reach into the kosher market.  However, and as discussed above, there was a desire to maintain “as is” the Pelter brand (and client base) they had worked on for so many years and an opportunity to deviate a little from Pelter’s winemaking style and provide a slightly different world-view with these new wines.  Maintaining their desire and tradition of doing things the “right way” and despite the seemingly huge undertaking of building an entire new winery from scratch, within a very short period of time the brothers built a completely new winery right next door to Pelter – Matar Winery, with Tal as winemaker (along with the requisite additional winemaking team required to produce kosher wines) and Nir once again assuming the CEO responsibilities.  While Matar doesn’t currently have its own visitor center, one is expected to be completed shortly.

With an inaugural production of 20,000 bottles for the 2012 vintage, doubling to 40,000 in 2013 and a planned additional doubling to 80,000 bottles for the [pre-Shmittah] 2014 vintage, the Pelter brothers clearly aren’t messing around and expect Matar to be around for the long haul (with wines of this quality for a first vintage, this shouldn’t be an issue).  As of now the plan is to reach and maintain a production level of 100,000 bottles and to skip production for the 2015 Shmittah vintage (a route many wineries are taking – stay tuned for a comprehensive newsletter on the topic coming soon), with an expectation of exporting between 20-30% of total production.  In addition to a separate style, Mater will be making mostly different wines and utilizing mostly different varietals than Pelter.  In instances where both wineries make the same varietal like Chardonnay, the wineries will endeavor to utilize a stylistically different approach with, for example, Pelter producing a unoaked version and Matar’s version seeing oak.  To that end, a number of wines were “moved” out of Pelter and into Matar, including the existing varietal Petit Verdot and flagship “CB” blend).  While Pelter’s wines are directed at the more sophisticated wine drinker (with an austere Sauvignon Blanc loaded with acid), Matar’s wines are geared the palate and appreciation of a broader public (also taking into consideration the palate preferences of the general kosher wine consuming pubic).  This shift is noticeable in a rounder and slightly less acidic (but amazing) Sauvignon Blanc-Sémillon blend and the aforementioned Chardonnay which 40% spent 8 months in new French oak (as opposed to Pelter’s unoaked Chardonnay).

Listed below are the five Matar wines I tasted a few weeks ago.  As with the winery’s name – Matar – Hebrew for dew (and unfortunately Spanish for murder), there is a meteorological theme running the names of most of the wines including the one wine I didn’t have a chance to taste – their flagship blend – CB (which is short for the Cumulonimbus storm cloud). Having been bottled only a few days prior to my visit, it was declared in bottle shock and not yet ready to be tasted but I expect to taste it shortly.  Given the quality of the wines tasted, coupled with the winery’s well-earned reputation, I have no doubt it will be a wine worth talking about, so stay tuned.  That said, the white wines I tasted seem to be on a higher level than the reds, while both were very very good and worthy of earning space on these pages.  In addition to top tier wines, Matar has also poured considerable efforts and expense into a number of additional spirit-related projects (including the acquisition of high-end copper stills) including a unique date brandy, calvados and cognac – all of which are expected to be kosher, so stay tuned for more on that.

Matar, Sauvignon Blanc-Sémillon, 2013:  This wine is a blend of 85% Sauvignon Blanc and 15% Sémillon from Matar’s vineyards in Quneitra (nicknamed the “Wind” in part based on the high-altitude and prevailing [relatively] wintery conditions).  A delightfully fresh nose of cut grass, plenty of citrus including grapefruit and freshly cut limes, and minerals are slightly rounded out with a hint of tropical fruit.  A light to medium bodied round and mouth-filling palate has plenty of acid keeping things lively with sufficient fruit to keep the acid in check and maintain a very approachable and delicious wine with sufficient complexity and impeccable structure to excite the more sophisticated wine lover as well.  A wine well worth seeking out and adding to your repertoire.

IMG_6169Matar, Chardonnay, 2013:  Unlike Pelter’s unoaked Chardonnay, Matar’s version was partially (40%) inoculated in oak for eight months rounding out the fruit and giving it a bit more oomph.  While the oak certainly helps move the Chardonnay from the Pelter philosophy to that of Matar’s, in this case it may have been just a wee bit too much oak for my taste.  With 60% of the grapes coming from Kerem Ben-Zimra and the remaining 40% coming from the Golan Heights, the wine presents with a nose of tart green apples, tropical fruit, toasty oak and a hint of minerals, most of which continues onto the round, mouth-filling and medium bodied palate with nice acidity keeping both the fruit and oak in check and flinty minerals providing additional character to this well-made wine.  After some time in the glass, the oaky notes recede a bit allowing the fruit to shine a little more and showcasing the great balance and sexy structure of the wine.  I’d give this one 3-4 months before trying and then enjoy for 18 months thereafter.

Matar, Chenin Blanc, 2013:  Matar joins an extremely small club of kosher Israeli wineries making quality Chenin Blanc (Netofa being one of the only viable contenders in addition to Tishbi’s exalted brandy), sourcing its grapes from Mitzpe Rimon in the south of Israel.  One of the labels that was “moved” from Pelter to Matar, 10% of the wine spent three months in oak giving it a bit more body with some notes of caramel and vanilla.  A limited run of less than 2,500 bottles, this wine isn’t intended for export but it worth seeking out next time you are in Israel or directly from Avi Ben (who also carries the rest of the Matar line).  A clean nose of stone fruit including white peaches, apricots and clementines, together with floral notes and minerals follow through onto a medium bodied and welcoming palate with more white fruits, great and not overpowering acid that is nicely balanced with the fruit alongside roasted hazelnuts and a subtle backdrop of slightly smoky oak that round out this different but tasty wine.  Another one worth searching out.

Matar, Cumulus, 2012:  Named for those fluffy clouds (“fluffy” is my own scientific moniker – for a more professional explanation, see here), this wine is a blend of (approximately) 33% Cabernet Sauvignon, 33% Merlot, 24% Cabernet Franc and 10% Petit Verdot which spent 14 months in French oak (1/3 each in new, one-year and two-year old barrels), with most of the grapes sourced from the Golan Heights and rounded out with some Galilee grapes.  A rich nose of black fruit including crushed blackberries, cassis and plums, roasted Mediterranean herbs, freshly cracked pepper, a bit of graphite and toasty oak. A medium bodied and very approachable palate with gripping yet nicely integrated tannins is supported by plush black and red fruits, more toasty oak, earthy minerals, a pleasing spiciness and great acidic structure backing things up.  Very enjoyable now, the wine should continue to evolve for the next two to three years after which it can be enjoyed through 2019, maybe longer.

Matar, Petit Verdot, 2013:  Joining Yatir’s amazing Petit Verdot (now available in the US and easily earning a spot on my list below) is this treat from Matar (another one of the wines inherited from Pelter) made from 100% Petit Verdot mostly sourced from the Judean Hills with a bit of grapes coming from the Golan Heights.  The wine spent 18 months in French oak (like the Cumulus, (1/3 each in new, one-year and two-year old barrels) resulting in a bog wine with gripping tannins providing a tight and well-balanced backbone for the deep rich black fruit, earthy minerals, a slightly bitter herbal streak, freshly paved asphalt, toasty oak, hazelnuts, freshly roasted espresso beans and rich baker’s chocolate.  A big and powerful wine with great balance and structure that still needs some time in the bottle to come into its own.  Get a few bottles and hold for 12-18 months before enjoying through 2019, likely longer.

Bat Shlomo Vineyards – Wine fit for a king

Bat Shlomo Vineyards – Wine fit for a king

When Baron Edmond de Rothschild first bought the land now known of as Bat Shlomo, he brought wine experts from France to school the Jewish pioneers in the art of grape-growing and winemaking, planting the original vineyards. More than a century later, winemaking has returned to Bat Shlomo thanks to the vision of investor Elie Wurtman and a great team, such as winemaker Ari Erle.

Bat Shlomo Vineyards, located in the town of Bat Shlomo, purchased by the Baron Edmond de Rothschild and named after his mother Betty Solomon von Rothschild.

Bat Shlomo, like Jezreel Valley, was founded by a high-tech executive and looks to make a high-tech, high-quality winery.  (In fact, Elie Wurtman and Jacob Ner-David have been business partners in the past and are good friends.) “Science has caught up with the industry,” Wurtman told the Jerusalem Post. “It’s become more scientific and professional.”

“We’re not trying to compete with the large wineries, we’re creating a Napa-style estate winery in Israel,” Ari Erle told the Times of Israel. “We have our own vineyard, and we control growth in the vineyard where most of the winemaking is done. It’s going to be a full package of wine and tourism, only producing wines that the vineyard can support.”

Oenophiles from around the world can join the Bat Shlomo Vinters club. Click here to register. If you want to learn more, you can join their Facebook page

 

Interested in Israeli wine? Join the Israeli wine Facebook page

Small Wineries Rule At Eshkol Ha’Zahav

At the awards ceremony for the 2014 Eshkol Ha’Zahav wine tasting competition, there were a number of surprises. This year it was the smaller, newish, lesser known wineries that drew attention by winning some of the main prizes. Wineries such as Jezreel Valley, Kishor, Kerem Montefiore and Vortman took on and beat some of the more established and more famous wineries.

The Jezreel Valley Carignan 2012, Kishor Savant 2012, Montefiore Red 2013 and Vortman Shfeya Valley 2012 were the gold medal winning wines in categories usually won by better known wines. Furthermore each of these wineries also garnered other silver & bronze medals to show the gold medal win was not a flash in the pan.

The region that gained most focus was Judea and Samaria (aka the West Bank), a comparatively new, but very historic wine region. Wineries situated there were awarded no less than four golds. The Psagot Cabernet Sauvignon 2011, ‘1848 Winery’ Second Generation Merlot 2012, Gvaot Herodian Merlot 2011, and Gush Etzion Ha’Alon Ha’Boded Cabernet Franc 2008 were the gold medal winning wines.

The best performance of all was by Binyamina Winery which won three gold medals. Recanati & the Golan Heights Winery were each awarded two golds.

Eshkol Hazahav is Israel’s leading wine competition. The slogan of this year’s event was ‘Drink Blue & White’, ie. Israeli wines. The competition judged 233 wines from 52 wineries and the wines were tasted blind by 30 judges.  The prizes were announced and presented by Chaim Spiegel of Dan Hotels and Advocate Nachman Cohen-Tzedek. The ceremony took place at auditorium of the Peres Center for Peace in Tel Aviv-Jaffa, overlooking the sea. The competition was organized by Studio Ben Ami, which also organizes the annual Sommelier Exhibition.

The influx of new wineries and new regions shows the Israeli wine industry is as dynamic as ever. The wines awarded gold medals are listed below.

CHARDONNAY CATEGORY:   Chardonnay Odem Vineyard, Yarden 2012

GEWURZTRAMINER/ VIOGNIER: Gewurztraminer Reserve Binyamina 2012

WHITE VARIETIES: Riesling Kayoumi Vineyard Carmel 2012

WHITE BLENDS: Shfeya Valley Vortman 2012

CABERNET SAUVIGNON UP TO 100 ILS: Cabernet Sauvignon Gamla Shmura Golan Heights  2011

CABERNET SAUVIGNON MORE THAN 100 ILS:  Cabernet Sauvignon Psagot 2011

 

MERLOT UP TO 100 ILS:

Merlot 2nd Generation 1848, 2012

Merlot Herodian Gvaot 2011

MERLOT MORE THAN 100 ILS: Merlot Reserve Recanati 2011

SYRAH UP TO 100 ILS: Shiraz Reserve Binyamina 2011

SYRAH MORE THAN 100 ILS: Syrah Mount Odem 2012

RED BLEND UP TO 100 ILS: Montefiore Red 2013

 

Arnon Geva of Kerem Montefiore receives the trophy for the Montefiore Red 2013 from Chaim Spiegel and Nachman Cohen-Tzedek
Arnon Geva of Kerem Montefiore receives the trophy for the Montefiore Red 2013 from Chaim Spiegel and Nachman Cohen-Tzedek

 

RED BLEND FROM 90-100 ILS: Savant Red Kishor 2012

RED BLEND MORE THAN 120 ILS: Special Reserve Recanati 2011

CABERNET FRANC: Cabernet Franc Lonely Oak Gush Etzion 2008

PETITE SIRAH / CARIGNAN: Carignan Jezreel Valley 2012

OTHER RED VARIETIES: Petit Verdot Ramat Naftaly 2011

AGED REDS: Cabernet Sauvignon Yarden 2005

DESSERT WINES: Gewurztraminer Late Harvest Binyamina 2012

 

Be a Part of Israel’s Startup Winery

Israel’s Startup Winery, Jezreel Valley Winery, co-founded by high tech entrepreneur Jacob Ner-David and Yehuda Nahar, is looking for funding.

Using a new innovative funding model called crowdfunding, they are giving supporters of Israel and lovers of wine an opportunity to contribute to building this new, amazing winery.

Crowdfunding is a way in which many people can contribute a small amount to support a cause.

Jezreel Valley is seeking to raise $50,000. Contributors can receive (depending on the level of contribution) anything from permanent discounts to wine tchotskies to wine parties and hosting as well as a trip to Israel or lifetime supply of wine.

Jezreel Valley Winery is Israel’s first start-up winery, it uses modern technology and Israeli agriculture to create unique (and amazing!) wines. They are seeking a physical extension of their facility and operations in Israel. They have already done amazing stuff, renovating an abandoned garage into a modern winery, all while contributing to the revitalization of Kibbutz Hanaton.

Contributors receive a variety of benefits (depending on the level of contribution). To contribute to Jezreel Valley Winery, click here to go to Indiegogo.

 

 

Style Magazine Covers Israeli Wine

Style Magazine, a large Hong Kong paper, has a great new article about Israeli wine. Check it out here.

Grape ambitions

Winemaking in the Middle East enjoys a long history, but the time is now ripe for Israel and Lebanon to enter the world stage, writes Alexis Lai

Verdant swathes of ripening cabernet sauvignon unfold against undulating mountains while the chirping of birds rings out in the pristine silence. This idyllic viticultural scene is not in Bordeaux or Napa Valley, but in Bekaa Valley, the agricultural heartland of Lebanon.

While wines from the Middle East are unknown to the average wine drinker, winemaking in the region dates back to biblical times, before waves of Islamic rule stamped out the trade. But over the past two decades, winemaking, mostly notably in Lebanon and Israel, has been undergoing a renaissance that has the potential to put the countries on the international wine map.

Scholars believe that winemaking in what constitutes modern-day Lebanon began in 7,000BC, according to the Union Vinicole du Liban (UVL), Lebanon’s association of wine producers. Under Phoenician rule, which began in 3,000BC, traders exported wines to neighbouring countries along the Mediterranean Sea.

While the trade petered out during the Ottoman empire, in 1857, Jesuit missionaries laid the foundation of Lebanon’s modern wine industry by importing vines and viticultural techniques from French-governed Algeria. But after Lebanon emerged from a 15-year civil war in 1990, only five wineries remained standing.

“The current modern industry that can stand alongside other wine-producing countries is only 24 years old,” says Michael Karam, a prominent wine critic based in Beirut who has authored several books on Lebanese wines.

The roots of Israel’s modern wine industry similarly date back to the 19th century, when Baron Edmond de Rothschild, the owner of Bordeaux’s Château Lafite-Rothschild, revived winemaking by importing French grape varieties and techniques. But until the 1980s, Israeli wineries had a poor reputation for focusing on quantity over quality, according to David Rhodes, a leading wine writer based in Tel Aviv.

This began to change in 1983 following the establishment of the Golan Heights Winery, the first large-scale producer focused on quality. The opening of Margalit Winery in 1989 sparked what Rhodes calls a “boutique revolution” – a boom of small wineries dedicated to producing quality wines. The majority of Israel’s 300-odd wineries today are actually boutique operations. While experts agree that Lebanon and Israel are the only Middle Eastern countries that produce wines at an international standard, their profiles on the international wine map still remain works in progress.

Given their small size, they cannot compete in terms of volume. Lebanon has only 2,000 hectares under vines, producing what Karam estimates as a maximum of 9 million bottles per year. Israel produces 35 million bottles annually from 5,000 hectares of vineyards, according to the 2012 edition of The Wine Route of Israel.

In the face of Old World stalwarts and New World darlings, it is difficult for emerging wine regions that rely solely on international grape varieties to stand out. But they may have an opportunity to distinguish themselves by promoting wines made from an indigenous grape that expresses the region’s unique terroir.

“To be successfully internationally, an indigenous grape needs to have a flavour profile that’s similar to other noble grape varieties,” says Debra Meiburg, a master of wine, based in Hong Kong. “It also needs to be pronounceable and something the whole region wants to put their weight behind.”

Karam describes this as “one of the most important challenges” faced by the Lebanese wine industry. “We need a signature grape that defines us … Lebanese wine with cabernet sauvignon is just throwing another bottle of red wine onto a huge global pile.”

Lebanon is home to two indigenous white grapes: the merwah and obeideh. Karam is a firm believer in the Obeideh’s potential, noting that within the past year, producers have increasingly used the grape in their entry-level wines.

Although Lebanon lacks an indigenous red grape, the cinsault, imported by the Jesuits, may be a worthy adoptee. “If it’s any red that can represent who we are, it’s the cinsault,” Karam says. “It’s proven and our terroir gives a good expression to it.” Perhaps it is not a coincidence that Château Musar, Lebanon’s only winery that has achieved critical acclaim internationally, blends the cinsault in its red grand vin.

While Israel cannot claim any indigenous varieties, it can try to distinguish itself by focusing on wines using less common grapes, such as carignan, roussanne and marselan, Rhodes says.

Given Israel’s long dry summers, wines tend to be ripe, fruity, spicy and concentrated, according to Rhodes. In addition to the less common grapes Rhodes mentioned, winemakers also favour classics such as cabernet sauvignon, syrah, merlot, chardonnay and sauvignon blanc.

Lebanese winemakers are similarly influenced by Old and New World traditions and rely heavily on international grape varieties, particularly reds such as cabernet sauvignon, syrah and merlot. “The grapes used give them a Bordeaux/Rhône identity … we tend to over extract them and dress them in very expensive new oak, which gives them that New World profile,” Karam says. He describes Lebanese wines as having a “distinct Oriental spiciness” with relatively high alcohol courtesy of the country’s hot climate.

While Lebanon and Israel seek to define themselves on the world wine stage, they have the advantage of quality, which is matched by reasonable prices. Israel is “most definitely a region to watch for quality”, Meiburg says, seeing its modern fruit-forward wines as suitable for the American palate. Golan Heights Winery has racked up international plaudits in recent years, including Wine Enthusiast‘s “New World Winery of the Year” in 2012. The rapid development of Israel’s wine scene over the past 20 years is no accident. “Israeli winemakers are highly technical and very well-trained,” Meiburg says. “They pay careful attention to laboratory testing of things like acidity, sweetness and tannins.”

As Rhodes points out, this is exemplified by the fact that boutique pioneer Margalit was founded by a University of California, U.C. Davis chemistry professor who authored a winemaking textbook widely read by Israeli winemakers. Surprisingly, Israel does not have a wine industry association equivalent to Lebanon’s UVL. While there are only 40 or so wineries in Lebanon, “they understand that for wine sales to improve overall, the consumer has to start thinking about Lebanon as a wine-producing country before trying to identify individual producers”, Karam says.

He predicts growth in wine-producing areas. Aside from the Bekaa Valley, where the bulk of wineries are located, eight are already located in a burgeoning region in the northern city of Batroun.

The industry is still in an experimental stage. “I think there’s more room for Lebanese winemakers to settle on what wines they really want to make … and what grapes reflect our terroir the best,” Karam says. “We’re not there yet … [but] we could really position ourselves as a boutique producing country.”

EXPERT CHOICES

MICHAEL KARAM
Lebanese recommendations:

Château Musar 2005

Château Kefraya Comte de M 2010

Château Ksara Reserve du Couvent 2011

Massaya Gold Reserve 2009

Domaine Wardy Clos Blanc 2012

Domaine des Tourelles Rouge 2010

Château Ka Source Blanche 2012

Château Marsyas Blanc 2012

Coteaux de Botrys Château Syrah 2009

Château St Thomas Pinot Noir 2009

Ixsir Altitudes White 2012

DAVID RHODES
Israeli recommendations:

Margalit Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve 2010

Castel Gran Vin 2009

Yatir Forest 2009

Jonathan Tishbi Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon

2010

Tulip Syrah Reserve 2010

Flam Noble 2009

Seahorse James Chenin Blanc 2012

Odem Mountain Cabernet Franc Reserve 2010

Recanati Merlot Reserve 2010

Rhones on the Right Track

This article was originally published in ESRA Magazine

Ido Lewinsohn has been part of the winemaking team at the Recanati Winery since 2007 when he worked with founding winemaker Lewis Pasco. He stayed on at the winery when a new senior winemaker, Gil Shatsberg, took over the helm in 2008.

Before joining Recanati, Ido had studied winemaking and viticulture at the University of Milan in Italy and worked at wineries in Tuscany (Italy), the Rhone Valley (France) and Australia. One of Ido’s first steps into the wine industry was as an intern in 2003 with Israel’s first boutique winery, Margalit.

When he’s not busy helping to produce about one million bottles of very well-respected wine at Recanati, he’s often busy with his family cult winery, the Lewinsohn Winery. Lewinsohn’s Garage de Papa Rouge and Blanc labels produce a modest 7,000 bottles. If this wasn’t enough work for any one human being, Ido has also been serving as the dean of the winemaking program at Ariel University and often travels overseas as an ambassador for Recanati wines and a curious visitor to other wine regions.

I contacted Ido Lewinsohn to talk to him about one of the interesting trends in Israel – that more and more wineries over the last several years show more favor for Rhone and “Mediterranean” grape varietals (Syrah/Shiraz, Viognier, Roussanne, Marsanne, Grenache, Mourvedre, Carignan, Petite Sirah as well as some others) over internationally popular Bordeaux and Burgundy varietals (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir).

Ido, did you have much experience with Rhone/Med varietals in your studies overseas?

“Yes, I had grown Carignan, Syrah Mourvedre, Grenache, Roussanne, Marsanne and Marselan grapes mainly in France; and during my time at the Sassiacia winery in Tuscany there were Bordeaux varietals; and in Tasmania, Australia, where I have worked, there were mainly Bordeaux grapes too. I planted new vineyards and grew existing ones in Languedoc and the Rhone Valley in France and there I had my most important experience with these Rhone varieties. I believe in their potential because it makes more sense to me for Israel. They have been grown in hot regions for centuries and are better adapted than most of the Bordeaux and Bourgogne (Burgundy) varieties for our climate. It’s not that I don’t think we can’t make good wines out of Bordeaux and Bourgogne varieties in Israel, it just feels to me like Rhone and Med grapes are a more natural fit for Israel and I like those wines better.

On the international scene our Israeli Bordeaux’s have little interest, but Med varieties from Israel can perform well and draw attention to our style and quality as a legitimate wine region rather than just another region that makes international wines.”

When you first started at Recanati, the varietal mix was slightly different than now as well as the winemaking style. Wines from then and now were both well received by the public and wine reviewers. It would be a gross generalization to say your wines today are more Old World and they were previously more New World, but since you’ve been at the winery how have things changed there and in the vineyards?

“Since Gil and I started we have planted Med varieties and have changed the style of the wines. They are much more Old World now but we have to keep in mind that Israel is a hot region and, as such, the natural tendency of the wine’s style is more towards New World. Wines from here are expressive and quite “big”. We can’t and should not change that. That is who we are.  At Recanati, we simply try to moderate how big and give it some spiciness and finesse.”

Do you see Recanati, and Israel in general, making less Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc or Chardonnay in the future as Rhone/Med varietals supersede them, or is it just as an addition to what is made at Recanati and in Israel?

“No. I think Bordeaux varietals will continue to be in the majority for many years to come.”

At your own family winery, you make one red wine and one white wine a year. Your red was a single varietal Merlot or Cabernet but evolved into something more Mediterranean. How did that evolution happen? Your white wine has remained a Chardonnay each vintage – do you see that one day you might make a different white wine from that which you make today, for instance a Roussanne/Marsanne blend?

“I can certainly make another white in the future, but I don’t see myself doing a Bordeaux red again at Lewinsohn. Chardonnay is a variety that is well adapted to different climates and soils, so good wines can be made, and it shows minerality so terroir can be expressed. If there will be another variety that draws my attention, I will give it a try.

“I think the best results in Israel for whites now come from Chardonnay, and so in the near future I will keep on doing that, as I think Israeli Chardonnays are quite good.”

What have you told your students about choosing which varietals to plant?

“I think it is harder to make whites then reds.  I think it is harder to make Rhone-like wine than Bordeaux. I advise them to do whatever they feel is right, but of course I give them my opinion – people should grow grapes that will make the best wines. If the best wine is Bordeaux then go ahead. If you think the best wine is a Rhone – give it a try!”

Every wine region is a bit unique but if you were to generally classify some of Israel’s wine regions such as the Galilee and Judean Hills, what international regions do theymimic best in weather and soil?

“I think Israel is more similar to Sicily and Languedoc.”

Of the varietals we focused on, what soils in Israel do you find that they benefit from most and why?

“I don’t like volcanic soil that much personally, and I enjoy terra rossa and limestone, but that’s just a silly generalization of course.”

A vineyard of the Recanati Winery

Recanati experimented with Grenache but didn’t claim to have much success from it? Is it possible that, like Carignan, it needs Old Vines to make interesting wines or it’s better for blending and you may not have found either the right clone to shine in Israel or the right blending partner for it?

“We did not enjoy our experience with Grenache and Mourvedre. It might be worth another try but we have so much going on – Marselan, Carignan, Petite Sirah and the new whites. We are quite happy with those guys and might go back to Grenache and Mourvedre in the future.

Personally, Marselan and Petite Sirah interest me the most, so I will focus on those in the next few years and see where that will take us.”

Launch of New Wine Guide

The New Israeli Wine Guide has been launched at the new branch of Derech Ha’Yayin in Tel Aviv. The authors, Yair Gath and Gal Zohar, presented their selection of the ‘Best Seventy’ wines in Israel. Guests gathered from every part of the wine business, to receive a card with two QR codes on it. One was to download the Hebrew version, and the other was for the English one.

Yair Gath is the wine critic for Israel Hayom and Gal Zohar is a sommelier of international renown. Both tasted over 300 wines blind to arrive at their selection. The New Israel Wine Guide fills the void left by the passing of Daniel Rogov, whose annual wine guide became a regular purchase for wine lovers. Since his death in September 2011, there has been no guide, publication or critic that has managed to replace him.

The new Derech Ha’yayin wine store is situated on Hashalom Road, in Tel Aviv, just off the Ayalon Highway. It is tenth branch of Derech Ha’Yayin and it is the newest, largest and most impressive of the chain of wine shops.

At the event, Adam Montefiore introduced the authors. He said true success would be measured if the project was continued. Then Yair Gath and Gal Zohar said a few words. Zohar mentioned how Gath had originally approached him with the idea to produce the guide. Finally Uri Shaked spoke and introduced everyone to the new Derech Hayayin.

In the guide, only thirteen wines succeeded to receive 89 or more points and they are listed below in alphabetical order. Most successful was Tzora Winery, with three wines receiving 89 points or more.

Carmel Kayoumi Shiraz 2008 90 points
Flam Noble 2008 90
Lewinsohn Garage de Papa 2010 90
Tzora Shoresh 2012 90
Yatir Forest 2009 89+
Adir A 2010 89
Clos de Gat Ayalon Valley 2008 89
Golan Heights Yarden Syrah Avital 2008 89
Margalit Cabernet Franc 2010 89
Montefiore Red 2012 89
Tzora Misty Hills 2010 89
Tzora Neve Ilan 2011 89
Vitkin Petite Sirah 2009 89

To receive the full list of wines, contact: [email protected] or visit: https://www.facebook.com/NewIsraeliWineGuide. The New Israeli Wine Guide was designed by Ron Yadlin & Adam Montefiore wrote the introduction. Assaf Dudai edited the English version.