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Crème de la Crème – The Best Wines of 2012

This post includes the best Israeli wines I tasted in 2012 (for a more comprehensive list, including non-Israeli wines, check out my website). As with prior years, in addition to the “best” wines of 2012, I have also included a list of the most interesting and exciting wines I tasted this year – many of which give more pleasure than some of their “near-perfect” brethren who are included in the more prestigious list. The “Exciting/Interesting” list is also an indicator of the many new and exciting varietals with which Israeli winemakers are experimenting to make success. As someone who tastes a fair number of wines every year, it is the ones that are truly different that stand out and make you pay attention – a desirable quality in a world of wine that can sometimes be palatably mono-vino-tistic…

While obviously not news to any reader of Yossie’s Wine Recommendations, after tasting over 700 different wines this year, I can safely say that the world of Israeli wine continues to improve and there are great things ahead for the industry. The kosher wine consumer continues to develop and evolve and is learning to appreciate good wine for what it is. While there remain many challenges and not all the existing wineries will be around for much longer (much more on both these topics in my 2013 Crystal Ball newsletter), things are looking good. Tasting so many wines over the past year did make winnowing down the list of 2012’s best wines excruciatingly painful and nearly an exercise in futility. My dislike and disregard for scoring wines made the process even more difficult (and slightly more subjective) as scores would have enabled me to compile the list rapidly, simply choosing the highest scoring wines of the past year.

Before we delve into the best wines of 2012 and as would behoove any attorney worth his salt, a few appropriate qualifiers and explanations to the lists below. Given that my day job limits the amount of time I have to dedicate to wine and my limited wallet puts a damper on the number of wines I get to taste each year, despite my best intentions I don’t taste every one of the approximately 1,700 kosher wines released every year. The list includes only wines I tasted for the first time this year and excludes barrel tastings of not yet final wines (like the Yarden El-Rom 2011), advance tastings of wines not yet released and newly released wines I haven’t yet had a chance to taste (like the Yarden El-Rom 2009). As a result of these exclusions, there are plenty of terrific wines released that are not included on this list.

Best Wines of 2012 (in alphabetical order)

Domaine du Castel, Grand Vin, 2009: In a manner quite different from past vintages, the wine is extremely approachable right out of the bottle with the traditional toasty oak taking somewhat of a backseat to the rich fruit and the tannins surprisingly well-integrated at this early stage. A traditional Bordeaux blend of 70% Cabernet Sauvignon and 25% Merlot, fleshed out with 5% Petit Verdot, the wine is delicious. Exhibiting Castel’s trademark balance, the wood, fruit and acid component meld together harmoniously, creating a really elegant wine. Plenty of rich black fruit on the aromatic nose accompanied by tobacco leaf, a nice green streak of eucalyptus and mine and layered with good dark chocolate, spicy wood and supple tannins. As the wine is really drinking amazingly right now, the only reason to wait would be to enjoy its development over the next five or six years, as the wine will evolve a bit more.

Ella Valley Vineyards, Vineyards Choice, Petite Sirah, 2008: After a highly successful launch of the varietal with the 2007 vintage, Ella Valley elevated thier Petite Sirah to thier top label – Vineyards Choice. While the accompanying price hike is unfortunate for the consumer, the quality of the wine certainly merited this promotion. Made from 90% Petite Sirah with 10% of the winery’s famous Merlot blended in, this inky black colored wine is big and powerful. A big nose of black fruit with some red and blue notes mixed in for good measure. The 17 months in oak lends some espresso and dark chocolate notes, together with some cigar box and a hint of roasted herbs. Much of the same follows on the full bodied palate, with spices, cracked black pepper and more chocolate joining the rich fruit and slightly toasty oak. Huge and muscular tannins that still need some time to integrate hold everything together nicely, all in fine balance and with the elegant structure for which Doron was known (this wine was made under his reign, prior to Lin coming in).
A long finish of more oak, baker’s chocolate and tannin rounds this one out. While enjoyable now, I’d wait 12 months before enjoying through 2016 [Shmittah].

Gat Shomron, Viognier, Ice Wine Style, 2009: Gat Shomron is another small Israeli winery located in the winery-rich Shomron area (some of its more famous neighbors include Psagot, Shiloh and Gvaot), and one that is very rapidly improving. Gat Shomron actually has two Icewine styled wines – the included Viognier-based ones and a spicier version that is based on the Gewürztraminer grape (a more traditional base for dessert wines) that is delicious as well. This full bodied wine has an explosive nose loaded with characteristically true Viognier notes of blooming flowers, tropical fruit and citrus and is joined by pungent honey and mineral notes. A rich and viscous palate is loaded with ripe tropical fruit, lemon and more honey and nicely tempered by sufficient acidity to keep the intense sweetness in check. Plenty of spice, oak and floral notes keep things interesting, leading into a lingering and intense finish of spice, honey and blooming flowers. A limited edition wine well worth seeking out (as is the Gewürztraminer version which makes for a great side-by-side comparison).

Golan Heights Winery, Yarden, Blanc de Blanc, 2007: The 2005 vintage of this wine was a monumental improvement of past great vintages and highly recommended by me. Insanely enough, yet representative of the winery’s undisputed position as Israel’s best, the 2007 vintage rises above the amazing 2005 (stay tuned for coming sparkling delights from the winery including a 2000 Yarden Blanc de Blanc late disgorged version and a sparkling rosé). Easily one of the best kosher sparkling wines and one that could compete even with some of the French Champagne wines available these days. Yeasty notes of brioche join plenty of rich citrus, tart apple and summer fruits. Tightly focused and delightfully concentrated bubbles live on and on and the bracing acidity helps keep all the fruit and toasty notes lively on the amazingly refreshing palate. A wine to stock up on and drink for years to come.

Golan Heights Winery, Yarden, Katzrin, 2008: After almost 20 years at the top, Israel’s top wine doesn’t show any sign of slowing down or relinquishing its crown. Victor Schoenfeld worked his magic with a terrific vintage and providing us with liquid gold that embodies all a Moshiach Wine should be. A blend of 87% Cabernet Sauvignon and 13% Merlot from the winery’s best vineyards (including Ortal, El-Rom and Yonatan), I was eagerly anticipating given the accolades earned by the 2008 vintage. The blending components spent 18 months in new French oak before being blended together and returned to the barrels for another 6 months. While many of the Yarden wines tend to be a bite on the ripe and oaky side (while maintaining elegance and amazingness for the most part), this wine is deep, complex, layered and powerfully elegant with some much promise wrapped up in its lovely package of rich back and red fruit, cassis, oriental spices, black pepper, rich chocolate, gripping tannins, hints of orange peel, Mediterranean herbs, cedar, tobacco leaf and freshly brewed espresso that seems to go on forever with every 20 minutes bringing fresh notes and aromas. Surprisingly approachable now (although I’d open it half a day in advance if enjoying now), this wine shouldn’t be touched for at least two years and, retaining its place as Israel’s best aging wine, should cellar through 2028, maybe longer. Given the wine’s historical aging ability I am not planning on opening any of my bottles for at least five years. Despite a hefty cost, this wine is probably the best oenophilic investment available for the kosher wine consumer (especially in large-format bottles) [Shmittah].

Gvaot, Gofna, Pinot Noir, 2010: Following on the success of the extremely limited run of the 2009 Pinot Noir, Gvaot once again produced a magnificent wine, well worthy of your attention and certainly included in the incredibly short list of available quality kosher Pinot Noir. Blended with 10% Merlot and aged in French oak for 12 months, this medium bodied wine is simply delightful. 550 bottles were made in 2009 and 650 for the 2010 vintage, making it an extremely limited run that was terribly tough to lay your hands on. Given the 2010’s success, the 2011 vintage will comprise 1000 bottles, hopefully at least partially alleviating the scarceness of the wine. The wine has a rich nose loaded with wild flowers and ripe red fruit, plenty of controlled toasty oak and cedar. The delicious and mouth filling palate had plenty of raspberries, cherries and plums with hints of spice, espresso and cigar box all leading into a lingering finish of more fruit, forest floor and toasty oak. Drinking delightfully right now, the wine should cellar nicely through 2015.

Psagot, Single Vineyard, Cabernet Sauvignon, 2009: After the success of thier inaugural 2007 Single Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon and piggybacking the recent trend toward single vineyard wines (although many wineries tend to forgot the point isn’t to create the “best” wine in thier portfolio but rather to showcase the special characteristics of a certain vineyard or plot), Psagot had a 2009 and 2010 version, so we shall see if it becomes a regular part of the portfolio or only made in “special” vintage years. A nice nose and full bodied palate of black fruit, cassis, spicy oak, baker’s chocolate and Mediterranean herbs, with hints of mocha, vanilla and blackberries. A muscular wine that is finally coming into its own and with rapidly integrating tannins that bod well for the continued development of this wine. Drink now through 2016, maybe longer.

Tzora, Or, 2008: In addition to all its other successes, Israel produces a significant amount of top-notch dessert wines including the Yarden Botrytis (which is unfortunately not being produced anymore – the 2007 is the last vintage), Late Harvest Gewurztraminer wines from Binyamina and Carmel, Ice Wine style wines from Gat Shomron (see below) and an increasing number of Port-Style wines. To this illustrious list, I can happily add this incredible treat from Tzora, one of Israel most significantly improving wineries. The 2006 Or was Eran’s first wine that was all “his” and the 2008 is a limited edition wine (1625 bottles) that is only sold at the winery and was made in the “icewine style” (for more of the process and other awesome Israeli dessert wines, please see this post). Made from 100% Gewurztraminer grapes from the Shoresh vineyard and with a surprisingly low 13% alcohol level, this medium bodied wine is loaded with rich notes of tropical fruit including pineapples, mango and guava with a nice note of pear, together with honey and heather, some lychee notes and a pleasing, characteristically-true, spiciness. The wine has enough acidity to keep the sweetness in check and light mineral undertones that add some additional complexity to this deliciously sweet treat. While the wine will continue to improve through 2018, it’s pretty hard to resist opening and enjoying right now [Shmittah].

Yaffo, Carignan, 2009: Another relatively newly kosher winery from the Judean Hills, which makes very noteworthy wines. A rich a deep purple color as benefits the varietal, this medium bodied wine has a rich nose of blackberries, black cherries and purple plums together with some spiciness and rich tannin. More of the same dark fruit on the palate along with a hint of spicy oak, some cedar and warm crushed herbs lead into a medium finish that lingers nicely with some pleasing bitterness. Enjoyable now, the wine should cellar for another year or so.

Yatir, Forest, 2009: The flagship wine of one of Israel’s best wineries. ‘Nuff said. Despite 2009 not being the most amazing vintage year Israel ever experienced, as would be expected from the country’s better wine makers, this is a supremely elegant and delicious wine – an iron fist in velvet glove, powerful with years of cellaring improvement to come. A blend of 49% Cabernet Sauvignon, 41% Petit Verdot and 10 Merlot, this wine lives up to the expectations one has from one of Israel’s top wineries. A rich and voluptuous nose of ripe black fruit with some red notes as well with plenty of toasty oak and rich gripping tannins that have already started to integrate and bode well for the future development of this wine and some spicy notes from the oak. Much of the same on the palate with the added benefit of plum, cassis, cigar box and some pungent notes accompanied by a bitter hint of green that pleases, all leading into a velvety and lingering finish, rich with fruit, oak and hints of dark chocolate. A really special wine that was recently tasted by Mark Squires and awarded 91 points from the Wine Advocate. Drink now through 2020.

Most Interesting & Exciting Wines of 2012 (in alphabetical order)

Adir, Blush Port-Style, 2010: One of three dessert wines made by the Adir Winery, the wine is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay, with a clear and gorgeous salmon color, this wine is a bit lighter on the palate than the “regular” port-styled wine, with refreshing acidity keeping the jammy fruit, near delicate sweetness and 18.5% alcohol from becoming overpowering. Nice stewed fruit, raisins, warm spices and dark chocolate contribute to a uniquely delicious wine.

Alexander, Alexander the Great, Amarolo, 2007: As more and more Israeli wineries experiment with varied forms of fortified wines (mostly sweet, Port-like concoctions, some of which are great, some substantially less so), Alexander took a slightly different route with this wine intending to emulate the famed dry Amarone wines of Veneto, Italy (Gat Shomron also has an “Amarone style” wine). Given that, to my knowledge no kosher Amarone wines exist, I cannot comment on whether this is true to its kind but simply that it is a delicious wine and a welcome addition to Israel’s growing and respectable portfolio of “experimental wines”. A blend of 80% Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot to which Petit Verdot (7%), Cabernet Franc (6%), Shiraz (4%) and Grenache (3%) were added, this deeply extracted wine spent 40 months in a combination of new and used oak, earning its place within Alexander’s Alexander the great line, now garnished with an extremely distinctive gold and silver colored metal label. The Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot were left to dry in the sun traditional manner, spending over two months on mats spread around the winery. An extremely full bodied and plush wine with a rich, near-sweet nose bursting with ripe blackberries, plum and cassis together with strong notes of raisins, plenty of rich oak, dates and prunes. Big and muscular tannins keep the nose in place and exercise their control on a palate loaded with much of the same ripe and dried fruit from the nose, together with more oak, cedar and tobacco leading into a long and concentrated finish that keeps you coming back for more. Drink now through 2015, maybe longer.

Barkan, Assemblage, Eitan, 2008: Named for the nearby Eitan Mountain, the grapes for this wine are grown at altitudes of 700 meters in the Southern Judean Hills near the aptly named Kiryat Anavim (literally “village of the grapes”). Despite their good intentions, this wine ended up being a single vineyard wine. A blend of 45% Syrah, 40% Merlot and 15% Cabernet Sauvignon, each aged separately in mostly used French oak for 12 months before being blended and bottled resulting in a 13.5% alcohol wine. A delicious and distinctly Mediterranean nose of tangy red fruit including cherries, plums, cassis, crushed thyme and other Mediterranean herbs, cigar box and tobacco leaf, chocolate and a hint of spicy oak. The medium to full bodied palate has a little less acidity than I would have liked (a common problem with wines from hot climates like Israel), well integrated tannins, red fruit, mocha, tobacco leaf, baker’s chocolate, more spicy oak, hints of smoked meat and some flinty minerals all culminating in a long and caressing finish with a pleasing bitterness rising on the finish. A pleasing and elegant wine that is eminently drinkable now and which should cellar comfortably through 2015 or even longer [Shmittah].

Carmel, Single Vineyard, Kayoumi, Riesling, 2010: Riesling is one of those magical grapes that seems to have been made to enjoy with food and this wine, with a touch of residual sugar and plenty of balancing acidity is sure to please. The last release of this wine was back with the 2006 vintage but our parched palates can now be slaked again with this release. As with every other wine, Carmel’s winemaker Lior Lacser coaxes out of the magical Kayoumi vineyard, this wine is a nearly a perfectly-crafted wine, with a very aromatic nose, generous acidity. Ever so slightly off dry with plenty of peach, apricot, grapefruit, blooming flowers and hints of minerals on a crisply acidic background that lends itself to great food-pairing. A really delicious wine and definitely worth seeking out.

Lueria, Gewürztraminer, 2012: Officially released in Israel last week, the 2011 is also worthy of being on this list and was previously reviewed by me. Recent years have seen a slight proliferation of dry (or semi-dry) versions of the grape with two notable versions being the 2011 offerings from Binyamina and Lueria – both enjoyable and worthy first attempts by both wineries. Following on the success of the 2011 vintage, the 2012 wine is a semi-dry medium bodied wine made from 100% free-run Gewürztraminer grapes with plenty of white peaches, some tropical fruit, traditional lychee, floral notes and a pleasing hint of spiciness along with a pleasing bitter citrus notes with much of the same of the same on the light to medium bodied palate loaded with bracing acidity with a nice touch of residual sugar and 12.5% alcohol. Highly recommended as a refreshing quencher. Drink over the next 12 months or so.

Ramot Naftaly, Barbera, 2010: Ramot Naftaly’s winemaker – Yitzchak Cohen – considers his Barbera to be “hi baby” and rightly so. A tiny boutique winery (~10,000 bottles annually) that specializes in making less common varietals including Malbec, Petit Verdot and the Barbera (in addition to the Cabernet Sauvignon required for any winery and often representing nearly half a winery’s production). For the first time, the winery is exporting its wine to the US and we should expect to see some of the wines on our shores in the next few months. A rich and delicious wine that spent 10 months in French oak. Plenty of ripe fruit, bramble and black pepper on the nose and palate with a hint of baker’s chocolate and roasted herbs and plenty of restrained oak and a caressing finish of oak and spice that lingers. A tremendously pleasing wine, well worth seeking out. Drink now through 2015.

Shiloh, Legend, 2009: Following the trend popularized by Carmel with their eponymously named Mediterranean blend, Shiloh launched their own Israeli blend – Legend, with the 2009 vintage with much success. An interesting blend of 45% Shiraz, 40% Petit Sirah, 9% Petit Verdot and 6% Merlot, yields a delicious wine that is very enjoyable right now due to its smooth and well integrated tannins and will continue to provide enjoyment for some years to come. Each varietal was aged separately in French and American oak for eight months before being blended, and the blend spent an additional eight months in oak prior to bottling. A delightfully aromatic nose redolent of red, near sweet fruit, light chocolate notes, lavender and floral notes with some black plums, blackberries and currants edging in later on. A rich, round and mouth-coating medium bodied palate has more of the fruit, some nice spiciness, tanned leather, lead pencil and herbs that leads into a plenty long finish loaded with the wine’s essence including herbs, chocolate, nice minerals, tar, forest floor and tobacco leaf. Drink now through 2015. As with many of Shiloh’s recent wines, this was produced in mevushal (by way of the winery’s new and secret method) and non-mevushal versions, this tasting note is for the mevushal version.

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