…says winemaker Golan Tishbi. “It’s a lot better than last year.” as he tends to his family’s estate vines in Zichron Ya’acov and who harvests grapes from all over Israel to produce about 1 million bottles every year at Israel’s 6th largest winery. The Tishbi Winery has already harvested several kinds of grape varietals from their estate coastal vineyards including Sauvignon Blanc, French Colombard, & Emerald Riesling and expect their thicker skinned Cabernet Sauvignon from Judean Hill vineyards to be the last grapes they harvest from cooler higher latitude vineyards. Stop by over the next several weeks at their winery and visitor center in Binyamina and you have a good chance to witness grapes coming in from the fields and you can even try their recent addition of a French gourmet chocolate & Tishbi red wine pairing.
Just north in Zichron Ya’acov, is Israel’s largest winery, the Carmel Winery which makes about 30% of Israel’s wine and depending which way you enter town you might get stuck behind the stream of trucks bringing grapes from neighboring vineyards from some of their 300 growers who contribute to what is actually one huge collective under one management and winemaking team. Adam Montefiore, Carmel’s director of development, relays that Carmel’s chief winemaker (the bigger wineries often have several) Lior Lacser is very pleased and cautiously optimistic with the harvest so far. The beginning of maturation for vines was delayed and so will be most harvests of 10 days to 2 weeks and they expect their last harvest might take place in November with their more northern and higher altitude vineyards.
Although the temperate temperatures this summer compared to most is producing great results in Carmel’s lower lying coastal vineyards, in the Upper Galilee and Golan Heights it could prove problematic if the harvest is interrupted by rain or ideal picking days fall around holidays when pickers would not be available or even allowed for a kosher winery. Rain is an issue because it can cause mildew or fungus or other pests that might force picking earlier than a winemaker otherwise would like to insure fully developed aromas, flavors, tannins and complexity. Israel’s long dry summers are often rainless which means on the average like in California most vintages are far more consistently good than in many famous European wine regions like Bordeaux or Tuscany.
Carmel’s sister winery, Yatir, which makes about 10,000 cases of wines, is located in the northeastern Negev with vineyards in the southern Judean Hills and the Negev’s Tel Arad and is experiencing similar delays of 10-14 days with slightly lower yields than usual yet with the typically good and exceptional quality grapes that provide the foundation for some of Israel’s most acclaimed boutique wines. Speaking of acclaimed Israeli boutique wineries, I had the pleasure of catching up on the phone with the winemaker from Israel’s first boutique winery, the Margalit Winery. WInemaker Assaf Margalit,is the second generation of winemakers since the winery launched Israel’s boutique bonanza in 1989.
Assaf took over as senior winemaker about a decade ago although his father and winery founder Ya’ir Margalit, who by the way was the first winemaker at Tishbi, is still a vocal presence and valuable resource to the winery having written two internationallyand widely circulated textbooks on winemaking and over a decade helming what most consider as one of if not the best winery in Israel. In fact, Ya’ir is currently in Napa, California for a one year sabbatical updating his two tomes with updates based on his and others’ research since the books’ last pressing. Assaf, a renown wine educator in Israel in his own right, has only harvested, at this time, his Cabernet Franc from their Binyamina vineyard which was just one week later than usual. From what he hears from other winemakers, many who are former students of his and his father’s, is that 2011 seems like a good year.
“Moderate temperatures have resulted in grapes retaining higher acidity and lower PH than usual (the lack of acidity in grapes is often a problem in warmer growing regions like Israel that tend to produce more sugar and riper fruit)”. From Assaf’s sources, he’s hearing that Judean Hill vineyards are experiencing 10 to 15% lower yields although with good quality grapes although this might be a boon to Upper Galilee vineyards such as his cherished Kadita vineyard where several wineries have experienced higher yields of 10 to 15% of good if not superior grapes. This will be pleasant news to many winemakers like Margalit who suffered lower yields due to an extremely hot season in 2010. The Margalit’s, in order to insure the quality of their wines, produced about 16,000 bottles worth of wine in 2010 (although it’s still aging in the barrels) compared to about 20,000 bottles which they have produced most years of late. In their Kadita vineyard, picking might begin as early as this week from 4 different plots which include Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Petite Sirah and this year’s new arrival Petit Verdot. The Petit Verdot will be made as a separate wine as Assaf typically does from all his grapes and then decide whether to blend it with wines made from other grapes or to release it as its own single varietal, which he does every vintage with the Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc and occasionally with the Merlot when it meets his exacting standards or as a part of his Enigma blend or to supplement another single varietal wine. Just as you can’t tell but hope how a child might mature, Assaf has high hopes for the Petit Verdot but will taste how it matures and decide after several months after harvesting how it will best move on whether as the star in its own bottle or a supporting role in another wine.
A one time summer intern of the Margalit’s is today part of the well regarded Recanati Winery team (after spending years gaining further experience in France, Italy and Tasmania), winemaker Ido Lewinsohn. The esteemed Gil Shatsberg and Ido took over as the winemaking team from founding winemaker Lewis Pasco in 2008 with Gil taking the lead. Recanati gets most of its grapes from the Upper Galilee, the Judean Hills and close to the winery from coastal vineyards. Ido expressed his pleasure with a “very, very good year” producing lots of color and aromas and low PH. They are picking later than normal for them but earlier than most other wineries since Gil and Ido prefer more nuanced, higher acidic, lower alcoholic wines than most other Israeli winemakers including Pasco (who has since moved to California after leaving Recanati). Their Sauvignon Blanc grapes from Binyamina vineyards kicked off their harvest in mid-August although they’re typically picked in late July. Ido expects Recanati’s Ben Zmira Upper Galilee vineyards to produce their latest harvest with plots bearing Cabernet Sauvignon which is often the last grape picked at many wineries large and small.
Ido also runs a small “cult” winery with his father aptly called Lewinsohn’s Garage de Papa which produces a Blanc made up 100% Chardonnay and a Rouge made of any number of combinations of red grapes each year. Ido shops for the best grapes on the market each year, avoiding for now long term contracts with growers and the potential of having a bad vintage any year yet his knowledge and contacts with growers has paid off for each of his first few vintages as the several thousand bottles they produce have been touted as some of the best wines in Israel and are often featured on some of the most prized wine lists at Tel Aviv’s best restaurants as much a limited supply of only 500 cases/year might allow. He’s happy with the selection he has available for his two wines this vintage though he did move from using Upper Galilee grapes from those of the Judean Hills to bolster the higher acidity he wishes for his “Papa” Blanc.
Of course the region that started the quality wine revolution in Israel was the Golan Heights with plantings in 1976. The Golan Heights Winery, with its Yarden, Gamla and Golan labels, is Israel’s 3rd largest winery producing about 6 million bottles annually with grapes primarily from the Golan Heights supplemented with some grapes from its sister winery, the Galil Mountain Winery at Kibbutz Yiron in the Upper Galilee.
Their senior winemaker, Victor Schoenfield, is the most experienced and prolific winemaker in the Golan Heights having led the winery for close to twenty years. So I found it insightful when Victor took time to chime in on this year’s harvest in the little free time he has available managing their many vineyards through out Israel’s most northern and highest altitude vineyards. “We have harvested about 15% (of our grapes) so far, which is the lowest percentage we have ever harvested to date. Last year, an early year, we were close to 50% harvested (by) now (which was ahead of the typical curve). We are seeing delays anywhere from one to four weeks. We have so far harvested Muscat Canelli, an early (white) variety which happens to be in our warmer areas, and Pinot Noir for sparkling wine (Gamla Brut). We have harvested quite a lot of Chardonnay for sparkling wine (their Gamla Brut and Yarden Blanc de Blanc), as well, though we will only finish this up next week. So far things look very good. The only worrying thing is the calendar date. If we have an early winter, we could run into some serious problems. In a normal year, we normally pretty much finish up by the end of October, so we could be harvesting well into November this year, which could be dangerous as we could run into cold temperatures and rain. As always, we are at nature’s mercy. As normal, we will probably finish with our later varieties in our coldest areas, which normally means Cabernet from a northern Golan vineyard. As of now, yields look normal”. Victor’s assessment is an encouraging indicator from one of Israel’s largest producers of mostly premium wines. In fact, this year the winery was picked out as the “Best Winery in the World” in a competition in Italy of about 3700 wineries. This year’s harvest might help keep Victor getting similar accolades.
Tal Pelter, the winemaker at the nearby and prestigious Pelter Winery, who has consulted for other aspiring winemakers in the north, seems to agree with Victor’s view on the harvest so far though his vineyards aren’t at risk by being mostly at the lower extreme of higher altitudes in the Golan Heights. His whites including Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc are almost all harvested with their larger selection of red grapes beginning to be harvested next week. Tal claims that the moderate temperatures have grapes being picked even later than in colder years like 2005 and 2007.
After talking to some winemakers I hold in high esteem, it seems that the lack of any heat waves all summer could result in a vintage worthy of remembering and savoring for years to come. In November, as the last grapes are harvested I hope to check in with these and other winemakers to see how their predictions panned out.