Return To The Rhône #Winophiles

17 March 2018

Photo copyright M. Chapoutier

The Rhône Valley in southern France contains some of the world’s greatest and most beautiful wine appellations. And it’s a region I’ve managed to almost completely ignore for a good 15 years. Rhône shmône.

The problem is that I encountered the Rhône too early in my wine-drinking days. When I was about 21, my parents and I toured Provence — still one of my favorite vacations — and we visited the stone-built town of Châteauneuf-du-Pape. After climbing the hill to the ruined papal castle at the top, we descended into one of the town’s cellars for a tasting. There, I did not drink one of the wines that changed my life. This isn’t one of those stories in which I taste a wine and it opened my eyes to flavor and the joy of living. The wines didn’t dazzle me. But what did I know? I was barely an adult. They were, however, delicious enough to warrant my father buying a bottle or two to bring home.

In my mid-20s, I regularly bought wine from the Côtes du Rhône AOC, the catch-all appellation for wines from the entire region, because they were popular but not too expensive. Eventually, I realized I didn’t care for the earthy note in the light-bodied reds I’d been purchasing.

That was that, until I revisited Provence with a colleague in 2004. Our itinerary didn’t allow for a single winery visit, alas, and when we sped past the turn-offs to Hermitage and Condrieu — by then the names actually meant something to me — I cried a little bit. Well, on the inside.

Unfortunately, I can’t afford Hermitage (perhaps the world’s best Syrah) or Condrieu (the world’s best Viognier) here at home. I can afford some Châteauneuf-du-Papes, when they’re on sale, but they have those fusty coats of arms on the bottles. And so the old Rhône lost its luster, and I turned my attention to shinier somm darlings like Jura. I’m not impervious to fashion.

After recently tasting some Rhônes by M. Chapoutier, I feel rather foolish for having ignored a giant swath of the world’s loveliest wines for so long. Chapoutier really came into its own in the 1990s, when Michel Chapoutier took over the merchant-grower company. In many vineyards he implemented organic and even biodynamic viticulture, which is sort of like organic viticulture combined with astrology and magic potions. In both cases, the goal is to increase the health of the vines by fostering a thriving ecosystem of bacteria and other beneficial organisms in the soil. Some studies show that biodynamic agriculture is more successful than organic, but it’s unclear exactly why.

Whether you believe in biodynamics or not, the jump in the quality of the Chapoutier’s wine since Michel took the reins is undeniable. When I see the Chapoutier name on a bottle, I know there’s a very good chance I’m going to really enjoy the wine. Many others must agree — Chapoutier has long since expanded out of its Tain-l’Hermitage base, with vineyards in the Alsace, Australia and Portugal, among other regions.

As a member of the #Winophiles wine-writing group, I received free samples of three Chapoutier wines from the Rhône. I took them to one of my favorite BYOB restaurants in Chicago, HB Home Bistro, and invited one of my zestiest wine-loving friends, Rebecca.

2016 M. Chapoutier “La Ciboise” Luberon Blanc

In Rhône Valley’s southeast, the Luberon ranks among my favorite parts of France, with its stupendously scenic combination of vineyards, lavender fields, olive groves and hill towns. Unfortunately, this organic wine ranked as my least-favorite of the three wine samples. I liked its clean, melony aroma, marked by a “minty-flinty” note, as Rebecca remarked, but its loosey-goosey fruit didn’t integrate well with the taut, grapefruity acids or the savory notes. I liked it better with food — it rounded out more with some mussels — but I can’t unreservedly recommend this wine, even with its relatively modest $16 price tag.

2015 M. Chapoutier “La Bernardine” Châteauneuf-du-Pape

I have no such reservations about this Châteauneuf-du-Pape, which I absolutely adored. It had an immensely appealing aroma of cranberry and herbs like bay leaf and thyme, and a very satisfying texture in the mouth. It felt ripe and a bit chewy, but focused, zesty acids and white-pepper spice kept the wine admirably balanced, as did an herbaceous lift at the end. “Complex and gorgeous,” I wrote in my notebook. When Rebecca tasted it, she exclaimed, “Talk about a punch of fruit and spice!”

Chapoutier does something rather different with this wine, in that it’s 90% Grenache (the “Châteauneuf-du-Pape grape par excellence,” according to The Oxford Companion to Wine) and 10% Syrah, which “has been planted by producers who admire its tannins and structure, although, unlike Grenache and Mourvèdre, it needs care to avoid overripeness and is falling from favor in some quarters,” the Companion goes on to say. The use of Syrah is unusual, but even more so is the wine’s lack of other grapes. Most Châteauneuf-du-Papes are blends, which can be composed of up to 18 different grape varieties, though very few wines use them all.

According to the information sheet from Terlato that I received with the wine, “minimizing grape varieties allows for true expression of the terroir, which appeals to consumers for the authenticity and sense of place.” The wine no doubt expresses its terroir, but it strikes me that “authentic” Châteauneuf-du-Papes have more traditional blends. Authenticity, however, is overrated, and this wine is sheer delight, both with and without food. I particularly loved it with some bacon-wrapped dates. It’s expensive at about $60, but you’re getting what you pay for.

2015 M. Chapoutier “Les Meysonniers” Crozes-Hermitage

Tiny Hermitage produces some of the world’s greatest wines, with impressive price tags to match. Mere mortals should opt instead for a Crozes-Hermitage, a wine from the vineyards surrounding the more august Hermitage appellation. Both appellations focus mostly on Syrah. According to The Oxford Companion to Wine, “The best reds are softer and fruitier than Hermitage because the soils are richer (and because it’s more difficult to justify barrel aging at Crozes prices), but they tend to share more of Hermitage’s solidity than St-Joseph,” an appellation on the opposite riverbank.

This 100% Syrah is made with biodynamically farmed grapes, and the technique seems to have paid off. I loved the aroma of ripe plum, blueberry jam and leather, as well as the big, beautiful flavor. The wine moved from deep, rich fruit to elegant acids, refined spice, that note of leather again and finally some fine-grained, well-integrated tannins. I relished this wine on its own, but with the bacon-wrapped dates, it dried out and evaporated. It also failed to pair well with my too-spicy main course of beef bulgogi with kimchi and spaetzle. I suspect it would have fared better with a simple steak. It’s not inexpensive at $44, but again, this is a wine with some real stuffing.

I’m so glad to have received these samples. They reminded me of what a joy the wines of the Rhône can be. I’m going to keep my eye out for Châteauneuf-du-Pape and Crozes-Hermitage the next time I need a special-occasion wine. Neither is at the forefront of wine fashion at the moment, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t delicious.

For more about the Rhône and M. Chapoutier, check out these articles by fellow #winophiles:

–Gwendolyn Alley of Wine Predator tells us about “Duck à l’Orange with M. Chapoutier’s Biodynamic, Organic Rhone Wines”

–Jill Barth of L’Occasion writes about “Braille on the Label and Other Pioneering Moments of Chapoutier”

–J.R. Boynton of Great Big Reds writes about “The Dark Side of Syrah, with Domaine Fondreche Persia 2012 (Ventoux)”

–Jeff Burrows of Food Wine Click shares “Northern Rhone Wines and My Steak Tartare Disaster”

–David Crowley of Cooking Chat at tells us about “London Broil Steak with Châteauneuf-du-Pape”

–Susannah Gold of Avvinare writes about “Rhône Gems from Chapoutier in Châteauneuf, du Pape, Crozes-Hermitage, and Luberon”

–Nicole Ruiz Hudson of Somm’s Table tells her story of “Cooking to the Wine: Les Vins de Vienne Gigondas with Gratinéed Shepherd’s Pie”

–Camilla Mann of Culinary Adventures with Camilla shares a post on “Sober Clams + a French Syrah”

–Jane Niemeyer of Always Ravenous shares “Bison Burger Paired with Northern Rhône Syrah”

–Martin Redmond of Enofylz shares “A Taste of The House of Chapoutier”

–Rupal Desai Shankar of Syrah Queen writes about “Chapoutier: King of the Rhône”

–Lauren Walsh of The Swirling Dervish writes about “France’s Rhône Valley: Mountains, Sea, Wind, and Wine”

–Michelle Williams of Rockin Red Blog writes about “Maison M. Chapoutier: Expressing Terroir Through Biodynamics”

–Wendy Klik of A Day in the Life on the Farm talks about when “Ireland and France Collide”

–Liz Barrett of What’s in that Bottle invites us to “Get to know the Rhône Valley with Michel Chapoutier”

Value In The Médoc: Bordeaux’s Moulis Appellation

9 March 2018

Christophe Labenne of Château Poujeaux

The words “Bordeaux” and “value” don’t often appear in close proximity. Some of the world’s most highly prized and most expensive wines come from Bordeaux, and many of those come from the Médoc. The Left Bank of the Gironde estuary is home to great châteaux like Mouton Rothschild and Margaux, which, at hundreds of dollars a bottle, don’t really qualify as values (whether they’re worth it is another matter).

But just because Bordeaux is one of the wine world’s most famous names doesn’t mean that there aren’t values to be had. As usual, it’s in the region’s lesser-known nooks and crannies where one must look. One of the value crannies of the Médoc is Moulis, an appellation between the more august names of St. Julien and Margaux.

With just 1,500 acres of vineyards, Moulis (moo-lee) ranks as the smallest appellation in the Haut-Médoc. It has no classed growths, but that’s not to say Moulis doesn’t produce wines of quality. In a 2003 Cru Bourgeois reclassification, two of Moulis’ châteaux earned ratings of “Crus Bourgeois Exceptionnels,” the highest possible distinction. This classification system has since been scrapped, but the châteaux that earned top honors remain.

According to The Oxford Companion to Wine, “…the best wines [of Moulis] can offer good value, being as well-structured as any Haut-Médoc, often with some of the perfume of Margaux to the east.” And of the châteaux in Moulis, “The finest of these is usually long-lived Château Poujeaux,” according to the Companion. The World Atlas of Wine agrees, more or less, noting that Poujeaux is “showing increased polish recently”.

At the Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux tasting in Chicago, I had a chance to chat with Poujeaux’s managing director, Christophe Labenne, who explained that “Moulis wines are usually well-balanced, with the structure of Cabernet Sauvignon and the suppleness of Merlot,” the varieties which form the main components of its blend. “Moulis is popular with many people,” he went on, “because it goes with lots of food, and because prices tend to be in the $25-$40 range.” That’s not inexpensive, but it’s exponentially less than one of the Médoc’s most famous wines.

I tasted the 2015 Château Poujeaux, which had an aroma of cassis (currant), vanilla and violets. Its rich dark-red fruit flavors were buoyed up by freshness, and though the tannins weren’t the finest-grained in the Médoc, they felt well-integrated. The 2016 Poujeaux futures at Binny’s currently sell for about $30 a bottle, which is a steal (older vintages sell for $40-$45).

Just to the north of Château Poujeaux is another big name in Moulis, Château Maucaillou, which “can sometimes offer exceptional value and is, unusually for this less-glamorous stretch of the Haut-Médoc, open to casual visitors,” according to the World Atlas. The 2015 Maucaillou had an enticingly dark aroma, with a savory note and again that delightful perfume of violets. The wine had “some real stuffing,” I wrote in my notes, with excellent balance and integration. On Wine Searcher, the 2015 sells for about $25-$30, a superlative value.

To the south of Poujeaux is Château Chasse-Spleen, which, together with the two châteaux above, accounts for about half of Moulis’ production. So when seeking out Moulis, Poujeaux, Maucaillou and Chasse-Spleen are the names you’ll most likely encounter. According to The World Atlas of Wine, “Chasse-Spleen can be viewed almost as an honorary St-Julien for its smoothness, its accessibility, and yet it does not lack structure.” I quite liked its aroma of plummy fruit and vanilla, and indeed, I wrote that it felt “supple; softer than the others,” with mouth-watering juiciness. Yet it had some kick from white-pepper spice, and no shortage of tannins on the finish. At Binny’s, the 2015 vintage sells for $33, which strikes me as another very good deal.

So if you’re in the mood to splurge on a bottle between $25 and $35, Bordeaux’s lesser-known Moulis appellation is a fine place to turn.

Ideally give these wines a little time to age, so that the tannins soften a bit, but even the 2015 is perfectly drinkable now, especially if you decant.

Morocco: North Africa’s Great Wine Secret

22 February 2018

Domaine de Sahari Rosé

Many of us, I’ve discovered, don’t know much about Morocco. People generally realize that it’s a Muslim-majority country, and as such, they expect it to be part of the Middle East and entirely alcohol-free. In fact, Morocco is almost as close to New York as it is to Riyadh, and as I discovered, delicious wine is quite easy to find. And not just imports. Delicious local wine. This came as something of a shock even to me, a person quite accustomed to writing about wine from unexpected places.

Winemaking in Morocco dates back to the Phoenicians, and the Romans carried on the tradition. Reports conflict about what happened after the Arab invasions. My Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia states that “after more than 1,000 years of Muslim rule, winemaking died out.” But the history of Moroccan wine printed in La Sultana‘s menu claims that Morocco’s “strong Jewish community continued to produce wine in its gardens,” and that the Portuguese made wine around their enclaves on the coast. Either way, serious commercial winemaking didn’t reappear in Morocco until the French took over in the early 20th century.

Morocco briefly became something of a wine powerhouse, at least in terms of quantity, but after the country became independent in the 1950s, the local market shrank dramatically, and European rules hindered exports. It was only in the 1990s, when King Hassan II attracted foreign investment in the country’s vineyards, according to The Oxford Companion to Wine, that things began to turn around (the current king, Mohammed VI, continues his policies). Just seven years ago, in 2011, Morocco designated its first Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC), Les Coteaux de l’Atlas. So although winemaking in Morocco has ancient roots, the best wines available now are all new creations.

La Perle du Sud in the foothills of the Atlas Mountains

But wait a minute. Isn’t Morocco too hot and too dry for quality winemaking? The image “Morocco” conjures for many of us involves desert caravans and spice-filled souks. Not vineyards! But as I discovered, winters can be downright frigid, especially in the mountains — my driver took me through a snowstorm at one point — and even in the summer, cool Atlantic currents keep the coast temperate. Irrigation is a necessity, but that’s hardly unusual. And rocky Moroccan soil drains well. Vineyards that take advantage of either ocean breezes or high elevation to stay cool can produce very fine wine indeed.

Nowadays, Moroccan wines take pride-of-place on menus of restaurants that serve alcohol. One wine list I encountered offered some 34 different Moroccan bottlings, including a sparkler, whites, rosés, reds and vin gris, a sort of light rosé made by vinifying dark-skinned grapes as if you were making a white wine (i.e. with little to no skin contact).

The one sparkling wine I had, a La Perle du Sud Blanc de Blancs by Le Celliers de Meknès, Morocco’s largest winery, had an AOC designation (Crémant de l’Atlas), but it tasted like not-very-expensive Cava to me. Some of the whites, like the CB Initiales Domaine Thalvin Chardonnay from Benslimane (east of Casablanca), were balanced and delicious, but most were frankly disappointing. The worst was a funky Médaillon Sauvignon Blanc that tasted aggressively citrusy. It clashed horrifically with some seafood couscous, which brought out some sort of odd artificial cantaloupe note in the wine. Blergh. Be careful with the whites.

I only tried a handful of the spicy vin gris wines, but I liked all of them. The rosés also tended to be quite good, with classic strawberry fruit and juicy acids (it’s hard to really screw up a dry rosé, I think). The Domaine de Sahari Reserve rosé of Syrah is a good example, with powdery strawberry fruit, lemony acids, refined green peppercorn spice and a dry finish. I sipped it by a swimming pool as the call of the muezzin floated across the medina. It felt deliciously sacrilegious.

Château Roslane at La Grande Table Marocaine

Much as I enjoyed the vin gris and rosé, red is currently Morocco’s strong suit. Moroccan reds come in a range of styles, and all the ones I tried had reasonable balance. My favorite was the 2014 Château Roslane Premier Cru from the Coteaux de l’Atlas AOC, also by Le Celliers de Meknès. I tasted the wine in what is surely Morocco’s most exquisite restaurant, La Grande Table Marocaine in the Royal Mansour hotel. The setting didn’t hurt, but the wine would have been memorable anywhere. It tasted of ripe dark fruit — Morocco has no trouble ripening its grapes — and an almost minty freshness gave the fruit a lift, floating it atop refined white-pepper spice and serious but very well-integrated tannins. Very impressive.

I wouldn’t rush out to organize a Moroccan wine tour just yet — the wineries are forbidden from selling directly to consumers, and so tasting rooms aren’t much of a thing (Château Roslane excepted). I’m also not convinced you’ll find too many Moroccan options in your local wine shop, though there is at least one importer in the U.S.

Nevertheless, Morocco is a stupendously beautiful country to visit that’s quite welcoming to tourists. I highly recommend going, unless you’re an introvert. You’ll be absolutely miserable there if you’re an introvert. For everyone else, it’s a delight, and while you’re there, you’re sure to find some surprisingly tasty local wines to take the edge off a day of haggling in the souks.

Pomerol: Making The Case For Merlot

29 January 2018

“If anyone orders Merlot I am leaving. I am NOT drinking any f***ing Merlot!” Those two little sentences from the 2004 film Sideways continue to f*** up Merlot to this day. Certain large California wineries didn’t do the grape any favors, producing all too much flabby, overripe, jammy, unbalanced Merlot. It’s understandable that it developed an unfortunate reputation in the United States.

At a recent Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux tasting in Chicago, I mentioned that reputation to Eric Monneret, Managing Director of Château La Pointe in Bordeaux’s Pomerol appellation. He sighed and said, “In the U.S., people don’t believe that Merlot can be fresh. People can’t imagine a fresh Merlot. The window to the harvest is very short — Merlot becomes overcooked very quickly.” Grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon are more forgiving, he said, but Merlot — you have to be precise.

Dany Rolland

And I suspect that few places are as precise with their Merlot as Pomerol. “Merlot was born in Pomerol,” Dany Rolland, sister to Michel Rolland, explained to me. “It’s difficult to make elsewhere,” she said, though Pomerol’s neighbor, St-Émilion, might disagree.

The World Atlas of Wine also has kind words for Pomerol, saying that “…an astonishing number of small [Pomerol] properties, for an area no bigger than St-Julien, are generally agreed to be among the best in the whole of Bordeaux.” And if properties are among the best in Bordeaux, that means they’re among the best in the world. Not bad for poor old Merlot!

Unlike many of Bordeaux’s appellations, Pomerol is unclassified, which means that all wines from the region are simply Pomerol. The soil changes too frequently, it seems, and the terroir doesn’t necessarily follow vineyard boundaries. But as The Atlas explains, “Rather than being overwhelmed by the complications of Pomerol, it is worth knowing that the average standard here is very high.” So if you pick a Pomerol more or less at random, you’re likely to get something quite good. Unfortunately, as The Atlas goes on to say, it likely won’t be inexpensive.

I had the chance to taste six Pomerols at the tasting at Chicago’s Drake Hotel, and oh my, they really were a delight.

2015 Château La Pointe: Mr. Monneret told me that in 2015, the Merlot was strong and fresh (sometimes, it’s just one or the other). And certainly his wine was both. A blend of 85% Merlot and 15% Cabernet Franc, it had an aroma of fresh dark cherries mixed with some spiciness and a light vanilla note, and it tasted very well-balanced, moving slowly and deliberately from rich, ripe dark-red fruit to ample acids and spice. There was a delectable chewiness to the wine at first. I suspect that will lessen as time goes on, but the wine is a pleasure to drink even now.

Eric Monneret

2015 Château Le Bon Pasteur: The Rolland family used to own this château, but Michel sold it in 2013. Nevertheless, Dany still serves as the winemaker. She told me that 2015 was a sunny vintage that had rain at just the right time. This Pomerol, a blend of 80% Merlot and 20% Cabernet Franc, had an aroma dominated by mocha, with a cherry note underneath. It tasted rich with chocolate-covered cherries, leavened with hint of coffee-like bitterness. A shaft of acids and spice kept the wine tight, and it had a long, fresh finish. The tannins sneaked up on me, meaning that they were more-than-usually well integrated.

2015 Château Beauregard: This château’s representative was ill at the time of the tasting, so we didn’t have the chance to chat. It’s too bad, because this wine smelled particularly fresh, with the dark-cherry fruit and vanilla notes buoyed by a bright leafiness. It tasted wonderfully fresh as well, with round fruit and supple tannins. All that freshness likely comes from the higher percentage of Cabernet Franc — this bottling is 70% Merlot, 26% Cabernet Franc and 4% Cabernet Sauvignon. Cheerful and refined.

2015 Château Rouget: This château has fallen into the hands of Burgundians! The only Burgundian château-owners in Bordeaux, according to Edouard Labruyère, who represents a family of winemakers going back some 250 years. The Labruyères bought Rouget in 1994, and they farm the vineyards totally organically. “As a Burgundian,” he confided, “I use whole [grape] clusters — I don’t de-stem.” His crazy Burgundian techniques seem to be working, even in Bordeaux. His Pomerol’s aroma had an almost electric tension between ripe dark cherries and bright freshness. It tasted big and juicy and fresh, and the finish went on for ages.

François Estager

2015 Château La Cabanne: Owner François Estager went all-in with Merlot in 2015. Well, almost — his wine is 95% Merlot blended with 5% Cabernet Franc. I loved its aroma of dark cherries mixed with a bit of chocolate and a violet-like perfume. This wine also moved with slow grace, changing effortlessly from ripe fruit to focused spice to supple tannins to a fresh eucalyptus finish. “Zowie,” I wrote in my notebook. You could surely age this, but it’s gorgeous now.

2015 Château Gazin: Gazin’s Technical Director Mikaël Obert used the same blend as La Cabanne. In some years, he explained, he uses a bit of Cabernet Sauvignon too, but in 2015 it didn’t ripen as well, so it ended up in the château’s second-label wine. He also uses just 15% new oak, because he prefers “for the grapes to express their personality, not the barrel.” There was that dark cherry aroma again mingled with dark chocolate, and the flavor was lush and velvety. It moved seamlessly and luxuriously from fruit to spice to a finish of dusty mocha. Or rather, I thought that was the finish, until it moved yet again, on to some eucalyptus freshness. Very polished, and very delicious.

The point of all these tasting notes is that Merlot can be ever so much more than a flabby jam bomb. I most certainly am drinking some f***ing Merlot, and I suggest you do the same. Especially if it’s Pomerol.

Wine From The Holy Land For The Holidays

11 December 2017

What’s most shocking to me about Israeli wine is its consistent freshness. I wonder if winemakers there — all-too-aware of Israel’s reputation for ponderous, syrupy Maneschewitz-like wines — have reacted, consciously or subconsciously, by crafting wines with bright acids and lively spice. They are ideal for holiday entertaining because most of them pair well with food, and they tend to be excellent values for the money. The fact that the wines come from the Holy Land is an extra bonus.

I must admit that until recently, I was generally unfamiliar with Israeli wine. A tasting of Galil wines earlier this year surprised and delighted me, and so I jumped at the chance to try the bottlings of other Israeli wineries at a tasting at Chicago’s Naha restaurant. The wines impressed me time and time again.

But why, if the wines are so good, does Israel have a reputation for being vinously compromised? The short answer is that its ancient traditions of winemaking were obliterated by hundreds of years of Muslim rule, and only in the last half-century or so has Israel been able to reclaim this heritage. But reclaim this heritage they have.

You can read a bit more about Israeli winemaking history in this post about the Galil tasting. 

The wines I tasted at Naha confirmed that Israel now crafts wines that are world-class. Yes, they are thematically ideal for serving at Hanukkah and Christmas, but these aren’t holiday sweater wines, to be brought out once a year and then put away on the bottom shelf. As The World Atlas of Wine says, “The three leading [Israeli] wineries are supporting the wine-quality revolution by diligent vineyard site selection and investment in technology. Israeli farming prowess and determination is good at coaxing wine from challenging environments that will stand international comparison.”

I tried 19 wines at the tasting at Naha, and there wasn’t a stinker in the bunch. There were certain wines that positively caused a sensation.

If I could have taken any three bottles home from the tasting, they would have been:

2014 Yarden Golan Heights Winery “Katzrin” Chardonnay

This beauty had an extremely enticing aroma of buttered popcorn with a hint of citrus. It felt big and creamy, but limey acids and white pepper spice gave focus to the lushness. Yarden’s Vice President of Sales, Anne Marie, told me that the Katzrin (named after the town in the Golan Heights where the winery is located) saw 75% new oak! But the balance was amazing. I loved it. This vintage costs about $30, according to Wine Searcher, which is a smoking value considering the quality of the wine.

2014 Yarden Golan Heights Winery Petit Verdot

Shalom, owner of Chicago’s Kol Tuv kosher grocery store, exclaimed, “This is one of the best wines I’ve tried — I’d recommend it to anyone!” I would as well. It looked dark and thick, and smelled of ripe plums and blackberry jam. It tasted rich but strikingly clean, with big but supple tannins. Bold, brightly acidic, rich and fresh; what more could you want? Petit Verdot, historically a Bordeaux blending grape, “is well suited to warm, dry parts of Spain… and it has performed exceptionally well in varietal form in the irrigated inland regions of Australia…” according to The Oxford Companion to Wine. It’s no surprise that it also does well in warm, dry Israel. Another fine value for about $35 a bottle.

2014 Yarden Golan Heights Winery “2T”

A blend of two Portuguese varieties, Touriga Nacional and Tinta Cão, this wine (along with the Petit Verdot) had everyone at the tasting talking. I can see why. It had a very appealing aroma of ripe raisins and baking spice, and it tasted rich and just a bit funky. Refined spice cut right through the big, raisiny fruit, maintaining ample balance. A delight, and an excellent deal for $25-$29.

The above three wines should be purchased on sight. They’re something of a splurge for most of us, but you deserve it! Look for other Golan Height Winery wines as well (“Yarden” will be prominent on the label). The Sauvignon Blanc felt wonderfully exotic with its note of passion fruit, the organic Odem Vineyard Chardonnay felt taut and zesty and just a touch buttery, the Syrah was refined and rich, and the Cabernet had ample plummy fruit balanced with freshness and spice.


But should you see any bottle from a reputable Israeli winery, you should consider snapping it up. Below are some descriptions of several of the other wines I tried in the tasting. A pattern of general high quality and value becomes clear:

2016 Mount Hermon “Indigo”

Mount Hermon is a more inexpensive brand of Yarden, and its wines are a great value for the money. This blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah had notes of cheerful dark cherry and vanilla, with some exotic spice, like jasmine. It sounds sweet, but it dries right out on the palate. I found the 2014 vintage for $13 at Binny’s.

2016 Mount Hermon Red Wine

A classic Bordeaux-style blend, this wine tasted freshly fruity, with ripe red fruit, refined juicy acids and a long finish with subtle spice. A lift of freshness supported the wine throughout. The 2014 vintage is also $13 at Binny’s, which is a steal.

2016 Mount Hermon Moscato

I tend to avoid Moscato nowadays, because it tends to be too simple and sweet for my taste. This version, however, had an alluring aroma of orange flowers, lychee and jasmine, and mouthwatering orangey acids complemented by foamy bubbles. It gives any Moscato d’Asti a run for the money, especially considering it costs only $10 or $11, according to Wine Searcher.

2016 Gilgal Riesling

Gilgal is more of a mid-range offering of Yarden, and its wines taste sophisticated. I also like the label, which depicts an ancient and enigmatic henge near the winery. The Riesling was thoroughly dry, so those with a phobia of sweet wine have nothing to fear. Taut and citrusy and rather forceful, the wine moved from pear to lemon/lime acids to ginger and white pepper spice, followed by a dry finish. It costs about $13, a magnificent value considering that a comparable German Riesling would cost twice as much.

2016 Gilgal Chardonnay

Whereas the Yarden “Katzrin” Chardonnay tasted rich and luxurious, the Gilgal version felt fresh and spicy. It moved seamlessly from ripe fruit to focused white pepper to juicy lemon/lime acids to something like fresh straw. Very classy, and, surprise, it’s a superb value. It runs about $14.

2016 Gilgal Pinot Noir

Light-bodied with plenty of fresh dark-cherry fruit and some refined black pepper spice. Some inexpensive Pinots can be a little too earthy for my taste, but this one, which costs $13 or $14, is fresh and fun.

2013 Gilgal Cabernet Sauvignon

Even the Cabernet had impressive freshness. It had a huge aroma of raspberry jam, and big, rather raisiny fruit on the palate, but lively spice and underlying freshness kept it light on its feet. And, of course, it’s an excellent value for about $13 or $14 a bottle.


Finding Israeli wine might take a little effort, but your work will be amply repaid by wines that are generally ripe, fresh and very well-priced. I’ve now tried quite a few of the wines made by the Golan Heights Winery, Galil, Gilgal and Mount Hermon, and I’m hard pressed to think of one I didn’t like.

I also recommend checking out this pairing guide produced by Yarden, the first latke-themed wine chart I’ve ever had the pleasure to encounter.

Happy Hanukkah and Merry Christmas, everyone!

Note: I was invited to this wine tasting and did not pay for the wine I sampled.

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