Israel

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.

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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.

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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.

A Revolution In Israel: Fine Wine In The Holy Land

23 June 2017

Photo copyright Galil Mountain Winery

At present, Israel may well be the most misunderstood country in the wine world. What comes to mind when you hear the words “Israeli wine”? All too many of us still think of syrupy-sweet Ruby Port-like bottlings that people sip at Passover, and studiously ignore for the rest of the year.

And yet, Israel “lays claim to being the cradle of the world’s wine industry,” according to The Oxford Companion to Wine. “The southern Levantine wine industry, beginning c.4000 BC, had matured to such a degree,” the Companion explains, “that by the time of Scorpion I (c.3150 BC), one of the first rulers of a united Egypt, his tomb at Abydos was stocked with some 4,500 liters of wine imported from southern Canaan.”

Wine production in Israel continued for approximately 5,000 years, until AD 636, “when the spread of Islam brought about the destruction of the vineyards,” according to the Oxford Companion. “…[W]ith the exile of the Jews, vine-growing ceased.” It wasn’t until the late 19th century that Israel started to rediscover its wine heritage.

Micha Vaadia

“Israel is an ancient wine region, but we lost all the knowledge because of religious reasons,” winemaker Micha Vaadia of Galil Mountain Winery explained to me at a recent tasting. “But in the last 30 years, we’re reclaiming it.” In recent decades, wineries have reduced production and sought out better vineyard locations, leading them to the higher, cooler elevations of the Golan Heights. Vaadia showed me some photos of his vineyards, lush and green in summer (above) and sometimes blanketed with snow in winter (below).

“In the last 30 years, we learned to make good wine,” Vaadia told me, “and now we’re finding our personality.” Unlike in, say, Greece or Portugal, that personality will be expressed with international grapes. Israel’s indigenous varieties were destroyed about 1,400 years ago. I expressed dismay when Vaadia reminded me of this fact, but he shrugged. “People like to look at the world with international boundaries,” he said, “but biology doesn’t work like that.”

It’s become a defense mechanism, I suspect, for Vaadia to ignore international boundaries. His vineyards stand in the far north of Israel, a tough neighborhood a few miles from both the Syrian and Lebanese borders. I overheard another taster ask him if he’s encountered any problems because of that location. “I live in denial,” he replied.

Vaadia has worked in highly regarded wineries all over the world, including at Jordan in Sonoma, Cloudy Bay in New Zealand and Catena Zapata in Argentina. He returned to Israel and helped Galil Mountain branch off from Golan Heights Winery, one of the first wineries in Israel to win international acclaim, according to the Oxford Companion. Galil Mountain separated in order to better focus on different terroirs, and Vaadia has helped make the winery truly world-class.

I tried nine of his wines, and there wasn’t a single one I didn’t enjoy. A far cry from cloying Manischewitz, these wines all had ripe fruit balanced with freshness and liveliness. They were never ponderous or heavy. I would buy any of the following with my own money:

2016 Galil Sauvignon Blanc: The aroma was big and citrusy, and the wine was no grass bomb. It had taut fruit, pointy limey citrus and a finish which moved from juicy to slightly chalky. Notably sharp focus. I found this wine on sale for $13, which is a downright steal.

2016 Galil Mountain Rosé: Vaadia poured a taste for me and said, “Lately a lot of rosés are like white wines; this rosé keeps the memory of it being red.” An unusual blend of Sangiovese, Grenache, Pinot Noir and Barbera, the wine had a beautifully shiny, deep pink color. It smelled of fresh strawberry, chalk and orange, and it tasted of watermelon candy. Slow-moving tart citrus kept things balanced, and the wine sharpened up into a dry and surprisingly long-lasting finish. This is a rosé that’s serious at heart but knows how to have fun. For $14 a bottle, it’s another excellent value.

2016 Galil Mountain Merlot: The wine smelled of dark plummy fruit and a little vanilla, but it felt incredibly zesty on the tongue. Fresh and ripe dark fruit gave way to bright acids, black pepper spice and very soft tannins. I found it for $11 a bottle, marked down from $14. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a Merlot of similar quality for that price.

Appetizers at Ema in Chicago

2015 Galil Pinot Noir: When I heard a rumor that Vaadia is seriously considering discontinuing the Pinot Noir, I nearly choked on my hummus. His Pinot has a big, lovely aroma of cherries leavened with a bit of earth, and it had a wonderful zing on the tongue, with big and taut cherry fruit, broad and juicy acids and refined black pepper spice. “Compulsively drinkable” is a wine-writing cliché, and I don’t like to use it except when I really mean it. I really mean it. And it’s a real value for $19 a bottle. Oregon and Burgundy sell Pinots of similar quality for twice the price.

2015 Galil Mountain Syrah: This wine had an enticingly rich, dark aroma with some raspberry and blackberry jam, as well as a touch of vanilla and something savory underneath. It tasted rich and ripe, but again, the wine was strikingly light on its feet. Lively and focused acids balanced the cool and clear dark fruit. The spice slowly expanded in power before evaporating, leaving a crisp finish. What a pairing this would be with some kofta or falafel! The 2014 Syrah can be had for $11, marked down from $15. That. Price. Is. Insane.

2016 Galil Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon: No monster Napa Cab, this. It smelled of dark fruit, mint and vanilla, and through there was plenty of big fruit on the palate, sharp acids and white pepper spice made the wine feel quite bright and fresh. Nor was it tannic; the finish felt surprisingly soft. Very approachable, and a very fine value for $16 a bottle.

2014 Galil “Ela”: I can’t recall ever tasting a blend of Barbera, Syrah, Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc, a mix of Italian, Rhône and Bordeaux grapes, respectively. But it certainly works in this case. The blackberry jam aroma had a note of oak in it, the first time I’d detected any woodsiness in Galil’s wines. It tasted gorgeously ripe, almost jammy, but focused acids and spice more than balanced out the fruit, as did a lift of eucalyptus-like freshness. Some wood on the end felt rather luxurious. The price is higher at $22 a bottle, but even so, it’s worth every penny and then some.

2013 Galil “Alon”: My favorite wine of the tasting, the “Alon” blends Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc. It smelled of dark fruit with a savory undertone, as well as something fresh. There was that wonderful combination of ripe dark fruit and bright acids again, and in this case, the acids and refined spice developed with slow, even confidence. The tannins on the finish, too, felt supple and elegant. This wine is one classy customer, and it’s an astonishing value at $20 a bottle.

2013 Galil “Yiron”: A blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah, the “Yiron” is one of Galil’s flagship wines. It had a rich aroma of dark chocolate-covered cherries and vanilla, and it felt lush and forceful on the tongue, with ripe, jammy fruit, ample acids and a rather sudden pow of tannins. All the parts are there, but the wine still feels young. In a couple of years it will surely taste more integrated, and I’ll be very curious to try it then. It’s not inexpensive at $32 a bottle, but even so, the wine seems underpriced.

Photo copyright Galil Mountain Winery

When I mentioned the elegance of the “Alon” to Vaadia, he smiled and said, “Our seasons are so intense. The name of the game is taming the beast. It’s a lot of work introducing finesse.”

These wines hearken back to a winemaking tradition some 5,000 years old, a tradition that was obliterated thanks to a misguided religious edict. Now, Israeli winemakers like Vaadia have rebuilt that tradition from next to nothing, crafting wines of real interest and character. Israel is experiencing nothing short of a wine revolution, and it’s a great story.

But more important for the wine consumer is the excellent quality-to-price ratio. Because Israel’s reputation hasn’t caught up with the quality of its wines, bottlings like the ones above sell for far less than comparable examples from more famous wine regions. My wine rack can expect to see a regular rotation of Galil from now on.

A Festive Sparkler From The Holy Land

20 December 2014

Gilgal BrutToday marks the midpoint of Hanukkah, and Christmas is just days away. What better time, then, to celebrate with a bottle of sparkling wine from Israel?

Many people still associate sickly sweet Maneschewitz-like wines with Israel, but in recent decades, the country has quietly undergone a quality revolution. “It was the late-1970s planting on the volcanic soils of the Golan Heights, from 1,300 feet above the Sea of Galilee up to 4,000 feet towards Mount Hermon,” The World Atlas of Wine explains, “that signaled a new direction.” The Oxford Companion to Wine concurs, noting that “Planting vineyards with noble varieties in cooler, high-altitude areas, combined with internationally trained winemakers and expertise… had dramatic effects.”

But winemaking in Israel dates back thousands of years, and wine appears frequently in the Bible’s Old and New Testaments. That tradition continued under Roman and Byzantine rule until AD 636, the Oxford Companion relates, “when the spread of Islam brought about the destruction of the vineyards.” Crusaders started wine production again in about AD 1100, but maintained it for only about 200 years: “With the exile of the Jews, vine-growing ceased.”

As Jewish people returned from the Diaspora centuries later, winemaking began once again. Galilee in northern Israel is the best-quality region, according to every resource I’ve consulted, its high-altitude vineyards offering a beneficially cooler climate than the coast. Jesus grew up in this region, in Nazareth, and it makes sense: If you’re the son of God, of course you would choose to live in the best wine region you could.

The Golan Heights Winery is the third largest in Israel, and it helped lead the quality revolution by planting vineyards of noble international varieties in the Golan Heights in 1976. The winery’s 28 vineyards “range in altitude from 400 meters (1,300 feet) at Geshur, up to almost 1,200 meters (3,900 feet) at Odem,” according to its website, and these vineyards are further divided into 400 separate blocks. The grapes from each are stored and handled separately throughout the winemaking process, allowing Golan Heights to get a real feel for each parcel’s terroir and determine which varieties grow best where. I was also excited to see that Golan Heights was the first winery in Israel to grow its grapes organically.

I picked up a bottle of its NV Gilgal Brut, a 50% Pinot Noir and 50% Chardonnay blend named after the Gilgal Refaim, an enigmatic 5,000-year-old assemblage of some 42,000 basalt rocks arranged in concentric circles located near the winery. This light straw-colored wine proved to be delightful, with aromas of red berries, yeast and round, orangey citrus. It felt full and ripe in the mouth. The berries and yeast were there, along with zesty acids and a froth of prickly bubbles. The finish was quite tart, with pronounced notes of green apple. I tried it again after it sat open in the refrigerator for two hours, which gave it time to develop a rounder note of vanilla.

What a fun, cheerful sparkler, and food-friendly, too. Its racy acids paired especially well with some crab Rangoon, cutting right through the richness. The Gilgal Brut would surely do well with just about any cheese or cream-based dish, making it ideal as an apéritif with cheese and crackers. I really want to try it with cheese fondue.

Making a sparkling wine in the Champagne method with traditional grapes requires great effort and significant investment in infrastructure. But it makes sense that Golan Heights would want to dive into such an elaborate project. The head winemaker, Victor Schoenfeld, worked at Jacquesson, a 200-year-old Champagne house in France, before he joined Golan Heights. His Gilgal Brut clearly reflects that experience.

I purchased the Gilgal Brut at Binny’s for about $14, which is quite a value for the money. If your wine shop has a Kosher section, you might also find it there (it’s Kosher for Passover).

There are any number of wonderful wines you can serve during Hanukkah and Christmas, but I found it particularly satisfying to sip the Gilgal Brut, which has a direct connection to the Holy Land. It’s a very fun and festive wine, but it offers an opportunity for reflection as well.