Red Varietals

Today there are 40 wineries harvesting 50 tons or more, 250 boutique wineries and many more garagiste or domestic wineries. The largest wineries in Israel are: Carmel, Barkan, Golan Heights, Teperberg, Binyamina, Tabor, Tishbi, Galil Mountain, Dalton & Recanati. Israel has 5,500 hectares of wine vineyards. The main wine growing areas are the Upper Galilee, Golan Heights, Mount Carmel, Judean Plain & Judean Hills.

The Most Israeli Variety

Carignan, the Mediterranean variety, was present at the dawn of the modern Israeli wine industry. Now there is a Carignan revival. There a few old vine Carignan vineyards producing quality wines with very low yields, which is proving of great interest to the wine connoisseur. The fact that it was here from the very beginning and that no other country in the New World is identified with it (yet), makes it a very serious candidate to be the variety most associated with Israel.

The 3 most heavily planted varieties are in Israel today are Cabernet Sauvignon, Carignan and Merlot followed by Shiraz, Argaman and Petite Sirah.

60% Syrah, 20% Argaman, 20% Cabernet Sauvignon.
100% Cabernet Sauvignon grapes grown in Haruach Vineyard, in the Galilee region.
Made from two well-known vineyards: Hestan in the Eastern foothills and Page-Nord just south of Yountville.
54% Syrah, 36% Mourvedre, 10% Grenache Hand-picked grapes from Judean Hills.

wine regions of israel: the powerhouse winemakers of central israel

The wines my group enjoyed in this tasting all were from wineries that the average kosher wine consumer has heard of, even if he or she doesn’t know them well. Domaine du Castel, Flam, Psagot and Dalton are all “household names” that are part of Israel’s high-end, powerhouse wineries, the ones who make wines that are impressive in practically every situation. The wines we tasted would universally make great gifts, and we would encourage you to try both the ones we tasted, and other blends and varietals that strike your fancy from these wineries. We also thank Wine Country for providing these wines for our tasting and for placing them on sale at such deep discounts for the coming week so our readers will have an extra inducement to try them out.

This is our third of four tastings on Israeli wine regions, and the second half of our tasting on central Israel, focusing on bottles from the Judean Hills or Shimson (Samson), where many of the country’s most artistic, artisanal and successful wineries are located. Just to review once again, Israel has five legally defined regional appellations: Galilee, Judean Hills, Shomron, Shimshon (Samson) and Negev, but central Israel, that is the Judean Hills and Shomron, are really where a lot of the action is. It was a pleasure to try all these wines and to bring some of their stories to our readers.

Generally made from grapes grown on exalted ground just outside of Jerusalem, these wines in particular seem to celebrate the land and the promise of Israel, creating true joy in what the land produces. “We should celebrate what this land produces at every simcha, at every Shabbos table. I personally look to buy Israeli wines for my Shabbos table, where the laws of shmitah and yovel were adhered to, and terumah and maaser. You can’t get that with a California or French wine,” said Ari.

Domaine du Castel just celebrated its 25th anniversary; it was my pleasure to be at a tasting dinner in Manhattan this past November that celebrated Castel’s amazing rags-to-riches story and its wonderful French-style, award-winning wines that are known the world over. Founder, owner and head winemaker Eli Ben-Zaken, an entirely self-taught vintner, was there as well as his children Ilana, Ariel and Eitan, who all work with their father. The Ben-Zakens have built Castel into a world-class winery, bringing Israel to a greater standard worldwide. Their wines are regularly scaled by Wine Advocate and have been sold and written about by Sotheby’s; Daniel Rogov, z”l; Robert Parker; and every other wine critic of note.

While most of Domaine du Castel’s wines are meant to be aged and can even be considered investment purchases, Castel’s La Vie line of red and white blends seeks to bring a young, more entry-level wine to the kosher world. For me, the La Vie wines were accessible in a way many of the other Castels are not, mainly because of the price. I generally like to buy wines that cost under $25 and think the lovely Petit Castel ($50) or a Domaine du Castel Grand Vin ($89) is just too rich for an average Shabbat purchase. However, the name Castel means something, so La Vie presents an opportunity for someone like me to purchase a impressive, aspirational wine from a well-known vineyard, in my price range. Meant for drinking now, La Vie Blanc du Castel, ($17.97 at Wine Country) is 50 percent sauvignon blanc, 45 percent chardonnay and 5 percent gewurtztraminer. “It’s fresh; bracing and bold, with no acid,” said Chana. “There is a bit of sweetness and soft roundness. It would be good with a nice piece of fish,” she said. “It’s chardonnay-heavy, and that gives a lot of steely sweetness. I’m not used to unoaked whites like this. It makes the wine fruitier,” said Allyson.

The La Vie Rouge du Castel ($17.97 at Wine Country) is a classic young red blend, 50 percent cabernet sauvignon, 40 percent merlot, 5 percent syrah and 5 percent petit verdot. “Smooth, but surprisingly light,” said Aron. “This is a bordeaux for beginners,” said Chana. “This wine is not meant to be saved; it’s meant to be drunk now,” said Yeruchum.

Flam, similarly to Castel, is a winery based in the Judean Hills that is well-known for making home-run wines of international importance. We tasted the Flam Reserve Syrah 2014, even though we later found out that these grapes came from the Galil, in the north. However, we couldn’t throw this special wine out of our tasting, for any reason. “This is a powerful wine; it gets to all your senses. It’s full bodied and balanced,” said Yeruchum. “This is part of the kedushas of Eretz Yisroel,” said Ari. The fruity nose of cherries and cranberries combined with its heft and nice viscosity are clearly why this wine received 90 points in Wine Enthusiast. This a great wine; and 2014 was a great year for Israeli reds. If you love Israeli syrahs, you will love this wine. This wine is $39.97 at Wine Country.

To give a sense of the impressive nature of the next wine we tried, it’s interesting to note the Psagot Winery only opened in 2003, but has been busy winning awards and becoming well known for its craftmanship and artfulness. Because Psagot has become so well known for its reds (and we tried a Psagot merlot in our previous tasting), we tried the Psagot Viognier 2016. Viognier is a white wine grape we’ve gotten to know from our time studying Israel’s wine regions, and we’ve found it’s distinct from other whites like chardonnay or sauvignon blanc and so, so refreshing in so many ways. This wine is made with 100 percent viognier. Half of this wine was aged in new 500-liter French oak wood barrels, and the remaining half was aged in stainless steel tanks, so that the wine’s unique flavor doesn’t get lost in the oak, we assume. “This is so light; so fruity, but not sweet,” said Michal. “No tannins, and the fruit only comes at the end,” said Yeruchum. This wine is available at Wine Country for $18.97.

Last in our tasting was Dalton’s Petite Sirah 2014, from Shimshon. This aged in American oak for 12 months wine just took our breath away, with its nose of crushed red fruits and spice, and round, soft, chewy, pleasing tannins. The color was beautiful; the viscosity and mouthfeel was good overall. “This wine is warming, with notes of blackberry,” said Allyson. “Yum,” said Chana. “This wine is an incredible value and for people who love reds, this is a great one,” said Aron. This wine was also one of our best-value wines, at $14.97.

We look forward to concluding our wine regions series in the next few weeks, wrapping up with wines in the southern half of Israel, including the Negev. Thanks again to Scott Maybaum of Wine Country for curating the tasting. Visit Wine Country at 89 New Bridge Road, in Bergenfield. Call 201-385-0106.

wine regions of israel: enjoy complex, rare varietals from the judean hills and shomron

Moving southward in our tour of the wine regions of Israel, we move out of the amazing Galilee region and into the Judean Hills and Shomron. These are big wines, made old-world style but by people with new-world (mainly California and Australia) experience, with the grapes from this deeply varied region giving wines incredible depth and complexity. One of the challenges with this tasting was choosing representative wineries that help display the uniqueness of these appellations, and I think we succeeded with the wide variety of wines we chose. Thanks to Scott Maybaum of Wine Country for again curating the selection, and for providing these wines at such deep discounts for our readers to try in advance of the Chanukah holiday.

As discussed in the last article, Israel has five legally defined regional appellations: Galilee, Judean Hills, Shomron, Samson and Negev. In this installment of two we are doing on “middle Israel,” we are focusing on the Shomron and Judean Hills (also known as the Jerusalem mountains) region, but the next article will also include some of the more famous wineries (Flam, Domaine du Castel) from other subregions of the Judean Hills as well as Samson, which is located between the Judean Hills and the coastal plains.

Although only about 20 percent of Israeli wine is produced in the Shomron, it is considered a very traditional wine region. Altitudes reach 2,850 feet and many believe it is this high altitude combined with the very temperate climate that makes shiraz (also known as syrah) shine here. The petite syrah grape (completely different from shiraz/syrah) also does well in this climate, as do older specialty wine grapes such as viognier and gewurztraminer, as well as newer grapes, such as marselan. The Judean Hills, where altitudes reach 2,400 feet, and which lie between the Mediterranean Sea and Jerusalem, enjoy similar temperatures as the Shomron, enabling a long growing season. The central coastal plain southeast of Tel Aviv leads to the rolling hills of the Judean Foothills.

Barkan Assemblage Tzafit 2010 and Reserve Chardonnay 2016

Barkan’s Assemblage series from the Judean Plains are wine blends that seek to offer a new perspective on the potential of Israel’s wine regions. Barkan Tzafit Assemblage 2010 is a “rare red blend,” as opposed to the more traditional Bordeaux or Côtes du Rhône blends. It comprises 53 percent marselan (a cross between cabernet sauvignon and grenache), 20 percent caledoc (a hybrid between grenache and malbec), 12 percent carignan and 15 percent pinotage. It is because of wines like the Barkan Tzafit Assemblage that the Judean Hills are considered an exciting, emerging wine region with significant viticulture prospects. Each grape’s wine was aged individually in 25 percent new French oak and 75 percent on their second use. The wine has a strong nose of tobacco, chocolate and creme brulée. It has weak tannins and a pleasant mouth feel, with a round, sweet finish. “I taste the vanilla and berries,” said Randi.

“The nose and the color would not have interested me,” said Brooke, referring to the dark, murky purple color of the 2010 wine, but “I really enjoyed this; it’s dry but not too heavy on tannins, but this is quite unique and very pleasant.” Wine Country is placing this wine on sale for $28.97.

Barkan Reserve Chardonnay 2016 is aged six months in new oak barrels and this certainly contributes to its pleasant nose; round, buttery fullness; and pleasant mouthfeel. “I don’t usually like chardonnay, but this wine is not as dry as others; it’s inviting. This is not a classic chardonnay,” said Brooke. “A solid choice for a nice white, with a pleasant finish,” she added. “Interesting and unique for a chardonnay,” said Randi. This wine is on sale for $13.97.

Psagot Merlot 2014

Wine Enthusiast gave the Psagot Merlot 2014 a 91 score out of 100. “Blackberry and rose petal with touches of salinity. It is smooth and silky at first sip, with flavors of black plum, cherry, chocolate, lavender and freshly roasted coffee. As it makes its way around the mouth, stern tannins make their presence known and then recede into a finish notable for a lingering espresso bean flavor,” said the description in Wine Enthusiast.

Psagot Winery’s location is at the highest point of the limestone-filled Judean Hills. This fruit-forward merlot offers a complexity of aromas, from red raspberry fruits to black licorice, supported nicely by flavors of red berry, minerals and hints of dark chocolate and cedar spice. The nose is very strong. “I would not describe these tannins as soft,” said Randi. “A very spicy wine, but pleasant to drink,” said Allyson. This wine is on sale for $24.97.

Jerusalem Vineyard 4990 Series Petite Syrah 2014 and 4990 Series Reserve Shiraz 2014

Jerusalem Vineyard’s reserve range is made from grapes growing along the Coastal Plain. The grapes are brought from vineyards on Mount Carmel near Zichron Ya’acov, Carmei Yossef on the Judean Plain and Lachish in the southern part of the Judean Hills. The heavy soil on Mount Carmel abounds in organic material with high levels of rock, which improves ground porosity.

Around Carmei Yossef the soil is lighter and mixed with low quantities of sand.

Petite syrah is a black-skinned grape, and it yields dark, inky, fruity wines. These grapes come from Ktar Uriah in the Judean Foothills near Jerusalem. The Jerusalem Vineyard 4990 Series Petite Syrah 2014 has aromas of ripe, sweet plums, with contrasting but pleasant meaty and vanilla notes. This wine was aged for 24 months in French oak barrels and that shows in its smooth, delightful viscosity. The palate follows through with rich, fruity, firm and gripping tannins and lovely warmth. “Beautiful, appealing color and non-acidic, pleasant nose,” said Michelle. “I feel the tannins in the back of the throat,” she added. “Very rich and inviting. This would hold up well with a steak or a lamb chop,” said Brooke. This is on sale at Wine Country for $19.97.

Dark pomegranate red color, the Jerusalem Vineyard 4990 Series Reserve Shiraz 2014 has scents of cigar box and vanilla following through with fleshy, vibrant fruit framed with elegant tannins. This wine received an amazing 93 score from Wine Enthusiast. It was aged for 18 months in French oak. “The tannins are pleasing, and not overpowering,” said Randi. “Spicy; this a deeper drier wine, and I can even smell the tannins. This smells like a traditional red,” said Brooke. “The color is nice; it has nice, balanced acid, and it’s more typical of a classic red, and easy going down, thick and rich,” said Michelle. This wine is on sale for $19.97.

Tishbi Estate Gewurztraminer 2016 and Viognier 2016

Tishbi Estate Gewurztraminer 2016 is a perfect wine to bring as a gift for Chanukah. It’s light and enjoyable and it has a fruity sweetness that presents on the nose like a dessert wine, but does not taste like a dessert wine at all, even though it has little to no tannin. “This is well rounded, with a lot of depth, and I could drink this throughout the meal,” said Brooke. “What a delightful surprise,” said Allyson.

“The scent is not too strong; pleasant and smooth going down. Because I am a red wine drinker, I would drink this just for dessert,” said Michelle. This wine offers scents of pineapple, lychee, white peach, passionfruit and jasmine. The grapes were hand harvested from the Judean Hills region. This particular area is characterized by its white, chalky and rocky virgin soil, producing grapes that possess cassis and cranberry aromas. This wine is on sale for $12.77.

The Tishbi Estate Viognier 2016 comes from grapes also grown in virgin soil, where vines had not been cultivated previously for 2,000 years. This wine is made of 50 percent viognier and 50 percent riesling. A fruity, rich and fresh wine, this wine has a nose of white peach, green apple and bitter melon. This wine has a lovely mouthfeel that would go along well with dairy dishes at Chanukah parties. Chill it and serve it, as our tasting group did, with soft goat cheese or with ripe brie and Camembert. This wine goes down easy, so watch how fast you drink. “I like the seductive nose; it draws me in,” said Brooke. “This is more than your typical dry white wine, but it’s gentle and a little different,” said Michelle. “There is a scent of a fruit here that I don’t recognize,” said Randi, who later identified the bitter melon as a fruit note. “There is sustaining acid, inviting, and it makes you want to keep drinking,” said Allyson.

“This would be great for someone who likes white wine but might be ready to move on to the next level. This is not your basic chardonnay or moscato,” said Brooke. Try this wine for $12.77.

Special thanks to Wine Country for curating the selection of wines for this article. All the wines mentioned are on sale for the next week at Wine Country in Bergenfield, 89 New Bridge Road. Contact 201-385-0106.

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