South African Born

Pinotage was the result of South Africa’s largely ineffective early experiment with Pinot Noir.  It was decided that the region might get better results if the Pinot was cross bred with Cinsault, a Rhone variety much more suited to South Africa’s hotter climate.  Good Pinotage is great, it’s age worthy, has notes of raspberry, spice, and mocha coffee and can be extremely food friendly.  In Israel Pinotage does very well due to the similarity to the South African climate.  Many wineries are producing great 100% examples but also utilizing this grape in blends.

An Undeserved Reputation

Pinotage sometimes gets a bad rap, and that’s due to the largely bulk wine churned out by South Africa’s state run wine cooperative starting in the 1970’s.  Experience this on your own, and you’ll find a lively red bursting with unique flavor that enhances many dishes.  If early results are any indicator of potential, this is a red wine that has a serious future in Israel.

An understood varietal making a name for itself in Israel, Pinotage deserves much more respect.  A range of styles and notes can come from this wonderful grape when done properly.

A unique wine in the Israeli wine scene, characterized by its fruitiness and spices.
The wine boasts a balanced body and an enjoyable aftertaste.

wine regions of israel: classic flavors of the northern golan and galilee

It’s somewhat shocking to consider that a country the size of New Jersey has such wide variety in its winemaking terroir (the soil, topography and climate in which grapes are grown) that it has at least four distinct regions. Israel actually has five official, legally defined wine region appellations: Galilee, Judean Hills, Samson, Desert and Shomron. We are dividing our article slightly differently because the broadest swath of interesting kosher vineyards in Israel is concentrated in the Galilee, Shomron and Judean Hills regions.

With thanks to Tzvi Silver of our Jewish Link/Israel offices, we will discuss the regions as north (comprising the Golan Heights and the Upper Galilee), "east" (comprising Gush Dan, Samson, the coastal and Judean Plains), west (comprising the Jerusalem area, Judea & Samaria/Shomron) and south (the desert/Negev region).

Israel’s broad variety in terroir is likely one of the reasons why the winemaking world generally has not yet characterized with any certainty the unique nature of the “typical Israeli wine.” While a typical wine likely doesn’t entirely exist, in this series we are looking at both classic and new wines that have characteristics that have already or may yet become defining wines for Israel, in both the kosher and the secular world. “The fact that kosher wines from the Shomron’s Tishbi Winery, for example, are now on menus in restaurants and hotels as ‘a wine from Israel,’ and is not specifically listed on menus as kosher, is a sign of a growing trend for importers to market good-quality, high-end wines from Israel to the general population, rather than only to kosher-keeping consumers,” said Ami Nahari, CEO of The River Wine. This represents an important step in the growth of Israel as a winemaking region, he told The Jewish Link.

For this part one of four planned articles, my tasting group sampled both a white and a red from three vineyards in the north of Israel, with wines coming from the Golan Heights and the Northern Galilee. Notably, these are wines from the most temperate/coldest region of Israel; meaning the grapes experience extreme temperatures between the day and nighttime hours as they grow. Temperatures can reach close to freezing at night and can be very hot in the daytime. This results in wines similar to the Burgundy region in France, and for these reasons, the winemakers tend to riff off of French winemaking rather than California styles to bring out the best in their grapes.

Hayotzer Virtuoso Chardonnay 2016 and Genesis Cabernet Sauvignon 2014

Hayotzer is a brand-new boutique winery formed as a spinoff of Arza, the oldest winery in Israel, founded in 1847, and has been known for more inexpensive sweet wines and juices. The Shor family, the original owners of Arza, are still the owners of Arza and Hayotzer today. Hayotzer has begun exporting wines from its first vintage just this fall, with many wines placed under its aptly named Genesis label. Hayotzer’s French-trained winemaker, Philippe Lichtenstein, was the winemaker for Carmel’s Zichron Ya’akov wine cellars for many years.

The Virtuoso Chardonnay, made with 100 percent chardonnay grapes, has “an extremely cool bottle design,” said Aaron, but the nose was even more impressive. “Clean. Grapefruit on the nose but the citrus wasn’t as strong in the flavor of the wine,” said Brooke. Rather, upon tasting, some spice notes of vanilla and sugar cookie came to light. For that reason, we found it paired well with sweeter foods and would recommend it with lighter fare such as white fish, root vegetables and baked apples. It’s on sale at Wine Country in Bergenfield, as are all the wines in this article, for $19.99.

Hayotzer’s Genesis Cabernet Sauvignon 2014 is an extremely accessible wine. While it’s a rich red with a full nose of red berries, it’s also light in viscosity. My opinion on this wine, and the other Hayotzer reds I tasted this past Yom Tov season, is that Hayotzer is making “red wine drinker’s red wines,” meaning that people who love red wine will love Hayotzer. “There is that typically slight metallic nature and acid with this red,” said Jen. “This wine grew on me,” said Brooke, noting that her first opinion of it changed after the second taste. “Very drinkable,” she added. Wine Country’s sale price for this wine is a great deal at $14.99. I recommend the entire Genesis line as new wines to try along with Thanksgiving dinner.

Matar by Pelter Sauvignon Blanc/Semillon 2016 and Stratus 2014

Matar is the kosher winery spinoff of the non-kosher Pelter winery. Pelter, headed by Tal and Nir Pelter, is based in Tzofit in the Golan Heights. The award-winning non-kosher winery was established in 2005, and Matar, its kosher line, was established in 2012 to make Pelter’s “invigorating and elegant” wines accessible to a wider variety of customers.

The gold-skinned semillon grape is most commonly blended with sauvignon blanc and is classically grown in France’s Burgundy region or in Australia’s Margaret River region. There are very few semillon wines available that are kosher. The Matar Sauvignon Blanc/Semillon is an easy-to-drink crisp wine that “I just want to keep drinking,” said Allyson. “It’s smooth; I like the clean and subtle flavor,” said Shoval. It’s citrus and green melon notes along with its light green color makes the wine inviting and contributes to its overall pleasant and easy quaffability. Wine Country’s sale price for this wine is $29.99.

The Matar Stratus 2014, which is 90 percent syrah and 10 percent petit verdot, has a smooth, plummy nose with flavors of cocoa, red cherries and fall spices, like cloves and nutmeg. “It’s a dry red wine, which I don’t generally like, and I not only drank this but enjoyed it,” said Aaron. It has multiple layers of full-bodied flavor, which is attributed to the grapes coming from multiple low-yield vineyards in Ramot Naftali in the Upper Galilee. This was was aged 14 months in new French oak. Like the white we tried, it is also on sale for $29.99 at Wine Country.

Yarden Katzrin Chardonnay 2014 and Golan Heights Cabernet Sauvignon 2014

Yarden and Golan Heights Winery are among the most recognizable brands of Israeli wine, mainly because the Golan Heights Winery has a beautiful tasting room and touring facilities, which are part of many visitor itineraries on their first visit to Israel.

Yarden’s Katzrin line of high-end, sophisticated wines are known for their complexity and drinkability. The Katzrin Chardonnay, which retails for $28.99, did not disappoint. “This wine has a thicker viscosity than all the whites we tried,” said Brooke. Shoval noted the wine’s significantly darker color than the other whites in our tasting as well. The golden color of the wine is the result of nine months of aging in French oak, which results in smooth flavors of spice, vanilla and apple. This is a special-occasion wine that is sure to impress; it will certainly enable all kinds of wine drinkers to enjoy it. “I can’t imagine anyone not liking this,” said Allyson. Though kosher whites tend to not age well, this 2014 wine is tasting beautifully now and can also be cellared and saved for at least three to five more years.

The Golan Heights Cabernet Sauvignon was similar to the Katzrin in that it was balanced and smooth, with beautiful viscosity, and was easy to drink. “There are not-too-strong tannins here; the tiny bit of acid hits the back of the throat in a good way,” said Allyson. “This wine balanced; it isn’t too sweet or too dry,” said Jen. Brooke noted its rich flavor would go well with main courses, but also with desserts including berries or chocolate, as both of those deep flavors were present in the nose. The sale price is $24.99.

israel’s best and brightest bordeaux-style red blends

Imagine tasting a single sip of wine that includes a fusion of the very best grapes grown in Israel. Nice. Now, let’s take it a step further. Imagine Israel’s most experienced winemakers working for years to produce the choicest grapes from multiple orchards for a single, solitary purpose: to create classic, aged red wine that is the very fulfillment of the experience, the longing, the taste and the blessings of Eretz Yisrael. That is what this year’s Jewish Link Rosh Hashanah tasting was all about. Tasters Ari, Chana, Ezra, Jake and I all agreed that these wines we present here are, quite simply, unforgettable.

Our tasters noted several differences that set these red wines apart from others; all the wines we tried were in the good-to-great range, and it was difficult to rank them formally because of their unique attributes and special characteristics. Instead, we decided to recommend them all and explain why we liked each. “With blends, everyone who enjoys wine can find something here they enjoy the most,” said Ari. Tasting blends also “allow us to enjoy flavors we like and also explore and understand the characteristics of varietals that are new to us,” said Jake.

We limited the tasting to Bordeaux-style red blends. These are wines that typically include any combination of five types of grapes generally grown in the Bordeaux region of France, which are cabernet sauvignon, merlot, cabernet franc, malbec and petit verdot. Because of the richness and variance of Israel’s desert bloom and other types of terroir, including some soils with limestone or rock variations, the Bordeaux-style blends in Israel are rich in a different way than they are in France or California. In some ways one thing that these blends have in common is they are are less earthy and more airy than their French or American cousins.

For us, these wines tasted of the joy, blessings and modern delicacies that we have come to know as a tribute to HaKadosh Baruch Hu and to Medinat Yisrael. Most of the wines in our tasting did not include all five types of Bordeaux grape, and some included a sly addition of the syrah grape, but we tried our best to limit our tasting to special wines around or under $45. These wines would make great gifts and would certainly be robust, special-occasion additions to any Rosh Hashanah or Yom Tov table. Unless otherwise noted, these wines are non-mevushal and widely available at all area wine stores with good kosher selections.

The Bravdo Landmark 2B 2012, bottled by the Karmei Yosef Winery in Samson, was one of the smoothest wines of our tasting. It has an oaky perfume, strong tannins and smoky layers. “This is why I love Israeli reds,” said Ezra. “This would be an amazing accompaniment to a really good steak,” said Chana. Landmark is a label that is a unique creation by renowned winemakers Professors Ben Ami Bravdo and Oded Shosheyov, and while 2B is a cabernet sauvignon and merlot combination, it was enriched with cabernet franc skins separated from an early stage of a parallel rosé wine preparation. After malolactic (secondary) fermentation, the wine was aged 24 months in a 75/25 combination of French and American oak. The result is one of the most satisfying glasses of wine we’ve ever tasted. The 25 percent American oak results in the tiniest of hints of vanilla in the nose and at the end. Bravdo wines are imported by The River Wine’s Ami and Larissa Nahari and are available at Skyview Wines in Riverdale and by request at your favorite wine store.

The Flam Classico 2012, imported by Royal Wines, was likely the most sophisticated wine of our tasting. Awarded 91 out of 100 points by Wine Enthusiast, it was aged 10 months in oak barrels and is made from grapes grown in the Judean Hills near Castel and Beit Shemesh. Flam Classico is bright, rich and more deeply complex and aromatic of berries than many of the others we tried, with a zappy, spicy finish. “It’s a heavier wine than I expected; I like this,” said Ari. “It has warmth going down,” said Chana. Flam Classico is a more classical Bordeaux-style than the Landmark, employing a blend of 47 percent cabernet sauvignon, 17 percent cabernet franc, 16 percent merlot, 13 percent petit verdot and 7 percent syrah. The wine is made by Golan Flam, who learned the art of winemaking from his father, Israel Flam, who worked at Carmel for many years.

G’vaot Vineyard Dance 2014 has been rated the best of all wines produced in the Shomron and, for its 2012 version, attained a score of 90 from Wine Enthusiast. Vineyard Dance is a special wine that I fell in love with earlier this summer, and is at its peak now and will continue to develop for six to eight years (if there’s any left!) It was certainly the fruitiest and least dry in our tasting. Givat Harel in the Shomron, on the banks of Nahal Shiloh, is a hilly region; its unique terroir has a history of producing high-quality vines, and this boutique winery uses advanced technology to do amazing things with the grapes it produces. This wine is clearly the result of good grapes and careful winemaking. It exhibited the subtlest tannins in our tasting, but it should not be confused with a semi-sweet wine either. “There’s a lightness to it, but very fruity and dense too, does that make sense?” asked Jake. This wine comprises 45 percent cabernet sauvignon, 30 percent petit verdot and 25 percent merlot. Imported by Allied Importers, Vineyard Dance is truly a luscious dance of complex, soft fruit flavors and deep colors, and for me, it just tastes of Israel. The winemakers are Dr. Shivi Drori, a molecular biologist/agronomist who has become an expert in viticulture at Ariel University, and entrepreneur Amnon Weiss. Also, great deal alert: At approximately $22, this wine was the least expensive in our tasting. This winery only produces 40,000 bottles a year, so get this bottle now before it runs out. Allied Wines’ Marty Siegmeister told me at a recent tasting that there are very few bottles being shipped as they are selling out fast, but if Vineyard Dance is not available, be sure to try G’vaot’s merlot, which exhibits much of the same richness as Vineyard Dance but highlights the typical warmth that merlot wines bring to the drinker’s experience.

Royal Wines’ Matar Cumulus 2012 called to mind, in two words, “buttered popcorn,” said both Ezra and Chana, at the same moment. It’s named for those fluffy, wispy, cumulus clouds, and all of us took a moment to contemplate the imagery. “It’s a softer wine, not dry, soft around the edges and smooth,” explained Chana. My sense was that the wine felt somehow perfumed with plush, ripe, crushed blackberries and a little buttered toast for warmth. Winemaking brothers Tal and Nir Pelter, who are famous for non-kosher winemaking, created Matar to make their wines accessible to everyone, including the kosher consumer. Tal Pelter, who serves as the winemaker (while Nir serves as CEO), is said to infuse his wines with a personal signature, often with less popular and/or offbeat varietals. Matar Cumulus is made from 33 percent cabernet sauvignon, 33 percent merlot, 24 percent cabernet franc and 10 percent petit verdot, and was aged 14 months in French oak (one third each in new, one-year and two-year old barrels). Most of the grapes were sourced from the Golan Heights, with a smaller portion sourced from the Galilee.

Psagot Edom 2013, also imported by Royal Wines, was as dry as G’vaot was fruity, and we were amazed to taste them alongside one another. “Dry, heavy tannins here, but still natural and easy to drink,” said Jake. “I liked the structure, how it tells a story,” said Ari, noting the wine’s complex character combined with accessibility. Made with 63 percent merlot, 16 percent cabernet sauvignon, 11 percent petit verdot, and 10 percent cabernet franc and grown in the Jerusalem hills, the wine was aged in French and American oak barrels for 14 months, and also underwent an aggressive stainless steel malolactic fermentation prior to barreling. Earlier vintages of the Psagot Edom have won multiple awards, including gold and silver medals in various competitions. Psagot’s vineyards are rooted on picturesque limestone terraces, 900 meters above water level in the Psagot settlement in Binyamin.

Dalton’s Alma Crimson 2013, brought to us again by Allied Importers, was beautiful in a few distinct ways. Garnet-colored, it had more acid than many, if not all, the other wines in our tasting, but was also fruity, darker and more full-bodied than the others, and heavy with tannins. This wine would stand up well with Rosh Hashanah brisket or other savory roasted meats. Alma Crimson also benefited from wines from several vineyards that were picked and fermented separately and also from encouragement of malolactic fermentation, like Psagot’s above, and then the wines were aged separately in French oak barrels for 12 months. Once the aging was complete, each parcel was individually tasted and the final blend was chosen: It comprises 55 percent cabernet sauvignon, 30 percent merlot and 15 percent cabernet franc. The blended wine was then aged in oak for an additional two months. We noted this wine should be opened at least an hour before tasting to fully enjoy its complexity, and would be a perfect accompaniment to roast chicken. Dalton’s CEO Alex Harumi recently shared thoughts with me on his Alma series at a recent tasting. He said that the series, which includes Alma Scarlett (a blend of shiraz, grenache and mourvedre), Ivory (a white blend) and Coral (a rosé) in addition to the Bordeaux-style Crimson, are unique signature blends that highlight the craftsmanship for which Dalton has become known, and the Alma blends seek to offer experiences greater than the sum of their parts. These wines are also on the more affordable end of the spectrum, at approximately $25 a bottle.

Whatever you serve at your table this Yom Tov, we hope one or more of these wines have interested you, and we hope everything on your table helps you usher in a sweet new year, complete with all the flavors, colors and incredible essences of Israel’s stunning bounty.

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