Sunday, September 22, 2019


Bear with me if I sound like a broken record, but you know I go nutso over wines from less-common locales, and here's another one! I have long enjoyed wines from Israel, but two recent tastings catapulted the country to the forefront of my mind; the quality is amazing, the potential is HUGE, and the value is incredible. So banish those thoughts that Israel only makes grape-juicy Kosher wines already and get with the program!

It's a little funny that in one sense Israel is absolutely "Old World" -- it's one of the very first places ancient people grew grapes. But it's certainly "New World" in guts and style.

Here are some things to keep in mind:
  • There really is no clear "signature" grape of the region. In fact, Grenache was first planted only about ten years ago and is making some of the world's best already! As knowledge, experimentation, and technology grow, so will the quality and variety of Israeli wines.
  • Many bold Israeli reds are actually super-approachable, meaning they're not overly-structured and require years of cellaring before you pop them. These are meant to be drunk now!
  • This is a group of winemakers who are forging forward, breaking conventions, and doing it all with passion and a strong intellectual and environmental basis. They are Jewish, Muslim, Christian, and non-religious to boot. 
  • There are only about 35 commercial wineries, but around 250 boutique ones, and this number is rising as grape-growers peel off to make their own wines. Some of which are already achieving "cult" status!

Here are some of my standouts from those recent tastings:

2018 Five Stones “D vs G” White (David v Goliath) 
Appellation laws are fairly relaxed in Israel, so they have a lot of options for experimentation with blends. I initially had a "hmmmmm" reaction to this 60% Gewurztraminer 40% Sauvignon Blanc blend, as who thinks to put those two grapes together?! And I did feel it kind of butted itself in the head, BUT boy how it would go with the spiced and spicy food of the region. Typical "grandma's boudoir" Gewurz notes of dusty rose perfume with litchi, accompanied by SB's green, linear acidity. Outrageously long finish. I definitely warmed up to it! ~$30

2017 Recanati Winery Reserve Marawi 
Marawi is one of the indigenous varieties of the area now getting resurrected. This was first commercially released in 2014, and is the tricky story of a Palestinian grower who sells the grapes grown in his backyard to an Israeli company. (His name isn't released because they have had death threats on both sides, yikes.) Recanati also has their own vineyards, and produce a Roussane/Marsanne blend and an old bush vine Carignan, all farmed biodynamically. This had yellow fruit, sweet brioche, juicy apricot, lanolin, honeysuckle, and a little spice with smoky, flinty minerality. Long yet mild finish. Little Chenin Blanc-like. 1 year in French oak. ~$34

2011 Somek Carignan
This is from a single vineyard with 40-year old vines. The Someks are 5th generation winemaker-grapegrowers, so this is a family vineyard since 1882; the winery itself was founded in 2002. The family does it all, including marketing and distribution. This Carignan is aged 24 months in French oak and 2 years in bottle. Definitely earthy, terroir-driven. Cola, hi-tone blueberry, mocha dust, minerally, with licorice, brambly berries, wild sage, a little spicy, and has tightly wound, balanced tannins over a super long finish. Continues to be tangy after 7 years! And it's still kind of a baby. This will be fascinating in a few more years! ~$35

2016 Hayotzer Lyrica
Arza, Hayotzer's parent company, started in 1847! Here we have a GSM blend (40% Grenache, 35% Syrah, 25% Mourvedre.) Soft red and pink flowers, crunchy red fruit, white pepper, smooth and sexy, plush but juicy, whiff of smoke on finish, not super-complex but really tasty and I wanted to slurp it uuuup. ~$40

2016 Gvaot Masada
Shiva Drori, Gvaot's winemaker, is interested in the academic side of making wine; he does DNA testing, studies wine at a high level, and brings that information back to the vineyards and winery. The Masada is a blend of 56% Cabernet Sauvignon, 22% Merlot, 22% Petit Verdot, from rocky, steep, mountainous vineyards, with a huge diurnal swing; the elevation and diurnal keep the temperature in check and preserve the grapes' freshness and acidity. At my tasting, I thought this wine glass was not properly clean, muting the wine's aroma, and so this showed merely dusty on the nose. But in the mouth there was loads of tightly wound purple fruit (that PV really jumps forward!) leading to a big and structured, but balanced wine. Wow. ~$75

2016 Covenant Syrah
Covenant brought winemaker Jeff Morgan from Napa over to consult, and that has led to its growing cult status. This wine is 90% Syrah with a dash (10%) of Cabernet Sauvignon. It presents as liquid red fruit, spicy and juicy and lush and sexy, pepper, light savory notes, super balance of fruit/savory/spice/oak use plushness, wow! Lifted tang on long finish. Chewy. It brings voluptuousness without blousy-ness. ~$75

2016 Tura “Mountain Peak” Red
Another cult comes from the husband/wife team Vered and Erez Ben Sa'adon (she's the winemaker.) The Mountain Peak red is a blend of 47% Cabernet Sauvignon, 38% Merlot, 9% Cabernet Franc, and 6% Petit Verdot. Cassis, cedar, herbal liqueur, pyrazine, good acid once again, tangy juicy outrageously long finish. This is definitely a creative take on a CS-based Bordeaux-style blend. ~$75

2016 Segal “Unfiltered” Cabernet Sauvignon
The Israeli cults just keep on coming! Winemaker Avi Feldstein has boldly produced an unfiltered Cab since the days when that was a kind of blasphemy. This is a super-interesting wine, with cassis liqueur, bright red fruit, mocha, toasted coconut, a bit of shortbread. Wow. Really “red,” dense and intense. Long finish. Big but plush/approachable. Segal is owned by the large company Barcan — "big kids" in Israel sometimes acquire or start small wineries to have a garagiste offering. ~$60

2014 Golan Heights Winery Yarden “2T” 
Golan Height is one of the coldest areas in Israel, and much like the U.S.'s Old West, there are wild horses galloping along wide volcanic plains. This is one of the country's more classic wineries, and here they're showcasing how Portuguese varieties can shine in Israel. A blend of 69%Touriga Nacional and 31% Tinta Cão sourced from 2 vineyards in Golan Heights: Springs Vineyard at 700 meters elevation, and Geshur Vineyard at 400m. Aged 18 mo in 40% new French oak. Smoky, spicy mocha, black plum, blackberry, black cherry, lots of peppery spice on finish. Good combo of juicy, approachable fruit, some more savory notes, and balanced acid and subtle tannins on long, balanced finish.  ~$33

2014 Tabor Winery Malkiya Single Vineyard CS 
Tabor was founded in 1999 by four families of growers that have working there for five generations. This Cab is from a single vineyard at 726 meters elevation with Terra Rossa (the most famous soil of Coonawarra in Australia,) under topsoil, and lots of limestone rocks they refer to as “a lot of stars.” Viticulturist Michal Ackerman found this area and she convinced them to make wine there! Her vines' roots go down 20 feet so they have access to water and unusually for Israel don’t need irrigation. She’s also planting Malbec and Chenin Blanc in the Negev desert, so watch for those.  These Cabernet Sauvignon grapes are hand picked, they use only free-run juice, and it is aged 18 months in new French oak with an additional 1 year in bottle. Smoky, cassis, cedar, cloves, wow, VERY tasty, with the red fruit coming out more on the palate. Tightly wound, and it releases layers of flavors over an incredibly long, balanced finish. Would be fun to blind taste this on some smarty somms! ~$60

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I don't know about you, but I am definitely planning to seek out more of these amazing wines from Israel. At the high end, maybe $60-75 bucks seems like a lot, but you'd be paying $150-300 for a similar wine from Napa, so these actually are a steal! Ask your merchants and somms about providing more quality wines from Israel; they may appreciate your "insider" know-how, but they also need to know you're interested in trying these stunning offerings. (Seriously, there was hardly a dud in the bunch, and I sampled over FIFTY wines.) I look forward to my next "visit" to Israel, for sure!


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