Today I’m on the road in northern Israel, staying in the hillside village of Rosh Pina in the Galilee region. Out my window to the east, I can see the broad, green plateau of the Golan Heights, home to some of Israel’s best vineyards. Behind me are the uplands of the Galilee, which are increasingly dotted with interesting wineries and vineyard sites, right up to the Lebanese border, complete with the flags of Hizbollah fluttering in tatters on the horizon.
So far this trip to investigate the emerging Israeli wine scene has been a whirlwind of meetings, winery visits and tastings. Some wines, most surprisingly Syrah (or Shiraz), have shown impressive quality, much higher than I expected.
I flew into Tel Aviv just as the Shabbat closings on Friday evening began to descend and quiet the hum of this vibrant city. After finding the way to my hotel and taking a quick walk along Tel Aviv’s expansive beach to clear my head and get my bearings, I went to the home of Lenny Recanati. He is the owner of the winery that carries the family name and is one of Israel’s biggest exporters.
Recanati is soft-spoken and intense, a former investment banker whose obvious passion is now wine. We descend to his cellar, which is lined with the beautiful limestone masonry that is the signature building material of finer Israeli architecture. His collection is filled with a good representation of the world’s best: grand cru Burgundy, California cults, first-growth Bordeaux and, of course, leading Israeli wines.
This is my second trip to investigate Israeli wine on the ground. My first was 10 years ago, and it was a fascinating journey that showed that the seeds of a fine wine culture had been sown. (Read Israel Awakens, from the Sept. 20, 1998, issue.) But it has been a long germination. Too many wines back then showed too little fruit, too much oak and a lack of focus and flair. There was obvious enthusiasm and dedication on the part of most winemakers, but their best efforts since then have often been muted and restrained.
All the wines in Israel are made from well-known international grape varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Merlot and Sauvignon Blanc. There are no native grapes of note.
At his dinner, Recanati poured nearly a dozen finished wines with a tasting menu prepared by chef Eran Shroitman of the Tel Aviv restaurant Orca. The cuisine was elegantly crafted. Especially rich and savory was one dish dubbed “bone marrow risotto with thyme-flavored foam.” This was not my Bronx uncle’s rugged Israeli food of yore, and it was a revelation.
Nearly all of the wines were fresh, fruity and well-structured, a notable break from my previous experience. While Israel makes much more red than white wine, I especially liked two whites made from the same vineyard in the Galilee called Ben Zimra. An ’07 Sauvignon Blanc was dominated by bright pear, citrus and tropical fruit flavors, while an ’06 Chardonnay reserve was rich and creamy, with ripe apple and spice flavors.
I ask Recanati’s new winemaker, industry veteran Gil Shatzberg, why anyone should drink Israeli wines given all the competition out there. “If you are a wine drinker, you are looking for different attributes in the world,” he said. Noting that Israel is at the same latitude as Southern California, Schatzberg explained that Israeli wines can indeed have uniqueness. “There’s a lot of sunshine in the bottles that I don’t find anywhere else. I don’t want to hide the fact that these are robust wines that are [naturally] high in fruit and alcohol.”
Ivan Campos — Ottawa, Canada — February 19, 2008 6:47pm ET
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Yaron Zakai Or — Israel — February 20, 2008 1:47pm ET
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