During a recent lunch at Artisanal restaurant in New York, I had the opportunity to taste a group of Israeli wines with their owners and winemakers. It brought back many memories, and a glimpse of what the future may hold. I have visited Israel twice, once when I when I was a freshly minted college graduate, and the second time in 1998 on assignment for Wine Spectator.
The goal of my second trip was to investigate the quality and potential of Israel's wines. It proved to be a fascinating experience: I traveled throughout Israel's winegrowing regions, from the far northern reaches in the Golan Heights to the southern limits on the fringe of the Negev Desert, where vineyards grew in view of Bedouin villages.
I came back with mixed impressions of the Jewish state's wines. While there were many full-flavored bottlings, others were astringent, or were too heavy-handed with their use of oak. It's still my general impression today. But despite the geopolitical and economic pressures that have roiled Israel since my 1998 visit, the wine industry has grown at an exponential rate.
My lunch partners at Artisanal were from one of the most promising and beautiful Israeli wine districts, the Judean Hills. This area lies west of Jerusalem and is steeped in history (as, of course, is most of Israel). In one of its valleys, David is said to have fought Goliath. Today, the Judean Hills is one of the new epicenters of the young and striving Israeli wine industry.
At present, the region has 28 wineries; a dozen years ago, there were only two. These wineries represent just 7 percent of Israel's wine production, but they are on the cutting edge of quality. The Judean Hills feature steep hillsides rooted with olive groves, pine trees and, increasingly, vineyards. They flank fertile valleys that drain the uplands stretching east and south of Jerusalem. There's a Mediterranean air to the land and the people here. The soils seem primed for grapegrowing with the vines rooted in a reddish conglomerate called terra rossa, which overlays clay- and limestone-based substrates.
"The real challenge is to produce wines that are different," said Arnon Geva, co-owner of Domaine du Castel. "[Our goal] is not to copy others but to try and find our own identity." Castel was one of the wineries I visited in '98 and today is perhaps the best-known and highest quality winery in the region. Despite Geva's declaration, Castel replicates a small French-styled domaine. The names of its wines are French-based, as are its enological protocols.
Earlier this year, I gave the C Blanc du Castel a rating of 90 points during a blind tasting in Wine Spectator's New York office. The 100 percent Chardonnay is aged 12 months on the lees in two-thirds new French oak barrels and features aromas and flavors of mineral, custard and pastry. Castel also makes a series of reds based on Bordeaux varieties. Its vineyards are at an altitude of 2,300 feet above sea level, which provides a slightly cooler climate than the surrounding coastal plain and valleys, a key consideration in the baking Israeli summer.
Other producers represented included Agur, Bravdo and Ben Hanna, all founded in the last decade and owned by families intent on fulfilling their dreams of making high quality Israeli wine. All of the wines I tasted were Bordeaux varieties or blends thereof. Ben Hanna's owner and winemaker, Shlomi Ben Zadok, who released his first bottlings in 2003, is experimenting with a number of grapes. He made a 2005 Petit Verdot that offered very good quality red cherry flavors with peppery notes. He is now planting Mourvèdre, Syrah and Grenache. I applaud his efforts and believe that these grapes may thrive in Israel's hot and dry Mediterranean climate, while providing distinctive flavors.
One vintner whose enthusiasm was overflowing was Shuki Yashuv. He founded his winery in 1999 and this year is sending his first wines to the United States. "My ambition is to show the terroir and the uniqueness of the taste," says Yashuv, whose vineyards are located in the Ella Valley (of David and Goliath fame) along the route of the old Roman road from the Mediterranean Coast to Jerusalem. My favorite among his reds was the Cabernet Sauvignon Special Reserve 2004, from an extremely low-yielding vineyard at about 2,600 feet in altitude. Aged 18 months in 80 percent new French oak, it showed good balance, with meaty and minerally flavors. Like many other top Israeli wines, it also featured a strong oak influence, which is common among many aspiring wine regions.
While I think oak is important for integrating flavors and adding nuance, overall I would prefer to see more purity of fruit flavors from Israeli wines. Yashuv acknowledges that he is just at the beginning of a long journey in pursuit of his winemaking vision. "It's a work of life and a work of generations, and we'll see where it goes," he says. Life on the winemaking frontier, especially in Israel, is challenging but also inspiring.
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