2017’s Most Memorable Wines

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Last December (okay, January 4th, 2017), I did a post on The Best Reds, Whites and Values of 2016 that I came across in my wine escapades that year. It was an enjoyable post to write because it let me indulge in some great nostalgia, and I was excited to do it again for this year. This post was just as rewarding to write, and as the title implies, I’m taking a slightly different approach. What follows are the dozen most memorable wines I tasted this year.

The two questions I used to guide the formation of this list were (1) what are the wines from 2017 that I stand the best chance of remembering until I go senile, and (2) what wines from 2017 will guide my 2018 purchasing? Only after assembling the list did I look at the metadata contained within, and there are some surprises. First, a rose made the list. While I enjoy rose, I drank much less of it in 2017 than I did in previous years. This wasn’t for any conscious reason; it just played out that way. Second, in Good Vitis Land, it was the year of the white wine. Half of the list, and the largest component of it, are whites. Third, it’s a geographically diverse list: five U.S. states and six countries. And forth, unusual varietals came in at the #4 and #1 spots: mtsvane and Pedro Ximenez that was made into a white wine. What a cool 2017.

Without further ado, here are my twelve most memorable wines from the past twelve months.

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#12: 2016 Ehlers Rose. I reviewed this wine back in July when I profiled the winery and winemaker and couldn’t stop raving about it. The wine itself is terrific, but it will always stand out in my mind for the vibrancy and beauty of its color. My God, it’s one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen. I’ve never fixated on the appearance of a wine before, so this one is special. I visited the winery earlier in this month and the rose was sold out. I was told I wasn’t the only one who can’t even with the color.

Tasting note: July 9, 2017 – I don’t normally comment on color but this is a gorgeous, watermelon-colored red with a pinkish hew. Nose: a bit reticent at first, it wafts lovely strawberry, watermelon, lime zest, white pepper, sea mist and parsley. The body is medium in stature and has a real presence on the palate, it’s entirely dry with nicely balanced biting acid. The fruit, all red with the exception of under ripe mango and lime pith, is bright and light and backed up by some really nice bitter greens, celery, thyme and rosemary. This brilliant effort is best served with food as the racy acidity needs to sink its teeth into something. I successfully paired it with Santa Maria-style grilled tri tip. I’d actually be curious to stuff a few of these away for a year or two and see how they develop over the following three years. 92 points. Value: B+

#11: 2014 Block Wines Chenin Blanc Block V10 Rothrock Vineyard. I love chenin. It competes with chardonnay for my favorite white varietal, and usually whichever is in my glass and singing is the one I choose. I’ve written about Eric Morgat’s chenins from Savennieres in the Loire Valley in France as my favorite example of the varietal, and while I enjoyed several of them in 2017, this year’s gold standard belonged to the Block Wines project in Seattle, Washington. Owned and sold exclusively by the retailer Full Pull, it sources exceptional grapes from exceptional blocks in exceptional vineyards across the state and hands them over to Morgan Lee to convert into wine. Morgan is one of my favorite winemakers anywhere, and what he did with these grapes was pure magic.

Tasting note: Friday, June 23, 2017 – Magical stuff, and only improving with aging and aeration. The nose is blossoming with honeysuckle, sweet lemon curd, parsley, big marzipan and just a wiff of ginger powder. The palate is medium bodied with cutting acidity and a well-framed structure. The fruit is sweet and comes in the form of lemon, peach, apricot and yellow plum. There’s a good dose of vanilla bean, a big streak of slate and just a bit of creaminess and some nice sorbet-tartness on the finish. The most compelling American chenin blanc I’ve tasted, this has at least three years of upward development ahead of it. Wish I had more than the one remaining bottle in my cellar. 93 points.

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#10: 2011 Domaine William Fèvre Chablis 1er Cru Montée de Tonnerre. Unlike the #12 and #11 wines, this bottle is a well-known commodity. Among the most respected sites in Chablis, Montée de Tonnerre is often considered quality-wise on par with the Grand Cru sites despite its Premier Cru designation, while William Fèvre is widely respected as anything but a slouch producer. Despite the modest reception of the 2011 vintage in Chablis, this out-performed several other vintages of the same wine I’ve had previously. It was downright spectacular.

Tasting note: Friday, July 14, 2017 – Right from the uncorking this thing bursts with energy. The nose is spectacular, offering incredibly pure limestone, lemon and lime zest, chalkiness, parsley, mushroom funk, daisies and dandelions, and sea mist. The body is lush but offers great cut with impeccably balanced acid that zigs and zags with nervous energy and verve. This is why you drink Chablis, it makes life come to life. The abundant citrus is all sorts of zest and pithy goodness. The sea is very prevalent as are the bitter greens. It finishes with a really nice, modest sweetness that doesn’t overwhelm the nervous acid. An amazing achievement considering the vintage, it’s drinking exceptionally well right now. 94 points.

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#9: Forge Cellars Les Allies Riesling. I visited Forge in September and couldn’t help but gush about what they’re doing. Forge is Finger Lakes in a bottle in every aspect, and for me that means several things: absolute physical beauty and salt-of-the-Earth people with a total commitment to the land and community. Forge makes a lineup of rieslings (and pinot noirs) that, from top to bottom, are among the very best being made in America and worth making the trek to experience first-hand (read the hyperlink above about the unique and amazing tasting experience every visitor receives at Forge). My favorite is the Les Allies.

Tasting note: September 18, 2017 – Big on fennel and bitter greens, sharp citrus and Devil’s Club with sneaky slate and flint streaks adding depth. Though savory elements drive the wine, it’s balanced by big hits of fresh apricot and peach on the finish. This is going to go through some cool short-term evolution in the cellar, and was my favorite riesling of the day. 93 points.

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#8: 2010 Baer Winery Arctos. I put this wine up against several legendary vintages from the legendary Bordeaux producer Las Cases in a post that asked, “Does Bordeaux Deserve Its Reputation?” More specifically, I asked “are six of the best vintages of the last fifty years of a storied chateau some consider worthy of first growth status really so good that it’s worth $150 per bottle at release and then two-plus decades in my cellar?” In order to answer this question, I picked Baer’s 2010 Arctos as a baseline wine. To be clear, I pitted a seven-year old blend from Washington State that retails for $43 against wines that are now only available at auctions for many multiples of that price point. My answer, which I’m pretty sure upset a few people, was “no.” I’m a Bordeaux skeptic, but more than that, I’m a Baer lover.

Tasting note: Thursday, April 20, 2017 – Bountiful nose of juicy red, black and blue berries, very sweet tobacco, thyme and black pepper. The palate coats the mouth with lush, polished and sweet tannins. It’s fully integrated and gorgeous. Sweet raspberries, cherries and blackberries swirl around with undercurrents of tobacco, graphite, cassis, nutmeg, cocoa, black currant, and rhubarb. Absolutely fantastic and pleasurable profile, it’s in exactly the right place. 94 points.

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#7: 2014 Covenant Israel Syrah. It’s a long story of how I came to know Jeff Morgan, the brains and brawn behind Covenant, a endeavor producing wine in California and Israel that has, as its genesis, the goal of making the best kosher wine in the world. I interviewed Jeff and told the fascinating story here. The Israel Syrah is a great example of how good Israeli wine and kosher wine can be, and a damn enjoyable bottle that will improve with more time.

Tasting note: Saturday, February 4, 2017 – This needed several hours of decanting. Nose: Dark and smokey. Stewed blackberries and blueberries along with maraschino cherry and caramelized sugar. Wafty smoke, a good dose of minerality and just a bit of olive juice. Palate: full bodied with coarse tannins that with multiple hours of air begin to integrate. Medium acidity. The fruit is dark and brown sugar sweet. Lot of blackberries and blueberries. Just a bit of orange and graphite and a good dose of tar. There are also some pronounced barrel notes of vanilla and nutmeg. This is a promising young wine. Fruit forward in its early stages, after 4 hours of air definite savoriness really starts to emerge. This has the tannin and acid to age and it will improve with another 3-5 years. 93 points.

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#6: 2005 Cameron Pinot Noir Abbey Ridge. Of course there’s a Cameron in this list. Cameron was my 2016 revelation and I spent a lot of time this year tracking down as much of it as I could find. It was a decent haul, but now I just have to be incredibly patient. The 2016 experience showed me that the older a bottle of Cameron pinot is, the better it is. In 2017 I had the 2005, 2010 and 2011 vintages of Abbey Ridge and the theme continued. This 2005 was AMAZING.

Tasting note: Saturday, July 1, 2017 – Another data point that Cameron is at the very front edge of domestic pinot noir. The nose is absolutely gorgeous, very floral and bursting with a cornucopia of sweet fruit. The body is rich but extraordinarily balanced and dancing light on its feet. The acid is lively and the pepper is sharp, while the cherries and cranberries burst with juiciness and richness. There are slightly bitter flower petals and a lot of Rose water. Absolutely fantastic wine sitting in a great place in its evolution. I can’t stop drinking this. 95 points.

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#5: 2012 Cameron Blanc Clos Electrique. Of course there are two Camerons on this list. Nuff’ said.

Tasting note: Sunday, July 23, 2017 – Just, and entirely, gorgeous wine. The nose has high toned honeysuckle, bruised apples and pears, dried apricots, Starfruit, vanilla and petrol. The body is in perfect balance. It is medium bodied with super bright, but not hurtful, acid. It offers reams of slate, mint, lime and funky goodness. There is a good dose of Mandarin orange that offers nice sweetness, and from the oak influence there emerges a nice amount of cantaloupe, Golden Raisin and yellow plum, while parsley and saline provide stabilizing undercurrents. This is all good, all the time, now and over the next five to ten years. 95 points.

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#4: 2015 Togo Mtsvane. This is a challenging wine to write about for several reasons, beginning with the unusualness of it and ending with the situation in which it was consumed, for good and bad reasons. The good reasons are written about in detail in what is probably my favorite post from 2017. I’ll summarize this wine, and the country where it is made, this way: you’ve never had anything like it, you have to go to the Republic of Georgia to try it, and you’re making a mistake if you don’t.

Tasting note: May, 2017 – Gia’s 2015 Mtsvane was picked at 25.8 brix and finished at 14.8% ABV, which it wells extremely well. The word “mtsvane” means green (the color), and this particular source vine was found in a family plot that Gia is slowly bringing back. It is thin skinned and very difficult to grow because of its fragility in the region’s rainy climate. Nevertheless, the aromatics were gorgeous with mint, dulce de leche, sweet lemon and light tobacco. The palate was equally appealing and satisfying as it offered honeysuckle, apricot, ginger, vanilla, green apple and a big hit of mint.  Multiple bottles consumed over a long and drunken evening with the winemaker, his family and my friends. Unscored, but otherworldly.

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#3: 1998 Pian Delle Vigne (Antinori) Brunello di Montalcino. Aged Brunello, need I say more? The 1998 was considered a good but not great vintage when it was released, but I think people have realized over the following 19 years that it’s gone through a particularly impressive evolutionary arc. This wine certainly proves that. Well-aged Brunello has some wonderfully unique qualities, and again, this wine certainly proves that. Basically, this wine proves that all the good things about Brunello can be true in one bottle.

Tasting note: Saturday, October 28, 2017 – This is remarkably good. The nose is pure heaven, and very fragrant. Super sweet cherries, strawberries, Açaí, cinnamon, nutmeg, dried tarragon, a bit of sea mist and a small finish of olive juice. The palate is fully integrated: extremely fine grained and polished tannins have faded into the background while the acid is mellow but zips. The Alcohol is seamless. It’s the full, professional package. What a gorgeous mouthfeel. Flavors pop with cherries, strawberries, tobacco, thick dusty cocoa, Herbs de Provence, bright orange rind and a wiff of smoke at the end. This has a few more years of good drinking, but why wait? 95 points.

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#2: 2012 Smith-Madrone Cook’s Flat Reserve. Stu Smith and his family are some of my favorite people in the wine industry, and among the most generous I’ve met. He’s also one of the best winemakers in a state known for attracting many of the best winemakers in the world. Cooks’ Flat is his reserve wine, which he makes during good vintages. It retails for $225. Given the region, that’s a steal for a wine of this quality and, in one of many manifestations, evidence of his generosity. I’m not a lover of most California wine, and I don’t get the California Cult Cab thing with its focus on fruit and tannin. Stu could care less whether his wines were considered “cult,” but it certainly tops the list of cabernets from the Sunshine State that I’ve had. The fact that any California cab made my most memorable wine list is personally surprising, but that it landed at #2? It’s just that good.

Tasting note: December 7, 2017 – This seems to me to be what Napa cab should be all about. It hits the palate with a velvety lushness, and is followed by waves of red, blue and black fruit that polish a core of dark minerals and Earth that broadens the mid palate and adds depth to the wine. The acid is towards the higher end of the Napa range, adding juiciness to the fruit and levity to the body. Unlike many California cabs, the tannins are well-kept and aren’t allowed to dry the palate and prematurely kill the finish. This is elegant and refined wine. Given the price of reserve wines from Napa, the Cook’s Flat is a downright steel. 95 points.

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#1: 2016 En Numeros Vermells Priorat DOQ. A small amount of the small production En Numeros wine makes its way to a retailer near me in Virginia. The importer, a friend of Silvia Puig, the winemaker, pours the wines himself one afternoon a year and I look forward to the email announcing it. This is the first vintage of this white wine, which is made out of the Pedro Ximenez grape that is usually made into Port, and the first of its style I’ve ever had. The tasting note below is the first time I drank it. I revisited it in November and it had changed fairly dramatically. Some of the lushness was gone, and the acid was more pronounced. To be honest, it was a bit more complex the second time around. That said, it’s the first bottle that will leave the lasting impression, and so I’m using that note. It’s one of those wines that is “unique” in the sense of the word: one of a kind.

Tasting note: Sunday, July 23, 2017 – Coolest. Nose. Ever. Sophisticated as shit movie theater buttered popcorn, honeyed hay, flannel/linen and balsamic reduction. The palate is lush, oh-so-smooth and super glycerin-y without being heavy at all. There is no waxiness to this whatsoever. It has definite sherry qualities, but is entirely dry. There is sweet cream, Jelly Belly buttered popcorn flavor and lemon curd, along with sweet grapefruit and a ton of pear nectar. This is a weirdly bold wine with a ton of subtly, it’s wholly captivating. 94 points.

And there we have it: the dozen most memorable wines of 2017. I already have some great stuff t’d up for 2018, and I hope the year will bring adventure and surprise. Wishing everyone a great end to 2017 from Good Vitis! Thanks for the readership.

Jeff Morgan: California and Israeli winemaker on why he makes wine in both places

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This is the second in a series of interviews with winemakers who have experience making wine in Israel. The first interview featured Shane Moore of Zena Crown Vineyards in Oregon. This time around I spoke with Jeff Morgan, co-owner and vintner of Covenant Wines in California. While both have vineyard and winemaking experience in Israel, their stories are quite different, set off by a pivotal distinction: Jeff’s Judaism.

Fourteen years ago Jeff and his partner Leslie Rudd drank a red wine from Domaine du Castel, one of Israel’s premier wineries. “It was really good wine,” Jeff told me, much better than either expected it would be. What really blew them away was that it was made according to kashrut (the laws of keeping kosher), which back then was a category of wine that didn’t have a reputation of being very good at all. Ironically, the wine wasn’t actually kosher, but that false assumption would prove fateful. They had already been making wine in California for more than a decade, but the bottle of Castel motivated them to see if they couldn’t make a better kosher wine in California. The challenge wasn’t connected to Jeff’s Judaism at the time – he was a secular and largely disengaged Jew – but really just a focus on improving the quality of kosher wine.

They deemed cabernet sauvignon the greatest expression of California’s terrior and climate, and decided to use it to achieve that goal. Leslie had access to the grapes and capital and Jeff had the winemaking experience and so they created Covenant Wines. Quickly the goal of the project changed into making the best kosher wine in the world. Fourteen years ago that bar wasn’t very high; today it’s far more challenging.

*****

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2014 Covenant Cabernet Sauvignon Blend. From California, Covenant’s flagship wine. Nose of cocoa, espresso and toffee barrel notes along with dark cherries and blackberries. There’s graphite and scorched Earth and some heat on it as well. The full body has smooth, subtle but developed tannins. Strong saline and iodine streaks help the wine overcome lean acidity. As the wine takes on air, the nose turns savory as olive juices start wafting. Orange zest develops on the palate along with toffeed barrel char, sweet strawberries and rich boysenberries, creating a densely layered wine. It has great balance but is tightly wound and will improve over 5-8 years. 92 points. Global value: C-. Kosher value: B.

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The making of kosher wine had a slow but cumulative effect on Jeff and Leslie’s connections with Judaism, and in 2011 they took a trip to Israel to explore their Jewish roots. While there they visited vineyards and wineries and noticed that the topography was very similar to that of California, as was the climate, soils, hillsides and valleys. Shortly after returning to California they decided that making Californian kosher wine was insufficient and moved to open a second line of Covenant wines made in Israel using Israeli grapes – the appeal of making wine in California and in the region where wine was created was too strong to resist.

In 2013 they started with three barrels working with an American-Israeli winemaker friend. They increased to seven barrels in 2014 and by 2016 were up to fifty (roughly 2000 cases’ worth of wine). In that year they crushed 35 tons of fruit, roughly one-third the tonnage of their California production. They began with one vineyard in the Golan Heights, but are now sourcing from seven vineyards across the Golan and the Galilee. Jeff loves the markedly different terriors of the two regions, although he noted that there are many stylistic similarities between the wines of California and Israel, more so than, say, between California and Oregon. So far they’ve used Jezreel Winery’s facilities to produce their wines, though because Jeff travels to Israel five or so times per year and he and his own team do the production themselves, he has become intent on opening his own winery there someday. He gives credit to his California team and cloud-based computing for allowing him to spend the time needed in Israel to oversee the production there without sacrificing attention of the California production. In 2017 he feels confident enough that he plans to leave California in the middle of harvest to monitor fermentation in Israel.

*****

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2014 Covenant Wine Israel Syrah. This needed several hours of decanting. Nose: Dark and smokey. Stewed blackberries and blueberries along with maraschino cherry and caramelized sugar. Wafty smoke, a good dose of minerality and just a bit of olive juice. Palate: full bodied with coarse tannins that with multiple hours of air begin to integrate. Medium acidity. The fruit is dark and brown sugar sweet. Lot of blackberries and blueberries. Just a bit of orange and graphite and a good dose of tar. There are also some pronounced barrel notes of vanilla and nutmeg. This is a promising young wine. Fruit forward in its early stages, after 4 hours of air definite savoriness really starts to emerge. This has the tannin and acid to age and it will improve with another 3-5 years. 93 points. Global value: C+. Kosher value: B+.

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Everything Jeff has learned about winemaking he picked up in California and New York State, and he’s applied those lessons to Israel where the biggest difference from the United States is mentality in the wine industry. Jeff noted that one difference is in vinicultural where Israel, despite closing the gap, is still behind. The California scene is more “dialed in” to the detail and knowledge of how individual vines respond to terrior while the workforce is more experienced in large part due to California’s immigrant labor that has worked the vineyards for generations (“and are great to say the least”). Conversely, in Israel “you have a ragtag crew of Thai and Arab workers along with some Jewish ones who are still figuring out what the essence of grape viniculture is and how it relates to great wine.” Further, Jeff noted that the Thai and Arab cultures don’t feature wine consumption as a tradition, and this makes it harder for vineyard workers to appreciate why vinicultural techniques affect the final product: “If you don’t drink wine you can’t really see the end result. That doesn’t mean you can’t do great work, but it’s a difference.”

Despite these differences, Jeff is high on the Israeli wine scene because every year the overall quality is markedly improving. The culture of wine in Israel, the making and consuming of it, is still decades behind the U.S., however. The level of “religious conviction” in California to their way of wine life remains higher than that in Israel. “Israelis still refer to wineries as ‘plants,’” Jeff told me, adding that Israelis don’t drink nearly as much wine as Americans. The winemaking community, therefore, “needs to raise the consciousness in Israel about the product. Israel is where Napa was thirty years ago in that sense, but Israel is more advanced in the winemaking than Napa was at that point.”

We shifted in conversation to the wines Jeff produces at Covenant. In both locations he starts with the same general protocols because “you can’t erase terrior, it’s stronger than the protocols. The idea is to make wine in a gentle, non-interventionist manner to allow the freest and truest expression of terrior to be seen in the wine.”  All of his wines are native yeast fermented, something he notes that is common in California but very unusual in Israel “because they’re afraid of it.” He prefers native yeast fermentations “because native yeast is a key component in harvesting terrior from the vineyard, [which also produce] slower fermentations which yield more complex wines.”

*****

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2014 Covenant Wines Lavan Chardonnay. From California. Nose: big varietal characteristics of high strung lemon, grass, white pepper and vanilla bean. There’s also a little big of spearmint and a lot of slate and honey along with a mild petrol note. Palate: full bodied and although lush, the acidity is sharp and zips enough to keep the mouthfeel light and lively. Meyer lemon curd, lemon sorbet, Granny Smith apple and vanilla pudding dominate on the onset, but really nice red pepper flake spice and dried tarragon kick in on the mid palate. The ML and oak manifest themselves in a macadamia nut flavor and texture. Very pleasing and drinkable, there’s no reason to sit on it. 92 points. Global value: B. Kosher value: A.

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Jeff’s style tends to favor softer, suppler tannins in his reds and bright, fresh acidity in his whites and roses, leveraging the heat of California and Israel to achieve those profiles. His California and Israeli flagship wines, a cabernet sauvignon blend and a syrah, respectively, reflect his belief that the terrior of California favors Bordeaux varietals while Rhones best suit Israel. The sales figures speak to the appeal of Jeff’s wine: he sells both wines in both countries, and he sells out.

I asked Jeff about my favorite Israeli wine topic: does Israel have a signature style and, if not, should it? If Israel were as monochromatic as Napa, Bordeaux or Burgundy, Jeff responded, it would be easier to wish for, or define, a signature style. But Israel has so many microclimates and so many different kinds of grapes in production that it’s “wishful thinking and would make Israeli wine boring.” Syrah in the Galillee “is very different from in the Golan, viognier is very different from anywhere else in the world – ours came in at 11.5% alcohol by volume [an unusually low figure for the grape].” Signature styles “need to come from the winemakers themselves and while it’s true wine is made in the vineyard, that’s only true until it comes to the winery and the winemaker does their thing with it. What’s exciting for the consumer is that in Israel it’s all about the producers and their own styles, if they have one.” When he looks at the wine list in Israel he looks at the producers names, not the region, because “that’s where the signature is for me in Israeli wine.”

When asked about his hope for the Israeli wine industry’s future, he said his greatest hope “is that Israel is synonymous with high quality wine. Varietally they’ll see which deliver best long-term. Syrah is likely king but cabernet could be a close second or overtake it depending on where it’s grown and who is making it. We need 10-20 years of developments before we’ll have a real answer.”

*****

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2014 Covenant Wine Neshama. From California, a blend of petit verdot, malbec and syrah. Nose: Very cool profile of big grapiness, blackberries, strawberries, asphalt, wet forest floor and Herbs de Provence. Just a hint of rubbing alcohol. The profile is dark and brooding but somewhat muddled, an issue a few years of aging will clear up. Palate: full bodied with big, coarse palate-drying tannins. Moderate acidity and tamed alcohol keeps it in good balance. The fruits are black, red, big and juicy: acai, strawberries, raspberries, and blackberries. There’s wet smoke and black pepper as well with graphite and iodine. This is hedonistic stuff, but it’s impressively managed. It’ll only get better over the following 10 years, but I’d sit on remaining bottles for at least five. At minimum give this a 2+ hour decant. 93 points. Global value: C+. Kosher value: B+.

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Beyond aiming to make better Israeli wine from one vintage to the next, Jeff is pitching in to help the industry. He has been working with Israel’s government, importers and distributors to raise consciousness outside Israel for its wines and develop more export markets. Israeli wine “won’t be an overnight sensation but the status quo has shifted dramatically in a short amount of time, for wine.” Israel wasn’t on the wine map when Jeff got started thirty years ago, whereas it graced the cover of Wine Spectator in 2016. “It’s going to happen,” Jeff said, “but nothing happens fast in the wine world.”

I received four of Jeff’s wines to review for this piece. All were exceptional in quality but the challenge I had in reviewing them was assigning a value grade. My normal approach is to put the wine in the context of the body of wine I’ve consumed to rate it based on its price competitiveness with that “global” market. However, in this case the wines are certified kosher, which means the wine requires a process that is different from the rest of the global market and therefore it could be argued that the value should be based on the category of kosher wine. The thing is, Jeff’s wines are not only among the best kosher wines I’ve had, but also great wines in the global context, so I wouldn’t want to suggest to the reader that they should try Covenant only if they focus on the kosher category. Therefore, I’m going to give value ratings for both the global market and the kosher category.

Jeff is building a very cool project and the wines are quite good.  One of the more interesting practices of Covenant is their wine club, which includes a version that supplies the member with kosher wine for every Shabbat of the year. It’s a fantastic concept. I’m excited to follow the winery, especially as he expands his Israeli production where the syrah I tried is especially distinctive.

 

Oregon Star Winemaker: I made wine among the landmines

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Picture: One of Golan Heights Winery’s vineyards (credit: Israel 21c)

My wine-drinking buddy Isaac Baker of Terriorist recently published very positive reviews of an Oregon producer called Zena Crown Vineyard. Isaac is pretty conservative with his points and when I saw how many he gave to Zena Crown I knew I had to look into them. In doing so I learned that their wine maker, Shane Moore, spent time previously working at Israel’s Golan Heights Winery, and I had the thought that those are two very different places to make wine. I’ve lived and worked in Israel, having drank my way from the north to the south, and have written about wine’s history in that part of the world in depth. Israel’s wine industry is a star on the rise recently acknowledged by a cover story in Wine Enthusiast and one of the most interesting to visit and explore. As I thought about the wine I’ve enjoyed from Oregon and Israel, I began to wonder if making wine in Israel helped Shane make wine in Oregon, and so I decided to ask.

In sending an email requesting an interview with Shane I remembered a brief correspondence I had last year with Jeff Morgan, the winemaker and owner of Covenant Wine, which makes wine in both California and Israel, and so I asked him if he’d be open to talking about the same topic. The conversations with each were so great – and sufficiently different – that I’m going to break them up into two Good Vitis posts. For now I’m going to focus on Shane, and readers can look for the post on Jeff Morgan and Covenant Wines in the coming weeks.

My call with Shane started with the great story of how Shane landed at Golan Heights. He was working at a winery in Australia and found himself having brunch one day at the famously wild Ying Chow Chinese restaurant in Adelaide with some friends. Conversation drifted to the topic of the craziest places to make wine and the Golan Heights in Israel came up for debate. The Golan Heights was taken over by Israel in 1967 in a war with several Arab states and formally annexed by Israel in 1981. It constitutes the most northern part of Israel. Syria, it’s former owner, still lays claim to the land which remains checker boarded with fenced-in fields of landmines from wars past. It also happens to be beautifully mountainous and in the minds of many, mine included, Israel’s best area for wine grape growing.

Shane had never thought about making wine in the Golan but it peaked his interest because he “wanted a unique experience.” His friend Tom Stransky gave him the name of an Australian winemaker who was part of the team at Golan Heights Winery, one of the founding wineries of Israel’s wine industry and a world-leader in terms of technical advancement, who Shane called. Two months later Shane was in the Golan starting harvest…in July. Shane stayed through the end of the year leaving just after Christmas.

When he left for Israel Shane had it in his mind that he’d do a quick harvest in Israel and then hop to Europe and finish the harvest there. However, Israel is a country of many and significantly different microclimates and therefore for big wineries like Golan Heights that source from several of them, its harvests can be long. In 2010 the harvest began in July and went through November. This happened to be the warmest harvest on record up to that point. Shane never made it to Europe that year.

Shane had strong praise for his experience at Golan Heights. He called it one of, if not the most, modern wineries he’s worked at. The list includes Kendall-Jackson, considered one of the most advanced in California. One of the winery’s advancements that Shane says fellow winemakers don’t believe when he tells them is the large digital tank board at Golan Heights that he’s never seen elsewhere. What really blew Shane away, though, is how management ran the winery. The winemakers assemble at 5am every day to taste the wine and write up work orders for the winery workers who arrive at 7am and are handed their day’s tasks. Shane remarked that this management was reflective of the fact that everyone working at Golan Heights had gone through mandatory military service and has more self-discipline than the average winery professional. Because it improved efficiency and minimized mistakes, Shane now follows the same schedule and management style at Zena Crown as well as at Le Crema’s project in Oregon he is also running. Winemaking is logistical in nature, and of the eleven wineries where Shane has worked he says he learned the most at Golan Heights because of how meticulously it is run.

Golan Heights is a kosher winery, which means Shane, as a non-Jew, was limited in what he was able to do. In order to maintain a kosher certification, only Shabbat-observant Jews can be hands-on from the time the grapes are picked to when the bottles are sealed. Shane wasn’t able to touch the hoses or tanks, so he was given control over the in-house experimental winery that produced wine that wasn’t sold and therefore didn’t need kosher certification. He also served as their vintage winemaker, wrote work orders, kept things organized and spent a lot of time in the vineyards working with harvest parameters, though he didn’t call pick dates; so long as the grapes remained on the vine he could be as hands-on as needed. Over the six months that Shane was there he says his hands were never idle.

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Lake Ram, with Mount Hermon in the background, in the northeastern part of the Golan Heights (credit: “R. Ertov uploaded by his friend Asaf” on Wikipedia)

The Golan reminded him of growing fruit and producing wine in Washington State (which he has also done) because the climate and challenges are similar. Winemaking, as he pointed out, is pretty universal in terms of what a winemaker needs to do to produce a red or white wine, though “the devil is in the details.” As in Washington, water is relatively scarce in the Golan and that presented irrigation and vineyard difficulties. Likewise, both offer lots of long days of sunlight and moderate heat with significant cooling overnight. The difference, though, is that in October, when they’ve harvested in Washington, there’s still sunlight and photosynthesis going on in the Golan. He also made the humorous reference to the many acres of landmines that needed to be avoided (they’re fenced and well-marked, but still…) as an easily overcome “challenge.”

Challenges are aplenty in Israel, however, just like other parts of the world. Leaf roll has become a very real problem that threatens significant acreage. Because of the significant danger leaf roll presents – it’s fatal to vineyards where it really takes off – Golan Heights winery has its own nursery where it can work to mitigate the risks. Another challenge (which Jeff Morgan of Convenant Wines echoed) is finding high quality labor. Golan Heights makes a huge range of wine that retails from $10 on the low end to $300 on the high end, and to make wine commanding three figures hand picking and sorting is required, and in Israel it’s hard to find people who have the kind of experience needed to do that well just as California is reportedly on the precipice of its own labor shortage.

It is often observed, and in many different manifestations, that Israelis have their own way of doing things. One of the most critical to the wine industry is irrigation as Israel invented drip irrigation which is now agriculture’s – including the wine industry – standard around the world. While Shane didn’t point to any significant and unique similarities or differences between growing grapes and making wine in Oregon and Israel, it is significant that his time at Golan Heights has shaped how he runs his wineries today.

Shane was pretty animated over the phone as he told stories and answered my questions, and even though I’ve spent afternoons at countless Israeli wineries he invigorated my appetite for the occasional Israeli wine. For those who haven’t tried their wines, or have had one or two and weren’t blown away, I strong encourage you to seek a few out. My article from last summer, “Thirteen Israeli Wines That Will Change Your Worldview,” goes into depth on the history of winemaking in Israel and includes both a suggested wine route and reviews of thirteen wines that are relatively easily sourced in the United States. For the adventurous or bored wine drinker, Israel offers some very cool stuff. And after talking to Shane I’ll be looking for some Zena Crown as well.

 

 

The Best Reds, Whites & Values of 2016

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Picture credit: Punjabigraphics.com

It’s January 3rd, 2017 and as a wine blogger it is my formulaic obligation to put together a list of the best wines I consumed in 2016. This isn’t a top-100 list compiled by an established wine blogger. Rather, it is a relatively short list and the pool from which they came is limited to the wines I sought out myself. Hence, I feel confident recommending them seeing as I put my own money into them. Click on the wines to see where they’re available.

The Ten Best Red Wines

1. 2000 Cameron Abbey Ridge pinot noir. I’ve written already in these pages that this is the most memorable wine I’ve ever had, and probably the best as well. I’m probably cheating Cameron by not also including the 2003 Abbey Ridge, which was barely one notch below the 2000, in the list but I don’t want to be redundant, especially since neither is likely to be available outside private cellar purchases and auctions. Full tasting note.

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Abbey Ridge Vineyard (picture credit: cameronwines.com)

2. 2007 Arns Melanson Vineyard syrah. The 2007 Arns Melanson syrah from California fleeced a group of wine collectors all in a blind tasting I participated in. We had a good number of syrahs from around the world lined up and paper bagged and the only unanimous guess was that this was Northern Rhone. It was also perfectly aged. Pure bliss, a top-5 all time wine for me. I didn’t take notes but it would’ve received at least a 95, and I just found another one to stash away for an important occasion in 2017.

3. 2009 Reynvaan The Contender syrah. Savory goodness, and this vintage is still around to be gobbled up if you look hard enough for it. A few Washington wineries are producing syrahs that balance classic Northern Rhone notes with Washington State’s dark fruit, iodine and graphite added it, and Reynvaan is as good as any. Full tasting note.

4. 1998 Chateau de Beaucastel Chateanuneuf-du-Pape. Proof that good CdP improves with extended cellaring, this delivered the best of what you find across the full range of CdPs all in one profile as smooth as a baby’s bottom. I’ve seen this up for auction and suggest you track one down. Full tasting note.

5. 2010 Clendenen Family Vineyards Nebbiolo Bricco Buon Natale. I’m not an avid drinker of nebbiolo but this one has me wanting to try more. Impressively complex profile that hits on flavors and aromas from quince to Allspice to watermelon (seriously). Changing with each passing hour, it is an adventure that becomes increasingly engaging and enjoyable with each sip. The value on this one is out of this world, too.

6. 2001 E. Guigal Cote-Rotie Chateau d’Ampuis. I’ve listed two American savory syrahs above this one, but there’s no getting around the fact that older Guigal like this, the stuff done before the winery embraced the Parker profile, is as good a savory profile comes. Old World brilliance. Full tasting note.

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The Chateau d’Ampuis (picture credit: guigal.com)

7. 2013 Gramercy Cellars Cabernet Franc (wine club only). This was unbelievably good. It isn’t Chinon-styled funky cabernet franc, but it isn’t big fruit and no Earth California cabernet franc, either. It’s a nice tweener that was one of the more satisfying wines I had in 2016. Full tasting note.

8. 2012 Psagot Winery Cabernet Sauvignon. As many Israeli wine as I’ve had, and I’ve had more than a few, this wine was a revelation for me. I’ve found a lot of good and a lot of bad Israeli wines, and my complaint throughout is that the country’s wine industry still hasn’t developed a signature style that people want to seek out. This bottle from Psagot doesn’t solve this problem for me, but it provided the best counter argument yet that I should just shut up and enjoy what’s in the glass. This is world class cabernet and it won’t set you back much. Full tasting note.

9. 2011 Lauren Ashton Cabernet Sauvignon. From a difficult vintage this one far surpassed many Washington cabernets from better years. I ended my tasting note with “exactly what I hope for when I open a cabernet sauvignon from Washington.” This producer consistently turns out fantastic wines but this may be the best executed yet. Full tasting note.

10. 2009 Delille Cellars Harrison Hill. Always one of my very favorite wines, though this vintage didn’t blow me away (is still too young). Nevertheless, it still delivered on the best aspect of the Harrison Hill blend: it’s a master blending job by winemaker Chris Upchurch in the sense that the profile is always somehow so much more than combination of the parts. Full tasting note.

The Five Best White Wines

1. 2010 Eric Morgat L’Enclos Savennieres. I didn’t take tasting notes, but my memories of it remain stronger than many wines for which I do have tasting notes, which is why it’s #1. Aged chenin blanc from Savennieres in the Loire Valley has been one of the more profound wine revelations I’ve had because of its deep complexity, it’s ability to improve with age, the evolution it goes through in the glass and the way it balances richness with streaky acidity. Morgat consistently makes complete wines Savennieres and shouldn’t be missed.

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Monsieur Morgat’s vines (picture credit: Le Figaro)

2. 2013 Cameron Winery Abbey Ridge chardonnay. This was my first introduction to Cameron’s whites and it led to a frantic effort to buy up as many as I could find. It’s revelation was how it brought everything good about chardonnay into one glass, including, most impressively, the richness and depth of fruit and nutty flavors of Cote de Beaune with the nervous, tense streaks of a Chablis. I keep adding Oregon chardonnay to my cellar. Full tasting note.

3. 2013 Latta Roussanne. Often times 100% roussanne is singularly dense, rich and sweet. Andrew Latta, formerly of Washington legends Dunham Cellars and K Vintners, avoids all that in this bottle of what roussanne can and should be: a wine that fills your mouth with lush flavors but slowly surprises you with flurries of zesty citrus and stone flavors that liven up the malo-like hangover of this full bodied varietal. Full tasting note.

4. 2015 Penner-Ash Viognier. Your eyes are seeing (nearly) double: often times 100% viognier is singulrarly dense, rich and sweet. Penner-Ash avoids all that in this bottle of what viognier can and should be: a wine that fills your mouth with lush flavors but slowly surprises you with flurries of zesty acidity and streaky tension that livens up the prototypical “tropicallity” of viognier. Give this another 1-2 years and it’ll be even better. Full tasting note.

5. 2008 Francois Chidaine Montlouis-sur-Loire Clos du Breuil. Between this wine and the Morgat my next trip to France will include a few days in the Loire. What made this one stand out is the incredible promise it still holds at age eight for the ability to evolve into something even better. Full tasting note.

The Five Best Values of 2016

1. 2014 Barkan Pinot Noir Classic. If I had tasted this blind I would’ve called expensive California pinot. Instead it’s from Israel and it’s roughly $12. Check out these tasting notes: “Nose: very expressive. Blueberries, blackberries and boysenberries. Big rose petals and Spring pollen. Smoke, iodine. Fruit punch. White pepper. Freshly tanned leather and young tobacco leaf. Licorice root. Beautiful bouquet. Palate: medium body, medium acidity. Integrated, modest tannin. Fruit is tart blueberries, huckleberries and red plums. Blood orange. Tar, hickory smoke. Herbs de Provence. Celery.” All that for $12; buy this for big events. Full tasting note.

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A Barkan vineyard in the Negev desert where the grapes for its 2014 Classic pinot noir are grown (picture credit: Barkan Winery)

2. 2010 Fausse Piste Garde Manger syrah. Sadly this vintage isn’t available anymore, but that won’t stop me from trying the current release in 2017. For ~$20 it’s hard to find a syrah with this much complexity. What’s more, 2010 wasn’t an easy year, making this all the more impressive. Full tasting note.

3. 2013 Two Vintners Make Haste (unavailable). This 100% Washington cinsault elicited the biggest smile induced by a single gulp of wine in 2016, it was just so much fun; I can’t even stop smiling when I just think about this wine (it is literally impossible to can stop smiling). Full tasting note.

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Two Vintners and the sun makin’ haste over Washington, D.C.

4. 2012 Bergstrom Old Stones chardonnay. It’s $22 Oregon chardonnay and I didn’t want to share it with my girlfriend’s family, which I was supposed to do, after I had m first sip. All this for twenty three bucks: limestone, saline, Meyer lemon, vanilla custard, Starfruit and Granny Smith apple tucked into finely balanced medium bodied wine. Full tasting note.

5. 2014 Galil Mountain Viognier. Another impressive value from Israel, this is a go-to medium bodied viognier for $15 that has enough acidity to please the refined palate and enough sweet tropical flavors to please the Millennial drinker. Huge recommendation as a wedding wine. Full tasting note.

Thirteen Israeli Wines That Will Change Your Worldview

This piece was originally published in The Tower Magazine.

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There’s so much more out there than Manischewitz. Our reviewer makes the case for buying a case of wine from the land of milk and honey.

Full disclosure: I have a love-hate relationship with Israeli wine. When it’s good, it’s world-class, and several of Israel’s wine-growing regions are among the most beautiful in the world to visit. But during my year in Israel from 2010 to 2011, I found myself disappointed by much of what I drank. That said, I’m told the country’s wine industry has improved since then. This article is my attempt to revisit Israeli wine. I want to share the experience because the story of Israeli wine is a fascinating one, and sampling Israel’s wine industry is one of the more enjoyable ways of supporting the Jewish state. Hopefully, I will entice you to take your own voyage into Israeli wine.

Before I go any further, I must admit that I am a wine snob. I’ve been drinking expensive wine for half my life and began collecting fine wine about eight years ago. Three years ago, I began making wine professionally. I routinely join other wine snobs to share special bottles. So, my standards have only risen since my introduction to Israeli wine five years ago.

Still, I am transfixed by the story of Israel’s wine industry. Part of what makes it so compelling for those who fall under its spell are the paradoxes surrounding its success. Nearly half desert, the land of milk and honey made the desert bloom, allowing Israel to become an agricultural exporter, and Israel’s wine is part of this history. Israel’s wine industry is both old, with roots going back 6,000 years, and new, with the industry only beginning to adopt the art’s best practices in the 1970s and still struggling to find a unique style. Part of the Israeli wine world remains behind the times; another is on the cutting edge. Some producers have, through skill, technique, and, most critically, natural talent, made wines that can compete with some of the best the world has to offer. Yet much of the industry is still underperforming in quality and taste. Nonetheless, my voyage demonstrated that this may be changing.

So how does one begin to explore Israeli wine? To begin to answer this question, a bit of history helps. The story of Jewish wine goes back at least to biblical times. The Torah is full of references to grapes, vines, and wine. After the flood, Noah “became a husbandman and planted a vineyard,” which would make him the Torah’s first recorded viniculturalist. In the book of Genesis, he also becomes the first person in the Torah to get drunk. In Numbers, Moses sends spies into the Promised Land who return with a cluster of grapes so big it has to be carried on a poll by two men. Later, the Talmud goes so far as to describe 60 types of wine.

Jews loved wine in those days. King David’s wine collection was so big that he had an official dedicated to managing it. As Israeli wine critic Adam Montefiore has noted, referring to the role of a certified professional wine expert, “This may have been Israel’s first sommelier!” And Noah wasn’t the only biblical viniculturalist: The book of Isaiah includes impressively cogent instructions on how to plant and care for a vineyard.

The evidence of ancient winemaking in what is now the State of Israel is ample. Ancient wine presses and storage vessels have been found from the Negev in the south to Jerusalem to the central coast all the way up to Mount Hermon on the Golan Heights. Winemaking in ancient Israel peaked during the Second Temple period, when it was a major export. After the Temple was destroyed and the Jews forced into exile, however, winemaking ground to a halt. With the Arab conquest in 600 C.E. came the Muslim ban on alcohol and the uprooting of all vineyards. After a brief resurrection of winemaking during the Crusades, the industry was again destroyed by the Ottoman Empire, which ushered in a time of such economic despair and population decline that wine became a luxury none could afford to make or purchase.

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Vineyards in Kibbutz Ortal in the Golan Heights, affiliated with the Golan Heights Winery. Photo: Serge Attal / Flash90

It took a long time for winemaking to return to the area. The first recorded winery was opened in 1848 by a rabbi named Yitzhak Shor. Shor’s first successful wines were made from a vineyard established using vine cuttings from the Mikveh agricultural school in Jaffa, whose grapes were used by Orthodox Jews to make wine for religious purposes. Shor’s family is still part of the Israeli wine industry today through their ownership of several wineries. These include the Zion winery, which considers itself the continuation of Shor’s original, calling itself “the oldest winery in Israel” on its website. In 1870, Rabbi Avrom Teperberg opened Efrat winery, now known as Teperberg, in the Old City of Jerusalem.

But it was not until French Jew Baron Edmond de Rothschild got involved in 1882 that the foundation for today’s Israeli wine industry was first laid. Rothschild, the owner of the famous Chateau Lafite winery in Bordeaux, France, commissioned a study on the agricultural possibilities of the land of Israel, and in 1884 vine plantings began. In 1890, a winery was built in Rishon LeZion, and in 1892 Zichron Ya’akov Wine Cellars opened. The Carmel Wine Company was formed in 1895 to market the wines from these two producers, establishing Carmel as the father of modern day Israeli wine. Carmel continues producing widely known wine today, and has the distinction of having employed three Israeli prime ministers: David Ben-Gurion, Levi Eshkol, and Ehud Olmert.

For the Carmel wineries to produce wine, someone had to grow the grapes. Vineries were established in Rishon LeZion, Zichron Ya’akov, Petach Tikvah, Ekron (now Mazkeret Batya), Rehovot, Ness Ziona, Shefaya, Bat Shlomo, and Ein Zeitim. Many of them were funded by donations from Rothschild, and grew the grapes his commission suggested: A species called vitis vinifera, used to make cabernet sauvignon, merlot, chardonnay, and others. These varieties were well-known to Rothschild’s costumers in Europe. Clearly, the baron’s interest in Palestinian wine was not only based on his Zionism, but also a desire to boost his market share. Not coincidentally, much of the wine produced in Palestine during this time was sent to Europe to be sold by Rothschild.

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Many top Israeli wines are kosher, including Domaine du Castel’s award-winning vintages. Photo: Aviram Valdman / The Tower

The first part of the 20th century was not good for Israel’s budding wine industry. Global economic upheaval meant that quality wine was selling at prices that were too discounted to justify production. So Israel’s vitis vinifera was replaced. The period between the uprooting of vitis vinifera in 1905-1906 and the late 1970s, when they were replanted, was a dark period for Israeli wine.

Israeli wine began to reemerge when Israel gained control of the Golan Heights in 1967, which many—including myself—believe has the best potential of any of Israel’s wine regions. Between the late 1960s and the late 1970s, Israeli and some American winemakers undertook, for the first time since Rothschild’s commission, a methodical and scientific look at which varieties of grape would work best in Israel’s climate and soils, which vineyard planting and management techniques would produce the best grapes, and which winemaking techniques would yield the best results. The first modern winery to emerge was Golan Heights Winery in 1983, today Israel’s most well-known. Later in the decade, and increasingly so into the 1990s, the number of Israel’s boutique wineries grew exponentially. Today, Israel may have as many as 300 wineries.

So which bottle should you open? When I’m faced with this question, the first thing I do is consult a map, because where the grapes are grown can say a lot about the kind of wine it will turn into in the hands of a thoughtful winemaker. Good wine is like real estate: location, location, location. For wine, location should be analyzed based on two broad categories: weather and geography. Broadly speaking, the important weather factors are the temperatures, winds, hours of sunlight, and precipitation. The most important geographic features include altitude, degree of slope in the vineyard, and soil composition.

Since location matters so much, let’s tackle Israel’s wine regions, beginning with northwest, because that’s where Rothschild chose to heavily invest. The heart of winemaking in this area is Zichron Ya’akov, which sits beneath hills overlooking the Mediterranean Sea north of Caesarea. It gets cool breezes off the Mediterranean that temper the warmth in the vineyards, helping winemakers avoid overly sweet and alcoholic wines. It is home to the Carmel Winery’s Zichron Winery, Binyamina, Tishbi, and others; including one of my absolute favorites, Smadar, which only sells directly out of their front doors.

To the east is the Galilee, which is made of two growing regions—the Upper Galilee and the Golan Heights. Both are high in altitude and the coolest of Israel’s wine regions. The region is mountainous and relatively rocky, producing heavy but well-drained soil. The results, when not altered too much by the winemaker, are relatively high levels of acidity and low levels of sugar. While still offering plenty of fruitiness, Galilee wines offer the best potential for “earthiness,” meaning vegetal and elemental flavors like green bell pepper, smoke, and limestone. Wine snobs like myself refer to this style as “complex” because of their wide range of fruity and earthy flavors. Galilee wineries include Golan Heights, Galil, Dalton, Adir, and the Carmel Winery’s Kayoumi Winery.

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The Jerusalem Kosher Wine Exhibition. Photo: Hadas Parush / Flash90

Heading south towards Jerusalem are the Judean Hills, where interesting things are happening. This region offers altitude comparable to most of the Galilee—roughly 1,500-3,000 feet—but the climate is warmer. Rainfall there is lower, which is an important factor in the kind of wine it can produce. Vines that struggle have the best chance of producing the most interesting wine. One way vines struggle is obtaining sufficient water, and if they is not aided by irrigation, they do so by growing deep roots. As they grow deeper, they interact with a wider range of elements and soil types, which ultimately imparts a wider range of flavors and qualities to the grapes. Several of Israel’s most acclaimed wineries are located in these hills, including Domaine du Castel, Clos de Gat, and Psagot.

About an hour east, one arrives at Samson. This was another location of interest for Rothschild. It is a hot and humid area with little elevation or rainfall. The soils tend to be lighter and looser. Known mainly for producing grapes for mass-production wine, the region is home to well-known wineries like Rishon Le Zion Wine Cellars and the Barkan winery at Hulda. Higher up in the Judean foothills is one of the faster-growing wine areas in Israel. Elevation ranges from roughly 150 to 650 feet and the slopes allow for good water drainage during heavy rain, keeping the vines from oversaturation. The area boasts some of Israel’s highest regarded wineries in Clos de Gat and Flam, along with well-known Ella Valley and Teperberg.

Finally, we find ourselves in the Negev desert. Despite the arid climate, grapes are grown and wine produced at higher elevations. Its desert climate allows for especially cool nights, which helps limit sugar and tannin production in the grapes and allows for the winemaker to highlight certain desirable qualities. Israel’s highly respected Yatir winery can be found in this area, along with others like Midbar and Kadesh.

So, it’s time to move on to the wine. Wine reviewing and scoring is a much maligned and controversial practice. My own view is that critics’ scores matter much less than their taste preferences. Wine is an entirely subjective product, so my recommendation is to find a wine critic whose scores you consistently agree with, and then follow their reviews when looking for recommendations. I tend to prefer low alcohol levels, high acidity, low sweetness, firm structure, and generous amounts of earthy and elemental flavors to balance out ripe fruit.

I chose 13 wines to review, with the aim of covering 13 different wineries and 13 different varieties. I went for a price range that would ensure a minimum level of quality without undue expense. This means having to leave out certain wineries known as Israel’s very best. The selection below represents wines that are readily available in American cities with large Jewish populations, as well as online stores that can ship overseas.

However, I ultimately doubled up on one winery—Galil. In my experience, Israel’s best chance for competing with international wines is in its viognier, a white grape that offers tropical aromas and flavors with moderate acidity and medium body. In my estimation, Dalton Winery makes Israel’s best viognier: Reserve Wild Yeast Viognier. Unfortunately, I was unable to locate a bottle and went with what I consider to be Israel’s second-best viognier: Galil Winery’s. When considering which red blend wine to pick out, I was inclined to go with Galil’s Yiron blend because of its superb quality and value. The combination of producing a high value viognier and a high value red blend is one of the reasons I returned to Galil Winery.

I score the wines using the 100-point scale, which is the most commonly used metric. Wines falling in the 96-100 range are exceptional. The 93-95 range is outstanding. 90-92 is very good, with 87-89 being good. 83-86 is acceptable, 80-82 disappointing, and anything scored at 79 or lower is either flawed or poorly made. In addition, I give a value rating of A through F. This reflects how I perceive the wine based on comparing its quality to its price. I go in order of white wines, rose wines, red wines, and a sparkling wine.

2015 Recanati Sauvignon Blanc. Galilee. $15. Very pale and translucent. Beautiful nose of citrus, vanilla, and stone fruits. Extended air produced some sulfur, but not to the point of being offensive. The palate is medium-bodied with extraordinarily bright acidity that suggests acidulation (raising the acid level by additive). There is a touch of sweetness, and the flavors hit on lemon, pear, tart star fruit, and rotten salad greens. The finish ends very quickly. This is an unimpressive wine and not recommended. 80 points. Value: D.

2014 Galil Viognier. Galilee. $20. Nose: Very ripe and expressive, with honeysuckle, vanilla and tropical aromas of pineapple and mango along with white peach. The palate is medium-plus in weight along with good acidity. The structure is well balanced and pleasing. There are gorgeous tropical fruits of mango and pineapple, which benefit from the live acidity and weighty structure. Peach is present along with vanilla pudding and white pepper. The wine finishes nicely with moderate length. Every year, Galil produces one of Israel’s top viogniers, and 2014 is no exception. Strongly recommended and sure to be a crowd pleaser, it is also a very food-friendly wine. 91 points. Value: A.

2014 Tulip Winery White Tulip. Galilee. $24. Gewurtztraimer and sauvignon blanc blend. Nose: Very aromatic and pretty. Burst of orange blossom, honeysuckle, and star fruit. Well-pollinated flowers and fresh cut grass. Palate: Medium-plus body with a high glycerin texture. With medium acid and just a touch of sweetness, this is a beautifully structured wine with a silky mouth feel. Orange blossom and honeysuckle on the palate too. Orange zest and rose water. Slight petrol overtone and a hint of smoke. There’s dried thyme as well. Finish: The acid turns it up a bit on the finish, and the honey and orange remain for a long time. An unusual blend, this is a beautiful and well-made wine. It begs for roasted vegetables and fish. 91 points. Value: A.

2014 Flam Blanc. Judean Hills. $30-40. 60 percent chardonnay, 40 percent sauvignon blanc. This blend is aged in stainless steel. Very pale and clear in appearance, surprisingly more similar to sauvignon blanc than chardonnay given the blend. Nose: A ton of honeydew melon, honeysuckle, and vanilla. Lemonade. Mascarpone. Strong, late note of limestone. Palate: Full-bodied, high viscosity. Medium acidity, just a touch of sweetness. Coherently structured and well-balanced, and unusually weighty for a wine that saw no oak. Big white pepper, Meyer lemon. Juicy cantaloupe, pineapple, mango, and white peach. Finish: The acid and tropical fruits stay strong as the stone quality strengthens and chalkiness enters. The austerity turns up on the finish and suggests this wine is better served with food than consumed alone, preferably with seafood. 91 points. Value: C.

2014 Segal’s Special Reserve Chardonnay. Galilee. $20. Nose: Reserved but pretty, with under-ripe banana peel, lemon, vanilla, and butter. It suggests full malolactic fermentation and oak barrel aging. The palate is full and round with mouth-coating high viscosity. There is sweet mango sorbet and vanilla custard, along with unexpected but pleasant cucumber and zucchini. The finish is persistent and lush. This is a no-brainer for lovers of full-bodied, oaked chardonnay and can compete with most California chardonnays of this kind at this price. 90 points. Value: A.

2013 Or Haganuz Amuka Rose. Galilee. $20. Blend of cabernet franc, merlot, shiraz, and mourvedre. Made in a semi-sweet style, this has noticeable residual sugar. Nose: Definite sherry, strawberry. Cocktail cherries. Honey. Palate: Full bodied rose, quite sweet. No tannin, medium acidity balances the sweetness. High viscosity, mouth-coating. Strawberries, raspberries, and cocktail cherries. Honeysuckle and maple syrup. Cigar tobacco. Finish: Surprisingly, it’s the cocktail cherries that ride it out. This may be slightly over the hill, but the high sugar and acidity of this semi-dry rose keeps it pleasant despite its age. This can be enjoyed chilled on the porch with or without barbeque. 84 points. Value: D.

2014 Domaine Netofa Rose. Galilee. $25. Blend of mourvedre and syrah. Nose: Very aromatic and dominated by mustiness (very unusual) and big honey. Very ripe peach. Palate: Medium bodied, low acidity. Strong evidence of sulfuric acid, the sulfur was improperly managed during the winemaking process. Undrinkable, unrated.

2010 Carmel Winery Kayoumi Vineyard Shiraz. Galilee. $32-$43. This requires some air—pour it out into glasses or a decanter and let sit for at least an hour or two. Nose: Dominant burnt cherries and plums. Orange. Black pepper. Smoke. Palate: Medium-plus body and juicy acidity, mouth-coating fine grainy tannins. Slightly sour, but not unpleasantly so. Blackberries and black plums with a strong dose of orange zest. Hints of mint and dried thyme. Earthy flavors of tar and tobacco leaf. Finish: The tannins smooth out and the wine coats the mouth, and as the acid and fruit die out the tar and tobacco are joined by smoke. Overall a decent but underwhelming wine that lacks an attractive personality. 88 points. Value: D.

2010 1848 Merlot Judean Hills. $20. Gorgeous nose of toasted oak, dark cherry, mocha and tobacco. Bit of smoke. Palate: Though not flawed, it all goes wrong here based on unfortunate winemaking decisions. Far too much tannin extraction during crush and fermentation, the tannins are coarse and harsh, especially for a wine that is already six years old. The fruits are stewed and burnt, and there are strong prune flavors that are a bit bitter (another sign of over extraction). The finish is especially unpalatable as the tannins leave the mouth feeling dirty. 79 points. Value: F.

2012 Psagot Cabernet Sauvignon. Judean Hills. $35. The star of the lineup, this blew me away. Fruit compote of blackberries, plums, and cherries on the nose, along with black pepper and tobacco. There’s some wildness to it along the lines of a northern Rhone syrah and wet soil. Over time, spearmint emerges. The palate is medium-plus in body with dense, grainy tannin. Medium acidity helps cut the tannin and helps define a dense structure that achieves a lightness that the nose does not suggest. Flavors include dark cherries, blackberries, smoke, cocoa, espresso, and peppermint. It’s a dark and brooding flavor profile. The finish is long and pleasant. This is still a young wine and requires at least two to three hours of decanting before consuming. It will be even better in another two or three years. For the price, this is better than most cabernet sauvignons from any part of the globe. 93 points. Value: A.

2012 Galil Yiron. Galilee. $30. Cabernet sauvignon, merlot, and syrah. The nose is restrained, with bright cherry and raspberry, along with white pepper and orange zest. There’s a whiff of smoke, lavender, and thyme as well. One of the most herbal noses of any Israeli wine I’ve had. The palate is full-bodied and quite tannic. Medium-plus acidity, the structure is decently balanced despite the robust tannins. The fruit is dark and brooking, and there is black pepper spice and smoke. Eventually, the herbaciousness of the nose develops on the palate with classic bouquet garni-dried green herbs. The finish is a bit short but pleasant. Overall this is one of my favorite Israeli red blends, though it requires five to ten years of aging from vintage and is a bit immature at this point. The restrained nose, heavy tannins, and short finish are all indicative of the need to let this age for another one to two years at least, at which point it will start to become something special. Right now, this is a 90-point wine. With age, it will creep up a few points. It is also very price competitive with similar blends from around the world. Value: B+.

2010 Yatir Petit Verdot. Negev. $55. Nose: Interesting combination of light, ripe raspberries, blackberries, and cherries with dark scents of licorice, black pepper, and tar. Palate: Medium-plus body with very chewy tannin and bright, juicy acidity. The fruit—raspberries, red and black plums, cranberries, strawberries and blood orange—is a nice contrast to the seductive dark flavors of licorice, dried prunes, smoke, cigar tobacco, and graphite. Finish: The thick tannins dry the mouth quickly, but the big acidity keeps the fruit alive. A bit disjointed at the moment, this is an intriguing wine that will come together with another three or more years of ageing to become greater than its parts. It’s just a baby requiring several hours of decanting to become approachable. While it is unfortunately not very price competitive on the global market, it suggests the most skillful winemaking reviewed here as it is very difficult to tame petit verdot’s dominating tannins and spice and allow more flavors to emerge, as the makers have done here. 91 points now with the potential to shoot up to 93 with more age. Value: C-.

Non-Vintage Tishbi Brut bottle fermented sparkling wine. Multi-region. $40. The bottle reports 11 percent alcohol by volume, which I doubt. It is surely higher. Nose: Very round and ripe with sweet lemon and caramel notes. There is also some mustiness and vegetal aromas. The palate is unusually ripe for a sparkling wine with a small but surprising amount of sweetness. The bubbles are small and initially aggressive in the mouth. There is a big dollop of Granny Smith apple that grows increasingly sour and is supported by bitter greens. It finishes with medium length. This is an unusual sparkler and not particularly pleasing, although I did enjoy the combination of tart apple and bitter greens. At $40, however, there are much better sparkling options from other parts of the world. 88 points. Value: D.

As the scores suggest, these wines were a mixed bag. Among the whites, those that stood out were the Galil Viognier, Segal’s Reserve Chardonnay, and the Tulip White blend, with the Galil offering a world-class example of viognier, the Segal’s competing on price with the far more popular classic California chardonnay profile, and the Tulip offering a unique and very appealing blend.

The Flam blend was very good, but is of poor value. Flam is known as one of the more outstanding Israeli wineries, and from their other wines I’ve had I would concur with that categorization, though they are priced quite high. On the rose front, unfortunately, neither were very good, which disappointed me as I’ve had several good roses from Israel.

Do not let these two dissuade you from trying others. The reds offered the greatest distribution of quality and value. The Carmel Kayoumi shiraz and 1848 merlot were supremely disappointing, and I cannot in good faith recommend them on either quality or value. The Galil Yiron, which is very price competitive, and Yatir petit verdot, which is not, were both good, but with proper storage could turn into blockbusters in a few years.

The wine of the tasting for me was the Psagot cabernet sauvignon. I not only highly recommend it to those looking for quality Israeli wine, but to all cabernet sauvignon lovers.

There are a number of Israeli wines that I wish I could have tasted for this article, some of which I was unable to acquire because they are unavailable in the United States, and likely unavailable anywhere outside of Israel. To try these, one must go to Israel. But a trip to Israel to taste its wine is a very worthwhile experience. For those interested in taking a few days during their next trip to Israel to sample its wines, I’d like to offer a suggested route. It takes two nights and is biased against my preference for the northern wines of Israel, as well as my love of Israel’s north in general. This route is equal parts great wine, geography, and people, and can be done either in the order presented here or in reverse.

On the first day, begin with a visit to Clos de Gat in the Judean Hills, a contender for best winery in Israel, featuring big, well-structured wines. The winery requires an appointment made ahead of time. From there, drive to Zichron Ya’akov and plan to spend the night. Check into the boutique Smadar Inn and Winery, which offers some of the best Israeli wines I’ve had as well as a romantic, rustic bed and breakfast with pool. And, if your timing is good, you’ll be able to try the limoncello they make from lemons they grow on the property. You can also visit the Tishbi, Carmel, and Binyamina wineries in Zichron. Eat dinner at one of the many restaurants on Zichron’s famous HaNadiv and HaMeyasdim pedestrian-only streets in the center of the city.

After breakfast the next morning, make your way to the city of Dalton, where Dalton Winery and Adir Winery and Dairy are across the street from each other. Dalton offers a large number of wines that offer an impressive range of styles while maintaining consistent quality. Adir is not to be missed either, offering a decidedly New World, fruit-forward line up of high quality wines. Absolutely do not miss the incredible lunch available in the adjacent Adir Dairy that consists of multiple types of goat cheeses, salads, and breads.

psagot

A young woman sips from her glass of wine at the Psagot winery in the West Bank. Photo: Garrett Mills / Flash90

Next, make the 15-minute drive to Kibbutz Yiron and visit Galil Winery. Galil’s facility is very modern and attractive, so make sure to take their tour, which ends with a tasting of a wide range of their wines in a room with windows exposing a beautiful view of vineyards and mountains. My favorite options for lodging in this area are located nearby in Kerem Ben Zimra where many of the grapes that went into the wines you just tasted are grown. In the morning, travel down to Haifa and finish up with one of my favorite boutique producers not available in America: Vortman. Vortman’s tasting room offers spectacular views of the Carmel and the Mediterranean, and their wine is wonderful.

From there, the rest is up to you. On your way out of Israel, make sure to check out the James Richardson Duty Free store in Ben-Gurion airport, which offers a large selection of Israeli wine and provides the most convenient way to bring back your favorites.

Many supporters of Israel feel inclined to love everything that is Israel, so I felt that admitting my relationship with Israeli wine was love-hate might alienate readers. But did my exploration of Israeli wine push me closer to the love end of the spectrum? The answer is, thankfully, yes. No place in the world produces great wine across the board, but this voyage into Israeli wine has made me want to carve out more space in my cellar for it. It has also made me more critical of Israeli wine, because I’ve been able to taste wines that clearly indicate some producers in Israeli have raised their game. I only hope that more will follow, and that you will drink their work.

Thirteen Israeli Wines That Will Change Your Worldview / Aaron Menenberg

Banner Photo: Sophie Gordon / Flash90

Vineyards in Kibbutz Ortal in the Golan Heights, affiliated with the Golan Heights Winery. Photo: Serge Attal / Flash90

Many top Israeli wines are kosher, including Domaine du Castel’s award-winning vintages. Photo: Aviram Valdman / The Tower

The Jerusalem Kosher Wine Exhibition. Photo: Hadas Parush / Flash90

A young woman sips from her glass of wine at the Psagot winery in the West Bank. Photo: Garrett Mills / Flash90