Aaron on Aaron on Paso Robles

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30-35 Degree Slopes in Paso Robles. Picture credit: 100% lifted from Aaron Wines’ Instagram Feed

Welcome to 2018, Good Vitis style! I’m very excited to kick the new year off with my favorite title of any post thus far. When I received a collection of samples from Paso Robles and pulled out a bottle of Aaron Wines, I thought it might be a practical – and very endearing – joke by the PR firm. I looked up the winery and realized it was no joke, and then emailed the firm and asked for an interview with the owner and winemaker, Aaron Jackson. A few weeks later I sampled the wines, confirming their quality and appeal, and a few weeks after that we were on the phone, confirming my suspicion that Aaron was a wine lover’s winemaker.

The lineup at Aaron Wines is strongly weighted towards petit sirah. When I asked Aaron why he chose to focus on that varietal, he said it was for the same reason that I felt motivated to ask the question: “Because you had a reason to ask “why petit sirah?” and I had to have an interesting answer. If you asked winery owners in Napa why they made cabernet, the honest answer would be that “it’s most popular and what people want, and I want to make what people want.” With real inquisitive wine people, there are questions. Petit sirah is undiscovered and there are still things to discover.” Aaron Wines is sixteen years old, but he’s still trying to discover. That’s a wine lover’s winemaker.

Aaron Jackson got into the wine business in Paso Robles, near where he grew up, as a teenage in the late 1990s as a summer vineyard hand. At that time, Aaron describes Paso as going through an identity crisis in which the industry was trying to emulate Napa Valley, making predominantly red Bordeaux varietals and chardonnay because that is what people bought. The problem, though, was that when consumers thought about California cabernet, merlot or chardonnay, they thought Napa, not Paso, and so a few wineries began searching for other varietals to begin carving out a niche in the market.

However, shifts in varietal plantings are slow, long changes due to the significant monetary risk of introducing something completely different into the market and the timeline of (re)planting vineyards. And so, well into the 2000s, it was the Bordeaux varietals that remained the bulk of Paso’s wines. As Aaron worked his way through several wineries, he become quite adept at dealing with these varietals, though they didn’t ring authentic to the region to him.

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Aaron (Author) tasting Aaron (Jackson) Wines

“It’s a really authentic region and people,” Aaron said. Comparing Paso to Napa, he said Paso is “like good barbecue, it’s not white table cloth. Winemakers spend time on tractors; I’ve never worn a polo shirt or button up to work.” Most interesting to me, he boasted about how the fluid narrative of Paso as a wine region is driving innovation. “The wines are unique and speak to consumers who like big, powerful wines. Within [more] established regions there’s a high degree of rigidity; you can’t go into Napa, make a red that isn’t based on cabernet or merlot, and know you’re going to survive. Russian River grenache? That’s a risk. There are big waves going against you. In Paso there’s still experimentation, a lot of energy and exciting wine, and really cool people.”

Aaron wasn’t the only to have this observation that emulating Napa wasn’t the route Paso should be pursuing, however. Thanks in large part to efforts like the partnership between California’s Haas family and France’s Chateau de Beaucastel called Tablas Creek Winery, a few people in Paso began to embrace the varietals of the Rhone Valley, namely syrah, grenache and mourvedre. He recalled, “over time you saw developments and interesting wines [being made in Paso] as people wrapped their head around those varietals. With Rhone varietals they had international benchmarks [to compare quality], but not really any domestic ones, so in that sense they were writing the book for American Rhones at the time.” It was exciting because it was new.

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Harvest 2017. Picture Credit: Aaron Wines’ Instagram Feed

However, when Aaron decided to open his own winery, the Rhone varietals weren’t exciting him enough to be his impetus because at that point they were common, even if they hadn’t replaced cabernet and merlot as the standard of Paso Robles. Aaron was motivated by a desire to “bend the status quo.” He was “looking for my own way to put my fingerprint on the region” and so, driven by a particularly fond memory, he chose petit sirah as the cornerstone of Aaron Wines.

When he worked at Four Vines Winery, Aaron had a chance to make a wine from old vine petit sirah. “It blew me away, it was incredible, and no one was making it,” he said. “Benchmarking the wine was difficult [because] the thing about petit sirah is that there’s no benchmark anywhere. Trying to make Chateauneuf de Pape or Cotes de Rhone in Paso, you can do that [because you have these well-established regions to learn from and their name recognition to trade on]. With petit sirah, it’s uncharted territory.” He saw it as “a huge opportunity to do what I wanted, to make my own mark.”

Aaron began by meeting growers, forming relationships and using his skills of persuasion to talk them into planting petit sirah in areas where he hoped to source grapes. Though he still sources all his fruit, he would like to have some estate fruit eventually. In the meantime, he continues to fine tune every year what he wants for each site as the climate changes in ways requiring significant modifications. For example, the common preference for southern facing slopes in the Northern Hemisphere is no longer true, Aaron says, at least in Paso where average temperatures have been rising dramatically each year. Now, rather than seeking out the heat of southern facing slopes, there’s a need to find less exposure to the hot sun, and the preferred exposure has become northern.

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New Mourvedre Plantings. Picture Credit: Aaron Wines’ Instagram Feed

Having never been to Paso myself, and with little exposure to its wines, I asked Aaron to describe it for me and explain why it’s a great place to grow vitis vinifera. He began by comparing it to the geography of Spain’s Priorat, describing it as featuring “incredibly steep hills with vines clinging to the side of hills. You can’t drive through it and say the wines are not going to be unique. You look at the vineyards and you just know they will be [unqiue].” Driving into Paso Robles from the coast, it takes less than three minutes after you’ve lost sight of the ocean and you’ve entered these steep hills with white soil. Terroir-wise, “it looks different; every aspect – the soil, orientation, etc. – is extremely varied.”

Aaron’s wines offer uniqueness as well, even within Paso. Aaron Wines is just him and one full time employee, so there is a personal touch on every detail of ever wine; “no big marketing campaign, no smoke and mirrors” used to sell wine. “Everything is supposed to tell an authentic story.” Each named blend has a genesis story. Sand and Stone, for example, came from his desire to make a grenache-heavy wine. In Paso, there wasn’t a lot of grenache being made in the mid-2000s when Aaron took a brief break from California to study enology in Australia. Living in Adelaide, Aaron was exposed to the old vine Grenache grown in the sand dunes of Mclaren Vale that blew him away (“if you drove your car into the vineyards you would get stuck in the sand”). Upon his return, he went to work at Saxum, famous for its grenache, where it was grown in limestone. So, when it came time to make his own, he combined the sand of Australia with the stone of Paso to produce Sand and Stone. “I don’t want to be corny, but I do want people to see what we’re doing is real and legitimate and understand why we make our wines the way we do.”

Aaron S&S

Speaking of his wine, it’s quite good. The 2014 Sand and Stone (44% petite sirah, 43% grenache, 13% syrah) has a hedonistic nose that, while boasting concentrated aromas of dark plum, black currant and blackberry, isn’t fruit-driven. Rather, it’s the moist Earth, dung, loam, fungus and white pepper that give it a nose that is surprisingly mature for its age. The body is blessed with dense but linear and refined tannin. There’s just a tick of an alcohol that’s more spicy than boozy in affect. The acid is ripe and drives juicy red, blue and black fruit, especially Acai and Pomegranate. There is complementary lilac, violet, graphite and orange rind. It finishes with a bit of bacon. It’s bright and refreshing now, but I’d suggest giving it at least 2-3 years to further develop, though it will do well for a good deal longer than that. 91 points, value B.

Having recently done a library tasting of his own wines, I asked Aaron about the experience he had with the aging curve of them. He mentioned that the 2002 vintage (his first) is still very much alive but on its downward slide, while the 2003 is drinking nicely, with tons of fruit still left, but has probably peaked. The 2006 was the best of the line-up. While the wines do have immediate appeal, Aaron believes some can be two-decade wines.

Aaron Citizen

The wine I’d be most interested in cellaring is the 2014 Citizen (53% petite sirah, 47% syrah), whose nose is still a bit reticent and requires a lot of aeration to coax out strawberry, iodine and dense smoke. The palate is lush and polished on entry, while the body is medium in stature and boasts crisp acid. On the flavor front it delivers a decidedly Earthy profile with iodine, fatback, thyme, cherry, blackberry and huckleberry. The finish brings in saline and rosewater. I believe it will benefit with five years of cellaring and could be one of those two-decade wines Aaron referenced. 92 points, value B+.

Aaron told me that the tannins on the wines I tasted are reserved compared to the older school Paso style, and that is purposefully done so they can be approachable upon release (I’ve read that something like fewer than 2% of wine sold in America is aged). Aaron commented that only in the last decade have Paso winemakers learned they should trim their yields and pick earlier to tame tannins. Paso is full of limestone, which Aaron called a “builder of acid.” This is evident in his wines, which all delivered higher doses of acid that I wasn’t expecting, but was happy to find. In fact, Aaron sources from one particular site that is relatively low in acid development in order to blend it to tame the acid on some of his wines as well.

Aaron Trespasser

The 2014 Trespasser (61% petite sirah, 27% mourvèdre, 7% syrah, 5% grenache) was the most acidic of the flight for me. The nose is quiet but pretty, with aromas of lilac, lavender, scorched Earth, cherry juice and crushed SweeTart. The surprisingly plush and buoyant palate offers a cornucopia of Acai, pomegranate, blackberry, rose petal, tar, smoke, pepper and sage, while it finishes with saline and bacon. 92 points, value B+.

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Finally, we come to Aaron’s signature grape, and he doesn’t disappoint. The 2014 Petit Sirah (100%) offers a particularly high-toned nose of plum, maraschino cherry and something (?) stewed. The full body has an almost creamy feel as the tannins are impressively managed. The wonderful fruit is all over the place: cherry, blackberry, Acai, pomegranate, apricot and orange. There is also chocolate covered rose petals, lavender and a slightly peppery kick. The integration, balance and structure of this wine are all quite impressive. A beast of a wine, it knows how to be graceful. This is impressive winemaking. 93 points, value A.

I hope someday to visit Paso Robles. Between Aaron Wines and the other samples I received from the region, which will be reviewed in a future post, I’d like to experience more. For those searching out exciting big-styled wines, Paso is a great place to begin.

Arizona makes world class wine, it’s true.

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Barrels hanging out in the Arizona desert

I didn’t set out to purposefully make Good Vitis about up-and-coming wine regions, but the phenomenal experiences that this blog has led to in Maryland and now Arizona are encouraging me to think more about that theme. Not as a focus of the blog, but more as a way of preventing myself from becoming a myopic wine consumer reliant on established reputation. To that end, this weekend myself and some friends will be tasting through two mixed cases of wine from Ontario, Canada, which will be written up for Good Vitis in the coming weeks. And, in May, Hannah (a.k.a. “The Photographer”) and I will be traveling to the Republic of Georgia with friends to, among other things, check out its 8,000 year-old wine scene. I’ve also covered wineries in California and Israel in these pages, and I’ve reviewed wines from Washington, Oregon, France, Spain and elsewhere, and will continue to cover any region where good wine is made. The newest region in which I’ve discovered good wine is the State of Arizona, where magic is fermenting.

Our trip to Arizona was purposed around visiting my father, who lives in Phoenix. I’m out there several times per year. During one visit he took me to Jerome, a old mining town built on the side of a mountain, where Arizona’s most famous winery, Caduceus, is located. I did a quick tasting at their tasting room and popped into Cellar 433. Between the two I found surprisingly good wine that was mostly priced above its global equivalents. Those were my first and last Arizona wine experiences until a year or so later when friends of ours brought over a bottle of Caduceus, which had six years of bottle age, that was spectacular. It reawakened my interest in Arizona wine and I knew that eventually I’d have to make a point of trying a few more.

That happened last month with visits to Arizona Stronghold and Fire Mountain Wines. Dustin Coressel, the marketing and sales guy at AZ Stronghold, and John Scarbrough, Stronghold’s cellar master, met us one morning at the winery, which is not open to the public, to show us around and pour a few barrel samples. AZ Stronghold is the largest winery in Arizona by production, producing around 20,000 cases annually distributed across twenty-five states. It’s also one of the oldest, and it’s role in the state’s industry is one of a grandfather with many a winery getting its start using Stronghold’s custom crush services, which include not only production but also in-house bottling and labeling capabilities.

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Their winemaking style is decidedly old world, and this is obvious not only in technique but in what comes through in the glass as well: open top fermentation, (very) neutral oak for most of its wines (using a mix of French, American and Hungarian barrels), incomplete malolactic fermentation for whites and vineyard management aimed at limiting the amount of manipulation needed in the winery. The terroir also helps. Arizona’s vitis vinifera is grown in the southern most part of the state, not far from the border with Mexico, which features a decidedly Mediterranean climate of long, warm days moderated by robust breezes, and cool nights. This combines to keep sugar development in check. The soils ain’t bad either, I’m told. Most of Stronghold’s vineyards – owned and leased – are around 3,500 feet in elevation, with their Colibri site at 4,250 feet, making it the highest vineyard in America by mine and Scarbrough’s estimation. I imagine most people are like me in conjuring up images of a 110+ degree, dry and stale climate in Arizona but there is considerable acreage in Arizona primed for grape growing.

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They grow wine in Arizona. Picture credit: wine-searcher.com

For barrel samples we tried their Nachise and Bayshan Rhone-style blends, both promising wines of character and structure. We also had the “Dolla” cabernet sauvignon, a refreshing and light cab with gorgeous red fruit, cinnamon and cocoa that retails for a very competitive $20, a very pretty and bright sangiovese and a gamey syrah.

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While the wine may be old school, Stronghold’s business model incorporates some new school components, notably a significant keg production. I’ve long been smitten with the idea of putting drink-now wine in kegs for restaurant by-the-glass menu; it just makes so much sense in that it preserves the wine for a long time, making it not only more profitable for restaurants but better for the customer as well. Kegs are also much easier, safer, cheaper and more financially and environmentally efficient to transport that glass bottles packed by the dozen. The practice has become quite profitable for Stronghold, which has gone a step further than any keg program I’ve seen by using reusable and recyclable kegs made from plastic, which makes transportation and storage easier, cheaper and more environmentally friendly that the normal metal kegs.

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Scarbrough and I geeked out for a few minutes at the end of our visit over vineyard management. Dormancy usually ends around March with harvest coming in August or September. The biggest dangers are Spring frosts and monsoons, which threaten the vineyards usually in July. Asked about brix at harvest, Scarbrough said that they aim to pick reds in the 23-24.5 range and whites as close to 22 as possible to preserve aromatics. Add this to the climate and wine making style and the results, which are detailed below in reviews of the wines I tried at their tasting room in Cottonwood and in bottle at home, are unsurprising in the high levels of quality, flavor, and elegance they deliver.

As Dustin walked us out to our car he suggested that we visit Scarbrough’s side project, Fire Mountain Wines, whose tasting room was across the street from Stronghold’s. Why Joe didn’t mention it I don’t know, but the humility is a bit bizarre after tasting Fire Mountain’s stuff, which is fantastic. Fire Mountain is majority owned by a Native American business partner of Joe’s, making it the only Native American-owned winery in Arizona. I can’t recommend Arizona Stronghold and Fire Mountain Wines enough as great entries into the Arizona wine scene.

Going through my tasting notes there did emerge some themes. Among the whites, bodies were usually medium and lush, but moderated by zippy acidity that is very citrusy and pure flavors. The reds, which as a group showed more complexity, were medium to full bodied but well balanced. They offered juicy acidity and good Earthiness to go with pure red fruits. Standouts included Arizona Stronghold’s mourvedre, the exceptional Dragoon Vineyard merlot (best in tasting), and Lozen reds, along with Fire Mountain’s mostly Malbec “Ko” and “Skyfire,” which is a hopped sauvingnon blanc (you read that right, and believe me, it delivers). The award for exception value is Arizona Stronghold’s rose which way, way over-delivers for its $12 price tag. The wines of both wineries are enjoyable, some age worthy, and all of good value. I highly recommend a trip to Cottonwood, which has become a hub for winery tasting rooms, for a representative taste of what Arizona wine offers.

Arizona Stronghold

2014 Arizona Stronghold Vineyard Chardonnay Dala – Neutral oak and partial malolactic fermentation. Nose: prototypical chardonnay nose. Bit of toast, bit of butter, bit of lemon, bit of peach pit. There is a hint of parsley and some slate to add some variety. Palate: medium body, nice bright acidity but balanced out by a welcomed dose of buttery fat offering a glycerin sensation to fill out the mouthfeel. Meyer lemon, grapefruit and lime sorbet provide a nice variety of citrus. Definitely stone minerality as well and a brief hit of honeysuckle. Overall a really enjoyable mid-weight table chardonnay offering generous amounts of simple pleasure. 88 points. Value: B

2014 Arizona Stronghold Vineyard Diya – 50/50 blend of viognier and chardonnay. The nose is muted, offering lemon, banana, pineapple and dandelion. It’s full bodied offering moderate acidity and evidence of partial malolactic fermentation. Barrel notes are significant on the body, which is offers a slight sweetness and good balance. There is underripe banana, lemon curd and white pepper. This is built to age and clearly it has more to offer than it’s letting on right now. With 2-3 years of cellaring it likely become more lively and complex. 90 points. Value: C+

2015 Arizona Stronghold Vineyard Tazi – Very aromatic and tropical nose with big honeysuckle, pineapple and vanilla. The body has medium weight but is quite lush with, limey acidity. There are zippy streaks of saline and chili flake spice along with a dollop of lime sorbet. This is a porch pounder wine if there ever were one. 88 points. Value: B

2014 Arizona Stronghold Vineyard Malvasia Bianca Bonita Springs – The nose is quite floral and offers baking spice notes as well. On the palate, honeysuckle is the major theme but it has a Starfruit burs along with lime and dandelion. Quite lean and acidity, it’s a lip smacker. 87 points. Value: C+

2014 Arizona Stronghold Vineyard Gewürztraminer Bonita Springs – The nose offers apricot, white pepper, (inoffensive) kerosene and gorgeous florals. The palate is lean and mean with modest acidity. Flavors are dominated by apricots and peaches, though there is some cinnamon and a touch of green as well. A very unusual gewurtztraminer, it’s quite racy. 88 points. Value: B

2015 Arizona Stronghold Vineyard Dayden Rose – The nose is dominated by burnt sugar and augmented by cherry, orange and rose hips. The palate is medium-plus in weight and quite lush, but the bright acidity helps it sing. The flavors are wonderful, with strawberries, charcoal, and lime at the forefront. Straw and white pepper sit subtly in the background. At $12 this is among the very best values for rose. 88 points. Value: A

2015 Arizona Stronghold Vineyard Malbec Arizona Stronghold Site Archive Deep Sky – Strong, ripe aromatics of red beet, macerated cherries, smoke, and dried cranberries. The palate is medium bodied with precise acid and thin, grainy tannins. The structure and weight balance nicely to produce a nimble wine with a slight bit of astringency that dries the palate. It offers flavors of black pepper, acai, raspberry, red beet juice and smoke. There’s a bit of celery seed, damp soil and mushrooms as well. Very enjoyable, it goes down easy and smooth. 91 points. Value: A

2015 Arizona Stronghold Vineyard Grenache Buhl Memorial Vineyard – Red fruit on the nose, strawberry and raspberry, joined with cinnamon and cocoa. It is medium bodied with well-integrated tannin and acid. The red fruit – strawberry, raspberry and huckleberry – is nicely augmented by cinnamon and almond pound cake. 90 points. Value: A

2015 Arizona Stronghold Vineyard Mourvedre – The nose features smokey and red fruits, and is relatively mild compared to the bigger palate. It is full bodied, but the bright acidity and fine grained tannins keep it nimble. Nice black pepper spice along with big hits of cherries and rhubarb. There’s also burnt blood orange and a touch of parsley. A very cool wine. 91 points. Value: A

2015 Arizona Stronghold Vineyard Merlot Dragoon Vineyard – This has a really twisted nose that is bloody and brooding, featuring cherries, blackberries, smoke, cocoa iodine and Herbs de Provence. The palate is mouth coating and gorgeous with dark fruits, black pepper, saline and juicy acidity. The limited use of oak on this allows the Dragoon terroir to really shine. This may benefit from a year or two in the cellar and has a solid five years of prime drinking ahead of it. 93 points. Value: A

2012 Arizona Stronghold Vineyard Nachise – The nose is quite savory, very meaty, dark and spicy. It’s full bodied with its fine grained tannins hitting the palate immediately. The initial hit on the tongue is savory with iodine, smoke and celery. This is followed up with a nice blend of cherries, blackberries and blueberries. Black pepper comes in at the end. Drinking nicely with five years of age, it has a couple more years to go before it declines. 91 points. Value: A

2015 Arizona Stronghold Vineyard Syrah Norte Block Buhl Memorial Vineyard – From 20-year old vines. The nose offers big fruit and is a bit one-dimensional at the moment, though a few years should help it develop complexity. The palate is big, round and balanced. It offers cherries, strawberries, black pepper, green herbs, and blood orange. Quite juicy, the fruit is very fleshy. This will benefit from two years in the cellar and then can be fully enjoyed over the following five years. 90 points. Value: B

2014 Arizona Stronghold Vineyard Lozen – The nose is quite meaty and savory, with iodine, smoke, cherry, orange and pipe tobacco. It’s full bodied with grainy tannins but is nicely balanced by a touch of sweetness and bright acidity. It shows its portion of new oak in the flavors as well. There is cocoa, dark plums and cherries, tobacco and oregano. This is a baby, and with three-plus years of aging will emerge. Give it five or six years and the complexities will likely blow you away. 92 points. Value: B

Fire Mountain Wines

2016 Fire Mountain Wines Sauvignon Blanc Skyfire – Only 17 cases made, this wine included the addition of Cascade and Azacca hops, which show their intriguing presence on the nose where they dance with zesty citrus and minerality. The body features less hop influence, it’s medium bodied with sweet fruit, lime zest and little bit of lushness. They experimented here and hit a home run. 92 points. Value: B

2015 Fire Mountain ya’a’ (Sky) – Nose of starfruit, pear, melon and vanilla curd. The palate is full bodied with peach and apricot nectars, chili flake spice, and celery. The acid is nicely balanced and keeps it from becoming too lush. 90 points. Value: B

2016 Fire Mountain Wines Cicada rose – Made with sangiovese. The fruit was cold soaked for 48 hours. The nose smells of lees and strawberries while the palate is quite restrained with good acidity. It offers strawberries, herbs and general green flavors. 89 points. Value: B+

2015 Fire Mountain Wines Fire “Ko” – over 80% malbec. The nose is a bit oaky, but offers blackberries, plums, black pepper and pipe tobacco as well. A bit one-dimensional now, this will change with time. It’s full bodied, but balanced and juicy. The fruit includes cherries, strawberries and this wonderful note of guava. It also offers cocoa, smoke, black pepper and iodine. It’s a bit shadowed at the moment by oak, but this is built to age. This is only going to get better. I’d say sit on this for at least two or three years, but I’d be very curious to try it in ten. 92 points. Value: B+

2015 Fire Mountain Wines Earth – A very elegant and perfumed nose of cranberries, huckleberries and a little toastiness. The palate is more toasted and very deep, offering raspberries, cranberries, rhubarb, and cigar tobacco. The tannins are fined grained, and the acidity is lively. Best with one or two years of aging, drink this over the next five. 91 points. Value: B

A Wine Adventure: Donkey & Goat Winery

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Donkey and Goat is a cerebral winery. By design and by default, it has to be because D&G is a natural wine producer. As Tracey Brandt, the wife of the husband and wife team behind the winery told me, D&G uses only one of the 350 chemicals and additives that are legally permissible in making wine. One is a small number, but it’s also unusual in this regard. Many of these chemicals and additives are used because they prevent or correct problems. Remove them and winemakers don’t have as much control over their wine. This increases the chance of problems – wine-wise and economic – but also increases the amount of nature’s intent that comes through in the glass. This kind of wine, the one that eschews chemicals, additives and certain processes, has been termed “natural.”

The effects of the non-natural process on the final product and the consumer’s health have been deemed unacceptable by D&G. That’s fine in theory, but it makes every decision made throughout the entire wine-making process, from the vineyard to bottling, more important because if something goes wrong, the winemaker doesn’t have a chemical toolkit to draw from. This, in turn, means Tracy and Jared must, because they want to make good wine and pay the bills, pay a lot of attention to what they’re doing and put a lot of thought into it, especially the cleaning process (a good chunk of the legally permissible chemicals are ones that sanitize).

Natural winemaking has received a fair amount of press, and it would be wasteful to focus too much on what “natural wine” is because there isn’t a set definition (a criticism routinely levied against it). Natural wine, according to my own thinking, is wine with as little influence as possible from chemicals/additives and processes that are by definition and science not necessary to produce wine. Tracey and Jared use their own words, and they aren’t exactly mine, so I won’t meditate anymore on it.

What I will do is talk more about how D&G does it because it’s quite interesting, and because it works. I walked away from my visit to D&G – a tasting and a conversation with Tracey and Jared – with two pieces of information etched in my mind: first, the natural process is fundamental to their ethos, and second, they are laser-focused on making wine for the table (food friendly wines). For the winemaker or astute wine drinker, you know that these two things are fundamental to the decisions made from cradle to grave.

The outcomes are medium-bodied wines on the acidic end of wine’s sweet spot in the potential of Hydrogen (pH) spectrum. To get there, the grapes are picked with relatively high acidic levels, closely but not obsessively sorted, crushed under light pressure, fermented with native yeasts, neither cold nor hot stabilized, and aged mostly in used oak (sometimes stainless or cement is used, but new oak is forbidden). Some whites get skin contact during fermentation. And, wines get blended by the barrel to achieve the same outcomes that some chemicals or additives achieve. For example, the high acid barrels are blended with low acid barrels to achieve the right level of acidity. While many non-natural wineries follow the practice of mixing barrels to achieve a specific profile, this kind of blending, I was told, is nothing short of critical to D&G’s success because they do not call on chemicals, additives or processes often used in the blending process to deter or accentuate certain properties in the wine.

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Tracey and Jared Brant. Picture from donkeyandgoat.com

I asked Tracey whether being a natural producer was good for the bottom line, and it turns out: not necessarily. Yes, it’s true that people who seek out natural wines come to know D&G, and so that crowd is an important part of their customer base. And while it’s also true that many people who drink D&G do so without the knowledge of its ethos, there is hope in Tracey and Jared when they talk that as the natural wine movement becomes more successful there will be new converts that widen that base. Either way, though, they’ll stay true to their code, and people will enjoy their wine regardless of whether they know it’s natural.

This last point is one that I find pretty interesting because D&G has a signature style that isn’t mainstream American (though apparently it is signature Norwegian where D&G is in hot demand). Those who drink D&G are consuming medium bodied, acidic wines with apparent skin tannin, bright fruit and Earthy flavors – a far cry from the New World style of Californian wine and America’s general palate preferences. The natural wine movement holds an appeal to its adherents that one might call “healthy” in that it reflects nature’s intent without adulteration, but I can’t imagine many natural wine followers consume wine they dislike simply because it’s natural; D&G isn’t expensive, but it isn’t cheap either, and wine is an elective, luxury product. As for D&G’s fans who aren’t inclined to seek out natural wines, or simply don’t care, they are drawn to the profile. All of this leads me to believe that the America’s palate isn’t as singular as it once was. The popularity of Washington’s savory syrahs and Oregon’s Burgundy-styled pinot noirs offer additional evidence of this.

The evidence of growing American wine sophistication aside, D&G offers wine worthy of your table. I visited three wineries while in California (Jaffurs and Au Bon Climat in Santa Barbara, plus D&G in Berkley), and I found several commonalities: they all offer superb values with most of their wines in the $25-40 range, and they all hold strong immediate appeal while offering evidence that they’ll evolve with short-term cellaring. These are wines you can drink now and over the five years following release.

As with my short trip to Santa Barbara, my experience at D&G doesn’t lend itself to full reviews. Erin was generous with her pours in the D&G tasting room but the situation wasn’t right for fair assessments. What follows are my tasting notes minus scores and value ratings. If you like wines that hit on the high end of the acid spectrum, are ready made for food pairings, and offer good balance and pure expressions then D&G may well be for you. Their tasting room and winery are located in an old warehouse in Berkley and is worth a stop if you’re in the area. Their wines are also decently distributed around the United States, and if you live in the Washington D.C. area you can find them at Weygandt’s.

2014 Stone Crusher Roussanne: very tropical palate with cocktail fruit flavors. Hefty skin tannin adds weight and texture making it a really complete wine. Strong white pepper, tropical fruits and a bit of mustiness. This was probably the most impressive of the lineup for me.

2013 Untended Chardonnay: prototypical chardonnay nose of vanilla, grass and citrus. Medium bodied and very smooth, high viscosity mouthfeel. Medium acidity. Little bit of butterscotch on the palate along with honey and green tea.

Mou-Rou Nouveu: 36 bottles produced (yes, bottles, not a misprint), it’s 50/50 mourvedre and roussanne, lightly pressed and bottled following fermentation in the style of Beaujolais Nouveu. Really flesh with a very interesting hoppy flavor and a ton of strawberries.

2013 Broken Leg Vineyard Pinot Noir: very bright raspberry, strawberry and cherry medley on the nose. Medium bodied, light skin tannin. Bright, bursting red fruit and tangerine. White pepper, mushroom and a little bit of greenness. Acid really kicks in on the finish and cleans the palate.

2013 El Dorado Syrah: savory nose with smoked meat, tar and cigar tobacco leaf. Medium bodied with fine grain tannin. Salty plums, smoke and blackberries are apparent along with black pepper beef jerky. Will evolve nicely over the next five years.

2013 Perli Vineyards Syrah: kept in bottle for an additional year prior to release. Pretty, floral nose with big violets, rose and burnt orange rind. Medium plus body with bursting red fruits, forest floor, black pepper, saline and iodine. Over time a healthy meatiness developed.

Thirteen Israeli Wines That Will Change Your Worldview

This piece was originally published in The Tower Magazine.

israeli-wine-shelf

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.

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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