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Wine of Israel: Grand Tasting, New York City

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“Is Israel a new world wine region or an old world wine region?” asks a guest attending the first ever Wines of Israel Grand Tasting in New York City. We are seated in the luxurious Prince George Ballroom in midtown.

Good question. If you are in the wine world, you have probably heard the words “old world” and “new world’ to describe two very different styles of wine. “Old World” wine is mostly Western European and Central European – from countries that have been making wine for hundreds of years. “New World” wine is from California, Chile, Argentina, South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand – countries that pretty much had their start less than 300 years ago.

So, where does Israel fit in? Though Israel is one of the cradles of civilization and its people have been making wine for thousands of years, it really wasn’t until the 19th century that “modern” wineries were developed.

According to the seminar led by Mark Squires, Wine Critic for Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate, as well as material produced from the Government of Israel, the country’s wine industry has recently undergone a technological revolution. The winemaking revolution began in the 1980s as a product of the inspiration of pioneering wineries and vintners.

Quality grape varieties were planted in new, higher altitudes and cooler vineyards. Note for new fans of wine: the higher, cooler regions help the grapes avoid “sunburn” and keep acidity.

According to government figures, there are now over 200 wineries in Israel. Five large wineries produce over a million bottles a year: Carmel, Barkan, Golan Heights, Teperberg, and Binyamina. I stopped by the Binyamina table thinking it smart to try one of the largest, oldest wineries first.

According to the men behind the table, the winery was established in 1952. I thought the wines good; a favorite white was the oaked 2005 Chosen Onyx Chardonnay from the Judean Hills. The wine reflected good fruit, nice balance, and judicious use of oak. The price? $45. According to some of the notes of Mr. Squires’ talk, one of the many challenges facing Israeli wine is the high price – a reflection of many factors, including expenses relating to exportation.

I found myself discussing this topic with a wine store owner tasting wine next to me, and together we discussed the excellence of the wines, and under what circumstances we would buy them after finding neither of us typically spent more than $15 or $20 for a casual every day dinner wine.

“So when would you buy it?” I asked. “For a holiday dinner?” The wine storeowner nodded. “Yes, and also to give to collector friends who love good wine. Even if they have a lot of expensive Northern Rhone Syrah in their cellar, I know they would enjoy this Israeli wine for half the price.”

And it’s true. I thought the Merlot and Syrah wines from Israel, virtually across the board, were fantastic, especially the higher-end wines in their thirties and forties. Binyamina winery had a wine I really fell in love with called Chosen Ruby, which is 97% Syrah, 3% Viognier. I liked the 2005 more than the 2006. This wine retails between $55 and $60. According to the representatives, “Chosen” is the name of the stone or jewel worn by a high priest (hence Chosen Onyx, Chosen Ruby). Very cool.

At Dalton (located in the Upper Galilee) I met Export Manager Alex Haruni. Marshall, a man I met at yesterday’s Washington State tasting, recommended the whites, a viognier reserve with wild yeast and a fume blanc. Nice and well balanced, yet after tasting so many brilliant reds I went straight for the Dalton Alma 2006 Bordeaux blend, 56% Cabernet Sauvignon, 25% Merlot, 19% Cab Franc ($21.00). Very well balanced and rich with a medium plus, satisfying finish.

I was pretty dazzled by Hevron Heights and Noah Winery in the Judean Hills. I spent a lot of time talking to Michel Murciano, who wore a beret (!) — a significant number of other men wore yarmulkes — and really responded to his Judean Heights 2005 Merlot. To be fair, this is one of the first Merlots I had at the tasting and really was impressed by the rich silky smoothness of the wine, the fruit, the vanilla and blueberry finish.

Dessert wines are excellent, at least the two specimens I tried. I had to restrain myself from another taste of the Jonathan Tishbi Muscat Dessert Wine 2007 – just really excellent, clean and refreshing, yet sweet with a distinctive fruit note I could not identify. Something like a very fresh, ripe raspberry or tiny sweet framboise. The wine is colored fuchsia with a slightly candied nose and palate.

Though I could have happily played the “name that flavor” game for hours, I had to move on. Yet if you buy it and try it, please tell your thoughts. The other wine was the wildly delicious Yarden Heights 100% Gewurztraminer from Galilee – also crisp and refreshing acidity with sweet flavors of ripe apricot, and pear. Well-balanced and very lean.

Also interesting with Yarden is that their Cabernet Sauvignon El Rom Vineyard 2004 is priced at $75, yet I liked their non-single vineyard 2004 Cab better. To me it seemed richer and riper. “You have good taste,” said the representative behind the table, indicating that Wine Spectator gave it 90 points. I looked it up just now on the Internet and here it is from Kim Marcus:

90 points – Wine Spectator, Sep 30, 2008
“Rich and refined, showing focused flavors of red plum, berry and spice, with appealing herbal overtones. Has excellent balance and structure, backed up by crisp acidity. Mineral and smoke notes fill the firm finish. Kosher. Drink now through 2012. – KM

So there you have it, my day’s adventure exploring the wines of Israel. In my tasting column I reviewed several Israeli wines, yet these are the wines from the bigger producers that are more widely distributed in the United States. It was really a privilege to taste all the different regions today, and I can’t wait until next year.

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  • Wine Tasting Guy

    Great review. I’m happy to hear of your positive experience and thrilled to read about how much you enjoyed the wines you tasted.

    Regarding price, the high prices of some Israeli wine is certainly an issue – but isn’t price a relative item? You mention the expensive Northern Rhone lovers; they must be spending well in excess of $30-40 for some of those Rhone wines. And while $30-40 IS certainly not cheap, it is RELATIVELY cheap when compared with other wines.

    Speaking of price, The Yarden El Rom single vineyard, although hard to find at this point, generally retails at closer to $50 (still expensive but not $75), while the Yarden Cabernet ’04 that you enjoyed is a $25-30 wine. For a wine that made Wine Spectators top 100 list I’d say that is a good deal.

    Thanks again for your fabulous review of the tasting event!

  • barbara barnett

    I attend a lot of Jewish functions that use high-end caterers, etc, and I have learned that Kosher wines are much more diverse and excellent than the stereotypical”Maneshevitz Concord Grape” I’ve learned a lot and really enjoy the syrahs (especially) I’ve tasted from Israel. I’m not a wine connoisseur, but I have my favorites among varietals. I’ve really been pleased that Israel has over the past several years produced quality wines (kosher) that can compete with non-kosher varieties.

  • Ruvy

    Interesting read….

    I’ve become more interested in wine since my heart attack. My doctor prescribed a glass of wine each night.

    But your article focused on Israeli wines exported, and well, I live in the country. So, whether a wine costs $10, $15, $40 or $55 is somewhat of an irrelevancy to me. Just for your general knowledge, a bottle of sweet Sabbath wine usually costs about New Israeli Shekels 16 (about $4), and the better wines at the supermarket (you can buy wine and vodka in a supermarket here) usually cost anywhere from NIS 20 to NIS 100 ($5 to $25) with a lot of them costing about NIS 70 ($17.50).

    There are many Frenchmen who have come here and have become small vintners in the mountains of Samaria and Judea. We drink these wines – partly because they are the local product, and we want to support our neighbors, partly because they taste good, and mostly because we drink wine for the Sabbath and for festivals. And for me, there also that “prescription” from the cardiologist.

    So, bir’shút maranán, rabotái v’g’vurotái: l’Háim!

  • Dr Dreadful

    “…Something like a very fresh, ripe raspberry or tiny sweet framboise.”