Category Archives: Kosher and Israeli wines

Tzora, Judaean Hills

There was a man who lived on a kibbutz and had a dream to set up a winery. That kibbutz was Tzora, in the cool hills not far from Jerusalem, and the winery he started, and which bears the same name, is thriving today.

The man was Ronnie James – he didn’t live to see the success of his brainchild, but his memory lives on in the winery logo and he is remembered with fondness and reverence. In fact, as I look at the large painting of him in the tasting room, I get a feeling that in some sense he still very much runs this show. And then I recall that another winemaker in the Judaean Hills, Ze’ev Dunie of Seahorse, has named his signature Chenin Blanc after this man – James… one of my favourite Israeli wines.

Twenty-five years ago, Ronnie James decided that, instead of selling grapes like everyone else did, he was going to make his own wine. Small-batch winemaking was still in its infancy in Israel at the time, with literally only a handful of people experimenting with the promising but challenging task.

For a while Ronnie’s endeavour remained a one-man show, but finally in 2006 investments were made and the winery hired a professional winemaker, Eran Pick, who today is the first and to my knowledge only Master of Wine in Israel. Eran’s vast experience belies his years: not only has he completed the extremely rigorous MW degree, the Ph.D. of the wine trade, he has also worked in a number of top wine regions around the world from Bordeaux to Australia. His mission is to continue Ronnie’s commitment to creating wines that express the terroir, the land they came from. And so Tzora’s wines have character. As Eran says, he is trying to capture the fragrance of the herbs and spices that grow wild in the breezy Judaean Hills.

Tzora has about 15 hectares of vineyards and they only use their own grapes to produce wine – 100,000 bottles a year. We taste a range of whites and reds; Judean Hills, Shoresh, and Misty Hills are the three labels.

The Judean Hills white is a very crisp, citrusy, refreshing wine based on Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc grapes. Care has been taken to avoid obvious oaky notes. The wine is light and lean, with terrific acidity – characteristics it shares with the Shoresh white, a similar blend but here the Sauvignon Blanc dominates. This latter wine, however, is made in 100% oak and the effect is noticeable: softer pear drop, toffee and caramel flavours mingle with the lively, sharp fruit and acidity. Eran’s goal has been to reduce body and alcohol levels, and this approach is clearly reflected in all his wines.

Tzora’s most important wine is the Shoresh red. We taste the 2016 vintage, a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, and Petit Verdot. It’s a toasty, spicy, savoury wine, with the lean character familiar from the whites. ‘Lots of flavour without the heaviness’ was Eran’s motto here.

Misty Hills, their top wine, is produced in very small quantities. At 280 NIS (70 USD) it is pricy but superb. We taste the bright ruby 2015 vintage and it is dazzling. It’s so together, so balanced, with all the intensity and complexity one could wish for. Great flavours, great youthful exuberance, herbal finish – a very attractive wine.

Not only are Tzora’s wines stylish and interesting, but the winery itself is worth a visit. The visitors’ centre and the gardens are beautifully designed, the massive table in the tasting room leaves quite an impression, and we were very warmly received by the winemaker himself, who even opened a couple of special bottles for us.

Tzora, a kosher winery, is a member of the Judean Hills Quartet, a fairly recent joint initiative of four wineries from the region to promote internationally their beloved Hills and the amazing wines produced there. The other members of the Quartet are Domaine du Castel, Flam, and Sphera – a very prestigious team indeed!

Time for a new Experience?

The Kosher Food and Wine Experience (KFWE) is an evening of (supposedly fancy) food and wine, organized every year around February by Kedem Europe. It takes place in central London but also has sister events in Paris and in various venues in the United States. I’ve been going to this event for about six years, and I regret to say that not much has changed since I first attended in 2011. Or, rather, not enough has changed. To be fair, there have been a few developments. One, they’ve started doing tasting workshops, which is a much-needed gap-filler. Jews need to be educated about wine, and equally, non-Jews need to be educated about kosher wine. While I have some misgivings about the quality of these workshops, I’m pleased they are happening and I wish they were available all year round.

The foodie attitude is now tangibly present within the Jewish community, and I don’t only mean the modern segments but also the more right-wing groups (haredim, or the strictly Orthodox). Many haredim apparently have the money a) to attend this rather pricy event – tickets go at £50 each – and b) to buy more expensive stuff than the standard kiddush wine. The foodie approach is, however, limited for now to externalities. If it’s a trendy caterer, that’s cool, and if they serve sushi, that’s ‘in’. They’ve served sushi for the past six years. I say, it’s time to move on and try something different.

As for the wines, the selection has been expanding. My favourite part of the event is going around to see who is new. I skip the big shots, e.g. Herzog or Carmel or Binyamina, and look for the unknown names. This year I’ve discovered a handsome Italian winery called Cantina Giuliano, run by a young couple in Tuscany.

Their wines are still young and so are they, which means they haven’t got tremendous experience, but they are a nice addition to the international kosher wine palette. And it’s always heart-warming to see a small family winery (and Jewish too!) spring up in such a historic wine region. Their grapes are the traditional local ones, for instance Vermentino, Sangiovese, and Ciliegiolo; and their winemaking also reflects local tradition.
If you visit their website you’ll see that Giuliano is a well thought-out business with a clear sense of purpose. Their selection of wines is small, which could reflect a traditional outlook on winemaking: stick to grapes and styles that are local, or it could be down to the fact that they’re still growing. Giuliano also offer locally produced food in their restaurant, wine tours, and kosher accommodation.

I’ve tasted their full current range: a white Costa Toscana IGT made from Vermentino grapes, with a fantastic, rich bouquet, floral and fruity flavours and upright acidity. Primizia is their DOCG Chianti, which was aged only in the traditional tonno vat. The 2014 vintage is fresh and fruity with a hint of smokiness. The 2015 vintage has a completely different character: it is very perfumed and soft. Their Costa Toscana IGT red, called Gioia, is an enjoyable blend of fruitiness and ageing. A winery to look out for – and to visit when you’re in Tuscany!

matar-chardonnay-2014-w-26Matar, an Israeli brand, was my other favourite discovery this year. Matar is the kosher range of Pelter, a well-known winery who otherwise produce non-kosher wines. Their wines are spot on, made to a very high standard. I tasted their Cumulus 2013, a red blend with the sort of nose I love: spicy and peppery, with a prickly green, nettle character. On the palate it was soft yet savoury, friendly and interesting. The Matar CB is a red Bordeaux blend; the 2013 is rich, soft, fruity and chocolatey, with warming alcohol. This year they’ve also come out with a Chardonnay, produced in 2014, under the name Admon. The wine has a very restrained nose, which contrasts with a quite intense palate. The lees and oak influence are obvious, but it’s all pretty, with a very toasty tasty finish.

To come back to KFWE: despite my usual annual disappointment that their buffet menu is still heavily centred on carvery and sushi, this year I’ve come away feeling it was a worthwhile visit. I’ve discovered interesting new wines and retasted some superb classics. All in all, this tasting event is a great idea and I’m glad it’s becoming ever more popular, including among the more strictly Orthodox. But if it were infused with a bit more creativity, it would have even more potential.

White Night

Warm June evening at the Herzliya marina, just north of Tel Aviv. Sunset, clear skies, cool breeze, sea and sailing boats – the perfect setting for a tasting of summer wines.

Herzliya marina

The white and rosé wines featured at the event came mostly but not exclusively from Israel. My main interest, however, lay in Israeli wines, especially producers and labels I had not encountered before. I was not disappointed. Even if not all the wines were amazing, they were all well made and I came across an interesting range both of grapes and of styles.

One new label I discovered was Mare by MAIA, a boutique branch of Tulip winery. MAIA is an acronym for ‘Mediterranean Approach, Israeli Art’. Maia winesWhile I don’t think the name is really accurate, as the wines I tasted were not Mediterranean in their style at all, I enjoyed them precisely for that reason. Mare White was a blend of Marsanne and French Colombard, and Mare Pink was made from Carignan and Mourvèdre. Both had fairly low alcohol levels for a Mediterranean wine, and that is probably due to early harvest – which was also reflected in the lack of fruitiness in the wines. Israeli wines, if carefully made, have a lot of fruit to offer due to the warm climate and the easy ripening. The fruit in the Mare wines was, in contrast, very subdued, the sugar very low, and they were more serious than charming, which I thought made them interesting and unusual. Kosher

Barkan’s 2015 Viognier was a pleasant surprise. For a producer that never impressed me as focusing on quality but rather on quantity, they have come out with a varietal Viognier that explodes with intense apricot and peach flavours but still remains fresh and light. While there’s much – perhaps a bit too much – oak here, it doesn’t take away from the enjoyment. A fun wine. Kosher

While Barkan’s wine was good, Kishor’s 2014 Savant Viognier seemed to me to be in an altogether different league. It was all elegance and sophistication – a beautifully made wine! The intensity of fruit is somewhat lower but all in all it’s a more balanced, more refined wine. Kishor ViognKishor is an interesting winery in Western Galilee. They are based on a kibbutz called Kishorit, a community specifically set up for special needs adults, who run all the businesses of the kibbutz, including the winery. Assisting in the winemaking is expert consultant Itay Lahat. Their other lovely whites include Kerem Kishor, a fresh and fruity blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Viognier, and Savant Riesling, an off-dry, delightful varietal wine, which the winemaker promised me is not only very pretty now but also ages beautifully. Kishor’s wines generally are on the spot and made with great care and attention. Kosher, and highly recommended!

2 vats roseCarmel is one of the giant wineries in Israel, but apart from cheap entry-level stuff they also produce some serious high-end wine. Below are some that I have not tasted before.

2 Vats Rosé is a blend of Grenache, Carignan and Mourvèdre. It’s a tasty, stylish wine with good acidity. Its sister the 2 Vats White is made from Muscat, Gewürztraminer and Colombard, and it’s just perfect for the summer, with lots of flavours of grapes, rose petals, and the inevitable lychee. The Kayoumi 2011 single vineyard Riesling blew me away with a fantastic intensity of aromas and flavours and great, refreshing acidity. A tasty, loveable wine. All kosher

My conclusion: it’s worth keeping an eye out not only for new boutique wineries in Israel but also for new brands by large, well-known producers, as some of them will surprise. One grievance is that many wineries don’t update their websites and I searched in vain for information on their latest creations – shame, shame…

 

Some kosher recommendations

With the High Holy Days round the corner, some of you may be wondering what to stock up with for your festive meals. Below are some Israeli wines I’ve tasted over the past year and recommend heartily. All are kosher and none are mevushal.

 

WHITES

tavor sauv bTabor Adama Sauvignon Blanc 2013

With a wine like Sauvignon Blanc, which is appreciated for its freshness and youthful zing, always buy as recent a vintage as possible. With certain exceptions, mainly oak-aged examples (which should be marked as such, unless they’re French), this wine is not meant for ageing.

Tabor has really hit the nail on the head with this wine. It’s everything a Sauvignon Blanc should be – at least in Agi’s books: starting with an interesting and very fresh nose with a combination of citrus and tropical fruit and some grassiness. On the palate it’s medium-bodied and acidic, and has that prickly nettle component that I love so much and that’s a hallmark of Sauv Blanc. Some minerality on the finish. Very enjoyable and refreshing – certainly the best Israeli Sauvignon Blanc I have tasted.

Tabor winery is in Israel’s Galilee region, at the foot of Mount Tabor. They have also recently started making a lovely Roussanne (I think the first vintage was in 2012). It will be interesting to those of you who are looking for a grape variety that is a bit more unusual and less known to experiment with.

www.twc.co.il

Flam Blanc 2012

A blend of Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc, this wine attracts with a buttery, sweet honey nose and peach fruitiness. Lees ageing adds to its complexity, but it hasn’t seen any oak. The palate is restrained, very mineral and shows good acidity. Toastiness from the lees, and a slight prickle – perhaps a tiny bit of CO2 left in there? Peach, apple and citrus fruit. A more complex but still refreshing and crisp white.

www.flamwinery.com

 

ROSÉ

castel rose 2013

 

Castel Rosé 2013

I think I can say this without sounding too biased: everything Castel’s winemaker Eli Ben-Zaken touches turns to gold. The meticulous attention to detail that all Castel wines reflect is a blessing for us wine-lovers, and an example all Israeli winemakers ought to follow. The rosé is a relative newcomer at Castel, the first commercially produced vintage having been 2011. Over the years it’s been moving closer and closer to perfection. The 2013 vintage is even leaner, more delicate and more restrained than the previous year’s. The strawberry and peach fruitiness is still there but becoming more subdued, which results in a sleek, elegant wine with delightfully refreshing acidity.

www.castel.co.il

 

 

REDS

Tulip Syrah Reserve 2011

What makes Tulip winery special is not just their wines but their strong underlying ethical policy: they employ several people with mental disabilities from the local residential community in Kfar Tikvah, near Haifa. But regardless of ethics, Tulip’s Syrah Reserve is a serious and classy wine that I greatly enjoyed. A savoury nose of meaty, mushroomy aromas is followed by a smooth, balanced palate. The savouriness remains, but is complemented by intense spiciness. Long, spicy finish. Very nice, rich wine.

www.tulip-winery.co.il

yatir forest

Yatir Forest 2010

The wine’s name carries a double meaning: on the one hand it’s a reference to Yatir Forest in Israel’s Negev area; on the other it’s very appropriate thanks to the wine’s intense forest fruit character. Lots of fresh berries and blackcurrants will you find on nose and palate, together with coffee and pepper spice from oak-ageing. The tannins are still a bit grainy, but my guess is this one will age beautifully. Yummy.

www.yatir.net

 

 

Making James at Seahorse

When I first applied for a summer internship at Seahorse winery, proprietor-winemaker Ze’ev Dunie replied in his email: ‘but be prepared: this place is a jungle. Nothing in our vineyard is like you’ve learnt in books.’ I immediately knew he was my man. If nothing was the way I’d read in books, I’d feel at home – and I did. Ze’ev is a filmmaker-turned-winemaker who produces a wide range of wines, mainly from Mediterranean red grape varieties: Mourvedre, Syrah, Grenache, Petite Sirah and Zinfandel. He names his wines after his personal heroes: John Lennon, Antoine de Saint-Exupery, Roman Polanski… His flagship wine, though, is the white called James (as in James Dean), made from Chenin Blanc, and it was in the production of this wine that I assisted last summer. This year I returned to Seahorse to taste the wine. It didn’t disappoint.

DSCF2114James 2012 (100% Chenin Blanc)

Pale lemon wine with a youthful, friendly nose driven by sweet, fresh fruit. Good acidity on the palate, coupled with stone fruit, perhaps some tropical hints as well. A clean, pleasurable, medium-bodied wine with a smooth palate and a fruity, mineral finish. There’s something romantic and lyrical about James. Delightful and refreshing in the summer – and very few people make Chenin Blanc in Israel, so this is a truly special treat!

And here is how James was made

We picked the grapes early in the morning and carefully selected, by hand, the bunches we wanted to use. The grapes were destemmed and crushed mechanically and transferred by a pump into a gentle pneumatic press. After the juice was pressed, we pumped it over into stainless steel tanks where it would be cooled and left to settle for a couple of days. Since the main feature of this wine is its youthful, fruity freshness, it is important that the lees make little impact – therefore the juice had to be as clear as possible when it was pumped over into the barrels where the fermentation was to take place. So the sediment at the bottom of the tanks was left alone. When the cool, clean juice was sitting in the barrels, we added yeast, and within 24 hours fermentation began. This is what Ze’ev calls the music in the cellar.

baby James - the freshly pressed juice

baby James – the freshly pressed juice

And it is indeed music to the ears of those who have worked on making the wine, as it is a sign that everything is going according to plan. Fermentation sometimes takes a lazy start and sometimes doesn’t begin at all. But last year we were lucky and all the barrels were making beautiful bubbling music. When fermentation is over, the wine is left to mature in the barrels at a low temperature so that malolactic fermentation doesn’t set in. (Malolactic is a second fermentation where malic acid in the juice is transformed into lactic acid; this process is desirable in most red wines and certain whites such as Chardonnay as it provides body, fatness, creaminess to the wine and adds layers of complexity to the simple fruit. In a wine like our James, however, all the above would have been undesirable, and so malo was to be avoided.) The wine is finally filtered before bottling, again to ensure no further fermentation.