Category Archives: Wine business

Burgundy Junior

En primeur is one of the key terms you learn as you begin to move in wine connoisseur circles. It’s an Old World thing; to be more precise, it is a uniquely French phenomenon. Buying wine en primeur means that you pay for it before it’s ready, I mean truly and really ready. This way you get a better price, the producer gets security from the money coming in, and you get your wine when it’s truly and really ready. Since en primeur is big business, especially when it comes to prestigious and therefore expensive wine regions, en primeur tastings are commonly held around this time of the year. The wines are still very very young and therefore what you taste now is not what you’ll have in a couple of years’ time, but on the basis of certain character traits – such as structure, intensity and acidity – experienced critics, merchants, and consumers can judge already at this stage which wines will be worth investing in. If the wine turns out to be amazing – and there’s always some risk that it will not – you can make a lot of money on your gamble if you trade in it, or if it’s for your own cellar, you will have made a good deal buying something outstanding at a bargain (i.e. somewhat lower) price.

At this year’s Burgundy en primeur tasting organized by O. W. Loeb, a wine merchant specializing in Old World wine, I was mostly interested in the whites. White Burgundy means essentially Chardonnay, in two distinct styles: dry and austere Chablis and the creamier, flavour-rich wines of the Cote d’Or. The vintage under scrutiny was 2018, and the results encouraging, despite the professionals’ slight misgivings about that year.

The winemakers I spoke to all said more or less the same thing: 2018 was a tricky year. It was very warm and the harvest had to be done earlier than later to preserve the acidity in the grapes and to avoid sky-rocketing sugar levels – which would then lead to high alcohol, not a good thing. It was also important to preserve relatively low yields – in warm weather the grapes can go crazy, and abundance of fruit is detrimental to quality.

The wines I tasted were generally very ready to drink. Most of them had good acidity, though there were some exceptions, which may have an adverse effect on longevity. Here are a few I particularly recommend.

Jean-Paul Brun Crémant de Bourgogne, blanc de blanc (100% Chardonnay)

My favourite sparkling wine at this tasting. Elegant, restrained, balanced, nice toasty flavours and some smokiness on the finish.

Collet pere et filsJean Collet et Fils Saint Bris Sauvignon Blanc

This wine is the odd one out – it’s not made from Chardonnay, hence can’t be called a Burgundy, even though it comes from just outside Chablis. However, the village of St Bris has its own appellation, where Sauvignon Blanc is indeed permitted. And this particular specimen was a gem to discover. Romain Collet winemaker said, ‘I don’t like Sauvignon Blanc when it’s too green. I prefer to wait for full maturity.’ The wine is fermented in stainless steel, after malolactic fermentation it goes into barrels, and spends five months on lees.

In this wine I very much enjoyed the harmonious mingling of vegetal notes with the yeasty characteristics coming from lees ageing. The first Sauvignon of Collet – may it go from strength to strength!

Domaine Alain Chavy Puligny-Montrachet 1er Cru Les Folatières

Soft and creamy on the palate, yet held up firmly by a strong acid backbone. Nuts and butter and caramel. Pebbles dominate the superlong finish.

Tupinier-Bautista Mercurey Blanc 1er Cru Sazenay

Very buttery nose, pretzels on palate. All the great flavours coming from the lees combine beautifully with the strong acidity. The toasty flavours linger long on the finish.

ST Aubin

 

Ramonet St-Aubin Blanc 1er Cru En Remilly

Intriguing wine with herbal notes – rosemary and thyme. Savoury character and strong acidity, but there’s a hint of sweetness from the fruit. Long, honeyed finish.

 

 

 

 

Blue Danube

A London tasting of Blaufränkisch wines from central Europe

Blaufränkisch in Austria, Lemberger in Germany, kékfrankos in Hungary, frankovka in Slovakia and Croatia… the grape variety that has so many different names and which can be produced in so many different styles is still little known in the UK. Its many faces include youthful and sometimes brutally acidic wines at one end of the spectrum, and velvety, mature, full-bodied meditative ones at the other. Luckily for the curious, the organizers of this walk-around tasting, Wines of Hungary, had also included two masterclasses in the programme, plus a fascinating open-table tasting of rosés made from the grape variety.

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The fact that Blaufränkisch is well known in Austria, Slovakia, or Hungary will not surprise anyone. But in this tasting I also came across a wine that was produced in southern Spain! The Malaga-based winemaker of German origin, Friedrich Schatz, has produced a biodynamic Lemberger (as Blaufränkisch is typically called in Germany) which, thanks to the Mediterranean influence, displays friendly, tamed acidity and ripe fruit. Some exhibitors came from Romania, Slovenia, Slovakia, and even Australia. Most of them have no representative in the UK as yet, and the main rationale for the tasting was to draw the attention of the market to these wines.

Since Blaufränkisch is the main component of the bikavér wines produced in Eger and Szekszárd in Hungary, what could have been more appropriate than a masterclass comparing different styles of Bikavér? We tasted six wines, of which I particularly liked the Bodri Bikavér Faluhely Selection (2016) from Szekszárd, the Superior Bikavér (2017) of Ferenc Tóth from Eger, and another Eger wine, the Nagy-Eged-Hegy Grand Superior of St Andrea.

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Bikavér, or ‘bull’s blood’, is not unknown in the UK market. Its somewhat dodgy history goes back a few decades, when British off-licences were inundated with the cheap, poorly made plonk following a boom of industrial-scale wine production in communist Hungary. Its bad reputation must be overwritten and a new one established, the representatives of both Bikavér regions stated. An important step in this process is avoiding the use of the name ‘bull’s blood’ on the British market, this term carrying such negative connotations for the more mature generations.

csm_blaufraenkisch_02_3a5a50546aBlaufränkisch is a late-ripening variety, has enormous acidity, and is prone to overproduction. All these explain why great care and attention are needed both in the vineyard and in the winery if one is to produce a high-quality wine. The powerful colour and tannins of the grape are some positive features, which also contribute to the ageing potential of the wines. At the Danube tasting there were several wines where I felt that the acidity has not been harmoniously integrated into the overall personality of the wines; the unruly, sometimes overwhelming acidity can easily oppress all other characteristics. At other times it was the overuse of oak that created an imbalance. All in all, my impression was that it is not easy to produce an outstanding wine from Blaufränkisch grapes. At the same time I was delighted to see the large number of well-made wines. When I asked Elizabeth Gabay MW, an expert of central European wines, about this somewhat uneven playing field, she explained that in past decades Blaufränkisch was commonly used as a workhorse variety, producing lots of rustic, unsophisticated, overly acidic wines. It is this past inheritance that needs to be superseded by contemporary winemakers – and many seem to have succeeded in this.

Egri_Bikavér_Superior_2015All the wines I tasted on the stand of the Bodri winery of Szekszárd, for example, had a lot of structure and concentration. One reason for this, as I found out, was that they always leave a few bunches to ripen right until the end of the harvest. These then arrive at the winery with very high sugar levels and lend body and density to the wine. Another common feature of these wines is a spicy flavour reminiscent of cloves and Christmas cakes, which, apparently, is due to the spicy character of the Hungarian oak barrels used at the winery.

bott frigyes

I was equally impressed by the Garam wines of Frigyes Bott. These beautiful wines from 2018, as young as they may have been, already showed a lot of harmony and softness, in contrast to the sometimes rough tannins found elsewhere.

As a late-ripening, high-acidity grape, Blaufränkisch is an ideal candidate for the production of rosé wines. Elizabeth Gabay had put together an exciting flight of around twenty rosés, mainly from Hungary. Rosé has had a bit of a bad PR, though this may be changing today – nevertheless I believe that to produce a good rosé wine is one of the loveliest challenges for a winemaker. Creating a balance of ripe but very fresh fruit, lightness, and lively acidity is an art in itself. Blaufränkisch is particularly suited for this because even upon reaching full phenolic ripeness, the grape still contains an abundance of acidity. Fizzi Miska and Soproni Rosé by the Vincellér winery, Just Enjoy by Frigyes Bott, and Tagyon-hegy Rosé by the Martinus winery all have different personalities, but each of them is spot on.

rosék

It is difficult to tell how successful Blaufränkisch wines will be in the UK. While many of the wines at the Blue of the Danube tasting were very competitively priced, these tended to be the less convincing examples. Those that were really interesting and well made may, I fear, prove too expensive for the British market – too expensive, that is, for consumers who will have never heard of either the wine regions or the grape variety in question. As a niche wine for discerning drinkers, though, Blaufränkisch could certainly hold an attraction.

 

Wild Wines

RAW wine fair, New York, October 2019

About two thousand years ago, there was an interesting place called Qumran in the Judaean Desert. In this tiny settlement just off the Dead Sea lived a Jewish sect whose identity remains unknown, but thanks to the writings they had left behind, we have some idea about their beliefs. One of these was that they were the sons of light, at war with the sons of darkness. They represented truth, having recognized the correct path, and everyone else was deluded, if not downright evil.

Walking around this year’s RAW wine fair in New York, I was reminded of the Qumran community. RAW is an independent fair celebrating low-intervention (natural, organic, biodynamic etc.) wines; we may perhaps even call it a movement today. The central message of RAW fairs, to bring ‘authentic’ wine to the consumer, seems to me a strong value judgement: what we offer is wine – everything else is a fake, unnatural, or, even worse, toxic. We know where the truth lies and whoever is not with us is misguided. According to the picture presented by RAW (go to their website for more details), there are two kinds of winemaker: the large, industrial undertakings that fabricate artificial, heavily manipulated drinks which reflect neither the character of the land nor that of the grape variety. Opposed to them are the small, independent, ethically minded winemakers who, unlike the big corporations, care about nature, tradition and origin. While this depiction may not in itself be untrue, it fails to present the full picture. The people left out of this division are precisely those who I think work hardest: all the serious and devoted winemakers who are equally lovers of land and fruit but are at the same time committed to excellence and aesthetics.

RAw NY

What I have found at RAW fairs is that many of the ‘natural’ winemakers are far more interested in ideology than in making excellent wine. They are there to demonstrate and propagate a world-view: no need for intervention, let mother nature create the wine she fancies, and look how excellent it is! Well, often it isn’t. Far from it, in fact. Many of the natural wines I have tasted are unclean, unintegrated, messy and imprecise. This doesn’t seem to matter much, though, because the faithful seem very happy with the hazy liquid in their glass, the symbol of their conviction. Advocates of natural wine often use the term ‘alive’ to describe these drinks, suggesting that all other wine is dead – has, perhaps, been murdered. This view too is questionable. What makes a wine alive is not the fact that it’s packed with microorganisms, and dynamism is not the same as unfinished fermentation.

RAW seems to be popular and has been expanding. It started in London a few years ago; today Berlin and several North American cities have been added to the list of venues. My hunch is that many people are attracted to the community feel these events create. RAW, like other contemporary alternative movements, offers a platform where opponents of industrial production and mass consumption can find themselves a like-minded crowd to hang out with. The vibe of counter-culture surrounding RAW’s events is quite exhilarating actually, and I agree with the way the organizers, producers, and participants make a stand against consumer culture and mass-produced anything. The revolution started by Isabelle Legeron is without doubt drawing attention to important issues. At the same time, I am troubled by the cult-like, sectarian undercurrents of RAW. The fact that natural wine is small-scale, grassroots, and radical doesn’t necessarily make it good. To me, winemaking is about one thing: creating the best possible wine. The excellent Loire winemaker Eric Morgat told me, ‘I have an organic certification but I don’t put it on my label – because I do wine, not “organic”.’ Morgat wants people to buy his wines for their excellence, not for the ideology.

Exhibitors at the New York event came from all over the world, but the vast majority were from the Old World regions, mainly Italy and France. It was among the French winemakers that I found the most consistency and quality. I was impressed by their professionalism and the high level of craftsmanship. The Muscadet Sèvre et Maine wines of Domaine Landron (Loire), for example, showed high precision and individual character. The reds of the Vacqueyras producer Clos de Caveau (Rhône) were intense, complex, and packed with fruit. Another Loire winery whose Chenin Blancs and Cabernet Francs I enjoyed was Clos de Quarterons.

Clos de Caveau

For any serious winemaking, effort is required. From the moment the vines are planted, the winemaker is constantly making decisions that will influence natural processes. Intervention is a must: without it, the grape juice would turn into vinegar not wine. As many examples at the New York RAW fair proved, very good wines can be made using sustainable methods (hooray hooray!), but an intrepid spirit in itself is not enough. What I would like to see is for RAW to move in the direction of culture rather than cult, where tradition and quality, not radical views, take centre place.

Furmint: the new Albariño

You’ll no doubt have heard about Veganuary, Movember, or NOctober. Furmint February is a variation on that theme, in a way, but with an unabashedly hedonistic agenda. It is a month dedicated to the promotion of the Furmint wine in the UK, and it opened with a spectacular trade tasting last week at London’s 67 Pall Mall.

Upon stepping into the room, I was taken aback to see a serious crowd. Serious not only in terms of size but also composition. Clearly, London’s top wine professionals were interested in Furmint. The number of MWs per square foot was, in itself, an indication that something important was happening. Which is kind of counterintuitive when we consider the fact that Furmint hails from Hungary. Small country, iron curtain, is it Bucharest or Budapest… you know the story. So who would except London’s wine elite to come together to see what this hitherto little-known grape has to offer? The unanimous verdict is, Furmint may be the next big thing; it could well become Hungary’s new flagship wine on the international scene.

Let’s get that map out and see where Furmint grows. It is a white grape variety mostly (but not exclusively) associated with the Tokaj region in north-east Hungary.

Hungary-Wine-Map

[map courtesy of winefolly.com]

It is, in fact, the staple grape grown in Tokaj, a region famed, of course, for its sweet nectars – and Furmint plays a big part in those luscious blends. However, for the past ten or fifteen years, growers have been experimenting with making dry varietal Furmint as well. And it works!

Don’t take my word for it. Steven Spurrier, who surely needs no introduction, said so himself, when I rubbed shoulders with him at the tasting. To be precise, what he said was, ‘Furmint will be the new Albariño. Except people got bored with Albariño after a while; they won’t get bored with Furmint.’ Mark his words.

Furmint February has been going for ten years now in Hungary, with the aim of popularizing the wine. There are events and tastings to introduce people to the many faces of this exciting variety. Now, for the first time, Wines of Hungary has brought the initiative to London, in close co-operation with Mádi Kör (the Mád Circle), a professional league of wine producers from the Tokaj region. Twenty-six wineries showcased their dry and sweet wines based on the Furmint grape. Participants could not only taste but also talk shop with the producers, most of whom were pouring the wines themselves.

The atmosphere was one of excitement and optimism. I spoke to several critics and trade people at the event, all of whom agreed that Furmint has a bright future in the UK. Most British wine professionals haven’t tasted much of this versatile wine yet, but there was curiosity and a genuine appreciation of the high quality.

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Peter McCombie MW has been visiting Tokaj for years, working closely with producers and tradespeople in the region. The way he sees it, Hungary’s problem is that many people immediately associate it with eastern Europe, which means communism, which means low quality. The older generation will have heard about sweet Tokaj, and perhaps Bull’s Blood, but that’s about it. Now Hungary’s other treasures are also becoming known, and perhaps, with the younger generation, the whole association with eastern European trash will fade away.

The new generation seems key in all this. Almost everyone at the Furmint February event told me that younger people are asking a new question: ‘What have you got for me that’s different?’ They are eager to try new things, to encounter new names. But by ‘they’ I don’t mean the average consumer. There is general consensus that Furmint is not a mass product. True, with its many facets it can please many people, but that’s among the more discerning drinkers, not those seeking £5-a-bottle deals. So Furmint can be an interesting niche addition to the wine lists of bars and restaurants, and will probably be seen more and more in specialist shops. The word will get out, the market is interested – but because many of the producers make small quantities (some as little as 10,000 bottles per year), this will not be a wine to fill supermarket shelves.

Furmint is a sort of indigenous Hungarian grape variety. I say sort of because, first, it also exists in neighbouring countries, e.g. in Slovenia (where it’s called Šipon); second, because it’s actually got international celebrities among its relatives. It is a direct descendant of Gouais Blanc, and half-sibling to Chardonnay and Riesling, both of which share with it some of their lovelier character traits. Furmint, like Chardonnay, responds well to oak-ageing and apparently makes fine sparkling wines. Like Riesling, it can produce a whole range of styles and flavour profiles, from masculine and bone dry to fruity and charming, and all the way to rich and sweet. When well made, it is expressive of terroir, has great structure, and, as I’ve learnt from Caroline Gilby MW, the main UK advocate of Furmint, it ages beautifully. It may not be the easiest variety to grow, but with sufficient care it produces stunning results. To quote one of the winemakers, Krisztián Farkas of the Bodrog Bormühely winery, the key is ‘minimal winemaking, lots of vineyard work’.

A variety that has so much to offer, and which can shine in so many different roles, is bound to succeed with wine lovers. Without a doubt, the trade in London has been sold on Furmint; here’s hoping the market will respond with equal enthusiasm.

 

Champion of Purity

Isabelle Legeron: Natural Wine: An Introduction to Organic and Biodynamic Wines Made Naturally

Cico Books 2014, hb, 224pp, £16.99

Book review

Cover Natural_wine

There is a Jewish concept we learn from the Torah, called shmita. The commandment of shmita (the sabbatical year) instructs you to stop working the land every seven years; let it lie fallow, let nature take over and do its work without you trying to be in control. Don’t plant, don’t cultivate, don’t harvest. Re-wild. Step back, let it rest – and share. Take down the fences and let everyone, animals and humans, come and partake of whatever grows in your field.

Reading Isabelle Legeron’s recently published, beautifully produced book, I realized that she and fellow members of the natural wine faith advocate a very similar idea to that found in the Bible. They claim Mother Nature knows what she’s doing. Instead of interfering with her work, we should allow her savage ways to rule our land, and leave her room to produce whatever wine she fancies producing.

The first observation Legeron makes is, while it’s the ‘in’ thing to be a foodie and care so much about where and how our ingredients were sourced, how come we don’t care a bit about how our wine was made? It is true; what she terms the ‘agro-chic’ trend indeed seems to be much more interested in all food products but wine. Why indeed?

I have an explanation, based on my own kitchen-related activities. I buy organic veg whenever I can. I also want to make sure my eggs come from happy chicken. Do I buy organic wine? No. Why? Because with wine my considerations lie elsewhere. Wine is a work of art. Unlike an egg or an onion, it is complex, individual. How its components are produced is secondary from my consumer perspective to how it tastes – at least that was my attitude before reading Legeron. Furthermore, any supermarket will sell happy eggs and organic leek, but only the odd specialist wine shop will have a selection of organic or natural wine of decent quality. To go to a wine shop is a shlep as it is. To go to one that sells ‘happy’ wine is just too much of an effort. So a lot of it is a matter of convenience, I’d think. But also, I have found in my personal comings and goings that a lot of smaller winemakers, even if they’re not certified organic or natural, care an awful lot about how they make their wine and what they put into it, starting with the quality of the grapes. And up until now that’s been good enough for me.

Legeron states that her book is a tribute to those winemakers who ‘remain natural against all odds’, defying modern winemaking practices. The question immediately arises: what is wrong with modern winemaking practices? And this is wherein I feel the weakness of this otherwise attractive and carefully edited book lies. We fail to get a convincing argument as to why natural, traditional, and old-school are better than contemporary, high-tech, progressive. Sure, I agree that just as you should discourage your friends from eating junk food, you should talk them out of drinking mass-produced, industrial junk wine. But staying away from junk doesn’t mean I have to go natural and SO2 free. Who said that winemaking techniques of the past produced better wine than those of today? I would have argued to the contrary. Historians I’ve read seem to agree that most wine produced in the past was probably foul, for a number of reasons; whereas today, unless you’re really unlucky, you’ll find that even the cheapest glug will be clean, wine-like (as opposed to vinegar-like) and inoffensive, though admittedly soulless.

The question we have to ask ourselves is: do I want my wine to be ‘healthy’ or do I want it to taste like I expect it to taste? This is where the interesting twist comes in: Legeron claims that we are too accustomed to our expectations. She doesn’t for a minute try to argue that natural wine is just like ordinary wine. It looks, smells and tastes different. (I felt she could have dedicated a lot more space to this point, actually; to explain to us novices in much greater detail how natural wine should be appreciated.) But she states that this difference is good, even if it’s unusual, even if we are first surprised or even shocked by it. To me this seems to be the crux of the whole natural wine debate: are you prepared to call something good that doesn’t live up to conventional expectations? Something completely outside the box? I don’t know if I am, but the book has certainly made me think.

Legeron with wine glassLegeron is of course right about many things, and I wholeheartedly agree that exploitation of the land, overuse of chemicals, or stripping the wine of its natural substances by filtration or other intervention are all bad things, not to mention outright adulteration. Of course diversity, naturalness are great and to be cherished. And yes, perhaps we are too set in our taste ways when it comes to wine, and aren’t prepared to open our horizons to new flavour or texture experiences. This may well be, but the fact remains that I have tasted very few strictly natural wines – ‘strictly’ meaning without any added SO2 – that I enjoyed. Most were smelly, unpleasant, hazy liquids tasting of rotten fruit or solvent or other undesirable things. I know that smelly cheese also takes a while to get used to. But smelly cheeses have a tradition of their own. Smelly wines, with the odd exception, do not, as far as I know.

‘Wine started life everywhere as a simple drink’

Certainly. And the same applies to many human achievements. Music also started as a simple thing, and so did architecture. But these things developed into an art form and their finest examples soon became elements of what we consider high culture. Not all wine and not all buildings have to be sophisticated or ‘manufactured’, for sure. Whether you ride a buggy or an Aston Martin convertible is your choice, and either may suit you at different times. But it doesn’t mean we should go back to using buggies only, does it? I know, it would be much better for the environment, but it would be kind of naïve to imagine this could realistically happen. So, as much as I enjoyed and even admired Natural Wine, I’m still not convinced why going back to the old ways would be desirable.

But, as Legeron states, the purpose of her book is to start a conversation, and this she undoubtedly achieves with her respectable, edifying, engaging and positive content. I even like the fact that she is such an unashamed idealist. People who feel strongly about something are so much more convincing than the wishy-washy middle-of-the-roaders. Even if you don’t agree with them.

 

The Loneliness of the Winemaker – Interview with Eli Ben-Zaken

My journey into wine started with a sip. I was at a tasting of kosher wines in London, in February 2011. I had heard a lot about the Israeli winery called Castel so I paid a visit to their stand and, first things first, tasted their Chardonnay from 2009. It was like being struck by lightning. Love at first sight. A moment of awakening. I suddenly understood what good wine was all about. And I felt I had to meet the man who had created that wine.

That was my first encounter with Eli Ben-Zaken, with whom I made an interview back then for Jewish Renaissance magazine (you can read it by clicking here), and who was such an inspiration that I decided to take up wine studies and train to become a wine writer.

Two and a half years later, and having visited Castel a number of times, I meet Eli again, in a busy Jerusalem restaurant. Always the gentleman, he is understated, quiet and has a measured opinion about everything I ask him.

Eli, I saw you last night at the Jerusalem Wine Festival. What did you think of the event and why doesn’t Castel represent itself there?

It’s a very nice event. A nice crowd – I mean the public who attend. Many visitors to Jerusalem are foreigners, ex-pats; Americans, French and Italians. I don’t think any other city in Israel would have that kind of crowd coming. Their cultural level – but maybe it’s just because I like Jerusalem. And why isn’t Castel there? There are several reasons. There were times when we would have been there. It’s a stage in the development of a business. At one point we were going everywhere, wanting to make ourselves known, including abroad (Vinexpo, Vinitaly, London Wine Fair), at the large wine shows. But the impact is never immediate. Also, the wine shows are not a real reflection of what people do – wineries are not showing their best products; but Castel hasn’t got an entry-level wine, so wine shows are not the place for us to be.

Would you consider producing an entry-level wine?

Even if we decide to produce something cheaper, it will still be an expensive wine, relatively speaking. But it’s not really about the price. If I wanted to make a more modestly priced wine, it would be a different kind of product. A different winemaking technique. It’s more a winemaker’s experiment in applying new methods. For example, last night at the festival we tasted a young Cabernet, from 2012, and you said it was beautiful for such a young wine. I think I can make a better wine of that sort.

Eli with a colleague, Agur's Shuki Yashuv.

Eli with a colleague, Agur’s Shuki Yashuv.

How would you evaluate the current state of the wine industry in Israel? What are buyers looking for and what are sellers typically offering?

We have no statistics for wine being consumed per capita in Israel, so it’s impossible to know whether wine consumption is on the increase. Israel used to have 4.5 litres per capita consumption per year. We don’t know if the market is growing, but we do know that people are paying more on average. And since we don’t know the size of the market, but more money is being spent, it’s very likely that somebody is not selling.

The wine revolution in Israel has come to a dangerous crossroads – dangerous for the producers, especially the small wineries. Most small winemakers are not very talented and their wines are not really interesting or well made. They charge high prices because they think that as a boutique winery they can afford to do so. And then they have difficulty selling their product. On the other hand, the larger wineries have understood what’s happening: that there is an increasingly knowledgeable public who can’t be ‘fooled’ any more. They know the difference between a good wine and a bad wine. So if they want to stay in the race they have to improve their winemaking. Large wineries have improved their quality dramatically. They have created a boutique strand within their wineries. For example, limited edition, single vineyard wines – because they have realized that there is a public who is prepared to pay the price and they’re putting the small wineries out of business. I’m not talking about Castel, but the 300-odd wineries that presently exist in Israel. So in the end these wineries will be closing down because most of them are, as we say here, hafifniks – lightweights. They are not serious about what they’re doing. The owners of most small wineries are not full-time into this, wine is not their main source of income. And they think it’s easy: you just have to work a little during harvest-time, crush and ferment, put in barrels and then come back for the ready wine. During the year they don’t do much but they think it will give them prestige and that it’s an easy way to make money. But they won’t be around for long.

For the time being, Castel has nothing to worry about. We are selling, even with all the competition. Our main market is Israel but in general the kosher market internationally is crucial for us. We need the reputation, and we mustn’t put all our eggs in the same basket.

Castel's wines

Castel’s wines

What role do you think journalism plays in the wine trade?

It depends on who the wine writer is. If it’s Parker, definitely, he has a huge role. Then there was Daniel Rogov, who did a huge service for Israeli wine on the international scene. As far as the present points system is concerned, I’m against that. I only look at points when a wine review is too long. What is, after all, in your points? How can you say this wine is 92 points and that one is 93? It’s completely subjective. Such small difference seems like nothing, but still, it’s the wine with 93 points that comes out as the winner. The points are made for simple-minded people. They see the points and make decisions based on them. But really people interested in wine should have a wine critic whose taste they share. Then it’s not about the points any more. The critic should write about wines he or she has enjoyed. Their role is to enlighten people, to provide some guidance as to what is worth buying. The description of a wine should be short and accurate: talking about specific fruit flavours or cigar boxes is irrelevant because these are aspects that change all the time. A writer should not write about pineapples but rather the level of acidity, body, balance, and alcohol – things that won’t change. For example, there’s a book about the wines of Romanee Conti. It features maybe five wine writers, who go through hundreds of bottles and then give very short, terse descriptions of the wines they taste. The reader can decide to either compare the notes of several critics on the same wine, or choose one of the critics and see how his or her opinions vary about the different wines, paying attention to the nuances in wording.

So, at the end of the day, what is the role of wine writers?

Look, even when some influential wine writers gave us bad points, we sold everything. So really our sales are not affected. And wine writers, in my view, have misunderstood their role. Someone once wrote about our 2009 Chardonnay, which was very much reduced [and which I fell in love with so madly – AE], that people should return the bottles they bought to the shop and get a refund. But a wine critic is not a consumer advisor. It’s not his job to say something like this, especially when the wine has no irreversible faults such as brett or oxidation. Wine writers sometimes misjudge their position; their real job is to inspire people to drink, to educate them about how to taste and what to buy. They put us in a situation where we are competing in a game. But winemaking is not a sport and winemakers are not competitors.

How about your fellow winemakers? What is your rapport like?

Being a winemaker is a lonely path. It’s like being a commander in the army. You get all the information and you get all the advice from people around you, but in the end it’s you who has to make the decision and you’ll have no one else to blame. You cannot go back. Co-operation between winemakers is of course very important but only in marketing their products and the region. At one point, Carmel’s CEO created a club called Handcrafted Wines. It included twelve wineries, not all of them kosher. We went to wine fairs together and we helped each other – although some helped more than others. I believed that it was important for Castel to promote Israel as a whole – to show that something was happening here. But then the CEO resigned and that was the end of Handcrafted Wines. Anyway, at that point Castel didn’t need it any more.

And with Ze'ev Dunie of Seahorse Winery

And with Ze’ev Dunie of Seahorse Winery

Can you really say ‘you don’t need it’?

I’m not saying you shouldn’t promote your wine, but the question is how you spend your money. I think that promoting Israel and its wines is not my job, but that of the government, or of the industry at large. Why should I take the burden upon myself? For years I went to shows and felt very proud when people were surprised at the high quality of wine that can be produced in Israel. I felt I was an ambassador – but it should not have been my job to do all that.

How do you see the future of Castel? Are you seeking out new directions?

I think the strength of Castel has been the consistency of good vintages. We’ve managed to produce consistently good wines. This is what we must keep on doing. We mustn’t disappoint the public. And winemaking is such an adventure – you have never produced your best wine; there is always the possibility of making something better. You can’t be a hafifnik. You don’t stop striving. And we’d also like to grow. My sons certainly want to – we haven’t quite reached the most of our potential. We are relatively small and we don’t want our existence to be precarious, but at the same time we want to avoid becoming an industry. But all the grand crus of Bordeaux produce between 200-300 thousand bottles annually, without jeopardizing quality. This is a size that you can still take care of easily, while ensuring high quality of winemaking. Four families are living off Castel, so it is in our interest to become as large as seems feasible.

Have you thought about succession?

Of course. All my children are involved in the business. But the next generation will make their own wines, which might be different. But there is an agreement among us as far as the basic ethos is concerned: Castel stands for quality and we cannot become complacent about our wines. There is no such thing as ‘we know how to make good wine and we’ll keep on making it’. There are always fresh challenges and lots of doubts. You have to live with the doubts until the wine is bottled.

How do you see the place of Israel on the international wine market?

Israel is very small. Our overall vineyard area is smaller than the appellation of Saint Emillion. We’ll never make an impact on the world market; we’ll always be a niche. What kind of niche it will be . . . I think it will be more of the same: the Jews will keep on buying the kosher wines and Israel will make better and better wines. There will be a fringe of connoisseurs who will know and buy, but the majority will still be Jewish. In the end you have to convince consumers that you are giving them good value for money. And it is good value. To get a great wine for 60-70 euros is a bargain, not at all expensive. But we have to make people realize that we have great wines to offer.

Brunello, Pinot Grigio, Prosecco – what makes these wines so successful?

Voila – another essay I recently wrote for WSET. The subject this time: the commercial success of Italian wine, with special focus on the three wines mentioned in the title. I analyse the reasons behind the popularity of this trio, and also make predictions for the future.

Accounting for the Success of Pinot Grigio