It is no industry secret that most of our guests are North American Jews visiting Israel.  Last week, we were touring with a Brazilian Judge and her husband, a Public Prosecutor. When we started emailing, the lady mentioned she is a big fan of white wines and has spent time wine touring in several great regions in France.

We figured since the 15′ wines of Sphera have sold out a while ago and the launch event of the new vintage is scheduled for May at the winery, this would be a terrific opportunity to taste some of the wine ahead of the public.

Sphera’s core market is the Tel Aviv restaurants. In fact, 80% of their wine is sold there. The abundance of top level establishments in Tel Aviv which serve small plates, or dishes with an Asian flair that would benefit from a well-crafted, crisp and minerally Israeli white wine next to them, puts Sphera in the big leagues of Israeli boutique white wine.

Sphera Winery Novemver 16′

Markerting wise Sphera is also hitting it straight on the nail. Sima Rav Hon, Doron’s wife deserves a lot of credit here. The winery is now a part of the Judean Hills Quartet along with Tzora, Domain Du Castel and Flam. Smart decision for all sides involved. The winery itself is pristine white and has rotating art work presented along with recreating their image for a Sphere year after year. Their newest edition will be presented at the May launch event they are holding.

I will be the first to admit [even when the wine maker is listening] that I am not a big fan of Chardonnay.  The varietal 2016 Chardonnay that Doron Rav Hon created for the White Concept Series took me by surprise.  60% fermented in stainless steel and the wine was crisp, fruity and not oaky at all.  I liked the Riesling a lot as well and what stood out the most I think, was how different the First Page [blend] was from previous years.  Doron mentioned that he needed the Riesling for the Varietal batch and in the First Page that meant that the Semilon would have a bit more presence.  The result was a nice complexity and some anise flavors as well.  It is a fantastic winery and a must if one is a fan of white wines.

Tours and tastings at Sphera Winery can be offered as a part of our Judean Hills Wine Tour. Availabilty pending schedule approval of the winery.

 

Gabi Sadan Photo: Jamie Goode

Gabi Sadan Photo: Jamie Goode

Wine maker dinners are becoming more popular in Israel and especially in Tel Aviv.
Shvo Winery which is fairly young, is not a winery readily available for visitors. The winery is located in the industrial area of Gush Halav in the upper Galilee. While the wines are superb, the winery does not have a visitor center.

Following the October 16′ Wine Spectator article that featured Israel on the cover, we were hired by a U.S wine distributor to show as much of the Israeli Boutique scene in 4 days of touring.

The gentleman who hired us was sitting on furniture that was clearly removed from an old truck as he tasted wines with Gabi. He loved it. When Brut Wine Bar in Tel Aviv had announced that Gabi will conduct a more traditional wine tasting at their establishment in Tel Aviv, I knew we wanted to be there.

The group of 12 tasters consisted of wine lovers,food bloggers and other industry professionals. Because Gabi Sadan is anything but ordinary, the tasting was conducted in a very non traditional manner. We started out with the Shvo Rose which both delicious and unique as it is mostly made with Barbera. We then moved on to 3 French Bourgoin wines that the wine maker chose.  Only then did we move back  and tasted 3 different vintages of Shvo Chenin Blanc and Shvo Red.

Chenin Blanc is a white variety that does have aging potential. There was a consensus around the table regarding the 2013 and 2011 vintages. They were both beautiful and complemented the food that was served next to it. The 2009 was the first Chenin harvest of this winery and while the wine was very much alive, the table was split in half between those who liked it and those who did not. Gabi said that we were tasting 1 of 2 bottles that he had left over and that he knew that this is a wine not everyone will enjoy.

Shvo Red is a blend of Grenach, Syrah , Barbera and Mourvèdre.  All three were terrific, the wine showed it most certainly has aging abilities and I would be happy drinking either of the 3 vintages that we had tasted [09′, 11′, 13′] again.
The evening was hosted by Sommelier Aviram Katz and it was a great time. Thanks Alon for setting this up!

wine-spector-cover

Please don’t get me wrong. Alon and I are very proud Israeli wines were featured in the October 2016 issue of the most important wine magazine in the world. We tour boutique wineries all over Israel on a regular basis; as a result we were simply not surprised by what Kim Marcus, Managing Editor of Wine Spectator Magazine had found out. This is the part where we mention that we wrote back in July that Tzora Vineyards remain the Judean Hills’s Best in Show. Tzora, for those who did not see the article placed the most wines over 90 points with Wine Spectator.

It is through friendships and acquaintances that Mr. Marcus had that led him to visit the wineries that he did while covering Israel. Again, another positive in this coverage is that Wine Spectator was actually visiting top boutiques and did not only stick to the larger wealthier operations. Wineries we visit on a monthly basis such as Agur, Pelter, Tulip, Tzora and Castel were not only covered but had also placed wines above 90 points with the WS staff.

Questions that remain unanswered post publication:

Will Wine Spectator eventually release the entire score list? There are several wineries that had only one wine ranked, we assume that every winery had at least most of their portfolio tasted by WS. Did WS give priority to Kosher Wines this time around? There were several non-Kosher wines ranked, but we wonder whether Pelter [and not just Matar by Pelter] was considered.  The Same goes for Sphera and Garage De Papa.
Finally, How come only one dry farmed Carignan made the top wines list?

It has been a while since we wrote about Tzora Winery. The cliché thing to say would be that the more things change, the more they stay the same. That is tough to keep up when you are considered “best of breed” by fellow wineries in one’s region.

These days, Eran Pick is not only the winemaker at Tzora, he is also the CEO. The winery continues to employ former Petrus Wine Maker Jean-Claude Berrouet and his son Jeff as consultants to the winery and has added Maayan Koschitzky of Atelier Melka and formerly of Screaming Eagle as a consultant for the 2015 – 16 harvests as well.
As for the wine, Tzora has released their 2015 Whites in June and has claimed for the 3rd year in a row the title “Best White Wine” in Israel by the New Israeli Wine Guide for their Shoresh Blanc 2015. We were also pleasantly surprised by Judean Hills Blanc 2015 which this vintage seems to be even more on the mineral side and has a fantastic flavor of white peach.

Rare 2007 Misty Hills

Rare 2007 Misty Hills

While hosting a friend from the U.S last week, we booked a tasting in Tzora. At the end of the tasting, we were offered a tasting from a 2007 Misty Hills. This bottle for some reason was open and available for tasting. This is a bottle which has not been available for purchase for several years now and continues to be sold out. This was most certainly a lucky break. The wine was velvety in texture, deep in flavor and could still remain in the bottle for some time to come. Beautiful!

Tzora wines can be found at Derech Hayaeen stores all over Israel. High end restaurants carry Tzora. In Tel Aviv these restaurants include Taizu, Yafo Tel Aviv, Toto, Kitchen Market and many more.

Celebrating my wife’s birthday at a high end Asian restaurant in Tel Aviv last night, instigated this blog post. It seems that the markup on wine in Israeli restaurants is as steep as can be. Wines that we buy at the wineries for roughly 100 NIS a bottle, will often be priced at 260-280 nis at the restaurants. Although Tel Aviv aspires to be like Manhattan, we are not quite there yet, which brings us to the first and most important tip.

Outside wine in Tel Aviv restaurants is permitted! As long as you bring a vintage and label which the restaurant does not offer, the wine can be opened and poured for a cork fee [roughly 40 -60 Nis] If you cannot find the wine list online, it is perfectly acceptable to call the restaurant and ask. For our celebration, we brought 2 bottles [2015 Pinot Grigio from Lueria Winery and a 2010 Layam by Agur Winery] we offered a taste of both to our waiter. In general, being nice about bringing outside wine to a restaurant always helps. In the past, pouring some of our wine to the staff of the restaurant to taste has gotten us extra appetizers and desserts that were on the house.
Jerusalem is not Tel Aviv. Wine is the only beverage in the Bible that has its own blessing. Wine was and is used as part of Pagan rituals. The outcome is that religious Jews require Kosher wine. If you are going to a Kosher restaurant in Jerusalem , you need to bring Kosher wine , touring the Judean Hills boutique wineries with us , is an easy way to get acquainted with superb Kosher wines.

 

Roasted Pineapple @ Taizu TLV

Roasted Pineapple @ Taizu TLV

 

Asking for a taste before ordering a glass is allowed If a restaurant is selling a wine by the glass, it is allowed and acceptable to ask for a taste. At the price the restaurant charges for the wine, they can afford to allow a client to preview the wine before ordering it.

Israel is hot, cool your wine! Room temperature is a term that refers to 13th century Europe. These days North America and North Tel Aviv are hot! Wine simply tastes better when it is cool. If you have ordered a wine which is warm, ask for an ice bucket. Yes, even if this is a red wine. You will thank us later!

The vineyards of Kishor have been planted on Terra Rosa soil in the Galilee in 2007. Although this sounds like a run of the mill beginning to any winery in Israel, This is no ordinary story and certainly no ordinary winery.

The village of Kishorit is a beautiful surrounding to a community of 160 people with special needs who live and work in the village. All the members of the community participate and work in the village according to their abilities. The village owns 80 Dunam of vineyards [20 Acres] and members of the village help take care of the vineyards year round. Other fields in Kishorit that the members work in, include a therapeutic horse farm, a media center that puts out a monthly publication, cheese production, cage free farm for hens and a bakery.

The vintner and Winemaker of the village is Richard Davis who was born in South Africa and resides in Yessod Hama’la. The visitor center which opened in 2014, is beautifully built and offers great vantage point to the scenery around the winery. A generous British benefactor has made a significant contribution to the village in light of the 2nd Lebanese war, both the visitor center of the winery and the facilities within the village are impressive.

The winery currently produces 45K bottles a year, with the plan of growing to about 60K. The wine is Kosher. A special standout wine we tasted was the SAVANT RIESLING 2014 which had beautiful petrol nose and was indeed sweet. A great stop on the trail and well worth visiting!

The wines are available in the USA from Israel Wine Direct

 

photo credit Karmieli.co.il

photo credit Karmieli.co.il

As industry professionals we take the time to attend the different wine festivals throughout Israel. The advantages of attending are numerous. We find out about new wineries that can later become a destination for us to take our guests to, this in addition catching up with other wineries that we have not had the chance to visit recently.

The Judean Hills event is certainly one of the favorites among our friends and colleagues. It is the kickoff event to a month long festival taking place at the wineries and it is a large and important festival that top boutiques wineries in the Judean Hills participate in. Below is a short recap of news that came out of the festival.

Wine Maker Lina Slutzkin of Kadma Winery told us about the use of Saperavi grapes that she was getting into. This is a Georgian variety that can handle extreme cold and is unique because of the red anthocyanin within the grape pulp as well as the skin. A similar characteristic is of the Alicante variety which the winery is starting to use as well. The use of less common varieties is always a good way for a small winery to stand out from the pack.

We also enjoyed speaking to Sandro and Irit Pellegrini who own and operate La Terra Promessa [ if you have not been to their restaurant/winery , you are missing out!] Sandro mentioned harvest was done a bit before Yom Kippur was celebrated in Israel and that this is fairly similar to previous year. The winery is continuing in its path of producing Riesling and blends that include Primitivo, Sangiovese, Syrah and Cabernet Frank.

Finally, a very small winery producing 1500 bottles a year by the name of Samson and Delilah caught our attention. The winery was founded in 2006 and ages all their wines anywhere between 18 to 36 months. We tried a 2009 Cabernet varietal which was impressive. The winery is located in Kfar Uriya.

Judean Hills Wine Festival

The Judean Hills Wine Festival , One of our favorite festivals of the year is taking place in 10 days .This is a good opportunity to talk a bit about the 2015 harvest which is winding down in Israel.

Things started out well. We had a cold winter, with three cases of snow in Jerusalem and five in the Golan Heights. Even the writer of this blog was enjoying 2 meters of snow on Mount Hermon by December. This was followed by a long spring and June & July that were uncharacteristically comfortable.


Mid July and beginning of August,Tzora and Tzuba Wineries in the Judean Hills were early to harvest their whites and happy with the fruit that was coming in. When we started experiencing a 3 week long heatwave in August, news of early ripening of Merlot in the Golan was coming in. With at least one boutique winery harvesting Merlot ahead of its Viognier!

Photo Credit : Ortal Winery

Ortal Vineyard ahead of Harvest . Photo : Ortal Winery

What will certainly be remembered the most from this 2015 harvest year will be the dust storm. We had a 5 day period in which everything was covered in a thick yellowish layer of dust. Speaking to the wine makers in retrospect is quite interesting.

Shuki Yashuv of Agur winery stresses the point that Israel and the Judean Hills are well known for the Diurnal Temperature Variation in the course of a single day. Allowing the grapes to rejuvenate themselves in the evening regardless of how hot the day has been.

Now that the grape leaves were covered with a thick dust, a similar effect to a brick oven was taking place. The heat was being bottled in the plant allowing the sugar levels in some cases to sky rocket in a couple days, and in some cases it lead the vine to understand it was inn deeper stress than it could handle, and for it to shut down sugar maturation all together.

Wineries handled the dust storm quite differently from one another. In the Golan, we saw wineries spraying the grapes and leaves with high pressure water to reduce the dust and cool off the berries. In Psagot, we saw Cabernet Sauvignon that was left on the vine and has only been harvested in the 2nd half of October on behalf of Amphorae, a boutique in the Carmel.

Paul Dubb, winemaker and GM of Tzuba Winery says that half of a specific plot at Tzuba was harvested the day before the dust storm and the other half was harvested immediately after, the difference in flavors between the two was quite large.

Shuki summarizes by saying the 2015 harvest is one of the most challenging harvests he has experienced, luckily for him he had 16 previous harvests to get him ready for this one. “Everyone is reallly interested about: “how was the harvest this year?” But the MOST IMPORTANT of it all is the following: never ever judge the quality of wine by how challenging the harvest was. Wine has its own ways and will always reveal itself a few months AFTER the actual harvest. A good winery should produce good wine in any given harvest. Given that most of Agur’s wine is tasted before it is bought, so if it is good and the price right- go ahead and buy it. In winter when the experienced tasters will get a chance to taste the “en premiere” or “future wine”- rush to buy, because what you can say for sure in this harvest that the quantities will be smaller than usual”

We will revisit the wines of 2015 in two years’ time and it will be interesting to see what attributes the wine will posses.

This small boutique is owned and operated by the Rosenberg family. Yossi Rosenberg studied wine making at Sorek Wine Making School in 2003 and later advanced his studies at the Tel Hai wine making program. The family moved to the village of Beqoa in 2011 with the purpose of planting a vineyard and starting a winery. In 2012 and with the help of their friends, the family planted a vineyard which consisted of Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Chardonnay.

The winery has a lovely visitor center which has an open house on Fridays. When we visited the winery, people were enjoying freshly baked sourdough breads and cheeses, all made on the farm. After sampling them, we must admit that they were absolutely delicious.

Visitor Center at Kerem Barak

Other than wine tasting and pre-arranged meals, the farm offers cheese making classes and baking workshops. As far as the wine is concerned, we tasted several good reds. The 2012 Adom consisted of Cab, Syrah and Petite Sirah aged in oak for 18 months which was very flavorful and enjoyable. The point of uniqueness came from the whites; this is the only winery in Israel to produce an Orange wine! This is 100% French Colombard which fermented with the skins.

 

The vineyard was named after Barak Shmuel Rosenbeg, the son of Yossi and Yael who passed away from an illness back in 2010. Barak was an artist who enjoyed drawing cartoons and the logo of the winery was his creation. The Rosenberg’s are commemorating him on their bottles of wine as well.

Standing out as a boutique winery in one of Israel’s best wine growing regions is no easy task. Superb boutiques such as Pelter and Assaf have made a name for themselves and are very much a “must visit” stop when taking the trip up from Israel’s center. A new comer has emerged in recent years in the Golan Heights and these guys have a lot to be proud of.

Kibbutz Ortal is a shareholder in the Golan Heights Winery. For quite some time, there have been several aspiring wine makers in this kibbutz, an easy hobby for members of an agricultural community that grows quite a bit of wine grapes.

One of these aspiring wine makers is Ilan Zaafrani, now days head wine maker of Ortal Winery. Ilan studied wine making in Tel Hai and initially was making small batches at home, he fell in love with the craft and has proposed to his Kibbutz that they would invest in small, kibbutz owned boutique which will be completely separate from The Golan Heights Winery ownership.

Kibbutz member and Vintner Steve Applebaum with our group

Kibbutz member and Vintner Steve Applebaum with our group

Starting from the 2013 harvest, the winery will be sourcing grapes that were planted on Tel Shifon by the kibbutz and especially for their own operation. This is a young winery with only 4 harvests under its belt, but the wines that are coming out of this Kibbutz are certainly of high quality.

The winery is producing varietal oaked Viognier, as well as Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Classic varieties that perform well in the volcanic soil and cold winters the Golan has. Our personal favorite in the tasting we held was the 2011 Ga’ash which is a blend of the two, aged in oak for 20 months. This is certainly a winery that we are happy to visit on our Golan Heights Wine tours.