Zafririm Winery

Lori and Shaike Lender are set to launch their 2015 reds this coming weekend as part of the Judean Hills Wine Festival.  Zafririm Winery is the smallest producer IWT works with.

Although a small producer at just about 8K bottles a year, the blends are very different from one another, going from a Mediterranean “Bordeaux” style wine to New World Lavnin which uses both Petite Sirah[Duriff]  Cabernet Sauvignon and Cab Franc and ending with a more robust Patom series. We feel the wines coming out of Zafririm are getting better each year. Lori’s Rose sells out by August every year.

Agur Winery

Agur is the smallest producer to have ranked a wine over 90 points with Kim Marcus and Wine Spectator in late 2016 , Shuki Yashuv is producing just under 20k bottles these days . Newer wines for this winery include “Layam” which is “Cote De Rhone” style blend of Syrah and Mourvedre and an even later addition is Karka which is 100% Oseletta [Only producer in Israel with this variety] This is a fascinating wine , common in the area of Valpolicella near Verona, Italy. 2014 and 2015 vintages have sold out and Shuki will release 2016 soon. For the 2018 vintage, Agur is producing Blanca for the first time in years. Certainly something to look forward to!

Sphera Winery

Doron and Sima Rav Hon continue  to be one of the best White Wine producers in Israel. The signature touch of this winery is complex , minerally and interesting white wines. The winery uses both French Oak and Stainless Steel fermentations and variety wise they are using , Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon,  Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc and Riesling

Sphera has been growing steadily and for the 2017 vintage had released 25K bottles. 2018 harvest marks the beginning of a long term project of Sparkling wine for this winery . This is a passion of the Winemaker, one that he is revisiting this time at his own winery.  Sphera sells most of its wine to restaurants and has a strong following for the launch events.

The Judean Hills Wine Festival is set to start at Yad Hashmona Hotel Thursday November 29th with the traditional wine tasting event in which Tzora, Sphera, Agur and Castel are set to participate alongside over 30 other Judean Hills wineries.

Tzuba Winery has gone through re-branding. Paul Dubb is still stirring the ship at this estate bottled winery. The winery has started taking in a darker clone of Cabernet Sauvignon starting at the 2016 vintage and the Metzuda blend which did come out from this vintage is showing a lot of potential. In a recent tasting Paul described the 2016 vintage as “off the harts” in the level of fruit that he was getting.

An additional change for Tzuba is that their Chardonnay that for many years spent time in both Oak and Stainless Steel, is now fermenting and aging in Oak only. The winery is presently producing 60K bottles a year, selling roughly 40% of its wine to the French and the American Kosher Market. As the long term agreement Castel Winery had with the kibbutz was not renewed, this winery will have more fruit in the coming years and will look to produce more.

 

Update for Nevo Winery

In 2018 the winery produced 12K bottles. As the only winery IWT works with that fully did not produce any wine on the Sabbatical year, Nevo had to come up with varieties that would not need as long of an aging process [past vintages of  Cab and Merlot from Nevo were aged for 24 months and upwards]. The winery currently is selling a 2016 straight Syrah, very elegant and with a medium body. Nevo is producing a Rose which sells out and in 2019 this winery will be harvesting its first vintage of Chardonnay.

Winemanship remains high and quantities remain low. This winery sells nearly 75% of its production to the North American market. A recent tasting of 2014 Blend was impressive and with further aging the wine would benefit even more.

 

Alon and I have been touring the Judean Hills with guests from all over the world for 10 years now.

Truth be told, I have only been to the Mony Winery a handful of times in those years.  When we were hired by a returning guest who has toured Kosher wineries with us multiple times in the Judean Hills, in  the Carmel, Upper Galilee and Golan, The challenge was on to find them Kosher wineries that they have not been to in the area of Bet Shemesh.

Mony is bigger in production than our usual suspects.  The winery is up to 400K bottles a year now and their portfolio is vast.  Most wines are produced in both a Mevushal series and a non Mevushal. The winery has been Kosher since 2005.

Mony Winery was founded and is owned by the Artul Family, Shakib Artul from the village of Mghar in Northern Israel, named the winery after his son who passed away from a heart condition.  A lot of our guests are surprised to hear that this Kosher Winery is owned by a Christian Arab family.

120 year old tunnels – dug by the clergy today used for aging wine

Sasson Ben Aharon [center] and guests

Sasson Ben Aharon, Head Winemaker of Binyamina Winery for over 10 years assumed the role of Winemaker at Mony in 2014.  Sasson in the past has also spent 6 years at the Israeli Wine Institute.

As we toured the facilities with Sasson, he explained that Mony acts as a host winery and that some private labels are being produced there in addition to Mony. He did not name any names. The two labels that we know are produced at Mony include Five Stones and Montefiore.

While I knew the wine is successfully distributed in the U.S by Happy Hearts Wine and is in good demand at Kosher wineries throughout the US, I was surprised to learn the US distributor of the wine is eagerly awaiting the release of the Mevushal version of “Via” which is the higher wine for this winery.  There are some high end Kosher Steak Houses in the East Coast awaiting this wine.

Along with Sasson, we tasted a crisp French Colombard, some dry Gewurztraminer and in the reds the wines that stood out were a 2013 Cab Reserve and a 2015 Reserve Mallbec. The reds especially showed good value for money.

Wine Maker Yaakov Uriah is an odd bird. A religious man born in the US and grew up in Bnei Brak to an Ultra-Orthodox community. A winemaker, one of the most unique Israelis in this profession, a gentleman who shows up late at night at the very non-Kosher Brut Wine Bar late with a plastic bottle of his latest creation looking for feedback from friend and owner of Brut, Chef Yair Yossefi and the wine loving staff.

Uriah is a winemaker with very little formal education, yet an incredible ability at projective tasting, and a keen thirst for knowledge and experimentation.  A story that I had found astounding is that early in his career Uriah operating Assif as a ‘’Winery Negonciant’’, was making up possible blends in his head, having tasted mid-range wines at several different wineries. Today Uriah is the head winemaker of Psagot, having worked at Midbar and Ella Valley [to name a few] and is still producing his own line of wines.

Yaakov Uriah – photo: 93fm.co.il

This desire to search and test things out, led to some fantastic wines. Wines that have an incredible aging ability [we tasted a 2009 Semillon and 2008 Viognier in the course of the evening] Another thing that took me by surprise is that Uriah is completely open minded with his style of winemaking. At some point in the course of the evening, the very astute Hilik Gurfinkel who hosted, got Uriah to discuss the notion of using Oak chips in wine while in process. For some wineries, this is a total taboo and they would even be insulted if someone asked them whether they ever take part in such methodology. Uriah simply replied that the way he sees it, the same way that it is ok for a wine to be in an Oak barrel, He is not willing to rule out having Oak chips in a wine if the conditions requires such practice.

One more interesting thing about Yaakov Uriah’s wines, in the past he made the decision to pay homage to other wine regions in the world, most of which never having been there. The Hebrew naming for the 2009 Semillon is Hunter’s Valley and in a couple of red wines we had Uriah had said to his clients even before he obtained the fruit, that he would make a homage to Rioja by producing a Rioja Reserva style wine. The later two were my favorite wines of the night.

In 2008 Alon was the General Manager of Agur Winery in the Judean Hills. The part he enjoyed best was showing people around and telling them about the Judean Hills region. Alon is now a certified tour guide. The Judean Hills is significantly a more well-known wine region than it was just a short 9 years ago.

In just under ten years, we have grown and we now lead more wine tours in Israel than anyone else. The first connection between a guest who loves wine and a winemaker is special and we get to witness it time after time.

Funny things that did occur to us along the trail:
1. A 19 year old Culinary student insisting on shaking the wine [like a Tequila shooter] because he had been taught this would give the wine the effect of an additional year or two worth of aging.

2. When a couple sat in front of a well known Israeli wine Consultant and insisted that a $70 magnet from BrookStone would age the wine in a matter of 30 minutes only to hear back from the consultant that they are “better off microwaving the wine”

So here we are, we are finding out about new wineries that we have not been to all the time [just under 300 active wineries throughout Israel]. We still tour the Judean Hills more often than the Carmel and the Golan. We enjoy it. We send out wine a few times a year and are always happy to tour with return guests and show them yet another great wine region in Israel. L’chaim!

Alon [right] and Barak out on the trail

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!