It is no secret that Golan Heights stands out from the pack when it comes large wineries in Israel. There are several reasons for that. First of all, they do not produce “mevushal” wine which automatically means they are producing higher quality wines that their colleagues at Carmel and Barkan. Golan Heights is perceived as a large, professional and striving to produce top wines entity even though they are on the large scale of production in Israel. The international wine community feels this way as well, the 2010 Vino Italy Conference has voted Golan Heights as best winery. Israel Wine Tour along with the staff of several top Jerusalem and Tel Aviv restaurants were the guests of Golan Heights winery for a night of harvest, great food and wine tasting September 16, 2014.

We started off with a viewing of a machine harvesting Chardonnay grapes at Bar On vineyard; it is interesting that the Judean Hills are just about finished with harvest while in the Golan white grapes are still being harvested. As we got off the bus it was certainly easier to understand why this is . The temperature in the vineyard was in the 50’s! The machine is passing every row and firmly shakes the vine so that grapes drop and the stems actually stay on the vine. This is quite different than the hand harvest we usually see in visiting boutique wineries.

Harvesting Chardonnay in the Golan

The wine which was served at dinner was 2010 Yarden Cabernet Sauvignon It went very well with the different meats that were prepared in a large metal smoker.Following dinner [which began at midnight!] we headed down to the cellar for a tasting that included a new, Syrah based Rose which we personally did not care for,The wines that followed were excellent. 2011 Gamla Syrah was not an ordinary Syrah on the nose but absolutely lovely and it was followed by 2010 Yarden 2T which is a dark, full bodied, blend of two traditional Portuguese varieties, Touriga Nacional and Tinta Cao which had concentrated flavors and a beautiful long finish, The 2009 vintage of this wine had won Gold Medal at 2014 Challenge International Du Vin Wine Competition in Bordeaux. For the final tasting we had a T2 which is a port style wine made from the same Portuguese varieties mentioned above. An excellent dessert wine.

Golan heights night tasting

Golan heights night tasting

Much like Tzora winery was a dream come true for the late Ronnie James, Galita Chocolatier is a dream come true of Galit Elpert, a young woman who has spent 3 years in Belgium studying chocolate and ice cream making. After returning to Israel and producing chocolate Pralines at home for her friends and even selling them in pop up stores around Tel Aviv, Galit stumbled across her old business plan from the time she was still studying to become a chocolatier.

The plan was to create a magical chocolate farm that will include a Café, a chocolate workshop area and a small movie theater. Today the plan has become a reality with 2 beautiful branches located in Kibutz Tzuba, close to Jerusalem and well within the Judean Hills and in Kibbutz Degania right by the Sea of Galilee on the Kinneret. The chocolate farm on the Kineret has been open since April 2007.
The Judean Hills branch of Galita Choclates is one we visit more often than the original store by the Kineret and is certainly a stop that our guests, both young and old appreciate a great deal.The “chocolate farm” as it is referred to by Galita employees, serves as a decadent Café, a chocolate and Praline shop and a chocolate workshop where both kids and adults can complete different project suited for their age and abilities. The Farm has a movie theater where kids learn about how chocolate is made, an outdoor sitting area for the Café and a work space that can accommodate up to 60 guests.

The nice thing about doing a chocolate workshop as a part of a wine tour in the Judean Hills is the fact that everyone can participate. Children have several options of which project they choose and the staff at the farm is more than happy to help along. Adults get to choose their projects as well, guaranteeing a great time and a sweet souvenir to take home.

Soreq Winery is celebrating its 20 year anniversary this year. This boutique operation of 35, 000 bottles a year was started by the Shacham family back in 1994. Today, Soreq Winery also operates as Israel’s leading wine making program. The school has the clear advantage of operating within an active winery, allowing the students to gain real world experience in the craft, right from the beginning. Once a year, the school is hosting a Home Winery Festival which is a lot of fun and certainly recommended. Among the school’s faculty one can find researchers, Wine makers, Agriculture consultants, Industry experts etc. It is worth mentioning that the school has been around as long as the winery has, The school’s alumni have proceeded to open more than 100 new wineries in Israel to this day.

I feel that the motto of the school, “creating happiness through wine production” is very much in line with the personality of Nir Shacham, Wine Maker at Soreq and Head Faculty member of the school. On the day that we were touring the winery, Nir had already paid a visit to his vineyards in Mizpe Ramon in Southern Israel and made it back to the winery for a 10:00 AM wine tasting. He was energetic, knowledgeable and it certainly showed that he was engaged in something that he loves doing.

The winery is not kosher and that allowed Nir to offer us barrel tastings that he pulled of Tal Shachar Merlot which was nice and fruity. Another lovely wine (that we already had at dinner since) is the 2013 Rose, made of 40% Grenache, 60% Carignan and a tiny bit of Syrah. My absolute favorite was the 2011 Petite Verdot, not a varietal one encounters in Israel often.

Nevo Hazan created this winery by himself but is thankful for “intervention from above” in his words that has helped create Nevo Winery, A tiny yet beautiful 7K bottles a year winery in the Village of Mata, Judean Hills.

The story of how this winery was started is certainly out of the ordinary. We meet passionate and hardworking wine makers all the time but in this case the story is a bit different. It all began 15 years ago. Nevo who was finishing the building of his house was moving out of the wooden cabin that was next door, had found out that his aunt has fallen ill. The aunt who was living in the north, had been scheduled to start treatments at the Haddassa Ein Karem Hospital, and he invited her to live in his now vacant cabin a short distance away from the hospital. At the time, the land the house was on was re-measured and the Hazan family found out that an old bomb shelter that was no longer in use was now a part of their property as well. This shelter would later become a wine cellar.

According to Nevo, his aunt is no ordinary lady either. In the process of Chemotherapy and Radiation treatments this lady had the energy to climb the trees near the house and pick olives to make olive oil from, fruit to make Jams etc. When Harvest time came around, Nevo’s aunt had asked him to get some wine grapes so they can make wine together. The wines were terrific. Nevo’s aunt got better and after about a year she headed back home. Nevo told her before she left that he would continue making wine from that point onwards. He then started building a tasting room outside the family’s house. According to Nevo, no architect or engineers were involved and the tasting room has been built by him alone. This in my honest opinion is one of the most beautiful winery tasting rooms I have ever been to. Outside the tasting room, Nevo also built a brick oven to bake bread and roast lamb for a long period of time, yet another trick he learned from his favorite aunt.

Nevo attended the 2 year program at the Soreq wine making school in the Judean Hills and is now producing wines from grapes in Mata, some of which are from his own vineyards. Last year as a pilot Nevo produced a 100% Cabernet Sauvignon Rose which has been a great success and will be produced on a larger scale this year. In addition, Nevo winery produces a crisp, non oaked Viognier as well as red varieties of Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon which have been aged 18 months in French Oak. One final blend is of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot. The wines are lovely and so are Nevo and Ifat who will welcome you at the winery.

A few months ago, Israel Wine Tour staff was lucky enough to attend a Winemaker dinner with Ariel Ben Zaken, son of Eli Ben Zaken, the owner and founding Winemaker of Domaine Du Castel winery in the Judean Hills.
Castel winery is one of the oldest boutique wineries in Israel and certainly the oldest in the Judean Hills. It remains an Estate Winery and interesting enough, the winery still produces only four types of wines, an oaked Chardonnay, a small batch of Rose and 2 reds, Petit Castel and Grand Vin.

One note Ariel made that we found interesting was on the process of making his “C Blanc Du Castel” Chardonnay. He said that when pressing the grapes, Castel’s methodology is to throw in a few stems into the soft press. By doing so, Ariel feels that additional “green” flavors are added to the juice. That was a surprise for me as the Castel Chardonnay is most certainly an oaked, woody, full bodied wine, so learning they still wanted that type of freshness was news to me.

Another comment that I found interesting was when a barrel tasting of the 2012 Grand Vin was poured, People loved the wine and were wondering how Ariel felt it compared with the 2010 Petit Castel Magnum bottle that was opened earlier that evening. Ariel said he was happy that people were excited about a future wine and any mixed feelings about a wine that is sold out are fair.

Scheduling a tasting at Castel is not the easiest of tasks. The winery does not have a visitor center and tastings are led in a small tastings room compared to those of neighboring wineries. The wine is wonderful and although Castel is producing more than 150K a year, they constantly sell out all of their wines. Robert Parker, Mark Squires and Serena Sutcliffe have given this winery its fair share of recognition, but a simple tasting of the wine ultimately speaks for itself.

Kadma winery in the heart of Judan Hills is the only winery in Israel that uses large clay vats [or in a more scientific name, earthenware casks] for fermenting its wine. This is an ancient form of fermenting wine still somewhat popular in Eastern Europe. The earthenware casks at Kadma Winery have the capacity to ferment 10,000 liters of wine at a time and were baked off with bee wax on the inside guaranteeing a tight seal of the clay at all times. They were sourced especially for the winery in Georgia by a specialist and then shipped over to Israel. Needless to say, no insurance company was willing to insure the unique shipment.

According to tradition, the vats are meant to be buried in the ground for long periods of time. Soil temperatures in Israel would not allow this [the winery did consult the Meteorological services initially but they confirmed Israel’s soil is too warm] As a result, the vats remain standing upright in the cool rooms of the winery.

Kadma is small family winery is headed by wine maker Lina Slutzkin who was born in Georgia and had a 20 year career at Intel before attending the Soreq Wine Making School. Lina was the person on the ground to oversee the ordering and packing of the vats when they were shipped to Israel. The winery under the consulting of Winemaker Dr. Arkadi Papikyan makes a semi sweet Chenin Blanc as well as single variety Merlot, Syrah [the later, has won a medal at the Gold Cluster competition in Israel in 2013] a dry Reserve, and a Port style wine as well.

The winery has a large visitor center with an outdoor patio in Kfar Uriya where guests can watch a movie about the unique wine making process, try the wines and inspect the vats closely.

Zeev Dunia is a former film maker turned into an artistic, eccentric wine maker who specializes in blends and varieties that we are less used to seeing in Israel. Seahorse Winery currently produces 25K bottles a year and a recent selection to Time Out Magazine’s Israel’s 10 best boutique wineries seems appropriate even though this is not the first time the winery is getting this sort of recognition. The winery has been chosen as top 10 by the late and Great Daniel Rogov as well.

The winery is not Kosher, which basically allows Dunia to stand on top of his barrels and withdraw a tasting of his 2012 Hemingway blend and put it in visitor’s glasses straight away. All the wines of the winery are named after someone, usually a s musician, film maker or poet that Ze’ev is fond of, with the exception of the winery’s white wine, a 100% Chenin Blanc aged in oak named James to commemorate the late Ronnie James, former head wine maker of Tzora Winery who was also Dunia’s wine teacher and friend.

Dunia has chosen to make wines that are off the beaten path and are not being produced by large wineries in Israel. He is producing a Zinfandel varietal, and Cote De Rhone GSM [Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre ] to name a few. When he is asked about what wines he produces, Dunya says he is inspired by great wines abroad. Back home he starts checking feasibility of whether it is possible to produce an Israeli take of these wines.

Buster’s Cider is produced in a dry version and a sweeter version which has a lower level of alcohol. The factory is large and spotless and the guests walk around with a branded glass of cider as they tour the facility. As part of our Judean Hills Microbrewery tour, we were greeted by Denny and Matt on a cold January morning. Denny mentioned that he and Matt arrive to the factory very early each morning as they go back and forth between making a batch of cider at the brewery and the shop they own in Mevaseret, one that deals with wine and beer making.

Denny Neilson knows his way around Alcohol. The producer of IsraAle Beer and Buster’s Cider is currently teaching classes on how to make whisky, Vodka, Beer and Moonshine, to name a few. Classes are in high demand as taxes had been raised on low cost Alcohol in Israel in the past year alone. Israeli favorite – Elite Arak would be a great example of a product Israelis are paying a lot more for in the past year.

The Neilsons own and operate a wine and beer making store in Mevaseret Zion just outside Jerusalem in addition to the brewery. Both are family run operations as Denny enthusiastically explains during the tour of the premises. Denny and his family made Aliya and moved to Israel from California only 10 years ago yet Denny’s stories on the red tape and dealing with Kashroot lead me to believe that they may feel they have been here their whole lives. The stories are full of humor and Denny truly shows a wealth of knowledge on production of Alcohol. The group did get to try Whisky and Brandy made on premises, leaving for the next brewery feeling warm and happy.

The answer to the question above could easily be answered with two words: Shuki Yashuv. Shuki is the owner and wine maker of this 20K bottle a year hidden gem of a winery. He is an eccentric, colorful and both an artist and  a farmer. This leads to a unique wine tasting experience each and every time.

Shuki suffers from somewhat of an attention deficit disorder and he is very candid with his guests about it. Because he is well traveled and very well read, the topics of conversation as the tasting is going on will always mix bible , philosophy and history with a lot of humor to top it all off. Physically the winery is in a serene and beautiful spot, well hidden from the hustle and bustle of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv yet only an hour away from both of them.

Let’s talk about the wines Agur winery produces. Shuki makes blends only. He is the student of the late Ronnie James, a person who very much believed in the overall Terroir of the Judean Hills. Shuki believes that the best way to extenuate the overall spice of the region is to blend varieties that grow in this very region.

His 2012 Rossa, a Rose made from Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Mourvedre was snatched off the shelves in the beginning of summer and has been called the best Rose in Israel by several critics. Shuki also produces 2 Bordeaux blends called Kessem and Special Reserve which although they are produced from the same varieties, these are completely different wines. The grapes arrive from different plots and the extraction is done quite differently as well. Finally Kessem is aged for a year while the Special Reserve for a longer period, resulting in a red wine that resembles the flavors of Red fruit as opposed to the considerably darker and heavier Special Reserve.

And finally there is the baby. Shuki’ s newest creation is a Syrah Mourvedre blend called Layam which he started to produce only in 2010 a mineral yet fruity Cote De Rhone blend which is produced at very small batches and is not to be missed. Much like the opportunity to sit in with its wine maker.

Paul Dubb, the son of a South African Kiddush wine maker from Cape Town has been a kibbutz member for 18 years now. He is of course the Head Wine Maker of Tzuba, nowadays a 50K bottle a year boutique winery in the Jerusalem Hills.
Kibbutz Tzuba has been blessed with great wine growing conditions. It is located 730 meters above sea level and possesses Terra Rossa and Limestone soil. A mere 10 minute drive outside Israel’s capital, The kibbutz has ample agriculture land growing apples , nectarines , pears and yes, a considerable amount of wine grapes.

The story of how this came to be is as following: Domaine Du Castel, one of Israel’s most prestigious wineries in the nearby village of Ramat Raziel needed more grapes to expand production. The owners reached out to the kibbutz 13 years ago asking for them to grow on behalf of Castel. The kibbutz realized that growing wine grapes was significantly more economical than growing any other fruit; they simply require one tenth the amount of water than other fruits grown in the area. These days, the grapes that comes out of the Tzuba vineyards is very much sought after. Cabernet Franc and Merlot grapes from Tzuba are sold to various wineries throughout Israel and since we have visited many of those wineries we can attest to the fact that they take great pride in the fact that they are buying their grapes from the grape grower crew of Kibbutz Tzuba.

The winery produces a well-known Cabernet based blend named Metzuda as well as varietals such as a Merlot, 100% Syrah , Cabernet Sauvignon and what we feel may be one of the best Chardonnay produced in Israel. It is a unique, dry, guava aroma Chardonnay which always takes our guests by surprise. Paul is always humble and leaves us to explain that this is a wine that has won medals and awards some as recently as Terra Vino 2012 Gold Metal. I personally participated in the competition as a sommelier and I can attest that the competition in this category was a heavy one.

One more varietal that Tzuba produces and one does not see often in Israel is the Pinot Noir. This is a thin skinned grape that is very difficult to grow in the Israeli sun. Tzuba goes through the trouble of producing it. Very little stays here in Israel and Royal/ Kedem buys pretty much the whole batch. There are North American Jews who are happy to buy a good Kosher Pinot.