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!

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

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.

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.

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.

 

 

Most of the tours we conduct year round are in the Judean Hills and the Carmel Region , the wine is superb and the proximity to Tel Aviv and Jerusalem allows an enjoyable day trip to the wineries , vineyards and the historical sites around them. On occasion, we are asked to conduct a multi-day wine tour to the north of Israel and we absolutely love it. These tours enable us to have our guests visit 3 wineries for tastings and yet another for lunch each day.  The vistas of the Galilee and Golan regions are incredible and always add to the experience.  At the end of July, we conducted a 2 day Upper Galilee and Golan Heights wine tour with Ellen and Debbie. One of the 7 wineries we visited and enjoyed was Assaf winery.

Assaf is a family winery in the Golan Heights. The winery has recently relocated and is now just outside Moshav Kidmat Zvi. The brand new facilities are a part of the Kedem wine village, a first of its kind in Israel. The new visitor center has been operating in the past year and offers several tasting rooms as well as a Café in which serves fresh pastries and bread that are baked on premises. Assaf’s daughter, Adi has graduated from the French Culinary institute in NYC and the plan is to open a full restaurant in the near future. The village will also offer wooden Cabins or “Tzimerim” as we call them in Hebrew.

Oren Kedem and guests

On the day on which we visited Assaf winery in late July 2013, we were greeted by his son, Oren who took us around the winery and led our tasting session. Oren spent a year in Sonoma California getting experience at a winery there and is a graduate of the Katzrin College Wine program so in affect the winery has a senior wine maker and a young wine maker as well. He told us that the family has been growing grapes since 1990 and began producing wine in 1997. Unlike many grape growers in Israel, the family does not buy or sell grapes. Under the supervision of wine maker Assaf Kedem, They Kedem family simply produces wine from the grapes that they grow. The current count in production is about 45,000 bottles a year. This village very much seems like the end result of an ongoing effort, even the tasting table was built especially by Oren’s brother.


As far as wines: we tried the Chenin Blanc which was a pleasant surprise, this is a rare variety in Israel and a very nice effort, as well as the Sauvignon Blanc that on four occasions has received 90 and above from the late and Great Daniel Rogov. When it came time to taste the reds, we tried the 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon Silver, The four seasons Pinotage which was my personal favorite. A blend of Pinotage , Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet franc , and the 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve which has 89% Cabernet Sauvignon and 11% Cab Franc . This is a wine that aged 18 months and in 2008 has received a 92 from Daniel Rogov. The wines were impressive and the new visitor center is beautiful. Not to be missed on your next Golan heights wine tour!

 

The story in which Yossi recalls his first wine making experience under the tutelage of an elderly Persian woman [a mother of a friend] is a funny one. Persian Jews used to produce wine at home in Iran before the fall of the Shah and when Yossi had been asked to supply 400 KG of wine grapes to the woman back in Israel, he said that he would do so but would be interested in making the wine together with her.

On the specified day, anxious to begin the process, Yossi washed the grapes before the lady arrived. As soon as his teacher walked in the room, he understood that he made a mistake. The lady was “blessing” him with an entire arsenal of cuss words that would make anyone who understood Farsi, blush.

The following day, Yossi brought new grapes, this time he did not wash them, and made his first batch of wine alongside his teacher. Fifteen years have passed since Yossi made his first wine and realized that this was his calling. He then planted his own vineyards in the hills of Nes Harim, overlooking Jerusalem.

Katlav Winery is currently producing between 20 – 25K bottles a year and Yosi Itach is both the Vintner and the Wine Maker of this winery. Yosi is using an old world systme to cool his barrels of wine. There are 5 manmade caves at Katlav, all of which are insulated from outside temperatures. Keeping the barrels cool and conserving energy throughout the aging process of the wine.

On the day we visted Katlav winery as a part of our Judean Hills Wine Tour , Yosi treated us to a barrel tasting of his 2012 Cabernet Sauvinion well as the two special blends that are already available in the open market. The first is Nes Harim 2010 which is a blend of Merlot and Petit Verdot in equal parts. This is a unique blend for this winery and a great overall t. The 2nd blend we tried was Wadi Katlav 2010 which has a Cabrnet Sauvinion base [50%] as well as Merlot [25%] Petit Verdot [15%] and Cabernet Franc [10%], a wonderful wine that I simply had to take home.

We all root for the underdog at one point or another. I find myself doing that every time I visit Somek Estate Winery in Zichron Ya’akov as part of our Carmel Region Wine tour. The owner, Barak Dahan is a 5th generation vintner. His great – great grandfather arrived in Zichron Yaakov in 1882. Barak, along with his wife Hila, who studied wine making in Adelaide Australia, have opened a small “Old World” style winery. Somek winery uses a traditional basket press along with buckets and no pumps in an effort to preserve as much color and flavor as possible from the grapes. This effort which has been going on for 10 years now is paying off. Somek produces some of the best wines in Israel.

I am certainly not alone in making this rather large claim. Chef Alon Gonen [Head Chef of the Crown Plaza Hotel Group] recently conducted a blind tasting of Carignan wine. He claims that the Somek 2006 Carignan is the best to have ever been produced in Israel. This is the same Carignan our guests taste when visiting Somek. Other chefs agree with Chef Gonen, Meir Adoni [Head Chef of Katit & Mizlala- both prominent Tel Aviv restaurants] Have been buying wines directly from the winery for over a year.

Only a couple other restaurants in Israel carry Somek’s wine (Tapeo and Unami, again, best of breed restaurants in the Tel Aviv area).The reason so few carry Somek’s wine, is there is simply not enough of it to go around. It would be unjust not to mention in this post that in our opinion, Somek produces one of the best Chardonnays in Israel [currently sold out and only about 800 bottles coming out in the next batch]. Somek only produces 10K bottles a year and is not looking to grow. That is certainly rare for the Israeli wine industry.

The only reason I view this winery as an underdog is its neighboring wineries. Both Carmel and Tishbi, are within a 5 minute drive from Somek. Carmel produces 20 Million bottles a year and both buy grapes from the Dahan Vineyards on an annual basis. The sheer magnitude in which Carmel operates is intimidating to most wineries in Israel. This is not the case with Somek. Barak once told me that he wakes up at 4 O’clock in the morning each day. With a work ethic such as his and the level of wines he and his wife produce, there is no other way but to root for them.