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.

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!

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.

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

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.

Yatir Winery prides itself on the fact that all their grapes are coming from Yatir forest. After visiting the forest, one understands their source of pride even more. At a range of 600- 900 Meters above Sea Level this is the largest forest in Israel. No matter in which direction you head within the forest, you are bound to see incredible vineyards, most of which are comprised of wine grapes.

These large, impressive vineyards are in the South of Israel, only a short drive from the city of Arad. This means that temperatures in the summer do rise above 30 degrees Centigrade during the day and that Yatir Winery is irrigating their vineyards. Within the forest, we still have a testament to the ancient wine production that has been taking place in the region 2300 years ago in the form of dozens of ancient wine presses as well as nicely preserved clay Amphoraes.

Ancient olive oil press in Yatir Forrest

Ancient olive oil press in Yatir Forrest

 

Yatir used to be a joint partnership with Carmel Winery and is now owned by Carmel, The largest winery in Israel at 15 Million bottles a year. Yatir only produces 150,000. According to Etti Edri, the marketing manager of this winery one thing that this partnership allows Yatir is to take its time with aging their wines both in Oak and in the bottle. Our tasting was of 2010 and a bit of 2011 vintage. Few wineries in Israel are currently selling these vintages. The boutiques in the Judean Hills are off to 2012 and 2013 for reds, we even tried a Syrah 2014 that is already on the shelf in the past week alone.

A short walk through the winery will tell you a few things, The partnership with Carmel was necessary for this winery to grow and maintain its quality. The tanks are state of the art, matching in sizes and aligned perfectly, it seems that Winemaker Eran Goldwasser is experimenting with some Concrete fermentation tanks as well. we happen to see two that were brought in from Italy.
As for our tasting, We started off with a lovely Rose made from Grenache and Tempranillo, followed by a varietal Syrah, a beautiful Cabarnet Sauvinion and finally the 2011 Yatir Forrest blend which was extremely flavorful as well. Great stop and highly recommended!

 

Alon outside a cave in Yatir

Alon outside a cave in Yatir

Midbar Winery is located in what is now a renovated artists quarter outside the city of Arad. Ten years ago, this was an industrial area that had several large factories, one of which was a large towel factory. This area is now slowly being renovated by the city and workshops were basically given away just so they do not stay deserted. The vineyards are all located 800 meters above sea level, a short distance away from the famous Ramon Crater.

The idea behind a winery that specializes in growing only in the desert is one that takes getting used to, even though there is plenty of evidence that shows wines were produced in the Negev Desert thousands of years ago.

There are certainly some advantages to growing wine grapes in such an area. Because the area is arid and gets a lot of strong winds, that significantly lowers the likelihood of any mold or pests in the vines. The desert is well known for the significant drop in temperatures from daytime to nighttime, resulting in natural high acidity for the grapes. As irrigation is not only legal, but expected the Vintner and the Winemaker really have quite a lot of control over how much fruit and leaves will come out.

laid back atmosphere at Midbar Winery

laid back atmosphere and good wines at Midbar Winery

Winemaker Meital Damri, who studied both Viticulture and Oenology in Florence, Italy is currently producing 40K bottles a year at this Southern Boutique Winery.  In 2014 the winery had become Kosher. Harvest is done by hand at night and the winery transports the grapes in refrigerated trucks in order to make sure fermentation does not begin before it needs to. On our wine tour and tastings which were held March 19th, we tried a lovely 2013 Rose and the 2012 Syrah, We ended up buying both to take home. Great stop for anyone who is visiting Messada or The Dead Sea and is heading back to the center of Israel through Arad!