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.

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 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.

On a Southern Israel tour of wineries and vineyards, we surprised our returning guests with a visit to Negev Microbrewery located in the Industrial area of Kiriat Gat, steps away from the large Intel fab. Negev Microbrewery has moved into this current location back in 2008.

Negev has been around since 2005, initially as a home microbrewery and it is currently owned by the people of Norman Porter. The brewery produces approximately 12,000 liters a month. This of course is boutique size, as not too far away in Ashqelon, the Coca Cola Company is brewing 38,000 liters of Carlsberg and Tuborg in a day’s work. Negev beer has gotten recognition in the international website Ratebeer.com both in 2012 and 2013 and is currently being sold in over 500 points of sale throughout Israel.

Negev Brewery - Southern Israel

Negev Brewery – Southern Israel

As a boutique, Negev clearly aims to produce high quality craft beers that are naturally carbonated and taste as such. The same cannot be said of the large breweries in Israel that produce Goldstar and Tuborg. The brewery although small prides itself with 8 types of beers, some of which is seasonal, the latest edition of which is a Negev Blazer beer named after the Israeli Men’s magazine and that was brewed inspired by the writers of the publication. The text describing the beer is very much using the same type of humor as the magazine it is named after.

The vistor center welcomes tours and even has a seasonal pub built just outside the brewery. This is a great stop in the late afternoon for a nice tour and tastings led by Yishai Auman the marketing manager of the brewery.

Beer Tastings - Negev Microbrewery

Beer Tastings – Negev Microbrewery

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!

 

Clos De Gat winery is often considered an “industry secret”. A third of their wine is sold overseas and the winery has been concentrating efforts outside Israel in recent years. Clos De Gat wine is found in top Israel restaurants but as space at wine stores is limited, their wine is not always easily found.

new cellar space at Clos De Gat Winery

new cellar space at Clos De Gat Winery

The winery today is going considerable renovations increasing the overall size of the cellars, adding tasting rooms and offices .Fun fact, the original cellar was used by Yitzhak Rabin as a bunker when he commanded the Harel Brigade in 1967 and therefore is meant for preservation.

The winery is unique for several reasons. 90K bottles a year production, all from the vineyards 200 meters above sea level in the area of Kibutz Harel of the Judean Hills. In other words, all the vineyards are located just outside the winery and the grapes do not have to travel more than 500 meters from the vineyard to the winery. The red wines are produced in an open vat fermentation using only wild yeast found on the grapes As for the beautiful oaked 2012 Chardonnay we tried, the yield is only about 400 KG per dunam. An extremely low yield, one that is not economically viable in most cases.

hibernating vineyards at  Clos De Gat

hibernating vineyards outside Clos De Gat Winery

 

Drip irrigation is in place but has not been used in over 6 years. This winery is clearly substituting quantity with high quality and flavorful grapes. Other wines we tasted included the 2011 Harel Merlot which received 91 points from Wine Spectator. My personal favorite was the 2004 Ayalon Blend which was rich, velvety and concentrated. Beautiful!

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