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.

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.