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

As industry professionals we take the time to attend the different wine festivals throughout Israel. The advantages of attending are numerous. We find out about new wineries that can later become a destination for us to take our guests to, this in addition catching up with other wineries that we have not had the chance to visit recently.

The Judean Hills event is certainly one of the favorites among our friends and colleagues. It is the kickoff event to a month long festival taking place at the wineries and it is a large and important festival that top boutiques wineries in the Judean Hills participate in. Below is a short recap of news that came out of the festival.

Wine Maker Lina Slutzkin of Kadma Winery told us about the use of Saperavi grapes that she was getting into. This is a Georgian variety that can handle extreme cold and is unique because of the red anthocyanin within the grape pulp as well as the skin. A similar characteristic is of the Alicante variety which the winery is starting to use as well. The use of less common varieties is always a good way for a small winery to stand out from the pack.

We also enjoyed speaking to Sandro and Irit Pellegrini who own and operate La Terra Promessa [ if you have not been to their restaurant/winery , you are missing out!] Sandro mentioned harvest was done a bit before Yom Kippur was celebrated in Israel and that this is fairly similar to previous year. The winery is continuing in its path of producing Riesling and blends that include Primitivo, Sangiovese, Syrah and Cabernet Frank.

Finally, a very small winery producing 1500 bottles a year by the name of Samson and Delilah caught our attention. The winery was founded in 2006 and ages all their wines anywhere between 18 to 36 months. We tried a 2009 Cabernet varietal which was impressive. The winery is located in Kfar Uriya.

Judean Hills Wine Festival

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.

Ella Valley is one of the largest boutique wineries in Israel and it will be to producing close to 300,000 bottles in 2015. Although this is a sizable amount, Wine Maker Lynn Gold and the Vintner team at Ella Valley are still insisting on hand harvest.This is obviously more tedious, yet allows only the best grapes to make it to the winery. Another element which makes it harvest even tougher is of course the fact that it is conducted at night time. The days in the summer are very hot and all parties involved are interested that fermentation would take place in a controlled environment and not on route to the winery, so picking the grapes when they are cool simply produces better wines.

Tasting Rose at Ella Valley

The vineyards of Ella Valley Winery are located across the street from the winery in the village of Aderet as well higher in elevation in the area of Ness Harim. The winery itself and its vineyards of Petite Syrah are located in the Adulam region of the Judean Hils, This region was in the news a lot this past summer as Oil Shale companies were trying to get permission to dig through , an attempt which was heavily opposed by local farmers and wineries. This area which is seeing growing internal tourism was able to “dodge the bullet” with the help of several environmental groups.

This past summer, Ella Valley released a superb Rose in the Ever Red series which was mostly made with Merlot and a bit of Cabernet Franc and Syrah. Their new release Chardonnay has one part that fermented in oak and the other part in Stainless Steel, retaining the crispness and the flavors that are coming out of the vineyards. The visitor center at Ella Valley is beautiful and provides a great atmosphere for tasting their wines and learning about this established winey. Reccomended!

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.

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.

 

 

As a part of this community, we cannot be happier that the Israeli wine industry is expanding. It would be foolish however, to assume that this rapid growth is not taking a toll on the environment. Driving along the beautiful Highway number one between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, one can see dozens of newly planted vineyards. The young grape vines can easily be recognized by the milk cartons placed on the bottom of the vine to protect it from deer and other hungry residents of the Judean Hills. Once the vine settles in, it is not as susceptible as it is in the first few months after being planted. The fruit that the vine produces is not as lucky.

Barkan Winery which recently opened a large visitor center in Kibbuts Hulda, is one of the largest growers of the new vineyards in the Judean Hills. The growers working for Barkan, recently placed a 16 kilometer long fence intended to protect their vines from the deer roaming the area. You see, it took a bit of time before the deer realized that the grapes taste good, and when they did, the damage to the yield quickly grew. The trouble is that deer need to have access to food on one hand, but be able to flee away from their predators by running faster up the mountains and out maneuver the jackals, foxes, hyenas and stray dogs of the region. With the presence of a 3 meter fence this becomes highly problematic, and they are often trapped with nowhere to escape.

In an interview to Ynet, Amir Balvan from the Israeli Wild Life Protection Agency said “ This is one of the most important ecological hallways in Israel and is being used by approximately a hundred deer as well as other species.“ We at Israel Wine Tour, cannot help but agree with him. It is imperative to find solutions such as plastic sleeves that would protect the grape vines. Ideally, such a solution would make the fences around the vineyards obsolete. But not all solutions are full proof. Grape growers that are using the plastic protective sleeves are reporting that any fresh leaves that sprout outside the protective sleeves are constantly eaten by deer. It is clear that more trial and error is required in order to solve this problem. Protecting the wildlife of Israel is something the wineries of the region have to be able to pride themselves with.

A good friend recently told me that in life, we are all constantly making plans and the all mighty G*d above us is laughing as we do it. I honestly think that it is no stroke of luck that has brought Lori and Shaike Lender to open Zafririm Winery in the area that they did. The Lender couple who combine a vast knowledge in Archeology and Art History, have chosen the Judean Hills, a region wealthy in ancient ruins both above and below the ground, to open up their small family winery. Even the wines they produce are named after ruins that are in close proximity to Zafririm Winery.

Lori and Carey talking wine

What stands out to me, even though this is a family winery, is the fact that the whole family joins forces during peak periods such as harvest time and goes grape picking together. Lori had recently told me about a very special small plot of Petite Sirah that she has access to. She has a small luxury that few wine makers enjoy; she can assemble the men in her life [her husband Shaike, and 4 sons] and go out to pick the grapes that they want on the very same day that she feels that they are at their best. Other wineries in Israel have to wait for the cavalry to show up and help along.

Zafririm Winery has been making Old World wine since 2002, and currently produces 4,000 bottles a year. Although I realize that the wine is not getting enough attention, Lori has been dealing with a good problem to have. The wine is selling out, twisting her arm to decide on a date to release the younger vintages. All the wines currently released into the market are 2009 and 2010, anything older is sold out.

From the current selection that is available for sale, my favorite is the 2010 Lavnin. A blend of 40% Syrah, 33% Cabernet Sauvignon and 27% Petite Sirah, aged 15 months in American and French oak barrels. This is a wine that is soft and elegant, a terrific effort in my humble opinion.