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.

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.

Saturday night of Hol H’Moed Sukkoth I was challenged for a Kosher Winery Tour for 8 VIP in three days (Tuesday the fifth day of Hol H’Moed.)
Considering myself professional, I called 3 great wineries and booked a very special visit. At one winery I booked the VIP room and asked to have it set up for us including plates of cheeses, bread and olive oil. At the second winery I set up a privet appointment with the wine maker and asked him to lead the tour in the winery. I also called a kosher restaurant, made sure it has a Sukka and made reservation for a Kosher lunch.
On Tuesday morning I meet the minibus driver at the King David Hotel lobby and together we waited for the guests to show up. A bit later then agreed the group showed up. The gentleman who called me for the challenge approached me and asked “are the wineries we are going too all have a Sukka?” I froze, “no” I answered. I didn’t know that in order to visit a winery and just taste its wine we will need a Sukka, I answered. I knew from previous Kosher wine tours during Sukkot that the Sukka is necessary just for the actual meal! “Forget it then“, said my client. “Find us a good kosher winery that has a Sukka.” As everyone started to clime the minibus I was going over my contact book to stand up for the new challenge and fine that “good winery with a Sukka”… lucky enough I got it! I called Psagot Winery and got a hold of Ms. Naama Berg, owner and wife of Yaakov Berg the winemaker. Naama was super understanding and eager to help me. Alon, she said “although we have about 250 people visiting the winery today, Yaakov will accept you for a VIP tour! Thank God I thought and instructed Gady the driver to head toward the Psagot Settlement. I had forty minutes (the length of the drive to Psagot) to talk about the history of winemaking in Israel and the counties excellent Terroir (growing conditions especially for grapevine.)
The boutique and Kosher Winery of Psagot is located at a height of 900 meter above sea level at the Psagot Settlement some twenty five kilometer north of Jerusalem. The meaning of the word Psagot is “Tops of mountains”. The Berg family started the winery in the year 2003 with a production of 2000 bottles. The original idea was to produce wine for personal consumption; however the demand for their wines was so strong that the winery doubled its production every year. This year Psagot winery will produce some 80,000 bottles. The winery produces 6 different dry red wines (Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Edom Blend and Shiraz.) One dry white (Viognier) and a Port style. All of the wineries’ grapes grow at the Jerusalem Mountains on a lime stone, Terra Rosa soil at heights of 650 to 960 meter.
We got to the winery Parking lot and found Yaakov waiting for us. Instead of taking the regular pass to the entrance of the winery’s visitor center Yaakov opened the door that he uses to bring the grapes in to the winery and he led us to the production area. Yaakov took the time and explained us the wine making process from the minute the grapes arrive to the winery up to the packing the bottles. We were very lucky to be the only visitors allowed to enter the production area! We even got to taste two tank samples (one of them was Merlot from BRAHA Mountain.) Next we crossed to the huge cellar that contains more than 300 oak barrels. The beautiful and aromatic cellar has a see-through ceiling which is the floor of the winery’s visitor center. At the cellar we got two barrel tastings from two different wines. Following the touring part of the winery we made our way up to the beautiful and big! Sukka for some real wine tasting! The group had a six different wines guided tasting with Yaakov. We started with the “Viognier 09” which was very nice refreshing wine and was just what you can dream of in the very hot day that we had. Next was the Cabernet Franc which had an amazing vanilla finish. “Edom” a very well balanced blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot. We then tasted the Shiraz 08, the Cabernet Sauvignon single vineyard 07 and the Prat (a port style wine). We ended our tasting with some good coffee and cakes.
The group bought several cases of wine before heading back happily to the hotel.

Ya'akov at his Psagot Winery

Dr. Harold Caballeros is the Rector of Universidad San Pablo Guatemala and his daughter Andrea studies at the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) in Hertzelia. After spending few days on a business conference in Tel-Aviv, Harold decided to stay in Israel two more days and spend some time with his daughter. A fantastic way to do that is by touring the country and tasting some of the great wines it has to offer.

We left Tel Aviv in the morning and drove north about an hour toward Kiryat-Tiv’on. While driving we talked about Israeli boutique wineries – a recent phenomenon that has grown immensely in recent years. The two admired the changing view as we left the Coastal Region and entered the region of Lower Galilee. Our first stop was at the Tulip Winery one of the most interesting and award winning wineries in Israel.
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