Part I of IV
It’s somewhat shocking to consider that a country the size of New Jersey has such wide variety in its winemaking terroir (the soil, topography and climate in which grapes are grown) that it has at least four distinct regions. Israel actually has five official, legally defined wine region appellations: Galilee, Judean Hills, Samson, Desert and Shomron. We are dividing our article slightly differently because the broadest swath of interesting kosher vineyards in Israel is concentrated in the Galilee, Shomron and Judean Hills regions.
With thanks to Tzvi Silver of our Jewish Link/Israel offices, we will discuss the regions as north (comprising the Golan Heights and the Upper Galilee), "east" (comprising Gush Dan, Samson, the coastal and Judean Plains), west (comprising the Jerusalem area, Judea & Samaria/Shomron) and south (the desert/Negev region).
Israel’s broad variety in terroir is likely one of the reasons why the winemaking world generally has not yet characterized with any certainty the unique nature of the “typical Israeli wine.” While a typical wine likely doesn’t entirely exist, in this series we are looking at both classic and new wines that have characteristics that have already or may yet become defining wines for Israel, in both the kosher and the secular world. “The fact that kosher wines from the Shomron’s Tishbi Winery, for example, are now on menus in restaurants and hotels as ‘a wine from Israel,’ and is not specifically listed on menus as kosher, is a sign of a growing trend for importers to market good-quality, high-end wines from Israel to the general population, rather than only to kosher-keeping consumers,” said Ami Nahari, CEO of The River Wine. This represents an important step in the growth of Israel as a winemaking region, he told The Jewish Link.
For this part one of four planned articles, my tasting group sampled both a white and a red from three vineyards in the north of Israel, with wines coming from the Golan Heights and the Northern Galilee. Notably, these are wines from the most temperate/coldest region of Israel; meaning the grapes experience extreme temperatures between the day and nighttime hours as they grow. Temperatures can reach close to freezing at night and can be very hot in the daytime. This results in wines similar to the Burgundy region in France, and for these reasons, the winemakers tend to riff off of French winemaking rather than California styles to bring out the best in their grapes.
Hayotzer Virtuoso Chardonnay 2016 and Genesis Cabernet Sauvignon 2014
Hayotzer is a brand-new boutique winery formed as a spinoff of Arza, the oldest winery in Israel, founded in 1847, and has been known for more inexpensive sweet wines and juices. The Shor family, the original owners of Arza, are still the owners of Arza and Hayotzer today. Hayotzer has begun exporting wines from its first vintage just this fall, with many wines placed under its aptly named Genesis label. Hayotzer’s French-trained winemaker, Philippe Lichtenstein, was the winemaker for Carmel’s Zichron Ya’akov wine cellars for many years.
The Virtuoso Chardonnay, made with 100 percent chardonnay grapes, has “an extremely cool bottle design,” said Aaron, but the nose was even more impressive. “Clean. Grapefruit on the nose but the citrus wasn’t as strong in the flavor of the wine,” said Brooke. Rather, upon tasting, some spice notes of vanilla and sugar cookie came to light. For that reason, we found it paired well with sweeter foods and would recommend it with lighter fare such as white fish, root vegetables and baked apples. It’s on sale at Wine Country in Bergenfield, as are all the wines in this article, for $19.99.
Hayotzer’s Genesis Cabernet Sauvignon 2014 is an extremely accessible wine. While it’s a rich red with a full nose of red berries, it’s also light in viscosity. My opinion on this wine, and the other Hayotzer reds I tasted this past Yom Tov season, is that Hayotzer is making “red wine drinker’s red wines,” meaning that people who love red wine will love Hayotzer. “There is that typically slight metallic nature and acid with this red,” said Jen. “This wine grew on me,” said Brooke, noting that her first opinion of it changed after the second taste. “Very drinkable,” she added. Wine Country’s sale price for this wine is a great deal at $14.99. I recommend the entire Genesis line as new wines to try along with Thanksgiving dinner.
Matar by Pelter Sauvignon Blanc/Semillon 2016 and Stratus 2014
Matar is the kosher winery spinoff of the non-kosher Pelter winery. Pelter, headed by Tal and Nir Pelter, is based in Tzofit in the Golan Heights. The award-winning non-kosher winery was established in 2005, and Matar, its kosher line, was established in 2012 to make Pelter’s “invigorating and elegant” wines accessible to a wider variety of customers.
The gold-skinned semillon grape is most commonly blended with sauvignon blanc and is classically grown in France’s Burgundy region or in Australia’s Margaret River region. There are very few semillon wines available that are kosher. The Matar Sauvignon Blanc/Semillon is an easy-to-drink crisp wine that “I just want to keep drinking,” said Allyson. “It’s smooth; I like the clean and subtle flavor,” said Shoval. It’s citrus and green melon notes along with its light green color makes the wine inviting and contributes to its overall pleasant and easy quaffability. Wine Country’s sale price for this wine is $29.99.
The Matar Stratus 2014, which is 90 percent syrah and 10 percent petit verdot, has a smooth, plummy nose with flavors of cocoa, red cherries and fall spices, like cloves and nutmeg. “It’s a dry red wine, which I don’t generally like, and I not only drank this but enjoyed it,” said Aaron. It has multiple layers of full-bodied flavor, which is attributed to the grapes coming from multiple low-yield vineyards in Ramot Naftali in the Upper Galilee. This was was aged 14 months in new French oak. Like the white we tried, it is also on sale for $29.99 at Wine Country.
Yarden Katzrin Chardonnay 2014 and Golan Heights Cabernet Sauvignon 2014
Yarden and Golan Heights Winery are among the most recognizable brands of Israeli wine, mainly because the Golan Heights Winery has a beautiful tasting room and touring facilities, which are part of many visitor itineraries on their first visit to Israel.
Yarden’s Katzrin line of high-end, sophisticated wines are known for their complexity and drinkability. The Katzrin Chardonnay, which retails for $28.99, did not disappoint. “This wine has a thicker viscosity than all the whites we tried,” said Brooke. Shoval noted the wine’s significantly darker color than the other whites in our tasting as well. The golden color of the wine is the result of nine months of aging in French oak, which results in smooth flavors of spice, vanilla and apple. This is a special-occasion wine that is sure to impress; it will certainly enable all kinds of wine drinkers to enjoy it. “I can’t imagine anyone not liking this,” said Allyson. Though kosher whites tend to not age well, this 2014 wine is tasting beautifully now and can also be cellared and saved for at least three to five more years.
The Golan Heights Cabernet Sauvignon was similar to the Katzrin in that it was balanced and smooth, with beautiful viscosity, and was easy to drink. “There are not-too-strong tannins here; the tiny bit of acid hits the back of the throat in a good way,” said Allyson. “This wine balanced; it isn’t too sweet or too dry,” said Jen. Brooke noted its rich flavor would go well with main courses, but also with desserts including berries or chocolate, as both of those deep flavors were present in the nose. The sale price is $24.99.
By Elizabeth Kratz
Special thanks to Wine Country for curating the selection of wines for this article. All the wines mentioned are on sale for the next week at Wine Country in Bergenfield, 89 New Bridge Road. Contact 201-385-0106.