Part III of IV
The wines my group enjoyed in this tasting all were from wineries that the average kosher wine consumer has heard of, even if he or she doesn’t know them well. Domaine du Castel, Flam, Psagot and Dalton are all “household names” that are part of Israel’s high-end, powerhouse wineries, the ones who make wines that are impressive in practically every situation. The wines we tasted would universally make great gifts, and we would encourage you to try both the ones we tasted, and other blends and varietals that strike your fancy from these wineries. We also thank Wine Country for providing these wines for our tasting and for placing them on sale at such deep discounts for the coming week so our readers will have an extra inducement to try them out.
This is our third of four tastings on Israeli wine regions, and the second half of our tasting on central Israel, focusing on bottles from the Judean Hills or Shimson (Samson), where many of the country’s most artistic, artisanal and successful wineries are located. Just to review once again, Israel has five legally defined regional appellations: Galilee, Judean Hills, Shomron, Shimshon (Samson) and Negev, but central Israel, that is the Judean Hills and Shomron, are really where a lot of the action is. It was a pleasure to try all these wines and to bring some of their stories to our readers.
Generally made from grapes grown on exalted ground just outside of Jerusalem, these wines in particular seem to celebrate the land and the promise of Israel, creating true joy in what the land produces. “We should celebrate what this land produces at every simcha, at every Shabbos table. I personally look to buy Israeli wines for my Shabbos table, where the laws of shmitah and yovel were adhered to, and terumah and maaser. You can’t get that with a California or French wine,” said Ari.
Domaine du Castel just celebrated its 25th anniversary; it was my pleasure to be at a tasting dinner in Manhattan this past November that celebrated Castel’s amazing rags-to-riches story and its wonderful French-style, award-winning wines that are known the world over. Founder, owner and head winemaker Eli Ben-Zaken, an entirely self-taught vintner, was there as well as his children Ilana, Ariel and Eitan, who all work with their father. The Ben-Zakens have built Castel into a world-class winery, bringing Israel to a greater standard worldwide. Their wines are regularly scaled by Wine Advocate and have been sold and written about by Sotheby’s; Daniel Rogov, z”l; Robert Parker; and every other wine critic of note.
While most of Domaine du Castel’s wines are meant to be aged and can even be considered investment purchases, Castel’s La Vie line of red and white blends seeks to bring a young, more entry-level wine to the kosher world. For me, the La Vie wines were accessible in a way many of the other Castels are not, mainly because of the price. I generally like to buy wines that cost under $25 and think the lovely Petit Castel ($50) or a Domaine du Castel Grand Vin ($89) is just too rich for an average Shabbat purchase. However, the name Castel means something, so La Vie presents an opportunity for someone like me to purchase a impressive, aspirational wine from a well-known vineyard, in my price range. Meant for drinking now, La Vie Blanc du Castel, ($17.97 at Wine Country) is 50 percent sauvignon blanc, 45 percent chardonnay and 5 percent gewurtztraminer. “It’s fresh; bracing and bold, with no acid,” said Chana. “There is a bit of sweetness and soft roundness. It would be good with a nice piece of fish,” she said. “It’s chardonnay-heavy, and that gives a lot of steely sweetness. I’m not used to unoaked whites like this. It makes the wine fruitier,” said Allyson.
The La Vie Rouge du Castel ($17.97 at Wine Country) is a classic young red blend, 50 percent cabernet sauvignon, 40 percent merlot, 5 percent syrah and 5 percent petit verdot. “Smooth, but surprisingly light,” said Aron. “This is a bordeaux for beginners,” said Chana. “This wine is not meant to be saved; it’s meant to be drunk now,” said Yeruchum.
Flam, similarly to Castel, is a winery based in the Judean Hills that is well-known for making home-run wines of international importance. We tasted the Flam Reserve Syrah 2014, even though we later found out that these grapes came from the Galil, in the north. However, we couldn’t throw this special wine out of our tasting, for any reason. “This is a powerful wine; it gets to all your senses. It’s full bodied and balanced,” said Yeruchum. “This is part of the kedushas of Eretz Yisroel,” said Ari. The fruity nose of cherries and cranberries combined with its heft and nice viscosity are clearly why this wine received 90 points in Wine Enthusiast. This a great wine; and 2014 was a great year for Israeli reds. If you love Israeli syrahs, you will love this wine. This wine is $39.97 at Wine Country.
To give a sense of the impressive nature of the next wine we tried, it’s interesting to note the Psagot Winery only opened in 2003, but has been busy winning awards and becoming well known for its craftmanship and artfulness. Because Psagot has become so well known for its reds (and we tried a Psagot merlot in our previous tasting), we tried the Psagot Viognier 2016. Viognier is a white wine grape we’ve gotten to know from our time studying Israel’s wine regions, and we’ve found it’s distinct from other whites like chardonnay or sauvignon blanc and so, so refreshing in so many ways. This wine is made with 100 percent viognier. Half of this wine was aged in new 500-liter French oak wood barrels, and the remaining half was aged in stainless steel tanks, so that the wine’s unique flavor doesn’t get lost in the oak, we assume. “This is so light; so fruity, but not sweet,” said Michal. “No tannins, and the fruit only comes at the end,” said Yeruchum. This wine is available at Wine Country for $18.97.
Last in our tasting was Dalton’s Petite Sirah 2014, from Shimshon. This aged in American oak for 12 months wine just took our breath away, with its nose of crushed red fruits and spice, and round, soft, chewy, pleasing tannins. The color was beautiful; the viscosity and mouthfeel was good overall. “This wine is warming, with notes of blackberry,” said Allyson. “Yum,” said Chana. “This wine is an incredible value and for people who love reds, this is a great one,” said Aron. This wine was also one of our best-value wines, at $14.97.
We look forward to concluding our wine regions series in the next few weeks, wrapping up with wines in the southern half of Israel, including the Negev. Thanks again to Scott Maybaum of Wine Country for curating the tasting. Visit Wine Country at 89 New Bridge Road, in Bergenfield. Call 201-385-0106.
By Elizabeth Kratz