Tastings: Holy land wines for the holidays

The origins of wine go back 7,000 years to Mesopotamia. For thousands of years, wine has been deeply embedded in the culture and the religion of our ancestors. It always has played a major role in the rites of both the Jewish and the Christian faiths. As we approach Passover and Easter, my wine thoughts head to the Holy Land where both religions were born.

For Jews, ritual wine must be kosher. Until the end of the 19th century, that meant a sweet wine made from table grapes. The wine used in Christian religious ceremonies also is normally sweet.

With waves of Jewish immigration from Europe into Palestine from 1879 to 1904, there was a substantial growth in agricultural settlements, including vineyards, at the same time that the demand for European-style wines arose. Baron Edmund de Rothschild, owner of Chateau Lafite in Bordeaux, financed the planting of vitis vinefera vineyards and sent teams of experts from Bordeaux to advise the new wineries on making fine wine. His vision was to make the Holy Land the source of kosher wines for Jews everywhere while sustaining the local settlers with a viable industry. With the intervention of phylloxera, the vineyards suffered and it was only in 1960 that producers successfully reintroduced the baron's Bordeaux and Rhone varieties.

The modern wine era began in 1982 when the first grapes in the Golan Heights were harvested and set off what became a wine revolution in the 1990s. With greater emphasis on vineyard management, New World winemaking technology and uncompromising standards of excellence, Israeli wines began to attract attention as world-class.

In the past 25 years, Israeli wine production has followed the California model of expansion. Presently there are 285 wineries producing 36 million bottles of table wine from 12,350 acres of grapes. Of these, 250 are boutique wineries that produce 100,000 bottles or less. Israeli wines are exported throughout the world with almost half coming to the United States. (Kosher wines also are made in the U.S., France, Spain and most every other wine-producing region.)

That Israeli wines can sit proudly among the finest of world wines is not news. I have been shouting for years that kosher wine no longer means sweet and syrupy. When made from vinifera grapes by wineries respecting the modern techniques, it is virtually indistinguishable from quality wines from other regions. After all, it is coming from the Mediterranean, legendary home to great wines.

Last week at my annual kosher wine tasting at Pinskers Judaica in Squirrel Hill, I was reminded again just how good Israeli wines can be. Since I began tasting at Pinskers about 8 years ago, the wine selection has increased 100-fold. What was a small metal rack displaying about 40 wines is now an inventory of 400 labels on shelves spread over three rooms and multiple storage spaces.

Barkan Classic Chardonnay, 2011, $9

This crisp, well-balanced Chardonnay from the Samson region in central Israel displays pleasant apple and pear on the nose and good acidity and length in the mouth. There is no oak and no malolactic fermentation. Barkan is the second largest producer in the country, turning out 6.5 million bottles.

Shiloh Chardonnay, 2011, $18.95

From vineyards east of Tel Aviv in Shomron region, this medium-weight chardonnay has a powerful nose of green apple and citrus and wet rocks. It spent 11 months in new French oak giving it a nice mouthfeel and good length. Shiloh is a boutique winery owned by an attorney from Mexico who married a woman from Queens, giving it truly international roots!

Barkan Classic Negev Pinot Noir, 2011, $10

The grapes are grown on limestone, clay and sand in the Negev desert, where nighttime temperatures get quite low. The wine smells of red berries and mint with hints of minerals. It is lightweight and fruity with soft tannins.

Binyamina Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, 2010, $20

From the northern reaches of Israel, this cabernet has a delicious nose of cassis, raisins, coffee, caramel and vanilla. Wonderful mouth weight and velvety texture add to its appeal. It spent 18 months in French oak.

Tulip Just Merlot, 2011, Judean Hills, $25.99

This winery is in a kibbutz where people with disabilities and special needs can develop and realize their potential and the winery gives these residents an opportunity to be part of the wine industry. The "Just" label is a single vineyard wine, 100 percent Merlot, which spends eight months in French oak. It has wonderful blackberry and dark cherry fruit combined with mocha and soft tannins.

Carmel Winery Cabernet Franc, 2009, Galilee, $22.69

This wine is not only kosher but also certified vegan. A typical cab franc nose with wild berries layered with earth, briars, tobacco and herbs, it has beautiful structure and good length.

Bazelat HaGolan Cabernet Sauvignon, 2010, Galilee, $35

Grapes planted on basalt soil at 1,500 feet elevation produce this massive cab with 15.1 percent alcohol. With explosive red berries and herb aromas, the rich structure of this wine makes a totally positive and unforgettable impression. It spent eight months in French and American oak.

Domaine du Castel Grand Cru, 2009, Haute Judee, $61.99

Called Grand Cru for a reason, this is a blend of 70 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 25 percent Merlot and 5 percent Petit Verdot grown on densely planted hills that produce extremely low yields. With aromas of black cherry and cassis backed by forest and cigar-box spice, this is as close as one can get to a grand cru Bordeaux wine. Alcohol is 14.5 percent and the wine ages for 24 months in new French oak.

Domaine du Castel Blanc du Castel Chardonnay, 2009, $44.95

A delicious mouthful of melon, figs and white flowers. Lovely weight in mouth and great texture with the proper balance of acidity. Aged for 12 months in French barrels, half new and half one year old.

With such a rich variety of choices in top-quality wine, I suggest that everyone make this a year to serve Holy Land wine for not only Passover but also for Easter celebrations.

The PLCB wine shops of course carry kosher wines. Kosher from Israel is only sold in premium shops, however, and the selection is modest. Kosher wine in most stores is from American producers. Pinskers carries one of the state's largest selections of Israeli kosher wine.

Where to buy

• Pinskers Judaica, 2028 Murray Ave., Squirrel Hill (15217), 412-421-3033.

Pinskers offers a 10-percent case discount, valid on mixed cases.

• Michael Greathouse, Kosher Wine Purveyor, 2125 Murray Ave., Squirrel Hill (15217), 412-225-9990. Israeli wine shop.

Elizabeth Downer: elizabethdowner@gmail.com.


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