Tastings: Do not pass over Israeli wines

TEL AVIV, Israel -- I have been tasting kosher wines each spring for the past eight years to give Pittsburgh consumers a report on the wines available in our area for the Passover holiday. It was clear from the beginning that what has happened in Israel in the past decade is one of the most impressive quality revolutions in the wine world. The addition of Europe- and California-trained winemakers and the planting of vineyards in cool, high-altitude regions has brought a new focus on quality that didn't exist 20 years ago.

This year the Israeli government invited me to Tel Aviv to tour 17 wineries in five days. This whirlwind visit gave me an opportunity to get a close-up look at the vines and the soil, to meet winemakers, visit cellars and to come home with a vastly clearer picture of how Israel has become a star on the international wine front.

For 12 hours each day, I was driven to wineries in the Judean Hills, where I tasted with the winemakers and heard them speak about the techniques they use to coax the best results. How long in oak? Cold soak or no? Blends or single varietals? Each wine had a story and one only learns such details when sitting across from the person who makes the wine.

Of course, there were personal stories, too. One that especially touched me was that of Orna Chillag, who worked with Itzak Rabin when he was prime minister and was with him on Nov. 4, 1995, at the King of Israel Square in Tel Aviv when he was assassinated. That experience changed her perspective on life. She felt a need to be connected to the earth and so she left her world of academia, government and politics and traveled to Italy to study enology, then interned at an Antinori winery in Tuscany. When she returned to Israel, she built Chillag Winery, where she makes primarily reds with a strong European character from Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Merlot grapes. Some are aged for as long as 30 months in oak and 14 months in bottle before release. Unfortunately, her wines are not found in Pittsburgh but merit searching for outside Pennsylvania (try the Primo Shiraz 2008).

At Domaine du Castel I met Eli Ben Zaken, the founder and winemaker. He was born in Alexandria and educated in England and Switzerland. Before founding the winery in 1983 on 13 acres in a cooperative village (called a moshav), he worked in agriculture and later had an Italian restaurant in Jerusalem. The winery is a family affair with two sons and a daughter active in the business. He makes only three wines: Grand Vin, a Bordeaux blend; Petit Castel, red blend; and C Blanc du Castel, 100 percent Chardonnay made in the traditional white Burgundy fashion. Domaine du Castel wines win major awards and impressed me greatly. The C Blanc du Castel was my favorite Chardonnay tasted in Israel.

Professor Ben Ami Bravdo was another interesting wine personality I encountered in Tel Aviv. The Ph.D. is Israel's answer to Bordeaux's Emile Peynaud (now deceased). As a longtime professor of enology and viticulture at Hebrew University of Jerusalem, he has taught generations of his country's leading winemakers. Dr. Bravdo also has served as visiting professor at University of California at Davis, Washington State University, University of Georgia and Queens University in Canada. He has written numerous papers on how irrigation and climate can influence flavor evolutions in wine grapes and how to optimize grape aromas. His passion is the biochemistry of grape and wine flavor evolution. He was an early researcher for and supporter of drip irrigation for a multitude of applications, among them New-World wineries. Awarded the title of professor emeritus in 2001, this wine sage now is putting his theories to the test with a former student at his own winery. Spending an hour with him and tasting his wines together was a treat.

The state stores stock mostly wines from Israel's large wineries. But kosher-wine consumers in Pittsburgh are fortunate to have a great selection of top boutique wines available through a religious store -- Pinsker's Judaica Center in Squirrel Hill:

Ella Valley Vinyards Sauvignon Blanc, 2012, $21.99

This estate winery is in the heartland of biblical Judea and there are biblical references to the area as a wine-production region. The winemaker studied in Burgundy and apprenticed at Domaine Jacques Prieur in Meursault. The Sauvignon Blanc is made from 90 percent Sauvignon and 10 percent Semillon hand-harvested grapes, non-oaked. The aromas are of peach and citrus layered over green grass. Lovely acidity contributes to a fresh and long finish.

Barkan Assemblage Reichan, 2010, Galilee, $19.99

This high-tech winery with ultra-modern production facility has an extensive visitor center modeled on Napa Valley wineries, with films presented in a comfortable auditorium and a kilometer-long elevated walkway from which to observe the various stages of wine production and view 750 acres of vineyards planted in multiple varieties. The Reichan Assemblage is 67 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 20 percent Merlot and 13 percent Syrah and won an Editor's Choice designation in Wine Enthusiast. The grapes were grown on basalt soil at a cool 2,000 feet and the wine is aged for 12 months in oak. The aromas are of red and black fruits, mint, mocha and spice. Benefits from decanting before serving.

Castel Grand Vin, 2010, $59.99, Judean Hills

A Bordeaux blend of 70 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 25 percent Merlot and 5 percent Petit Verdot from vineyards at 2,400 feet and aged for 24 months in new French oak. It is full-bodied, bold and concentrated with dark fruits, spice and cedar on the palate. It is one of the iconic reds of Israel.

Castel C Blanc du Castel, 2010, $39.99, Judean Hills

100 percent Chardonnay grown at 2400 feet, hand-harvested and barrel-fermented. The wide spread between daytime and nocturnal temperatures allows a longer hang time for the grapes and thus fuller complexity in the wine. Aged for 12 months on its lees in French oak. This is an elegant Burgundian-style Chardonnay with aromas of citrus, toasted bread and figs. This may be Israel's greatest white.

Flam Reserve Merlot, 2010, $54.99, Upper Galilee

Flam was established in 1998 and is a family winery run today by two brothers. Golan, the winemaker, studied enology in Italy and worked in Italy and Australia. Gilad, a lawyer, manages the business side. This wine is 85 pecent Merlot, 10 percent Cabernet Sauvignon and 5 percent Cabernet Franc. It's aged for 14 months in French oak and spends a further 10 months in bottle before release producing a wine with a rich nose of red fruits and spice box and a mouthful of smooth tannins.

Karmei Yosef Bravdo Coupage, 2010, $34.99

Made by the illustrious Professor Bravdo using his own viticultural concepts of shading the grapes by their own leaves and using irrigation to influence grape flavors. This bottle is 40 percent Cabernet Franc, 33 percent Shiraz and 27 percent Cabernet Sauvignon -- an unusual combination. It spent 12 months in new oak. This is a fruit-forward wine with aromas of red and black berries, currants and bitter chocolate. The tannins produce a velvety, long finish.

Shiloh Secret Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, 2011, $34.99, Judean Hills

Shiloh Winery was founded in 2005 but the Shiloh area was known as a top-producing region in Biblical times. There are a number of 6,000-year-old grape presses that have been unearthed there. Cool nights allow the grapes a longer growing season, which results in more complexity. The Secret Reserve label is its top-of-the-line bottle, which is aged for 18 months in French oak. Made from 100 percent hand-harvested Cabernet Sauvignon, this wine is intense, dark and mysterious. On the nose: ripe plums, coffee and tobacco. In the mouth: dark berries and cassis with hints of white pepper and spices, eucalyptus and espresso. Lovely balance and finish.

Gvaot Herodion Vineyard Dance, 2011, $35.99, Shamron

Another boutique winery founded in 2005 producing 20,000 bottles a year. Grown at 2,400 feet in the Shiloh Basin, the grapes in this wine -- 45 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 30 percent Petit Verdot and 25 percent Merlot, all fermented separately -- are a classic Bordeaux blend. It spends 12 months in a combo of American and French oak. The nose is full of blackberry and raspberry stirred with coffee and toast. In the mouth are the same fruits plus plum and cherry. The finish is long and sweet with dates, spice, chocolate and vanilla.

Recanati Special Reserve Wild Carignan, $59.99, Judean Hills

Recanati is mid-large winery with a UC-Davis-trained winemaker that is considered a "safe bet," meaning that while every bottle may not be your absolute favorite wine, you'll always get good value. This wine is made from dry-farmed fruit from 30-year-old vines. Although Cabernet Sauvignon is the most widely planted grape in the country, Carignan actually beats it on tonnage harvested. The spiritual home of this grape is Spain but it is widely planted in France's Rhone Valley and was brought to Israel in the 19th century. This is an intense wine bursting with red fruit and spicy oak with waves of licorice, black pepper and tobacco.

Binyamina Reserve Chardonnay, Oaked, 2012, $18.99, Galilee

Binyamina is the fourth-largest winery in the country, making 3 million bottles annually from grapes from vineyards spread from the Jerusalem Hills to the Golan Heights. It bottles wines from 23 grape varieties under five labels: The Chosen, Binyamina Reserve, Yogev, BIN and Teva. This Reserve Chardonnay has appealing aromas of peach, lime, tangerine and pear with a strong mineral backbone and a long finish.

Tulip White, 2012, $24.99, Upper Galilee

Tulip Winery was founded in 2003 by the Itzhaki family. They produce 85,000 bottles in Kfar Tikva (Village of Hope), a kibbutz for people with disabilities and special needs This white wine is 70 percent Gewurztraminer and 30 percent Sauvignon Blanc, an unusual blend that results in a lively wine with flavors of guava, grapefruit and lychee.

These are a few of the new generation of boutique kosher wines you now can find in Pittsburgh. They will make a welcome addition to your Passover Seder.


Elizabeth Downer: elizabethdowner@gmail.com.


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