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Beyond Kosher: Thinking of Israeli Wines

October 1, 2020 4 comments

I love pairing wine and holidays. It is always a fun exercise, as you need to find a way to explain your choices – how given wine enhances or at least relates to a given holiday (good luck with your Thanksgiving wine selections). Jewish holidays, which we are still in the middle of (Jewish New Year just arrived less than 2 weeks ago), are very helpful in that regard, as wine is simply a requirement here – most of the Jewish holidays require a glass of wine to be present and consumed.

When it comes to Jewish holidays, my approach is simple – I prefer to have on the table the wines made in Israel. But when I reach out to get an Israeli wine off the shelf, I can’t help it but think about all of the complexities of the Israeli wine landscape – what we are talking here is above and beyond of intricacies of making any fine wine. Making of the delicious wine is anything but complex – how to protect vines from the disease, when to harvest, what yeast to use, for how long to macerate, what to blend – lots and lots of decisions, each one affecting the end result, often dramatically. Production of Israeli wines deals with all of the same complexities but then adds a cherry on top – concepts of kosher and mevushal.

I remember visiting Israel about 15-17 years ago with a group of co-workers from the USA, at the resort on Mount Carmel. One of my colleagues pointed to a bottle of wine saying “this is amazing”. The wine he was pointing to was an Israeli wine, Yatir Forest, which was at a time a total surprise for me – I knew that this guy was really into wine and he was drinking very serious stuff, more of California cults and Bordeaux first growth, so this was unexpectedly high praise. I was absolutely unfamiliar with Yatir wines at that time (it would make me say “ahh, pretty please” now).

When we asked to open that bottle for us, we were surprised to hear that it will not be possible. Explanation? The food at the resort was kosher, and food includes wines. The resort just got a new person in charge of observing all the kosher laws and requirements in food preparation and service, and Yatir Forest was not kosher enough. That, my friends, is a problem which is unique to the Israeli wine scene – I’m not aware of any other winemaking region in the world where making tasty wine is not enough for that wine to reach the consumer, even the local one – this also complicates the imports quite a bit.

I’m not going to pretend to be an authority on the laws of kosher wines – I’m very far from it. I’m just here for the tasty wine. What I do know is that the kosher laws are quite intense and involved, whether it has to do with the food or the wine. While I understand that there is some rationale when it comes to the food, I don’t believe kosher requirements can materially affect the taste of wine. We also need to keep in mind that there are different levels of kosher types and certifications, and to top it all off, there is the Mevushal. In case you are not familiar, mevushal is somewhat of a process of pasteurization of the wine to allow for it to be served by a non-Jewish people at a restaurant or anywhere else. It appears that according to the kosher wine rules if the kosher wine is served by a non-Jew, it becomes non-kosher. Mevushal treatment solves that problem, allowing for the kosher wine to be served by a non-observing person without losing its kosher qualities.

To be labeled as Mevushal, the wine has to be heated up to 185 degrees Fahrenheit, essentially becoming pasteurized. As you understand, the exposure of the wine to such a high temperature result in the “cooked” wine – and very appropriately, in the old days Meviushal wines were simply undrinkable, at least by anyone who drinks the wine to enjoy it (as a matter of fact, the word “mevushal” means “cooked”). Lately, however, the wineries found new ways of making wine Mevushal without destroying it. One is a flash-pasteurization, where the wine is very quickly heated up to the same 185°F only for a few seconds. According to the Wine Spectator article, another method is even more interesting – it is called flash-détente, where instead of the wine, grapes are heated up to 190°F and then quickly cooled to the 80°F in the special machine. It would be an interesting experiment, but many wineries produce the same wine from the same vintage both as mevushal and non-mevushal – comparing such wines should be a fun project, don’t you think?

Now that we have Mevushal figured out, let’s take another look into the world of Kosher wines. Think about your favorite wine store – note, I’m speaking about the USA, your experience in France will be vastly different. As you walk in, you see the tags which help you find what you are looking for. Most likely, these tags are one of two types – either specifying a grape variety (Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir) or the country and maybe a region – France, Italy, Burgundy, Spain, California, etc.. Somewhere in the corner, you will probably find the Kosher section, possibly right next to the Organic display. In that Kosher section, you will find predominantly Israeli wines with some additional bottles from California, France, maybe Australia, and Spain.

I can safely assume that you will be visiting that Kosher section only a few times a year, just around the Jewish holidays – okay, maybe you will make a special trip if you are invited to the Shabbat dinner by the observant family. Should you expect to find Israeli wines anywhere else in the store? Unlike California, France, Australia, and Spain, all of which you will find all around the store in the different varietal sections, Israeli wines will be confined to that specific Kosher section, 99 out of a 100. As Israel truly makes world-class wines, it is definitely a problem, as Israeli wines have a lot to offer. But what if Israeli wine is not Kosher, such as the wines produced by Vortman Winery – what can they do to make themselves found? Who will take a chance on the Israeli wine which can’t be placed in the Kosher section?

About 5 years ago, I had the pleasure of sitting across from Hai Vortman, the owner and winemaker at Vortman Winery. We were sitting in the Vortman winery tasting room, which was adjacent to his home in Haifa, enjoying magnificent views and superb wines. I was listening to Hai talking about the history of winemaking in Israel, particularly around the Carmel Mountain, which is considered one of the very best and oldest winemaking regions in Israel. Depending on the source, winemaking in Israel is from 3,000 to 5,000 years old, but this was not the point of our conversation. I learned that Baron Edmond de Rothschild recognized the viticultural potential of the Carmel Mountain region and founded Carmel Winery there in 1882, investing millions in the development of the vineyards and production of the wine. In 1900, Carmel Winery wine from Richon Le Zion area won the gold medal at the Paris World Fair, competing against classic French Bordeaux.

The first half of the 20th century was a tumultuous period for the Israeli winemaking – it was not until the last quarter of the century that Israeli winemaking started to rebound. Vortman Winery was founded in 2003 in Haifa in the basement of the family house, with the vision of producing organic wines from the grapes growing in the Shfeya Valley region of the Carmel Mountain. The first commercial vintage was in 2007. In 2009, Vortman started planting new vineyards in Shfeya Valley and converting old vineyards to organic viticulture, all based on dry farming, biodiversity, and full respect for the environment. Today, Vortman winery produces around 30,000 bottles a year – of the non-kosher wines.

Vortman wines we tried were delicious. 2014 Vortman Shfeya Valley White, a blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon from 45 years old vineyard, was delicious, showing minerality, white fruit, crisp, clean, creamy, and refreshing, with a long finish. 2014 Vortman Prime Location Red, a blend of Merlot, Carignan, and Cabernet Franc (mostly stainless steel) was nicely restrained, earthy and fruity on the nose with a firm structure and an excellent balance. 2012 Vortman Shambur, a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Carignan, and Merlot (9 months in oak barrels) had a classic Bordeaux nose, great restraint on the palate with a nice core of tannins and great acidity. Nothing extra, nothing unnecessary, just a supremely precise wine.  2013 Vortman Carignan from 50 years old vines (7 months in new French oak) offered a burst of dark cherries on the palate and the nose and a perfect balance. Simply beautiful wines, one after another.

Now, the problem is that unless you plan to travel to Israel, you are out of luck with Vortman wines (hey, if any importers read this – do you want to bring some delicious Israeli non-kosher wines into the US?). Don’t despair, as Israel exports lots of tasty wines.

About 2 years ago, I had a sample of Yarden wines I never wrote about (yeah, I know). Yarden might be one of the best known Israeli wineries in the US, largely thanks to the efforts of the head winemaker Victor Schoenfeld, who is relentlessly promoting Yarden wines. Yarden is one of the brands of Golan Heights Winery, along with Gamla, Hermon, and Golan. Golan Heights winery was founded in 1984, and it is considered as one of the quality wine pioneers in Israel. Here are the notes for the wines I had an opportunity to taste:

2014 Galil Mountain ELA Upper Galilee (14% ABV, 61% Barbera, 30% Syrah, 5% Petit Verdot, 4% Grenache, kosher, non-mevushal)
Dark garnet, almost black
A bit of the stewed fruit on the nose, ripe plums
Clean, fresh on the palate, pepper, plums, baking spices, a touch of savory notes, good acidity, medium-plus body
7+/8-, initially the wine showed a touch of cork taint on the palate, some presence of a wet basement, which disappeared on the second day.

2016 Golan Heights Gilgal Rosé (13.5% ABV, 100% Syrah, kosher, non-mevushal)
Dark intense pink color
Touch of gunflint, oregano on the nose
Ripe spicy raspberries on the palate, more gunflint and granite notes, fresh finish of ripe fruit without been overly sweet, excellent concentration and presence, fuller body than most of Rosé. Delicious.
8, very pleasant

2017 Yarden Sauvignon Blanc Galilee (13.5% ABV, 2 months on French oak barrels, kosher, non-mevushal)
Straw pale color
Whitestone fruit and a touch of candied fruit on the nose, not typical for SB
The palate is restrained, with a hint of freshly cut grass, green apples, and some tropical fruit undertones. Good acidity, a hint of fresh-cut grass on the finish
8-, very good and pleasant rendition of SB

2016 Mount Hermon Indigo Galilee (14% ABV, cabernet sauvignon/Syrah blend, kosher, non-mevushal)
Dark garnet, almost black
Bright, inviting, freshly crushed red fruit, eucalyptus, raspberries, and blueberries on the second day, plus some dry fruit notes – figs
Wow. The first day was a little incoherent, but the second day is simply incredible. Beautiful supple blueberries and raspberries, excellent extraction, tobacco, dark chocolate, clean acidity, soft and round on the palate.
8+, excellent. Just let it breathe.

Before we are done here, I still need to talk about one more Israeli winery – Shiloh. I had been introduced to the Shiloh wines about 3 years ago, at a dinner in New York City. The wine we had, Shiloh Mosaic, was absolutely mind-blowing, it was #14 on my Top Wines list for 2017. Shiloh is the youngest winery out of the 3 we talked about today, founded in 2005. Shiloh vineyards are located in the area of the Shiloh river and Samarian hills. Based on the limited information available on the website, it seems that Shiloh produces wines from Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Malbec, Barbera, Grenache, Syrah, Petitte Sirah, and Petite Verdot grapes – of course, there might be others.

To celebrate Jewish New Year 5781, we opened two bottles of Shiloh wines. 2018 Shiloh PRIVILEGE Winemakes’s Blend (14% ABV, 74% Cabernet Sauvignon, 165 Syrah, 7% Cabernet Franc, 3% Grenache, kosher, mevushal) showed beautifully, offering soft red and black fruit, good minerality, soft tannins, and excellent balance. 2017 Shiloh Secret Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon (15% ABV, 100% Cabernet Sauvignon, 18 months in French oak, kosher, mevushal) was even better – a classic old world, rivaling any classic Medoc wine, full of cassis, eucalyptus, a touch of green bell pepper, silky smooth on the palate and extremely satisfying, a pleasure in the glass – this is the wine you need to experience, better yet, compare it against the best of Bordeaux in a blind tasting. It appears that many of the Shiloh wines are produced in both mevushal and non-mevushal styles – something which really calls for a blind tasting side by side.

Israeli wines are world-class, but they still need to be found by the wine consumer. Will you look for them?

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