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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?

Few World Class Wines, Kosher Too

April 22, 2016 Leave a comment

Yarden Blanc de Blancs in the glassWhat is world class wine, you ask? Well, this question has multiple answers – there is a good chance that every responder will give you a different answer. Heck, I will give you different answer every time you will ask this question. So for today, how about this one: in a blind tasting, world-class wine can be easily mistaken for a wine coming from the well established and world famous wine region. For instance, a sparkling wine which tastes like Champagne. Or Chardonnay which resembles classic white Burgundy. Or a Rosé which tastes like… you know, how about just “delicious”?

How often do you drink Israeli wines? Hmmm, that would actually make it for an interesting “unknown wine regions” survey – note to self. Okay, back to the question, what do you say? I would bet that 9 out of 10 people never had an Israeli wine, and 9.5 out of 10 didn’t even know that Israel produces wine. Which is a shame, as even modern winemaking history (never mind the biblical times) in Israel goes back to 1880s. But of course with ups and downs, Israeli “wines of notice” started to appear in the late 1980s.

Today Israel has more than 250 wineries (depends on who counts, I guess), which includes both large commercial wineries and garage-level productions; israel even sports some “cult wines” – the wines which lots of people want, but can’t get (do the search for the wines produced by Lewinsohn, for instance). About 25% of the Israeli wines are exported, out of which amount about 60% go to the United States, and the rest to Europe and Asia. Most (but not all) wines produced in Israel are kosher – which, by the way, doesn’t take away from the quality of the wines even the tiniest bit – scratch that Manischewitz image and taste from your head, once and for all. While in general Israel might have a very long wine history, the vineyards were never continuously preserved – as the result, absolute majority of the grapes grown in Israel are of international varieties (Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Merlot, Syrah, Grenache, etc.), with Emerald Riesling being one of the rare exceptions. Otherwise, Israel produces full range of wines, from Sparkling, Rosé and whites to the Bordeaux and GSM blends and single varietal masterpieces.

Golan Heights Winery was founded in 1983, and the first wine was released in 1984 (well, they vineyards were planted in 1976, so it all makes sense); it might be considered a foundation of renaissance of Israeli wine industry. Today the Golan Heights Winery farms 600 hectares (1500 acres) of vines, which subsequently consist of 28 vineyards and 400 unique parcels within those vineyards. Vineyards are spanning for about 65 km (40 miles), and elevations are ranging from 400 meters (about 1300 feet) to 1200 meters (about 3900 feet). The fruit from each parcel is tended to individually, as you can imagine that growing conditions would be different in such a stretch of the land and with such a difference in altitude. Of course you can imagine that winery makes quite a range of wines.

I had an opportunity to taste a three wines from the Golan Heights Winery and its sister winery called Galil Mountain, which impressed me enough to come up with this “world-class” title for the post. Don’t get me wrong – I had absolutely mind-blowing Israeli wines before, but somehow this Blanc de Blancs put the experience for me to the next level. Here are the notes:

2008 Yarden Blanc de Blancs Brut Sparkling White Wine Golan Heights Israel (12% ABV, SRP $32, 100% Chardonnay, 5 years on the lees, kosher, non-mevushal)
C: pale straw
N: Classic sparkling wine – touch of yeast, hint of Apple, touch of fresh baked bread
P: creamy mouthfeel, fresh acidity, hint of yeast, fresh lemon, fine mousse, perfect balance
V: 8/8+, outstanding, world class sparkler

2014 Yarden Galilee Chardonnay Odem Vineyard Golan Heights Israel (13.9% ABV, SRP $22, 100% Chardonnay, 7 month barrel aging, kosher, non-mevushal)
C: light golden
N: white stone fruit, hay, touch of lemon, candied fruit as wine was warming up
P: plump, full body, vanilla, creamy round mouthfeel, touch of butter, good acidity, fresh.
V: 8-/8, full bodied without heavy butter or oak, more reminiscent of Marsanne/Roussane. What I loved about the wine that it stayed perfectly delicious at the room temperature, which is not an easy fit for many white wines.

2014 Galil Mountain Rosé Upper Galilee, Israel (12.5% ABV, SRP $12, 74% Sangiovese, 23% Pinot Noir, 3% Grnache, kosher, non-mevushal)
C: beautiful, concentrated pink
N: strawberries, minerality, very promising, touch of lemon
P: fresh strawberries, herbs, clean balancing acidity, soft, medium body, very round.
V: 8-, an excellent summer day (or all year around) treat, very easy to drink

Have you had Israeli wines? What do you think of them? Cheers!

Tishbi Winery Experience – Wine, And Lots More

February 12, 2012 Leave a comment

Continuing the “Israeli Experiences” series, I want to talk about a great experience at Tishbi Winery.

While the Tishbi family had been in the “grapes business” since 1882, the actual Tishbi Winery was founded in 1984 in the foothills of Carmel mountain in the area called Zichron Yaacov. in addition to the vineyards in the Zichron Yaacov area, Tishbi also owns vineyards in the North and South areas of Israel.

First, we had to walk around the Visitors Center (which is brand new and modern looking), as there was a huge group (about 100 people we were told) participating in the tasting. Very nice modern facility, spacious and airy. Of course, the first thing we saw was wine:

Riesling (as you can see, it is called “French Riesling” to distinguish from Emerald Riesling which is another Riesling variety growing only in Israel):

Sauvignon Blanc:

Jonathan Tishbi Special Reserve ( this wine is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc and it comes from Sde Boker vineyard located in Negev Desert):

Barbera/ Zinfandel (!) Port (very interesting to see Zinfandel grape somewhere outside of the US):

The next thing we noticed after all the wines was … chocolate! Not just random chocolate bar as a condiment – the shelves full of Valrhona Chocolate. It appears that Tishbi recently became one of the biggest distributors of the Valrhona chocolate in Israel. As part of the tasting, you can experience a special pairing of various “single cru” Valrhona chocolates with Tishbi’s wines.

Finally, we managed to escape the Visitors Center and found out that we can have a tasting in the cafe next door, which we did. Here are some of the note for the wines we tasted:

We started with 2011 Tishbi Gewurztraminer, which was very nice, clean and simple, without strong bite which Gewurztraminer often has. 2008 Tishbi Special Reserve Chardonnay had a good body, good white fruit expression with a hint of vanilla, but it was a bit too sweet to my taste.

Those were the only white wines we tried, and then we switched to red. The first red was very surprising to me – 2011 Tishbi Cabernet Syrah. What is so surprising in the Cabernet? Well, note the year – it is last year’s harvest, and this Cabernet Sauvignon didn’t spend any time in the oak barrel! Moreover, it was poured from the stainless steel tank, which was located right there in the cafe. You can bring your own bottle and get it filled with this Cabernet Syrah blend for about $5 – this is the real deal, move over two buck chuck. I also would like to note that this was a very good wine – clean, with good fruit expression and perfect acidity. After that we tried a number of Tishbi Estate wines from 2007 vintage. 2007 Tishbi Estate Cabernet Sauvignon had a beautiful classic nose, but was a bit too sweet on the palate. As an added bonus I need to mention that it had Ruby Cabernet grape as part of the blend – which is a new grape for my grapes count, so I’m advancing to 361 now. 2007 Tishbi Estate Merlot was simply perfect – a great balance of all the components. 2007 Tishbi Estate Syrah was also very good, with pepper notes on the palate, full body, good concentration of tannins. 2007 Tishbi Estate Petite Sirah had good dense fruit and full body, coupled with the perfect acidity.

Last but not least we tried 2006 Tishbi Barbera Zinfandel Port wine. This wine spends a year and a half in the oak barrels before it is released. The wine was excellent, with good fruit and perfect balance, not overly sweet – and it also paired very nicely with the Valrhona chocolate (which is somewhat expected from the port). By the way, below you can see the process of pouring of that 2011 Cabernet Syrah:

At this point we took a little break, and had the nearly perfect cup of cappuccino:

When we went back to the Visitors Center, we noticed something we overlooked before – a full distillery! Located right there in the Visitors Center, there is a still pot which is used to produce Tishbi Brandy:

And here is an illustration which explains the distillation process:

Here is the end result of the distillation – Tishbi 16 years old Brandy:

We were lucky, as we were also able to try that 16 years old brandy (typically you can try it only if you buy a bottle – considering that it costs about $450 for the bottle, you can imagine that I wouldn’t be trying that Brandy otherwise). I can’t help but to comment that I think the price is a bit high (okay, way too high).

tishbi_brandy_glass.jpg

All in all, we had a great time at Tishbi – if you are visiting Israel, it is well worth a trip. Otherwise, you can find Tishbi wines in the stores in the US, and I would definitely recommend them. That concludes my report, folks – cheers!

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