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It's less challenging to write about a winery no one has heard of rather than one that comes up as one of the first in any serious conversaton about wines. In Israel, Domaine du Castel is one of those well discussed and written about wineries and at the top of most critics lists for having some of Israel's best world class wines. Now writing about a well written winery does make it easier during initial research on your subject but the tricky part is how to make it fresh and interesting in the final proof for a reader who may have read a previously published article and still engage a novice who remains one of the few and fewer who've yet to become acquainted with the winemaker and his craft.
I was anxiously awaiting my return to Castel as locals call the winery. It had been about a year since I first visited as a producer/interviewer with a TV crew from NTDTV, an international TV network out of New York that broadcasts throughout Asia and North America by sattlelite in English and Chinese mainly to Chinese expatriates (there's 100's of millions as it so happens). We had spent two days filming and hours each day doing interviews so we each had an opprtunity to become very familiar with each other. At that time I had creditials as a journalist and a wine expert but not too much as a wine journalist and the piece we did with each other probably opened up more doors for me than for the winery. Who knows Israeli wineries are selling more and more wines to Far Eastern markets every day.
Since our time together, I started this column for Travelujah.com and have written over 50 articles. Also, I became the regualr wine writer for ESRA magazine (the bi-monthly English Speaking Residents Association magazine for English speakers living in Israel) and I've starting writing and being featured on a weekly 10 minute radio segment on israeli wine on Rustymikeradio.com which at the time of this writing I've recorded and aired 18 episodes available as podcasts. I say this as a matter of disclosure to thank them for helping me open up doors in the Israeli wine trade and also to display my affection for the folks at the winery as much as I have for their wines.
Back to Castel, after all, this is an article more about them and their wines and less about me (except for my observations that is). The Castel Winery only releases three wines for sale to the public every year. From just three labels they produce about 100,000 bottles a year. The three wines are their Grand Vin, Petite Castel and "C." The C is their Chardonnay recognized not only as one of Israel's best Chardonnays but as one of it's best white wines. That's quite an accomplishment from a winery at 33 degrees latitude since at this latitude most quality wine that will emerge are reds where closer to 40 towards 45 degrees and even 50 degrees the finest whites are to be found (with vineyards in the middle latitudes having the most flexibility between being ideal for red or white wines).
The reason being is that cooler areas bring out acidity in wine grapes that lend themselves to making the best and most sought after white wines like the prized Rieslings of Germany. Warmer areas tend to create riper fruit that produce more sugar that result in more alocohol but less acidity that can produce fruit bomb reds but unremarkable white wines. The higher than average alitude of the Castel Winery and it's vineyards (above 700 meters) in the Judean Hills provides for cooler nights in the growing season that add that tiny bit of needed luster to what other wise might otherwise be a lesser than ideal white wine offereing if produced at lower altitudes at this latitude. As I like to say altitude gives you latitude to want grapes you can grow and what wines you can make well.
A winery only producing three labels might be satisfied with having just one it's wines being heralded as one of it's country's best but as good as the Chardonnay is Castel's Gran Vin is the wineries most talked about wine. Mostly Cabernet Sauvignon it's a classic Bordeaux blend.Including, Cabernet Sauvignon each year the perfect combination of Bordeaux red grapes is attempted typically with great applause by critics and consumers. Merlot and Cabernet Franc are typicaly always added to contribute softer tannins and acidity as well a greater spectrum of flavors. Petit Verdot and Malbec aren't added every year and the exact % of what grapes are decided as winemakesr Eli Ben-Zaken and his son Ariel deem warranted.
The Petite Castel is more of a Right Bank Bordeaux than the Gran Vin with its blend using any of the five Bordeaux grapes that the Gran Vin does but with Merlot taking the lead role. Though it may not get the press of the Gran Vin many other wineries would be pleased to have a wine of it's quality as their flagship wine.
Each of the red grapes after harvested are fermented and then aged seperately for their first year so that Eli can gauge how to best blend the components of the Gran Vin and the Petite Castel. Once decided the wines are split between new and one year and two year old French Oak barrels.
There are usually unsong heros in most wine regions: winemakers and grape growers whose reputation and reknown haven't yet met the level of their contributions to the scene. One such unsung hero in Israeli wine is Paul Dubb. He's not unknown in Israel among other winemakers but he's not the first name mentioned in wine circles overseas or among Israeli wine consumers when Israeli wine is mentioned. He should be more often than not. Paul is making some impressive wines at reasonable prices at the Tzuba Winery located in the Jerusalem Hills on the outskirts of the "Holy City". Paul has not only has made an impact at Tzuba but has made a ripple in the Israeli wine pond as he's matured as a winemaker and vintner.
Paul was trained as vitaculturist in his native South Africa and helped Kfar Tzuba plant its first vines in the 1997. It was several years later in 2005 that the winery opened on the same named kibbutz (collective farm) its is located on. Paul was managing the vineyards from the start but after a kibbutznik served as the initial winemaker for the first two years, Paul grew into that role and proved to be a great fit. Even though Paul was never formally trained as a winemaker, he had been making dry wines since he was 16 and had always studied periphial studies that led him towards becoming a remarkable winemaker. For instance, Paul's training as a chemist alows him to do all the lab work at the winery and not have to send samples of wines for testing to outside labs. He did a brief stint at the Tisbhi Winery (as many Israeli wine people have including yours truly, Yair Marglait, Adam Montefiore and Assaf Paz...good company to be in) and was the vineyard manager for the Castel Winery from 2000 until 2004 (when he left to become winemaker at Tzuba). Kfar Tzuba actually grows most of Castel's grapes under Eli Ben Zaken's direction. Tzuba grows for a few other notable Israeli wineries so they must be doing something right in the vineyard and as most week geeks know what makes good wine mostly goes in the vineyard. A winemaker can do more harm than good when great grapes are in play. Yet Paul handles his grapes adeptly and he plays a major role getting the grapes ready the way he sees fit to make the best wines from his vines.
The first Tzuba wine that should come into play at a tasting of their wines is their only white dry wine in production, their Chardonnay.
The 2009 Tzuba Chardonnay is aged 50 % in new French Oak barrels for 4 months on the sur lees (the yeast after it has died after fermentation) and 50% in stainless steel. No secondary malolactic fermentation is implemented to avoid the big body and creaminess that can overwhelm the fruit in many Chardonnays. Paul thinks malolactic ferementation in white wines make them too much like a red and strips away what makes a good white wines special: that crispiness that reds lack.
Paul likes the red grapefruit that emerges in his Chardonnay that he fears can be surpressed by over oaking in other's white wines and that's why he only commits 50% of the wine to oak which Paul says adds that classic Chardonnay aroma.
For 79 NIS or about $22 (at November 2010 rates of exchange) the wine is a great deal for one of Israel's best Chardonnays.
Tzuba's Chardonnay is made from 100% free-run juice with the pressed grape juice going towards their Chardonnay fortified dessert wine. This is currently Tzuba's only dry white wine although they've made other white wines in the past. Paul had found making a few white wines too labor intensive and logistically challenging for a small boutique yet wants to maintain at least one white wine in their portfolio to give a full range of wines to Tzuba's loyal fanbase.
Right now, Paul only uses 100% French Oak for all of their wines and maintains that most of Israel's best wines follow suit though he is experimenting with American Oak that is designed to mimic French Oak and is interested in seeing how Amercan Oak can contribute to the complexity of their wines though he doesn't think there's a privation of complexity in Tzuba's wines but as an industrious winemaker he always experimenting on making his wines the best he can. He does concur with me that often the best winemakers are the one who can adaptly stay out of the way of their grapes and act as a midwife to delivering them into the best wine they can be with as little tinkering as possible.
Previously the winery released Semillon, Viognier and Sauvignon Blanc in different incarnations but now Tzuba sells off these grapes to other wineries. They do have access to them for future wines as they grow one can imagine they may come back to familiar grapes. Originally, the winery made about 15 wines but under Paul they've culled themselves to 10 wines for now to regroup and focus on quality rather than quanity of labels though they want to continue to increase their production at about 15% to 20% a year reaching 150,000 bottles in about six years from their current 40,000 bottles.
Their 2008 Tzuba Cabernet Sauvignon shows a glimpse toward the potential bliss awaiting a Tzuba imbiber featuring 100% Cabernet Sauvignon with only 13.5% alcohol (14% on the label... laws allow a 1% deviation from the label). 13.5% is significantly lower alcohol for an Israeli red which typically flirt with 15% alcohol levels.
This Cab features 100% free-run juice with pressed juice being used for less expensive offerings. The grapes are harvested at a lower brix (sugar in the grapes before harvest) level to insure lower alcohol level and to avoid prune flavors Paul says become more prevelant in more alcoholic Cabs. The earlier harvest also provides added acidity that lessens the need for tinkering with the wine's acidity at the winery which is fairly prevelant in warmer New World wineries. Its a reasonable 89 NIS (about $25), a more than fair price for a Cabernet Sauvignon of this quality and though Paul thinks the wine might age for another ten years he suggests the wine will be best drunk within the next 4 to 5 years as Paul believes most Israeli reds don't age as long as their overseas rivals as the grapes ripen faster here and don't develop sufficient aging compounds to get longer shelf life. Since most people drink wine the night they buy a wine or at latest within 6 months it should more than adequately satisfy the wants and needs of most buyers. Only about 5% of wine consumers cellar their wines, so having wines that are easier to drink from day one is more of a marketing boon than a bust or at least it should be.
HaMetzuda is Tzuba's top tier wine. Like many other flagship reds worldwide it's a Bordeaux derived grape blended wine. The 2007 Tzuba HaMetzuda featured about 75 % Cabernet Sauvignon, 20% Merlot and 5% Malbec. This wine features 100% free-run juice and retails at a more than reasonable 115 NIS. It easily meets or even surpasses it's price point's built in expectations by most consumers at this range. It's full-flavored and well balanced with consisitent body from start to finish. Aged for 24 months in all French Oak (60% new and 40% one year's vintage), this wine doesn't present as being overoaked though oak is present in the flavors. Black currant, black and red raspberries and cherries and a dark plum finish meld with some green pepper, fruit cake, mocha, slight tobacco and lingering leather undertones.
The yet to be released 2008 HaMetzuda shows even greater promise commercially than the 2007. Paul aged the 2008 for only 18 months and a lesser reliance on Cabernet in this blend may have paid dividends as well. The fruit shines through ore brilliantly here than the 2007 (though I appreciate the 2007 in it's own right as being different and not inferior in any way other than not as fruity as most Israelis seem to crave. The 2008 is 60% Cab Sauvignon, 30% Merlot and 10% Cabernet Franc. The wine exhibits deeper color than the 2007 partly from being younger and partly to what Paul attributes to the addition of the Cabernet Franc. It's nicely balanced as well and the Cabernet Franc lends a bit of floral aroma to the mix of flavors evident in 2007. The mocha seemed a little less prevelant and maybe less oak and no Malbec contribute towards these ends.
Either way, these wines are great values for buyers who often pay 50% to 100% more for wines of this quality at other Israeli wineries. I look forward to returning to trying the rest of Tzuba's ten wines and future vintages (though trying previous vintages would be a treat as well).
Other wines currently available in their line up include their:
2008 Tzuba Shiraz
2007 & 2008 Tzuba Merlot
2008 Tzuba Sangiovese
2007 Tzuba Pinot Noir
Whichever wine you try from Tzuba be rest assured that they are making great wines for a more than reasonable price and that even though a lot of critics haven't caught on to their wines you can be the first of your friends to sing their praises. After the critics wake-up expect their prices to eventually climb as demand soars.
David Rhodes can best be reached at
052-702-9463 (mobile in Israel)
Davids hosts the world's only English language radio show and podcast about Israeli wines at Rustymikeradio.com and is available for tours, lectures and private tastings about Israeli wines for those living or visiting in Israel.
David also acts a consulting sommelier for restaurants and a cellar consultant and broker for those seeking qaulity wines at the bests prices in Israel.
Italian food for many is comfort food when traveling overseas. Although trying local cuisines appeal to many tourists, many are easily discouraged and steer towards more familiar fare. Italian food is a staple for American diners and can be a safe bet for them dining out in Israel. Pasta aficionados will even find selections at many Israeli coffee shops but they will need to be more selective to experience a memorable meal.
One place sure to illicit interest and a return visit is the Italiana Nella Stazione (which also goes by Italkia Ba'Tachana... the Hebrew transliteration literally meaning "Italian in the station"). Specializing in Southern Italian Cuisine and Seafood, this new restaurant offers a lot of promise for tourists who want a delicious meal in a scenic local. The aforementioned station is a new development renovated from what was a historic railroad station and industrial park in Tel Aviv, a short walk south to Jaffa, the newly gentrified Neve Tzedik neighborhood and Tel Aviv's ritziest hotels along it's southern beachfront. Showcasing fashion boutique, custom jewelers art galleries and other destination tenants, the station is like a premium outdoor mall and well worth exploring. The restaurant is nestled right in the middle of the complex in what was presumed to be a converted residence. It's a rustic building that seems to date back to Tel Aviv's earliest days.
The food may resemble many traditional Southern Italian dishes but there's a modern twist on several. The highlights for many will be found amongst the well conceived selection of first courses/appetizers which include standard fare such as Caeser and capri salads or minestrone soup as well a spectacular chicken liver pate. The entrees include several pasta selections, steak for those who insist on getting meat where ever they dine but the restaurant takes great pride in its fresh seafood including an israeli specialty Sea Bream, a light white fish, served several ways. Five pizzas round out the menu which makes the restaurant more family friendly but the prices and ambiance lend itself more to dates and business meals. Business lunch specials which include a first course or dessert and choice of several entrees are very popular with the local regulars and are served until 6 PM which makes for a good early bird dinner choice as well.
An extensive wine list offers some of Israel's best reds and whites as well as some expected Italian selections. A 40 NIS (about $10) corkage per bottle is charged if you choose to bring your own wine (but remember the custom is to call ahead and make sure it's not on the list of what they carry). Traditional Italian desserts, speciality cocktails and a full bar round out the possibilities for a pleasurable afternoon or evening of fine Italian dining just meters away from the Mediterranean Ocean. The Southern Italian menu is the creation of well known Israeli Chef Amir Marcovitz.
Open for business 7 days a week for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Weekdays opening hours are from 9:00 AM till midnight. On Saturdays open at 10:00 AM. On weekdays the business menu lunch is served between noon to 6:00 PM. Parking is available adjacent to the Old Train Station . Italkia Ba'Tachana, Ha'Tachana , Call 03-5222664 for directions or reservations.
David Rhodes worked at wineries in California & Israel, hosted over 100 wine parties.as a sommelier & adviser for the SDSU Business of Wine program. He speaks weekly about wine on Rustymikeradio.com & writes for ESRA magazine. Israeliwineguy@gmail.com