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Tags - french oak
While I make an effort to taste every wine from every winemaker in Israel, I'm getting lost quite a bit. It's OK I'm embracing the humor of it and knowing there's wines I've never tried (mostly amazing) waiting for me at my eventual arrival helps me deal with the proliferation of bad directions, signage and bus drivers who have no idea where to drop me off. Many of the smaller wineries are very poorly marked and barely noticeble from the roads they're on and many of them are hidden away on back roads on communal (kibbutzim) or collective (moshavim) farms. Following Israel's most popular, if only wine map, led me to the vicinity of the Alexander Winery in Beit Yitzhak but it was still more than an hour walk for me from the maps closest refence point and I passed by the winery before I was directed back to this no-sign, low profile facility. Did I mention my backpack had my laptop and a bunch of wine books and camera equipment too?
....9 Barrels to Lead the Way... the only street side clue to the location of the Alexander Winery
Before getting started I had to first quench my thirst with water. Wine at this point would have been gulped and not tasted and probably would have made a short day for me. I first met with Assistant Wine Maker Shalom Amzleg. Shalom is one of many observant Jews across Israel who assist non-observant owner/winemakers to assure that their wines are eligible for kosher certification by a supervising rabbi. Shalom has only been at Alexander for less than 10 months and previously has worked at Carmel, Tishbi, and Recanati (three of Israel's top producers). When he isn't drinking Alexander wine, Shalom's fond of downing Dalton wines which he finds as good value wines for everday drinking. His favorite Alexander wine is the Cabernet-Merlot blend, by which I believe he meant their Sandro series.
Several minutes after recovering from my hike, owner/winemaker Yarom Shalom pulled up in his company truck and trailer. The timing was perfect as I was just getting my wine glands glowing with excitement by what many told me would be a special treat. I was a little apprehensive about this winery visit more than any other I've been on so far. My Hebrew skills are slowly progressing and Yarom was fairly insistent on the phone that I try to converse in Hebrew. So I came into thinking I might taste a few wines and get a lousy interview. Well turns out, it was one of my favorite days wine spelunking in Israel.
When I make these forays into wine, I give a whole day to the prospect I'll be following the winemaker around and being patient until they basically go home or get swamped. I don't end the interview. I let them set the pace and give them a chance to wow me. Not only that there's typically other interesting winos who make cameo appearances. Yarom turned out to be much more hospitable than out initial conversations led me to believe I should expect. We both speak wine as a common language and between his English and my Hebrew we did a fine job asking and answering each other.
David Rhodes at work... really, he's working, taking one for the team as it were...
This time of year a lot of Northern Hemisphere wineries are apt to be bottling wines (a convenient time when the winemakers aren't dealing with vineyard or harvest/crush issues). As I arrived, a new worker Yuda, was bottling the 2006 Wine of Alexander Merlot. Well, that got me my first taste of Yarom's craft and I was impressed by the wine's smooth tannins brought about by it's 2 years in 90% French Oak and 10% American barrels. I picked up some dark cherry, a preceived sweetness, and a mouthful of plums. There was a slight hint of a fair amount of acidity which should help this fruity offering age gracefully if not distinctly.
...the last moments of a glass of delicious wine Alexander's award winnning 2006 Merlot
One of my favorite parts of visiting the wineries and meeting the winemakers personally is I usually gather tidbits if not chunks of "insider information" about Israeli wine not published in articles or wine books. I embrace the strange as well as the nerdy wine "roots and vines" as well as the "grapes" and like getting to the dirt of what going on in the winery and the industry. For instance, Yarom and I got to talking about Grappa production in Israel. Grappa is one of my pet projects. For those not familiar with Grappa, and many Anglos are not, Grappa is traditionally a peasant's spirit in the Mediterranean region (Greece, Italy... where it originated, Spain and elsewhere) where the leftovers of wine production ( stems, seeds and skins) are further pressed and the crushed fluid is distilled as a liquor (rather than fermented as a table wine).
As an aromatic brandy like beverage, with an alcohol level anywhere around between 40 to 60% or 80 to 120 proof, Grappa can knock your socks off and is typically drunk after the meal as a digestive aid to help dissolve heavy and hearty dinners. Traditionally, it was thought of a poor man's drink and often an underground moonshine but producers now have taken an oportunity to upsell it publicly and make some fine high-end well sought after bottles. I'm fond of the idea of Grappa if not the reality becuase i see it as it as a "green" carbon frinedly drink using the waste of one process to produce another product.
So, it was with this in mind I told Yarom about my desire to seek out or encorage grappa production by Israeli winemakers. To my surprise and delight he did tell me ther eis some being produced on the quiet. Distributed by some owners off the market to friends and good clients or amoungst the workers, I hope I come across some and will let you what I find when i do. It will most likely be featured as a seperate blog posting. (Since, this visit I came across a Grappa prouduced by the Tulip Winery in Israel. I'll be doing a follow-up essay on Tulip, it's wine and Grappa (non-kosher) and any other Israeli Grappa I come across).
Another one of my favorite parts of the winery visits are the guided tastings by the winemakers. For two reasons, no one knows their wines better and they'll often serve up what their proudest off aging in the barrel. At Alexnader's on this my first visit, Yarom fed into one of my guiltiest pleasures. He took a vial from a barrel and poured me a taste of a familar looking wine that sparked immediate salivation. Without initailly recognizing it, I was having sme kind of Pavlovian response to sense memories of what has been one of my favorite wine styles. I think I resisted believing it because I've been suggesting to winemakers to try but most seemed resistnt to make Armarone.
Armarone, like Grappa, is a bit of a cult drink. Not every or most wine drinker is familiar with it. It's price, typically, starting at least $50/ bottle keeps out of the reach of many and it's rarely ever served by the glass in restaaurants or wine bars. Yet, if you get into wine, go to wine events and hang out without adventerous winos someone will eventually slip you a glass and say "you gotta try a glass of this"!!! Armarone is a style of Italian wine making where the grapes are dryed into raisins and then pressed for their juices for making wine. The drying is important to the efffect of Amarone because it reduces the water content of the grapes and concentrates the flavors and aromas of the wine eventually produced.
Yarom's creation was that kind of a concretrated pleasure punch to the palatte. Having been aged already for two years and not being expected for release for another two, we were catching the wine in still it's early stages but it showed more than it's fair share of indications it was going to be a market changer and once trying it other winemakers in Israel might do the same.
Moshav Beit Yitzhak 42970
Tel: 09 8822956 Fax: 098872076
currently exporting to Canada, Holland and Germany
Today, I got to visit for my old friends (comparatively speaking in Israel) at Recanati. I thoroughly enjoy talking about wineries of their ilk because Recanati does a great job making great wines at different price points and their wines seem to get better year after year ( and they're only 20 minutes from where I live ttoo). This visit had some special significance because it was my first official tasting of their 2008 premium wines outside of tasting at events when there's too much additional stimulation to appreciate a wine without distraction and with the insight from the winemakers how they got to what your tasting in the glass.
The 2008 vintage wines have a special meaning at Recanati because the team of winemakers changed and this was their first vintage to see how the change reflected in the wines. The entry level reds of 2008 have been out a while but the higher end 2008's (Reserve now and the Special Reserve Red not too far down the road) which were aged longer are now on the shelves and there are noticable differences from previous incarnations.
Gil Shatsberg and Ido Lewinsohn make up the current dynamic duo of winemakers at Recanati. Even though Gil holds the title of senior winemaker, it's very much a collaborative effort and that seems to make for better wines as each brings a different background to the winery. Gil had training at UC Davis, the most preeminent wine school in the USA and worked at Carmel, Israel's largest winery and was the sole winemaker at the Amphorae Winery before taking over from founding winemaker, fellow UC Davis grad Lewis Pasco. Ido has studied extensively in Italy, France and Australia and interned at Israel's prestigious boutique Margalit Winery and worked with Lewis before Gil took the helm. Between them they literally have a world's experience of winemaking.
So, how are things different in their newest wines from Recanati's and most other Israeli wines?
First, there's a difference in the white wines. Let's look at their two different Chardonnays the 2009 Recanati Chardonnay and 2009 Recanati Chardonnay Reserve. They differ less from each other than most Israeli or other "New World" (outside Europe) Chardonnays. They both avoid the malolactic ferementation process that has become so common with New World Chardonnays. Malolactic fermentation is a seconday fermention process (the primary turns sugar into alcohol and CO2). The process turns the prevelant astringent maliic acid in wine into a smoother silkier creamier lactic acid. Lactic acid is the acid prevelant in dairy products. The drawback of this process is much of the fruitiness and varietal character is lost in this process. This also gives many Chardonnays the weight people associate with the grape alhtough oak aging also adds to this equation as well. But, both Gil and Ido have developed an aversion to bombastic wines and strive to make more elegant wines. So one way to still give a body to the wine but bypassing the malolactic conversion is to age their Chardonnay sur lees or with the yeast after its died after fermentation. This is common enough in European whites but rarer in New World Whites. Preserving the acidity also preserves a crispness that is more true to the varietal and helps good Chardonnays age into great Chardonnays. A few other Chardonnays in Israel also have embraced this technique including the Tzuba and Tzora wineries.
2009 Recanati Special Reserve White
2009 Recanati Chardonnay
2009 Recanati Chardonnay Reserve
Although Ido wouldn't say he thinks their 2009 Chardonnay is better than their 2009 Reserve Chardonnay he does admit it suits his personal taste of a less oaky Chardonnay where the Reserve should be popular with American drinkers who generally have a quencihng thirst for heavier oaked Chards.
In the 2008 reds and beyond some noticeble changes have also arrived. One of the major changes happens in the vineyard where in the past the wineery may have harvested as late as possible to get the most ripe or even overripe grapes to insure maximum sugar and therefore higher alcohol ...) Gil & Ido have been favoring harvesting as early as possible to get added acidity from the grapes and more nuanced, greener (i.e. more Old World) less sugar i.e., less alcoholic wines. Additionally, they're favoring using less "New Oak" (unused barrels) for older oak and shorter exposure times in many wines and seeking preservatives from the acidity rather than from more traditional oak tannins. Now, it's not a long stretch of rational thinking because acidity is what most notable white wines depend on for their longevity but to rely on it for a red wine is fairly innovative and counter conventional wisdom where the tannins from the skins or barrels are more often relied on. Time will tell as this new generation of Recanati wines age but if Gil & Ido got it right (and I suspect they did) it could be a game changer in how most quality Israeli wines are made.
Another change which may or not be noticable is that almost all of the Recanati Reserve wines except the Petite Sirah/Zinfandel are Single Vineyard wines). This may not make any of the wines better per se but it will make them more unique and an expression of terroir rather than market driven more homeginized wines. Recanati does have some impressive plots in the Galilee and the Judean Hills so this Single Vineyard approach I think will help promote the appelations the wines derive from as well.
There's been a bug push in the last few years as more and more big and mid size Israeli wineries make their higher tier wines single vineyard wines. Many boutique do it easily because their small production warrants a single vineyard (or less and sell of the remaining grapes) or they have limited access to grapes as they buy on the open market and haven't the long term contracts that more established wineries secure to insure a long term supply.
OK the white wine's were a great start...now on to the reds
Enjoying Recanati's 2007 Special Reserve Red
If that wasn't enough of a change on the macro scale another major change is happening on the micro change as the wines are going through a dramatically different filtration system. Filtration is a big factor on how the finish product presents itself. Filtering through a filter with larger holes allows for more color and body to remain in the wine. Recanati uses extensive and more labor intensive racking the wines to help clarify the wines that a more exacting filtration would accomplish. It's a lot more work but to avoid a more precise yet body/color robbing filtering, Recanati and many other wineries insist on taking that extra measure. To illustrate the point the winery's current filtration is about 1/3 to 1/4 as exacting as previous measures but when compensated for in racking that's plus and not the cosmetic and textural minus it might be otherwise.
I'll revist the winery sooner than later to try their remaining wines like their Cabs, Merlots, Syrah and Sauvignon Blanc as well as their Yasmin entry level blends and their highly regarded Rose.
wines tasted today 2/23/11
2009 Recanati Chardonnay
2009 Recanati Chardonnay Reserve
2009 Recanati Special Reserve White
2008 Recanati Cabernet Franc
2008 Recanati Petite Sirah/Zinfandel
2007 Recanati Special Reserve Red
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