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June 20, 2009June 20, 2009  1 comments  Uncategorized

   The Golan Heights Winery, for the last twenty years, has been one of the most influential wineries in Israel. Having been cited as the winery that sparked the quality wine revolution in Israel, Golan Heights has grown into the third largest producer of wine in the Holy Land but maybe should be rightly known as the largest producer of consistently good wines.  Under their flagship label Yarden (Hebrew for "Jordan" as in the Jordan River), this winery has paved the way for Israeli wines into more resturants' wine lists internationaly and more wine magazines than maybe any other Israeli winery. That's not to say necessarily that they make the best wine in Israel. They might but there's now plenty of competition to that elusive prize  however, the case can easily be made that make more well respected wine than any other Israeli winery and that for the last 25 years they blazed the trail for many smaller producers by showing the potential for which grapes could make great wines in Israel.


   Additionally, Golan Heights under it's various labels, may account for the largest selection of varietals being made by one winery in Israel. It's vineyard locations situated at a wide range of altitudes in Israel's most northern wine growing region, gives it the flexibility to plant and prosper with a range of grapes that many international winemakers might envy.  Visiting their Visitor Center adjacent to their winery in Katzrin, the impressive size of  their tasting room rivals that of many smaller wineries complete facilities. It's takes a large room to display all their labels and when I was last passing through, a bus load of Eastern Euorpean tourists easily could work their way around the shelves without overcrowding anyone travelling alone.


   On my first visit, I was treated to a tasting of about dozen wines and there was still at least a dozen more that I wanted to try before time constraints and palette fatigue (the bane of any wine writer or critic) convinced me another tasting would have to be in the cards at a future date.

 


May 17, 2009May 17, 2009  6 comments  wine

      If as what's been suggested that Israeli wine is going through a cultural and technological revolution, how can you tell when the revolution is successful. Maybe it's when the powers to be, the guardians of the status quo, come full circle and agree with their critics.  So when the Carmel Winery, Israel's largest winery by far, admits that it has had a well deserved reputatation for making wines of low regard and little character and lots of it and they've launched a game changing amount of measures to salvage its image by striving to be not only the biggest but one of Israel's best wineries, it deserves the attention of the wine drinking public and wine writers like me.

 

Carmel Zichron
Carmel's Historic Winery in Israel's most famous wine village Zichron Ya'acov

 

     Now many wine writers tend to shy away from writing about big wineries.  It's challenging on several different levels. First, a winery like Carmel in Israel has so many labels there's no way to practically taste them in a day. Second, larger corporate wineries can often lack the charm and romance of "boutique" wineries. Additionally, it can be far more difficult to talk directly to the winemaker or owner of the winery  which with smaller wineries is often the same person.  A lot of times you get shuttled around by a well meaning Public Relations spokeperson whose knowledge of wine doesn't much exceed that of any internal corporate literture. Additionally, larger wineries often have received so much previous attention what angle does a writer take to make their story fresh, relevant and appealing to the reader.

 

dave tasting carmel

So Much Wine, So Little Time: David tasting the large portfolio of Carmel

 

      So with some initial trepidation, I went to tackle the task of covering Carmel, not only Israel's largest winery but at about 15 million bottles producted yearly, they're responsable for 30 to 40% of Israel's wine production on any given year. As recently as 20 to 25 years ago Carmel was producing about 90% of Israel's wine. So in writing about Israeli wines, there's no way to avoid Carmel coming up in the context of talking about other wines so it was important at some stage for me to take on the challenge of exploring their portfolio. "On the Road Less Travelled" of wine writing, better sooner than later. That being said if Carmel had been making the same wines they were making ten years ago, I may have found a good reason to avoid this story just the same.

    When wine magazines such as Wine Spectator and Decanter & wine writers like Robert Parker and Mark Squires talk about Israeli wines making a revolutionary change in quality, they were talking about in contrast to the lowly regarded 90% of Israeli wines Carmel used to make. Carmel today says they too are part of that revolution but as a student of history I like to see it as a counter-revolution since when you are the wine establishment and one of the last wineries to make drastic changes, it's hard to say you're leading the revolt. To Carmel's credit though, it's been a Herculian endeavor and an investment of ten of millions and ten of thousands of man hours in the vineyards and wineries to have made the dramatic changes that they started almost ten years ago that is just in the last few years starting to show results. 

    As an example of it's commitment to change, they've managed to halve their production from a high of 30 million bottles to 15 million bottles, a great indicator that "the monster of the Israeli wine marketplace" is reigning in the beast of bulk wine making and mending their ways and is starting to seriously attempt to stress quality over quanity.  Much of this transition was enacted by shying away from flooding the kosher wine market with mass quanities of not very profitible "kiddush wine" (sacramentel wine for Jewish holidays and rituals). A de-emphasis on other food products such as grape juice and olive oil also has allowed it's upper management to focus on the task at hand of making better wines. The significance is that if Carmel can redeem an image of it's wines as sweet, syrupy liquid religion to that of a large producer with a wide range of price points with relative quality and value,  it's place as Israel's largest producer can only improve the image of all Israeli wines.

     Carmel has also made significant changes in it's selection of vineyard location and how it manges the grapes it harvests.  First, it's made huge investments in planting new vineyards in the Galiilee, considered onr of Israel's premier grape growing appellations.  Historically, they were getting most of their grapes from lower alitude regions that were suitable for high yield bulk wine production.  In fact, according to Carmel they are now the largest grower of grapes in the Galilee and this has given them the flexibility to make better wines and a to make awider variety of wine single varietal wines.  Their affiliated and renown Yatir Winery with vineyards in the Judean Hills and the Negev, two other respected wine regions, also provides Carmel with choice grapes that weren't available as recent as ten years ago.

 

Carmel's Kayoumi Vineyards

Carmel's Well-groomed & Valued Kayoumi Vineyards in the Upper Galilee

   Carmel started off and continues in many ways as a collective of as many 250-300 growers with a management team directing winery and marketing efforts. Lior Laxer, the chief winemaker of seven who work at their wineries, explained it was an uphill battle for the wineries management to convince the growers to switch to lower yield grapes for higher qulity wine than the bulk producing yields they had been accustomed to. On e way was to pay per dunam, about a quarter acre lot, rather than pay per ton. another was to pay the grower on the quality of the grapes being produced. This merit system linked what which Carmel series the winemaking team decided the grapes quaified and the higher the value of the wine (and the more the winery could charge) the more the grower got paid. Some of those families have been tending to high-yield vineyards for over 100 years.

     Yet, many of the lowland vineyards were more suited to bulk production so new vineyards in the Upper Galilee, the Golan Heights, the Jerusalem Hills and the Negev desert (yes, the desert) have been planted and now are producing higher quality grapes. Additionally, much of the wineries equipment was suited for bulk wines so it was a huge expense to invest in equipment that was better suited for smaller higher quality production. Where as recently as 10 years ago Carmel barely made any wines with a smaller production of 50,000 bottles they are often making wines of just a few to several thousand bottles in the top three premium levels (compared to their three entry to mid level wines).  An additional winery facility (Carmel's fourth if you include it's premeir sattleite Yatir) gives it the capacity to get the grapes form the field to a nearby winery anywhere it grows grapes. This protects the flavor, sugar, acid, tannin profile the winemaker's expected before harvest that could be disrupted through long hauls from a remote vineyard to one central winery.  The additional facities and fermentation tanks allow each single vineyard harvested to get it's own tank and treatment and allows the winemakers the ability to monitor how each field was managed and how that manifests in the wine. This allows for informed changes in future vineyard practices and more refined blending options as well picking the best as special single vineyard releases.

    First, let me say that my recent visit at the Carmel Winery in Zichron Ya'acov exceeded my expectations on several levels.  The only wines I had from Carmel previously were their entry level Selected and Private Collection wines that most people have had, wines many Jews have had at a Sabbath dinner or Passover dinner or Bar Mitzvah.  Those "supermarket" wines, at best, may have been considered good value wines but represent what Carmel wants the public to believe were their the bulk wines of Carmel's yesteryear. This day I tasted the wines Carmel hopes will change it's image of being a bulk, Kiddush (Jewish sacremental) and table wine manafacturer to that of a winery that doesn't make just make kosher wines as good as they can but rather  great wines that just happen to be kosher. Of course this mantra is now being touted by every kosher winemaker I've talked to in Israel. But with the mass of Carmel's postion in the marketplace, as they change their image for the better they can't help but but bring the image of Israeli wines in general into a more flattering light.

     

 

   I asked Lior about the one vineyard Carmel has in the Golan Heights since they've invested so much more into the compatible climate of the Upper Gaililee. Carmel claims through recent efforts to have become the largest wine producer in the Galilee when previously their holding were focused on the southern coastal plains near Tel Aviv and the northern coast aaround Zichron Ya'acov.   I wondered if the government had been talking to the wineries who are some of the largest employers in the Golan what would happen to their investemets in their vineyards if the Golan is returned to Syria in a peace agreement. Lior confirms my suspicion that "no one in the government has talked about it" and suggests about planting vines and building facilities in the Golan that "it's a big risk." A sentiment that other wine executives in Israel share regardless of their political inclinations whether Israel should return the territory captured in 1967 and recaptured in 1973.

 

Carmel's Lior Laxer
Carmel's Chief winemaker Lior Laxer tasting the fruits of his labors

 

Appellation

Carmel Ridge

Single Vineyard

Limited Edition

 

 

Late Harvest Gerwurtzraminer


Lior explains about this dessert wine that "it's not the most profitable wine for the winery" because dessert wines in general don't sell as well as table wines and that this wine has such high expenses. The high expenses are mostly due to the low yield of these late harvest grapes are 450 to 600 kilos per dunam (about one quarter of an acrea) compared to up to 5 tons an acre for sone table wines. That's about one-tetn of a yield in just the weight of the grapes. Then Lior explains "there's also less juice that's pressed per ton because so much of the water/juice is already gone. There's so much sugar in the grapes in contrast to juice that you can hear the presses straining to get the juice out".

There's so much sugar that this wine when finished has 120 grams of residual sugar after fermentation compared to as much as only for 4 grahms or less for a dry table wine.

 

Carmel Winery

Zichron Ya'acov   Telephone: 04 6390105

Rishon Letzion    Telephone:  03 9488888

www.carmelwines.co.il

 

 


October 7, 2010October 7, 2010  0 comments  wine

    Last night I attended for my first time, the Ramit Aviv Wine Festival at the Haaretz Museum (just north of Tel Aviv). It's the largest annual festival in Tel Aviv slated specifically towards the public attending. The musuem gardens, accented by lit olive trees, provided the perfect back drop for dozens of wineries offereing more than 100 wines for guests to sample. The event goes on for two evenings culimating this evening from 6 until 11PM. The cost is 59 NIS (about $17) for unlimited tastings.  Several food vendors were selling fresh sushi, piping hot and tasty pizzas to order, pretzals and best all a wide assortment of gourmet kosher cheese plates.

    The experience is well worth the price of admission. Several of Issrael's largest wineries are participating. The Carmel Winery , Israel's largest, is offering their appelation series wines which in their several series is situated in the lower end of their high end or the high end of their lower but definetly provide some  of their best value wines. Their Cabernet Franc is one of favorites in this series because it's onr of the least expensive Cabernet Franc's in Israel but still provides the drinker with enough varietal characteristics to develop a taste for this ever more popular Israeli version of a Bordeaux varietal. 

The Barkan Winery, Israel's second largest, alsp offered a decent amount of wines and their Pinotage (a South African varietal) is a wine fairly unique to them. They were also offering their Altitude series (412, 624 and 720) of Cabernet Sauvignons which differrentiate from each other by listing the altittude of each winery on the label and are a popular series with israeli consumers seeking to learn more about this powerhouse varietal.

 

Israel's 3rd largest Winery was also in attendance, the Golan Heights Winery. serving mostly their entry level Gamla series of wines, these wines represent some of the best value single varietal wines in Israel. Their sister winery, the Galil Mountain Winery was situated nearby and their Viognier seemed very popular with people as I walked by.

The Binyamina Winery, was affably serving several of their Reserve wines and their Late Harvest Gewurztraminer was a welcome to all dry wines.  They have a great winemaking team that's bringing this winery into the fore front of well respected Israeli wineries.

The Tishbi Winery, Israel's largest family owned and operated winery, are offering several of their Estate wines and were giving an advanced tasting of a promising 2007 Petite Sirah (which would be their first release of Petite Sirah as an Estate wine).

For larger wineries the Dalton, Recanati and Tabor wineries were noticebly absent from the mix but wineries need to pick and choose which events to attend and how big of a footprint they wil make so they're probably mashalling their resources for a bigger presence at an upcoming alternative event such as the Sommelier in November.

There were several noteworthy smaller wineries ranging from those producing 5,000 too 80,000 bottles. The Mond Winery seemed to be a fan favorite and their 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon was one of the better wines at the whole event. Their Red Blend was possibly the best value wine at only 49 NIS (about $14). It was more expressive and balanced than many wines selling for almost twice as much.

Red Poetry is an interesting boutique winery who also grows grapes used by other wineries big and small. Their wines are typically unique foten offering atypical blends such as Sangiovese and Merlot or unusual but deirable single varietals such as Mourvedre yet they don't just survive on the fringes and make a highly quaffable Cabernet Sauvignon.


David Ventura's Domaine Ventura is one of Israel's newest and more interesting up and coming boutiques. Located on the outskirts of Jerusalem, French born David is making many French style wines with an Israeli twist. Making mostly reds, he made his first white for relaese a delectable Chardonnay.  His reds vary from tradtional Bordeaux single varietal Cabernet Sauvgnon and Cabernet Franc to an unusual blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir.

Another new face on the scene is the Mount Blessing Winery. A little off the beaten path, located east of the green line, Mount Blessing might have people beating down their doors sonner than later once the word gets out how interesting their wine can be.

The Psagot Winery is also one not to be missed and their Cabernet Franc captured my attention and imagination of who I might share my next bottle with.

Overall, even though the festival wasn't as wild as other's I've attended, everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves, the attendees as well as the presenters and I look forward to going back tonight for more of the same.

 

David Rhodes

052-702-WINE (9463)

israeliwineguy@gmail.com

 


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DavidRhodes
Posts: 54
Comments: 59
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

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