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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

 

 


June 14, 2009June 14, 2009  2 comments  wine

    Even though over 200 wineries are known to exist in Israel, what's exciting to me as a writer about wines is how many small wineries are blossoming from harvesting and producing their first vintages into release and how many of them are really good or great wines. One winemaker whose wares are showing great potential is David Ventura's Domaine Ventura.

ventura

 

 


June 28, 2009June 28, 2009  2 comments  wine

Israel's First White Wine Festival

(from the first night's response this should be the first of many...)

at the Herzliya Marina (located at the far end next to the TV 24 studio)
Wednesday & Thursday July 1st and 2nd 2009 starting at 6PM

Late Night at the Herzliya White Wine Festival

The  first night of Israel's first White Festival attracted thousands of white wine tasters

 

The event was organized by Chaim, the Grape Man, notable Israeli wine educator who hosts functions in the artist colony in Old Jaffa

Chaim the Grape Man

Chaim, "the Grape Man," organizer of the event mingling with tasters

there was thousands who came by the first night and I think tonight even might be busier with the buzz from the first night

there was also vendors of various wine related products including wine fridges, free sparkling water (great earlier on before the sun set) and as a break in between wines, and an incredible backdrop at the marina

several popular restuarants nearby

free parking in the Mall's garage

entrance is free with tasting cards available for a fee for 6, 12 or 18 tastes starting at 39NIS (about $10!!!)

small cheese plates will be availble as one of the tastes

there are plenty of great restuarants within walking distance nearby

Wines being offered will be of the following styles:

Champagne-style sparkling wines

Roses including Recanati's newly evolved and exceptional Rose featuring 80% Barbera grapes and Dalton's newly released 2008 Rose

aged (oaked) whites including Yarden's Katzrin Chardonnay and Domaine de Castel's "C" Chardonnay

 dry still whites including several crisp Sauvignon Blancs such as Yatir, Tishbi and Carmel's.

sweet & aromatic whites including several yummy Gerwurtztraminer's such as Yarden's and several imported selections

 

rose's on ice white wine festival

iced, scrumptious Roses ready to squelch parched palates at the Herzliya Festival

 

each had their own bar section in the main bar (sculpted from ice) for easier selection

 

 

and there are wines from all over the world with about 2/3 from Israeli wineries (including many of Israel's best) and the rest representing wines imported into Israel

 

Alex Haruni of Dalton Wines

Alex Haruni (on the right), owner of Dalton Wines, with a friend enjoying the Festival

 

call the Grape Man at 03-5180533 for more details

 


tell them David the Israeliwineguy sent you!!!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


June 30, 2009June 30, 2009  3 comments  wine

         There is much skepticism from wine writers in Israel and abroad if Israel's warm Eastern Mediterranean climate can produce the grapes required for making great white wines. Cooler climates such as the Rhine Valley in German and France's Graves, Champagne, Alsace and Burgandy regions provide vintners with longer growing seasons. Cooler climates also provide for lower alcohol levels and higher acidity levels which give a great white crispness and a clean finish and allow whites to age without the tannins found in the skins of red wine grapes. Never the less, against conventional wisdom many Israeli winemaker's are making great efforts to make "Great Whites" and some are showing tangible results in the process.

Lewinsohn Winery

        One such winemaker new to the scene is Ido Lewinsohn. I've previously discussed Ido's unique style of making his red Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot and how his garagista might be making some of Israel's best made reds. Well, lightining has struck twice. He's also making some of Israel's best white wine in his 2008 Lewinsohn's "Garage de Papa" Chardonnay. In it's only second year of production, the Chardonnay is gaining a cult following as it's mostly sold through just a few of Israel's most renown eateries. Selling for about 225 NIS to over 300 NIS or about $55 in restaurants or about 175 NIS retail (if you can find any) it's definitely priced as one of the best white wines in Israel.

 

Lewinsohn 2008 Chardonnay

The 2008 Lewinsohn Chardonnay under the new "Garge de Papa" label.

     Of course, one reason for the higher than average price is the rarity. Only 880 bottles of the 2008 Lewinsohn Chardonnay was only made or about 3 barrels worth. About the same amount of the 2007 was produced and the winery sold that out completely and only a handful of those bottles remain in circulation on resturant wine lists. Few garagistas (garage wineries) just producing a few or several thousand bottles a year even tackle making white wines. Whites can be such "little princesses" that require so much attention to detail and extra stages to make it commercially appealing (compared to a reds) that many starting winemakers wait until they're making wine on a larger scale before they invest their time, effort and their blossoming reputation.  The time investment for whites can be much more intense and more suited for larger production runs.

    After tasting any of the three Lewinsohn labels it's quite apparent Ido isn't the typical garage winemaker.  First, he's no beginner. He's been neck deep in winemaking for almost a decade working on vintages in great wineries in France (where he opened a winery), Italy (where he attended the Univeristy of Milan), Tasmania and Israel. He's one of the two winemakers at the frequent award-winning Recanati Winery having worked there under its founding winemaker Lewis Pasco and now under Gil Shatzberg who came over from Israel's notable Amphorae Winery. Second, although he admts you learn something new every vintage, he 's not merely a student. He teaches and directs a winemaking program here in Israel to aspiring boutique winemaker's and seems to challenge himself not to just make wine he likes but to take his vast and varied experiences to make in theory what he thinks it takes to make the best wine in Israel.

     Having worked at the revered Margalit Winery in 2003, Ido seems to follow the lead of that father and son team of winemakers: Yair and Assaf Margalit. This prestigios winery that's been around now for almost 20 years only makes about a modest 20,000 bottles a year but it's on almost everyone's list of Israel's best wines. 20,000 bottles isn't the ideal level of production to be commercially viable so both Yair and Assaf have become prolific, respected and even adored instructors teaching how to make wine in classes from Tel Aviv to Tel Hai. Barry Saslove, another esteemed instructor has also gone on to create the well regarded Saslove Winery. As Ido and his contempories exemplify, the old American adage of "those who can't, teach" surely dooesn't apply to it's winemakers.

    The 2008 Chardonnay under Lewinsohn's new Gargage de Papa label might easily be mistaken for a Burgandy white than a "New World" Chardonnay. With stoic mineralitly up front, crisp acidity, hints of vanilla and bartlett pears on the finish this is a Chardonnay for those who don't like how Chardonnay'shave mutated in the last 20 years into buttery oever-oaked alcohol bombs. Ido thinks as this wine evolves it will even engender stronger Old World components. Currently, he's sur lees aging this wine for 8 mnths with only 2/3 of the wine in new French oak. He intends to use old oak as hs barrels mature to lessen the oak flavors interferring with the varietal purity of the choice Chardonnay grapes he contracts.

Ido at his

Ido at his "day job" at the much larger Recanati Winery as one of its two great winemakers

   With Ido's small production and focus on quality he's been able to carefully select distribution to those outlets that he believes have the conviction and know how to talk about his wines enthusiastically and intelligentllly.  At about 160 NIS ($35) retail and 220 to 240 NIS ($55-60) in restaurants, this Chardonnay ranks as one of Israel's most expensive white wines and I agree with Ido that it might take an educated staff to sell this wine against New World Chardonnay expectations but the informed consumer should be pleasantly surprised and even elated consuming this wine in contrast to similar or even higher priced international Chardonnays. Get it now before everyone else catches on to what I'm saying and what magic Ido's is making in his state of the art micro-winery in his father's modified temperture-controlled garage.

Lewinsohn Winery's Mascot

Every fan of the film Mondovino knows many great wineries have a loyal mascot

 

 

Ido Lewinsohn

can be contacted at:

idolewinsohn@gmail.com

 

 


October 20, 2009October 20, 2009  0 comments  wine

 

    Once again, I had the distinct honor and priviledge to spend the day with noted winemaker Asaf Margalit from the renown Margalit Winery. Over the last year, I've met with Asaf about a dozen times and each time I walked away more impressed with Asaf as a winemaker and Margalit wines are etched into my mind as some of the most expressive and dynamic wines I've ever tasted.

    One of the primary reasons Margalit wines are so good is their source materials.  The vineyards the Margalit's have acquired in Binyamina and especially their Kadita vineyard in the Upper Galilee are some of the most envied vines in Israel.  As most winemakers will tell you, 75% to 95% (it's a very subjective estimation) of what makes a wine good or great started in the vineyard. As the saying goes "you can make bad wine out of good grapes but you can't make good or great wine out of bad grapes." And the Margalits have built an amazing reputation over 20 vintages by starting each wine from great grapes.

     The quality of the grapes the Margalit family uses to make their wines shouldn't discount the talent of the father & son team of Ya'ir and Asaf Margalit. Ya'ir, who studied high speed fermentation at UC Davis, has written three technical texts on winemaking that are used extensively internationally & he was the first wine maker at the 1,000,000 bottle/year Tishbi Winery in 1985 before opening his own winery in 1989. Asaf who also spent time in California studying wine making before returning to Israel teaches aspiring winemakers in Tel Hai and has mentored many students who have gone on to work in larger wineries or open their own boutique wineries.  Even though they produce a modest 20,000 bottles, the demand for Margalit wines elicits a price in the marketplace that enables them to be commercially viable and they have long term goals of eventually building a more visitor friendly facility once they can find a location that navigates around Israel's byzantine real estate laws (possibly adjacent to their vineyard in Binyamina which produces their Cabernet Franc grapes).  Additionally, Asaf insists that his non-irrigated vines have not only survivied the drought of last winter but have thrived and produced amazingly concentrated color and flavors.

 

Assaf Margalit measuring fermentation

Winemaker Asaf Margalit observes his

2009 Cabernet Sauvignon during fermentation

 

 

pumping over 2009 Margalit juice


Margalit's 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon juice

being "pumped over" as it ferments into wine


    On this visit with Asaf to the family's modest facility in a grapefruit grove in Hadera, Asaf was checking on how his crushed grapes were going through various stages of fermentation. We tasted all the componnet wines, in various stages of fermentation, that would be the base for his future 2009 world class red wines. The Cabernet Sauvignon was still going through first stage fermentation and this year Asaf was experimenting with a late harvest Cabernet Sauvignon harvest as well that produced super ripe, complex and colorful grapes that he'll process and monitor seperately to see how they'll be used as a component in one of Margalit's five wines.

 

tasting 2009 marglait cab franc

tasting Margalit's 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon

beating 99.9 % of you to the punch,

jealous... you should be!!!

 

  At this stage Asaf was monitoring the sugar levels of some wines to see how well the sugar was being fermented by digesting yeast. Since the solids in grape juice are 95% sugar as the sugar turns to alcohol and carbon dioxide the sugar levels can be measured by it's viscosity as the liquid becomes less dense as the alcohol level increases. In a dry wine, almost all of the inherent sugar in the crushed grapes is fermented where as in a sweet wine, the process would be either stopped leaving a desired amount of residual sugar or added sugar could be used to sweeten a wine.

 

dsr at margalit 10 19 09

observing the "pumping over" process

 

   We also tasted Margalit's Cabernet Franc and Petite Sirah. The Cabernet Franc is made into a single varietal (and Margalit's Cabernet Franc is one of the reasons I see potential as Cabernet Franc being a signature grape for Israel) and its used as part of Margalit's Enigma (a traditional Bordeaux blend). The Petite Sirah is used to add some punch and color to Margalit's Cabernet Sauvignon though after tasting it i wished he grew and produced more so he could release it as a single varietal as well.

 

 

Asaf cooking lunch for DSR 10 19-09


as you might expect many winemakers are also good cooks

as Asaf proved with tasty chicken stir-fry we shared for lunch

 

 

 


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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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