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Tags - punching down
There's a few different doors through which people enter into working with wine. Many come into wine through the hospitality industry. Caterers, hotel and restaurant workers and owners have many opportunites to learn about wine through tasting the wines they serve. The wineries and distributors will often go to great effort and expense to give their staffs training (Eli Ben Zaken at Domaine du Castel for example was the owner of the Italian restaurant Mamma Mia in Jerusalem before making his fiirst wine). In Israel, many children were lucky enough to have their parents catch the bug before them and have had a winery to set their sights on early in life. (Assaf Margalit and Golan Tishbi are examples of such winemakers who followed in their father's footsteps). Many winery owners switched from wine successful career paths in unrelated industries to the more romantic venture of winemaking (count Dalton and Recanati amoung these Israeli wineries). Some others entered through their curiousity while following academic pursuits ( I first studied wine through my college's geography department and Yair Margalit was a research chemist at UC Davis, which hosts one of the world's most famous wine programs). Much more rare but becoming more common is when a child paves the way for a parent. Ido Lewinsohn and his father Amnon are such a pair of aspiring wine entrepeneurs.
Ido has gained an immense amount of diverse winemaking experiences in a relatively short span of time. Besides launching his new and promising winery, Ido serves as a winemaker at the award winning Recanati winery under the tutelage of noted winemaker Gil Shatsberg. Ido has been been there for about two years so he was there when the winery went through it's transition from Recanati's founding winemaker Lewis Pasco in 2008 to Gil who had come over from the pretigious boutique Amphorae. Amnon Lewinsohn, had a long and fruitful career as a mechanical engineer before partnering with his son on making fine wines. For a small winery, a mechanical engineer is an asset of immeasurable value. There are so many devices that need tinkering and many processes that can benefit from a trained eye especially in the limited space starting wineries often inhabit. Incidently, Ido mother's maiden name, Winezoff, loosely translates from Polish into "wine taster" so maybe a recessive gene is partly responable for Ido's devotion to oenology.
Unlike many of the previous generation of Israeli winemakers, Ido and many of his contempories have had intensive training and work expereince in international wine schools, vineyards and wineries. Ido started quenching his curiousity about wine at the University of Milan where he studied oenology and viticulture. Since his initial studies, his practical experience has been bountiful and well traveled. From the "Old World"of European origin, he worked at the 2002 vintage of Domaine Haut Lirou in the Pic St. Loup appelation in the Languedoc region of France. In 2004, he returned to Italy to the Sassicaia Winery, in Tuscany, a producer of of notable "Super Tuscans." In 2005, he gained valuble expereince creating a new winery in France's Rhone Valley, the Mas du Notaire in appelation Costieres de Nimes. He continued there the following year as well as crafting the wines at the Haut Lirou.
Though his wines show an evident respect for Old World traditions of lower alcohol, less oakey, more nuanced wines, Ido isn't without his New World winemaking expereinces. In 2003, he worked with the Margalit family in Israel (who themselves are noted for merging the best attributes of Old World and New World winemaking) and has maintained a close working relationship with the Margalit's ever since. In 2007, Ido went to the far reaches of the winemaking world when he ventured to spend that vintage year at the Domaine A on the Austrailian island of Tasmania. This immediatley preceded his return to Israel and his start at Recanati. This was also the stage at when Ido transitioned from a student of wine into a teacher as he became the director of the winemaking course at Ariel University in the West Bank. These winemaking courses are evolving into a one year program for those aspiring to establish boutique wineries.
The Lewisohn line-up is typical of many Israeli boutique wineries offering 3 wines: two reds, a Merlot and a Cabernet Sauvignon and a for the one white a Chardonnay. Though all of his wines equal or surpass the quality of many of Israel's other reserve wines, there is a barrel of Cabernet which might be later released as the winery's first reserve. Although the choice of varietals is not surprising, the special care he has taken in nuturing these wines manage to convey qualities rarely seen in their Israeli peers and could compete for bragging rights against well recognized international offerings.
There are few distinct steps that Ido credits for his wines unique appeal, to me and to the select few who've been treated to his first vintage and a sneak preview of the the 2008's. First and most importantly is Ido buys only the best grapes including some from the Margalit family's Galilee vineyards. He pays a premium to secure grapes he knows makes the highly sought after Margalit wines from their Kadita vineyard in the Galilee. Many winemakers will admit that you can only make great wine from from great grapes and I've heard some credit what happens in the vineyard accounts for 85 to 95% of the quality of any given wine.
Not only does he secures great grapes he picks them at a lower than usual Brix level (sugar level) which provides for higher acidity than usual and lower alcohol levels. The lower alcohol and higher acidity levels allows for a wine that can convey more balance, a longer finish and more complexity unmasked by higher alcohol. The lower brix picking has also been adopted by the Margalit's and that's good company to be keeping.
Warmer weather regions typically have shorter growing seasons than cooler regions because the fruit ripen quicker which can give more dependable harvests but don't allow for more complex flavors and acidity to develop. In Israel altitude can often make up for latitude and hilly and mountainous regions such as the Galilee, Golan and Judean Hills can produce grapes associated with more northern climes (or southern if you think of southern hemisphere wines in Argentina, Chile, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand for example).
Even more unique than harvesting lower brix grapes is how Ido implements gravity in processing his wines. Gravitation winemaking is when the winemaker at every stage or even at critical stages uses gravity to assist the crushing, fermentation and even bottling processes. During crushing the Lewinsohn's can accompish this by using a small crusher/destemmer that can process about a ton of grapes an hour but can be placed directly over the tank the juice is intended for. This allows the grapes to avoid being being pumped to the tanks as most wineries do. During pumping, the skins, stems and seeds are handled more harshly according to gravity proponents and this translates into more bitter tannic tasting wines with more vegetative aromas. To complement this, instead of pumping over the juice to let the grapes slowly gently open up Ido uses open top tanks which allow for "punching down" which he asserts is even more gentle with the potentially problemeatic seeds, stems and skins (oh,my).
Another suggested advantage of gravity processing is that the less pumping and other mechanical manipulations of juice from the grapes to tanks to barrels to the bottles, the less mechanical energy transferred to the grapes and the juice and the less interference with the natural tastes emerging from the wine. Some winereies have gone to making 4 or 5 story wineries that allow every stage of the processing to use gravity to assist in the wine migrating from one stage to another. However, Ido considers "100%" gravtity assisted winemaking a marketing ploy and and an unnecessary extravagent expense and that it's only in certain stages (crushing,fermenting and bottling) that these efforts translate into noticeble differences. Never the less, no Israeli competitors are 100% gravity assisted and few if any are known to be using it to the extent he's adopted. If his wines gain the respect they deserve, look forward to others to follow though it's far more manageble on the smaller scale of a boutique winery than a larger more industrial producer.
An even more unique innovation Ido is introducing is sur lees aging to his reds. Now sur lees aging, aging the feremented juice with the already spent yeast, is quite common with white wines, but seldomn used with reds and almost unheard of with for aging up to the year Ido is aging his reds. The sur lies provides another nuance to the taste and feel of the wines as the yeast cells impart a certain flavor but also as they break open impart a fuller body as they release polysaccarides into the wine. Polysaccarides by definition area long chain of sugars which give way to a fuller body to the wines can provide balance otherwise lost to lower alcohol levels due to the lower brix harvesting.
Though his efforts supporting Gil Shatsberg at Recanati are more easily accessable in Israel and overseas, Ido has secured a few placements with Israeli restaurants that have been buying up his whole production of Lewinsohn Wines at between 4 to 6,000 bottles a year so far. Al Ha'mayim, Messa and the Metushelach Wine Bar would be worth investigating just to try Lewinsohn wines and if they have sought out such a high quality winery for their list, it wets one's imagination what else they might carry and what food they may serve to complement their wines. Currently, the 2007 Chardonnay is selling off the wine lists for 220-240 NIS/bottle (about $55- $60/bottle which isn't bad for a premium Chardonnay over dinner). The wines are retailing for 110 NIS for the Chardonnay and 130 for the reds (about $26 and $30 respectfully).
Besides enjoying the fruits of his own labor with Lewinsohn's and Recanati's line-up of wines, he indulges in Margalit and Clos de Gat wines. His days in Europe weren't for naught and he does like to invest in Italian Piedmont wines when and where they're available.
Fans of Israeli produced wines should be enthusiasic that Israel is nuturing and producing skillfull and concientious winemakers like Ido Lewinsohn and I hope they find ways to supports his efforts at Recanati or his own Lewinsohn wines less he be recruited to once again ply his craft overseas.
I'll be looking forward to tasting his soon to be released 2008 Chardonnay which relied on grapes from Red Poetry vineyards.
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