If you try enough wine and venture to enough wineries in Israel or most New World wine regions you’ll get your full of Cabernet, Merlot and Chardonnay. Hmmn, maybe C.M.C. should be an acronym for “can’t make choices”. At the the Vitkin Winery in Kfar Vitkin, however, they’ve chosen to buck conventional wisdom with their varietal choices: Carignan, Cabernet Franc, Petite Sirah and Pinot Noir for reds and Gewurtztraminer and Riesling for whites. Vitkin Wines are doing what few wineries in Israel dare to do and they’re doing it well. They are not making Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot or Chardonnay. Hat’s of to them.
Don’t get me wrong. There’s nothing wrong with making Cabs, Merlot and Chard. Israel has several great examples of each and I’ll applaud them as I find them; but, does Israel’s future as an exporter lye with these stand-bys or with more “unique-selling point” wines such as Carignan, Cabernet Franc and Petite Sirah? Vitkin makes as extraodinary examples or what innovation is availble with alternative varietals in Israel under the supervision of a gifted winemaker such as Assaf Paz.
Sharona, Doron & Assaf: The Vitkin Team
By visiting Vitkin and it’s CEO, Sharona Paz-Belogolovsky, I got a chance to experience many varietals and their flavors and aromas that I haven’t yet had a chance to write about. As a writer and a wine taster, it was a welcome opportunity (this doesn’t mean I’m swearing off Cab Sauvignon, Merlot or Chards… there are justifiable reasons for the demand). It’s just that when you taste as many wines as I try to taste other “Varietals are the Spice of Life.”
Since their first vintage in 2001, which released only 200 bottles (or one small barrel worth of wine), the “Vitkins” (less of a mouthful than saying the Paz-Belogolovsky’s) have been steadily increasing their production and diversifying their offereings. Starting with Cabernet Sauvignon, (as most garage wineries here seem to do) their departure has established their niche in the ever increaing competitive Israeli marketplace. Producing about 40,000 bottles now they’re hoping to sooner than later expand to 100,000 bottles at which point they’ll probably make accomodations to become a Kosher winery which would only require them to hire a Sabbath-observant Jew to handle the wine according to Rabbinic stipulations. The increased production might mean a move to new facility and building an attached tating room/visitor center.
It’s worthy to note here that many of Israel’s best wineries, which ae smaller wineries, dont have conventional tasting rooms. It’s not by choice. Many of them, by where they are located on community or collective farms, aren’t allowed to have attached tasting rooms by restrictive zoning practices. I hope to help advance getting Israel’s Knesset to help pass new zoning to help provide zoning exemptions. In California, for instance, most boutique wineries sell 50% of their wines retail in their visitor center which is much more profitable than selling wholesale to restaurants and distributors. The tasting rooms also become great toursit destinations. At this visit, I was kindly received by Sharona in the family kitchen which has a certain charm of it’s own.
Back to the wines… as they establish their own niche, the Vitkin wines are also proving some nay-sayers wrong about what wines can be made well in Israel. Take for example, their 2007 Pinot Noir which produced 3,000 bottles with 13.8% alcohol. It’s been very well received with a lot more color and body than traditionally expected from Pinot Noirs but it retains those strawberry and cola flavors that are so sought after. This wine uses 100% Pinot Noir grapes (as is the Burgandy style) from vineyards adjacent to Gush Etzion and Jerusalem at an altitude of 700 meters. This same elevated vineyard and microclimate accounts for their Viognier and Riesling grapes. This wine reaffirms that Pinot Noir can be well crafted at lower latitudes around the globe at higher altitude vineyards. This coveted vineyard is exclusive to Vitkin. The vineyard is 10 degrees celcius lower in temperture than the surrounding area and actually expereinces frost in the winter which is indicative of a vineyard more apt for Pinot Noir than many other parts of Israel such as the coastal plains. The wine is oaked in 350 liter barrels for 10 month before bottle aging and release.
Another red varietal that hasn’t received it’s proper respect in Israel (as well as the rest of the world) is Carignan. Carignan has long been Israel’s most planted red grape, as it was in France until recently. Of course few avid wine drinkers and almost no casual wine consumer has heard of Carignan because it was mostly a blending grape or bottled as a non descipt table wine. You probably drank some under the label “red wine” without even knowing it. As in France, in Israel has had a history of growing Carignan as a bulk grown grape. As a bulk grape, it did what was asked of it and delivered a mass of high-alcohol non-notable red wine. However, when treated and tended to like a fine wine, harvested from older and/or well manicured vines producing up to one tenth of the over produced vines, the Carignan is quite capable of delivering a shock of a black raspberry fruit bomb with crisp acidity with oak infused notes of cinnamon, clove and sandlewood.
Their Carignan currently hails from three vineyards in Binyamina, Zichron Ya’acov and the Carmel Mountain. The vines range from 25 to 40 years old, a rarity in Israel as many Carignan vines were getting pulled as they aged because they would produce far fewer grapes (desirable fro a fine wine though detrimental if you were seeking bulk production which most Carignan growers wanted). The Vitkin 2006 Carignan (released August 2008) retails for about 95 NIS (about $24) and is oaked 14 months in both 300 and 350 liter barrels. The wine is almost sold out. 100% Carignan grapes grown on 25 to 40 year old vines in Binyamina, Zichron Ya’acov and Carmel Mountain.
Another red varietal that Vitkin is assisting to get in proper place in the mindset of israeli wine consumers is Cabernet Franc. Cabernet Franc has been showing great promise with several producers here in Israel including Margalit and recently Tishbi. This Bordeaux varietal demonstrates a far fruiter alternative than French releases. It’s intrinsic higher acidity than Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot might make it better suited for Israel where warmer climes can challenge the acidity levels of grapes. Typically, warmer climes produce higher sugar in grapes and thereby when fermented higher alcohol where in cooler climes, lower alcohol and higher acidity is expected. The acidity of Cabernet Franc also makes it more food friendly than it’s Bordeaux brothers and is suggested as good company to herbal sauces, tomato based dishes and savory eggplant offereings.
If you’ve been following my wine explorations, you should know by know, I think Cabernet Franc has the potential to be Israel’s signature grape for several reasons. First, it’s a Bordeaux varietal and there’s a certain mystique, romance and respect that comes with that. Even though Malbec isn’t used that extensively in France anymore, Malbec‘s status as a Bordeuax grape helped get Argentina on the world wine map. Second, Cabernet Franc isn’t being exported in any significant quanity from anywhere other than France. France typically only exports it with the region it’s from on the label and doesn’t even mention Cabernet Franc on the lable. Israel could brand Cabernet Franc as it’s own.
Additionally, since most Israeli wine exports go to the United States and most of those go the Northeast and Mid Atlantic states, it should be helpful that Cabernet Franc is well planted in well regarded Long Island vineyards in New York State. As mentioned before, it food friendly acidity should be a blessing for those selling the wines to accompany home cooking or for placement on restaurant wine lists. As a little side note Malbec is Israel’s least grown Bordeuax varietal rarely making a single varietal appearance and most often relagated to blends.
The Vitkin Cabernet Franc 2006 is comprised of 86 % Cabernet Franc and 14% Petite Verdot ( a common complementary blending grape in Bordeaux as well as in finer Israeli wines) with 14 months in small oak barrels and 14% alcohol. The Petite Verdot helps provide color, structure and tannins to the elegance of Cabernet Franc. This Cab Franc is bigger, bolder and deeper in color than most Cab Francs with black raspberry and with subtle green pepper and herbal aromas with the crisp acidity desired by most Cab Franc advocates.
A glimmer in Dave’s eye as he ehjoy’s Vitkin’s 2006 Cabernet Franc
Another “bastard” red grape Vitkin fosters into a splendid wine is Petite Sirah. Though a grape from France where when it’s used at all it’s almost always used for blending , it’s more widely known from it’s use in California as a single varietal. The Vitkin Petite Sirah 2006 (with 14% alcohol) was just recently released in 2009, two months ago. This wine was oaked 16 months in 300 and 350 liter barrel. The larger barrels expose less wine per liter to oak than smaller barrels would. The Petite Sirah is so heavy that the fruit be would overwhelmed by more oak. Their Carignan gets a similar treatment for the same reasons.This example of Petite Sirah exhibitscherry, heavy tannins (which should serve it well as it ages) with noticeble but pleasant acidity with red plums as it opens up. To the eye, it appears, as expected from Petite Sirah, as deep purple octopus ink.
Ironically, Vitkin exports this wine to France where Petite Sirah isn’t typically available as a single varietal. Vitkin harvests these grapes over two days to help balance the acidity and sugar (alcohol) levels. One of Sharon’s duties as CEO is to hire the pickers for harvesting. It’s seasonal work so the wineries hire crews to come in and typically need to order them a few days in advance to secure them from working for another winery. It’s a critical process as Sharona explains “if you miss by even one day, picking at the right time, you can end up having a wine missing out on having an acidity at all”. This obviosly wasn’t an issue with this Petite Sirah wine which has been very well received and is expected to sell out within two months. With so many of Vitkin’s wines selling out so soon after release it’s no wonder they want to expand production.
Vitkin also offers what they call their entry level wines, the Israeli Voyage series but they compare well in quality to other wineries premiere wines. Released as food friendly table wines, their price of 65 NIS might shy away a casual drinker but their white just received an award as a Best Value wine at the Israeli Wine Awards in Tel Aviv. The 2008 Israeli Voyage White is 65 NIS and is a mix of Viognier, French Columbard & Gerwurtzraminer with 12.5% alcohol. Apricot, peach, grapefruit, orange and leechee come in full force due to the mix of ABC (anything but Chardonnay) grapes which shine with hearty helping of acidity. Some of the Viognier gets oaked in Vitkin’s Pinot Noir barrels to add body and enhance the flavors.
The award winning 2008 Vitkin White Israeli Voyage
Their Red Israeli Voyage is also a value at 65 NIS and is comprised of Syrah, Carignan & Cabernet Franc. The earthiness of a Syrah is out front on the nose and the wine is only aged in 10% new oak which keeps it fruity and easily accessable. Black Cherry comes to mind swooshing it one’s mouth and at 13.5% it’s not a kick in the teeth that many israeli reds deliver. Sharona suggests serving the wine slightly chilled like a Beujolais and that it’s an ideal wine to accompany BBQ fare.
Late Harvest White
Riesling, Viognier and Columbard grapes were harvested in November to produce a wine with 150 grams of residual sugar/liter and 10 1/2% alcohol released in a 375 ml bottle (a “split”) common to dessert wines retailing for about 90 NIS or $22.50
The Vitkin’s suggest this wine as an apertif as well as a dessert wine and that it could be served as an ally of Fois Gras or Onion Marmelade and I suggest that a Peach Melba, a slice of Apple Pie al la mode or a Goat Cheese Napoleon might do justice to this wine as well.
Let’s all look forward to tasting their other upcoming wines for their diversity, quality and reasonable prices. A triple threat in the Israeli wine market.
68 Derech Hakfar
on the Rottenberg-Belogovsky Farm
PO Box 267, Kfar Vitkin, Israel 40200