Few, if any wineries, in Israel have gained as much notoriety as fast and widespread as the Yatir Winery at the northeast edge of the Negev Desert. Adjacent to the ancient ruins of Tel Arad, a Canaanite settlement dating back over 3,000 years, the winery lies at the southern base of the Judean Hillswhile all of it’s vineyards, except their Sauvignon Blanc, lie amoungst the Yatir Forest at about 900 meters above sea level. In less than ten years, Yatir has managed what would almost be impossible in more established wine regions, to launch from it’s first vintage to be among the first mentioned when critics and winemakers talk about the best wineries in Israel.
An initiative by the Carmel Winery since it’s inception in 2000, Yatir has operated fairly independently as a unique and distinct brand from Carmel. This was done evidently for at least two reasons. Primarily, even though the weight of Carmel’s place as the largest producer of Israeli and kosher wine could help secure Yatir’s exposure in the marketplace, Carmel’s previous reputation as a producer of principally bulk wines wouldn’t tarnish Yatir’s lofty and seemingly now fulfilled aspirations to make some of Israel’s best and most sought after wine. Additionally, as Carmel attempts to reinvent itself, Yatir was allowed to focus on establishing and maintaining consistently high standards of viticulture in their dedicated vineyards as well operating with it’s own winemaker, staff and first rate facilities with a focus on exploring every possible avenue in making the best wine it could from day one.
Conifer trees of the Yatir Forest in the southern Judean Hills
Ya’acov Ben Dor, the manager of the winery and previous manager of the Yatir Moshav, gives a lot of credit to the terroir of the vineyards to the quality and uniqueness of Yatir wines. As he led me on a personal tour from the Negev lowlands up into the Judean highlands, Ya’acov took special care to point out the unique vegetation in this area compared to the other premier Israeli wine regions such as the Golan or Galilee or the northern reaches of the Judean Hills. Here there are many spicy, herbaceous xerophytic (drought-resistent) plants whose intense flavors are a defense mechanism from grazing animals who might find their intensity suitable for a nibble but not a whole meal. Ya’acov implies that this intensity of flavor found in the native flora might be finding it’s way to the grapes. The distinctive flavors a terroir imparts can be such a mecurial quality but it’s something Ya’acov has obviously considered. As someone who managed many crops in the area (pistachios, almonds, apricots, apples and cherries are grown nearby) there are few people who know this area and it’s agricultural potential than Ben Dor. He was one of the original growers who had the foresight to plant vineyards in the Yatir Forest in 1994 that would become the backbone of Yatir wines.
Of course, Yatir’s vineyards might never have been planted if the Yatir Forest hadn’t brokered the way to show that this arid area had botanical possibilites. David Ben Gurion, Israel’s first, most influential and longest serving prime minister was a persistent advocate of developing the Negev and is buried at the Negev’s Kibbutz Sde Boker where he had eventually retired and is now buried. It was he who insisted against scientific advice to plant trees in this region. The Jewish National Fund collected donations from around the world to plant conifourous trees in Israel and started planting in the Yatir in 1964 and now it’s israel’s largest planted forest. As such it plays a part in Israel being the only country in the world to have a net gain of trees in the 20th century.
David and Ancient Wine Press in Yatir Forest:
1) On the left grapes were stomped
2) the juice flowed to the smaller chamber on the bottom and filtered through herbs such as capers, dates and honey
3) the wine fermented in about 5 days and was stored until “bottled” in clay jars, amphorae
Students of history, however, should have known that the Yatir area could have great potential to be a wine producing area. there are over 180 ancient wine presses scattered through the Yatir region that had the capacity to produce 3,000 liters or about 4,000 of today’s bottle of wine each. in theory that means if all were operating about the same time, these presses could have been producing 720,000 bottles a vintage or even more if there were grapes like today that had staggered seasons so that if there were multiple harvestings 3-4 times as much is concievable as well. Of course climates can change dramtically in decades never mind millenium so a better indicator of the Yatir Forest’s potential for sheltering vineyards would be the other crops that have prospered here. The cherries and apricots, almond and pistachio trees that were succesfuly being harvested here prior to the first modern vineyards being planted here must have given confidence that grapes could do well here as well.
At 900 meters altitude, about 2700 feet, in the Judean Hills and at the northeast tip of the Negev desert, Yatir’s grapes get hot dry summer days and cool summer nights, which has proved an ideal nursery for many of Yatir’s planted wine grape varieites. Frequent mountain winds also help keep the grapes from suffering in the sun and the adjacent Yatir Forest which borders their vineyards on all sides helps cool the area by taking in CO2. The trees have had a side effect of leaching off some of the much needed precipitation, only about 100mm year or about 4 inches falls here, so irrigation is required for the grapes to get their fill. The winds, which are valued for their cooling effect, also increase the evaporation rate and increase the need for irrigation. Fortunely for Yatir, Israel has been at the leading edge of drip-irrigation technology and water conservationand Israel has exported this technology worldwide including to other regions such as Yatir that were thought previously unsuitable for wine grape production.
Even though Ben Dor comes to Yatir as a grower, it’s Yatir’s wine maker Eran Goldwasser whooveresees the viticulture practices in the vineyard. Having studied Viticulture & Oenology at theUniversity of Adelaide in Australia, Eran is just one several Israelis to have studied winemaking “Down Under”. Having returned to Israel from Australia after workering three vintages, Eran credits just being “lucky at the time that few israelis at the time had been studying (winemaking) overseas” and he was hired from Yatir’s inception as it winemaker. It’s without doubt that few winemakers have succeeded so fast to make a name for himself and his wine. The first wines were released in 2004 and since then Yatir wines have been appearing on every wine writer’s list as one of the best wines if not the best wine in Israel.
Much of what they have accomplished at Yatir is believed to be on how they manage the vineyards before harvesting as much as the special care given to the grapes once they reach the winery.
Yatir Sauvignon Blanc (Negev)
100% Sauvignon Blanc grape
Ramat Arad vineyard in the northeast Negev. A portion of the wine was oaked for 3-4 months in oak barrels.
pale straw with a greenish tinge
“citric grapefruit, (I like to think of as pomelo) and cut grass with a hint of minerality that comes through from it’s limited oak agiing ” vibrant, epressive and well-balanced with less of a pucker factor than many Sauvignon Blancs.
Yatir Viognier 2008 (Judean Hills) Semi-dry 7 grams of sugar
Yatir Forest vineyards
The grapes that contributed to this 100% Viognier wine had enough acidity that Eran decided not to color within the lines and he created a distinctly balanced barely sweet wine. Alltough, Viogniers in California and Contreau might age in oak Eran is convinced that this can easily overwhelm the varietal flavors of Viognier. Even more succinctly Eran affirms “many of them just don’t work”. Yatir’s 2008 Viognier does work and at 13.5% alcohol (less than the 14-15% Viogniers often exhibit) the lower alcohol level gives room for using some of the residaul sugar to create what Eran believes and I affirm is something special. When discussing how Viogniers have become popular with some of Israel’s winemakers, Eran provides a disclaimer that it might be unrealistic to grow Viognier as extensively as French Columbard with great results because “better Viogniers are grown in cooler areas, they’re very fussy vines and the grapes can exhibit elusive aromas’.”
Expected Flavors and Aromas:
“green apple, apricot, peach and nectarines an almond /marzapan ” ” refreshing acidity, a lot of body with a pleasantly long finish
Yatir Merlot-Shiraz-Cabernet (Judean Hiils) this blend was first introduced as a Cabernet-Merlot-Shiraz but as Eran says he decided that “if people wanted a big, bold Cabernet Sauviignon I was alreaady making one so I decided with the blend I’d make something a bit different. Eran says the Merlot-Shiraz- Canernet is a brand more than a list of the ingredients and Merlot coming first should give a hint to a softer wine. As well, the Cabernet on the label doesn’t always refer to Cabernet Sauvignon as in this case it refers to Cabernet Franc which lends to a more food friendly wine with less tannins and more acidity.
Yatir’s premier label Yatir Forest after being hand-labeled