Best Bet Passover Wines – Vol 2.1

Ahhh…Israeli wines.  A combination of two things I most cherish (along with my wife & family of course) in this world; Israel & wine.

Working in the wine industry has afforded me many opportunities to taste wines.  In recent years however it has also prevented me from participating in wine events (such as the Gotham Kosher wine Extravaganza) in the role of wine writer as I had in previous years.  As such there may be wines I will write about strictly on how I remember them (probably previous vintages) or based recommendation from respected friends.  And further, there may be wines that I omit, as negative feelings following a break up (professional) prevents me from speaking nicely about an Ex.

Many of my favorite Israeli wines possess some of the special herbaceous (sage, rosemary, thyme, etc) qualities I consider to be Israeli (Judean Hills in particular) terroir – those I enjoy very much and consider to be unique to Israeli wines.  These herbaceous qualities combined with the ripe fruit qualities garnered by a desert climate lead to wines I believe are part old world (herbs) & part new world (fruit).  Wines that go beyond FRUIT are those I favor, and this is why Israeli wines along with wines from France & Italy tend to be my favorites.  I appreciate and often times enjoy new world fruit driven wines such as those from California or Australia, but sometimes find these wines to be a little too “clean” or one-dimensional for my personal preference.

That said one of the many things I have learned throughout my personal wine journey is that my tastes evolve.  And who knows, I may one day decide that I prefer the cleaner new world wines to the “dirty” old world ones.

Either way, working in alphabetical order as I did with BBPW V2.0, we begin with Agur.  I have in the past tried wines from this winery and while not blown away, I found them to be nice.  I have heard nice things, from people whose palates I respect, about the Agur Kessem Cab/Merlot ($35) blend and as such can recommend it to those prepared to pay $30+ for a bottle of wine who are interesting in experimenting with wines from smaller, lesser known wineries.  These small wineries by the way are great places to visit when in Israel and their wines often show great “hand made” qualities.

On the other end of the size spectrum is the Barkan winery, among the largest in Israel.  The Barkan “Classic” series is about a $10 line of wines that I have in the past not been too fond of.  On recommendation from a colleague I tried the Barkan “Classic” Pinot Noir ($11).  I love a good Burgundy and tend to shy away from the fruity California Pinots.  I further believe that Pinor Noir is a varietal that is either good or bad, with very little in between.  Whereas Argentina & Chili are making nice cheap Cab/Merlot/Malbec, I have yet to find a budget Pinot I think very good.  The Barkan Pinot made from fruit hailing from the Negev desert was surprisingly quite nice.  At a modest 13.5% alcohol it is not the most complex wine in the world, but it is certainly good, with clean fruit flavors and a light crisp acidity that makes it a refreshing change from the big reds and a lovely pairing for lighter fare that would be overpowered by bigger wines.

And while I am not intimately familiar with many of the remaining Barkan “classic” wines I did have the opportunity to visit the winery and meet with one of the winemakers a few years back.  At the time I was shown the shiny new micro-oxygenation machines being used to soften some of the Barkan wines.  And I trust that the integration of these machines in the winemaking process at Barkan has enabled the “Classic” series of wines to be the soft, well made and easy drinking wines that they are.

Barkan also makes higher level wines.  The Barkan Pinotage Reserve ($24) is a unique wine that I thoroughly enjoyed.  And the Barkan Altitude ($40) Wines (Cabernet made from vineyards at different altitudes; 412, 624 & 720) are always excellent Cabs.  The Barkan Superieur Cabernet & Merlot ($60) are expensive wines that some adore, though to my (simple) tastes they are not THAT much better and as such I find it hard to justify their price tags.

Binyamina is another large winery in Israel, located in Zichron Yaakov.  Binyamina is making wines in several series, and today in the US consumers can find the “Yogev” series (blends dedicated to the farmers who produce the fruit), the Binyamina “reserve” series, and the Avnei CHoshen (precious stones) series of premium wines.  The popular combination of price & quality of the Yogev wines has led to a good problem if there ever was one for their importer – insufficient inventory.  The supply has had a hard time meeting the demand and as such these wines may be selling out at your favorite wine shop.  I have been assured that the importer is doing everything in its power to bring the wines in as quickly as possible, but if these wines are a favorite of yours you may want to consider stocking up.  The Yogev Cabernet/Zinfandel & Yogev Cabernet/Petite Verdot ($15) are two of my favorites in this series.

Moving on to the Binyamins Reserve wines ($25), one finds wines (beginning with the 2006 vintage) that are mevushal.  Fear not, the quality of the wines was not sacrificed and the Binyamina Reserve Cabernet, Binyamina Reserve Shiraz (a new wine) & Binyamina Reserve Zinfandel (also new) are all lovely wines that you can be proud to serve, especially if you require a mevushal wine.

An all time favorite wine from this winery, especially for Israeli wine lovers at restaurants, is “The Cave” ($60).  A Bordeaux blend that consistently sells out like the Yogevs given its popularity.  A top tier wine on all US based restaurant wine lists (where wine MUST be mevushal), the Cave is rich, extracted, fruit driven and quite delicious.  In the past I have tried a Cave that I found to be a bit tired, with jammy fruit – an attribute I believe came as a result of its flash pasteurization, but I have not had a repeat of this experience in a few years and can confidently recommend this wine for those seeking a high end Israeli red.

Finally, the “Choshen” (as they are known in the US) wines.  I tried the “Sapphire”, a Bordeaux and enjoyed it very much.  But my favorite and a wine I hear is showing quite beautifully right now is the Binyamina “Choshen” Ruby Syrah, ($60) blended with a little bit of Viognier.  Showing the smoked meat qualities that only a fine Syrah can, this wine also displays some mushroom aromas and flavors of blue & black berries with a hint of pepper, making it a great pairing for the lamb roast you are (I am) dreaming about.  Yummy…save me some leftovers!

From Binyamina we venture on to Carmel.  Carmel is Israel’s oldest winery and it is also Israel’s largest winery.  Whereas large wineries often maintain a stigma about “mass produced” wines, Carmel maintains several facilities throughout the country, each acting as standalone wineries, including their boutique winery and the darling of Israeli wine critics, Yatir.  With a new administration in place, Carmel has further forged itself as not only a quantity leader, but a quality leader within the Israeli wine world.  Employing professionally trained winemakers and utilizing fruit that is graded for quality (and downgraded if standards are not met), Carmel has regained its reputation as arguably the best winery in Israel.

Sporting an upscale new label, the Carmel Private Collection wines are no longer mevushal (part of the quality revolution) and quite good.  All three presently available is the US, the Carmel Private Collection Cabernet, Merlot & Cab/Merlot ($19) blend are all smooth, fruit driven, easy drinking wines.

The best value from Carmel comes from the Appellation series ($26).  Mostly varietal wines, these wines contain “critters” on their labels, but they are certainly not critter wines.  For years I have been recommending the Carmel Appellation Carignan as well as the Carmel Appellation Petite Sirah.  Each comes from old vines and the Petite Sirah is dry farmed (received no irrigation).  These extracted wines are complex, varietally correct and delicious.  New favorites among this line for me include the Carmel Appellation Cabernet Sauvignon, a wine with juice from a vineyard that was previously used in a single vineyard wine.  A lovely, almost perfumed aroma gives way to a wine that is velvety soft and mouth coating – quickly becoming one of my favorite Israeli cabs.  And finally, the Carmel Appellation Cabernet Franc, a juicy & well balanced wine that pairs with lighter fare & has mocha/chocolate characteristics with a hint of green bell pepper.

Next in the line of Carmel wines comes the Single Vineyard wines.  Presently available in the US are the Carmel Single Vineyard “Kayoumi” Cabernet & Syrah($40), each from the 2004 vintage.  The Cabernet has softened very nicely and still shows great black fruit characteristics with gripping tannins and a long elegant finish.  While the Syrah is now showing smoked meat, mushroom & even earthy characteristics that make it a special wine.  Also available is the Carmel Single Vineyard “Sha’al” Late Harvest Gewurtztraminer ($30)- now that is a mouthful, in more ways than one.  Beautifully aromatic with aromas of exotic tropical fruits, this wine maintains a balancing acidity that combined with its sweet syrupy nectar makes for the perfect dessert.

Finally from Carmel (saving the Yatir wines for later) comes the top of the line Carmel Limited Edition ($100).  I have only tried this wine once or twice in my life since the 2002 vintage.  2002 was the first vintage for this wine and at that time it was made under the Appellation label – and priced at a much more accessible level.  I recall the 2002 being among the first wines where I recognized pencil shaving and cigar box aromas.  What a pleasurable epiphany!  Not a wine affordable to all, but a wine all should have the pleasure to try at least once in their lives.  Grab it if you can, and cellar it if possible.  It is ageworthy and will reward those with the patience to wait 5-10 (or more) years for it to evolve and gain further complexities.

Castel is a winery everyone has heard of.  Some say that the moment Serena Sutcliffe tasted a bottle of Castel Grand Vin and declared it the best Israeli wine she ever tasted was the moment Israeli wines “arrived”.  Since fully converting to a kosher facility in 2003 (they previously made wines without kosher certification) Castel has been a darling of the Israeli & Jewish communities.  Although Castel wines carry high price tags, I would argue that the wines are worth more than they cost.  The Castel Grand Vin ($70) is a gem, displaying a dazzling combination of earthy old world and fruity new world characteristics.  Said to be the Israeli wine that is most old world, the wine is complex and rewards its drinkers with a long satisfying finish.  Also from Castel, and at release a wine I think shows better than the more expensive Grand Vin is the Petite Castel ($45).  Previously Merlot based (with some Cabernet Sauvignon), more recent vintages of this wine have included at least 50% Cabernet.  Accessible in its youth , this wine has great fruit characteristics, a silky mouth feel and a long finish.

Dalton is a winery I grew up on.  Following my “AHA” wine moment with the Hagafen Merlot, I developed a mini-love affair with Dalton wines, in particular the “Canaan” wines.  At the time these wines were available at under $10/bottle (my price range at the time) and I found them to be terrific (they are now about $15+).  I then graduated from the “smooth” Canaan wines and developed an infatuation with the “Estate” wines($25), especially the Dalton Estate Shiraz (or was it Syrah?) .  Where the Canaan wines were “smooth” the Estate wines packed a punch (fruit bombs).  Definitely my preference at the time.  Though I drink a lot less Dalton these days, when I do I try to go for the Reserve line ($40) of Dalton wines which have an elegance to them.  Falling somewhere in between the Estate & Reserve wines is a wine I can recommend based on quality and price, the Dalton “Alma” blend ($25).  A Bordeaux blend of Cabernet, Merlot & Cab Franc, this wine has red- & black- berry aromas & flavors, is accessible in its youth, with just enough complexities to make it a great buy at its price point.

Ella Valley is a winery I came to respect when I spent time in Israel working on vineyards.  I have not had the pleasure of tasting too many Ella Valley wines in recent years (party due their often $30+ price tags & my lack of connections at Ella) but a wine on my buy list is the Ella Valley Cabernet Franc, a wine I have heard from friends is a winner.

Galil Mountain is a winery on the upswing.  The Galil wines are affordable, party due to the way they are made.  The Galil series of wines are often unoaked, allowing the pure fruit to shine through (unaffected by oak) and enabling the price to remain quite competitive.  A long time favorite is the Galil Yiron ($25), a Bordeaux+ (Syrah) blend.  I haven’t tried the most recent vintage (2006) of the Yiron yet, but if history is any indicator it is elegant, complex, long & quite affordable for its quality.

Psagot is a winery I am only first becoming acquainted with.  Despite my short history with Psagot wines I am falling fast.  The Psagot Edom Red ($30) as well as the Psagot Cabernet Sauvignon ($26) each show great terroir with fruit, earth & herbal qualities.  Beautifully extracted fruit with hint of wild herbs, these mouth coating wines have a new yet special place in my heart.

The wines of Recanati have always been good.  But I am looking forward to tasting the newer Recanti wines as they were made by a new winemaker (a guy I spent a few days working with and someone I consider a friend), and are sure to be special.  An old favorite of mine from this winery was the Petite Sirah/Zinfandel blend ($25).  A more recent favorite is the Recanati Reserve Cabernet Franc ($25).  Like many of the wines from the Reserve line the Cab Franc presents excellent value for the money.  I adore the Cab Franc as it possesses a slightly lighter body than the Cabernet Sauvignon and is unique, with its mocha, tobacco and violet characteristics.  A lovely wine worthy of any occassion.

The Segal’s winery is a subsidiary of Barkan.  A great value wine and possibly one of the best budget mevushal wines coming out of Israel is the Segal’s reserve Cabernet Sauvignon (or Merlot).  These Reserve series wines are priced right ($18) and quite good.  Moving up the Segal’s chain you come across the “Dishon” Cab & the Dovev “Merlot”.  It has been a while since i have tasted these wines, but when I last tried them they were quite good.  Finally, the legendary Segal’s “Unfiltered” ($70).  This is yet another wine I have not tried in a while.  It is also a wine that is hard to find as none has been exported to the US from Israel for quite some time.  But there was a time that this was my favorite Israeli wine (even though I could never afford to actually BUY a bottle).  Memories of a rich, extracted mouth filling wine, with ripe tannins and a long lingering finish are still etched in my wine memory bank.  Can’t wait for the next release of this wine…

When I was first introduced to the Shiloh winery by a friend in Israel I was rather unimpressed.  I actually thought the wines were quite bad.  So you can imagine my surprise when a respected industry friend suggested I re-try their wines.  But boy am I a glad I did.  The Shiloh “Secret” Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve ($40) blew my mind.  Gorgeous fruit, silky tannins, a hint of spice and a long finish, this wine was killer.   I understand that many of the Shiloh wines have become Mevushal.  Only time will tell how this will affect the overall quality of the wines, but if they continue in the path of the “Secret” Cab, this winery will be one to watch.

My favorite wines from the Tishbi winery were discovered when I was in Israel with my (at the time) Fiance’.  We took a trip to Zichron Yakov and visited the Tishbi Cafe’.  The weather was warm and all I wanted was a refreshing white.  I believe it was the Estate Sauvignon Blanc, a wine with lovely Sauvignon Blanc characteristics of gooseberry & freshly cut grass that did just the trick.  Buyer beware, many of the Tishbi wines presently available in the US are shmittah wines; wines from the 7th or sabbatical year – when the vineyards are to lay fallow or be made with special significance.

Yet another winery that I need to get to know better is the Tzuba winery.  I only once tasted the Tzuba Metsuda blend ($35) and it is another quality Bordeaux blend being made at a boutique winery in Israel.

Finishing this long post up, we hit the South, and the Yatir Winery, Carmel’s boutique operation and possibly Israel’s most admired winery.  With a wine that garnered the highest score from the Wine Advocate (The ’03 Forest got a 93), Yatir boasts international acclaim.  The wines of Yatir aren’t cheap, starting at about $30, but if you listen to the critics they are worth every penny (and then some).  Though not available Stateside, I tried and immensely enjoyed the Yatir Viognier, a wine I heard more than 1 person call their favorite Israeli white.  A Yatir white that is available in the US is the Yatir Sauvignon Blanc ($36).  This past Thanksgiving I opened this bottle in addition to several other high end wines for the guests at the meal I attended.  This bottle was emptied first – enough said.  Another Yatir favorite is the Yatir Blend ($40) or Yatir Red.  The vintage available here in the US is presently changing to 2006 as the 2005 sells out.  Whereas the wines of Yatir are delicious upon release, I think they benefit greatly from a little bit of bottle age.  The wine that I find most accessible in its youth is the “blend” (AKA “red”).  And while the 2006 blend includes Cabernet Sauvignon for the first time, is big, real and spectacular, I would encourage you to go grab several bottles of the 2005 blend for drinking THIS PASSOVER.  A blend of Merlot, Shiraz, Cab Franc and Petit Verdot, the 2005 is drinking beautifully now.  A fruity & floral nose, red berries on the palate & that signature something special of a Yatir wine, THIS is the one you should be drinking now (unless you have some old 2003 ” Forest” laying around in which case invite ME over for Pessach).  A fitting wine with which to end this post is the Yatir Forest.  Following the rave reviews of the 2003 and on the heals of a spectacular vintage, the 2005 Yatir Forest sky-rocketed in price from about $75 to $120.   The latest release of this wine has seen its price come back down to earth as the 2006 Yatir Forest sells for about $80.  This is definitely a wine that deserves a prominent place in the collectors cellar.  As a matter of fact, the cellar is where this wine probably belongs right now.  It is a little tight, showing its relative youth.  Sure it is a big wine already showing beautiful fruit, herbs and complexity.  But with a few years of cellaring this baby will open up and explode!  As it comes together this wine will soften a bit while opening up to reveal layer after layer of primary fruit, secondary herbaceousness, spice, earth…you name it.  This gem has it all!

Wherever you are and whatever you drink I wish you a meaningful and quality-wine filled Passover!

Happy Israeli wine Tasting!


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