Last week I had the pleasure of visiting Israel for the first time. My boyfriend and I plus a number of our friends were invited to the wedding of some good friends of ours in Tel Aviv so naturally we decided to add a few days either side and turn this into a proper holiday.
As luck would have it, one of the groom’s friends, Alon Yitzhaki, is the man behind Israel Wine Tour, a seriously superior organisation arranging wine tours to some of Israel’s most boutique and quality wineries. Naturally when I discovered this I got straight in touch with Alon to see whether he might be able to arrange a tour for a small group of us on the first day of our trip.
We stepped off our El Al flight at 4.30am and by 10.30am we were standing with winemaker Eran Pick examining the Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon vines at Tzora Vineyards in the heart of the Judean Hills, one of Israel’s fastest growing regions for quality wine production.
Eran is no doubt one of Israel’s most talented winemakers. Graduating top of his class from Davis, California, he is currently studying for the MW and in between time manages to make some of the most delicious wines we tasted during our week in Israel.
At Tzora they are always searching for the coolest areas for growing grapes. The climate is generally very warm, Mediterranean with very little rain so irrigation is necessary. The vineyards sit at around 650 metres above sea level with cool breezes blowing through the hills. The soils here are poor and shallow, the vines therefore quite weak and very low yielding.
One of the main challenges for the winemaking team, explained Eran, is discovering the correct amount of irrigation needed to ensure the vines aren’t over stressed in such hot, dry conditions. They use composting to help the vines build additional strength and are constantly investigating what the vines need in order to reach their perfect balance.
Tzora uses only their own estate-grown grapes in their wines. 80% of the vineyards are planted with red grapes. Terra Rossa soils, rich in iron with limestone beneath, give a marked minerality to the wines which are elegant and restrained rather than mega fruit bombs.
The winery is a kosher winery meaning the wines are produced according to Juddaism’s religious laws. The winemaking and viticultural practices remain the same as for a normal vineyard, the difference being that for wines to be kosher, Sabbath-observant male Jews must supervise the entire winemaking process and any ingredients used, including finings, must also be kosher.
We tasted 5 wines from the range starting with the Tzora Vineyards Judean Hills 2013, a blend of 86% Chardonnay, 14% Sauvignon Blanc. This wine has plenty of peach and tropical melon character with a hint of fresh lime on the nose. Lively on the palate with medium body, nice acidity and a taught, linear structure. Lemon and peach flavours follow through. The grapes are harvested at night to keep them as cool as possible. Whole bunch pressing and no malolactic fermentation takes place in order to retain the maximum acidity. Sur lie ageing in barrel takes place to gain texture. This is a very easily glugable wine and one we enjoyed on numerous occasions throughout our stay. Drinkability is what Eran strives for here and he’s certainly achieved it! 16.5
Next we tasted the Shoresh White 2013. This is 100% Sauvignon Blanc showing aromatic fresh lemon citrus aromas with a touch of herbiness, minerality and a hint of something savoury. A very unique nose. Lovely texture on the palate, rounded with lemon, savoury and mineral flavours and a hint of tomato leaf. Complex. A very well made wine. We liked it so much we bought some bottles home with us! 17.5
Shoresh Red 2012 is a blend of 60% Cabernet Sauvignon, 25% Syrah and 15% Merlot. A lovely deep ruby colour, this wine had plenty of blackberry fruit spice with touches of black currants. Very fresh and lively on the nose which follows through on the palate. Lovely soft tannins with a hint of herbaceous character. Nicely balanced. 16.5
Misty Hills 2011, a blend of 55% Cabernet Sauvignon and 45% Syrah was next. Very nice black fruit and minerality on the nose. Fresh on the palate with medium body and lovely ripe tannins balanced by good levels of acidity. A nice long finish with wonderful balance. 17.5
Or 2012 is an ice wine which Tzora produces from Gewurztraminer grapes. Lemon cheese cake character with nice acidity which gives the wine freshness. Mouth-coating, sweet, but not at all cloying. It paired extremely well with the local cheese we were busy guzzling alongside the local EV olive oil and home made bread. 17
Once we’d made our fairly copious purchases, Alon whisked us off to our next visit at SeaHorse Winery, filling us in on Israel’s ancient wine history as we went. Despite seeming all fairly new, Israel’s wine history is in fact one of the oldest in the world, with wine being produced here thousands of years ago. The Romans discovered the quality of Israeli wine and exported it all over Europe with their soldiers, each of whom had a quota of 1 litre of wine a day!
When the Muslims conquered Israel, however, wine production was prohibited and the industry all but ceased from the 7th until the 18th century. In the 1850’s a number of families began to produce wine once again and with the outbreak of phylloxera in European vineyards the pressure on the Ottoman Empire to start producing wine again was vast.
Chateau Lafite’s Edmond James de Rothschild was desperate to continue vine growing during this era and as a Zionist, began investing and supporting Jews who immigrated to Palestine from Eastern Europe in the second half of the 19th century. In 1882 he founded, what is known today as Carmel Winery which now exports to over 40 countries world wide.
Since the 1970’s Israel’s wine market has been on the up, with plenty of new investment and a greater focus on quality wine production rather than wine made solely for sacramental purposes.
Arriving at SeaHorse was a very different experience to other winery visits I’ve been on. This winery is about as down to earth as they come. No grand winery building designed by some famous architect or other. Rather an oversized garden shed, the entrance to which is more like some sort of artistic gift shop than a winery.
Inside artists’ portraits line the walls, chairs and crates are stacked on top of barrels, bottles are lined up wherever there is spare space, of which there is very little. Higgledy piggledy comes somewhere close to describing it. Yet the chaos feels somehow ordered and you certainly get a real sense of the personality of Ze’ev Dunie, the man behind these wines.
Sadly Ze’ev was away the afternoon we visited, pouring his wines at a tasting back in Tel Aviv. Lucky for us though his wonderful wife, Orly, hosted us, opening just about every bottle imaginable in the range, as well as pouring us barrel samples, most of which went via pipette direct into the mouth of one of our particularly thirsty friends!
This very small, family owned winery is as hands on as you can get. The wines are all shaped by the quality and identity of the estate grown grapes, which are organically grown. Minimal interference occurs in the winemaking process to let the vineyards which are situated in the village of Bar-Giyora, in the heart of the Jerusalem mountains, tell their story.
The wines are all named after authors or artists Ze’ev admires, himself an ex-film maker who fell in love with Israel and its wine while filming a documentary about it in the 1970s. The first wine we tasted was James 2012. 100% Chenin Blanc, very rare to find in Israel, this was lemon fresh with zingy acidity, some tropical fruit touches, lovely body and texture with a hint of honey. Delicious. We promptly bought 2 bottles! 16.5
Romain 2012 is a GSM blend (Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre). Deep, jammy dried fruits with a sweet strawberry character. Full bodied with soft tannins. A touch too jammy for my tastes but others in the group enjoyed. 15.5
Antoine 2011 is a Syrah based wine with touches of Grenache and Mourvedre. Deep blackberry jam character with plenty of spice. Full bodied, firm tannins, lots of spicy oak on the palate. A slightly short finish and a touch unbalanced but nonetheless juicy and enjoyed by the group. 16
Lennon 2010 is a blend of Zinfandel, Petite Sirah and Mourvedre, varieties not often seen in Israel. Big jammy black fruit, blueberries, black currants, almost port like in character. Full bodied and full of flavour with lots of chunky tannin. Vanilla oak, toasty, smokey flavours with a floral touch and tons of black cherry and black plum fruit. Wine’s equivalent to Black Forest Gateaux! Complex and concentrated. 17.
Elul 2009 is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Petitie Sirah and considered by many as the winery’s flagship wine. Tons of juicy black currant fruit with lots of spice. Ripe, firm tannins, high alcohol balanced by the full fruit. 17
Hemingway 2012 barrel sample. A blend of Petite Syrah, Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon. Tons of ripe juicy black fruit, full bodied, huge character and concentration. Nice balance. 17
After such a plethora of red wine we were in need of some light refreshment so our tour continued on to a micro-brewery, much to the delight of our group’s resident “home-brewer”. The beers were all very tasty and made a great accompaniment on our journey to lunch.
Winding our way through more lovely hillsides we arrived at Majda, the most lovely of restaurants overlooking a picturesque Arabic village. Sitting outside with the scents of fresh herbs wafting all around us, we were poured yet another exceptional wine, the Pelter Gewurztraminer 2013. Incredibly scented with rose perfumes and lychee with lovely acidity, rare for Gewurz, and a great depth and complexity. This paired deliciously with all the starters we ordered including prawn falafel, roasted tomato salad, sardines and lamb gnochi.
The food I have to say was some of the best we had on our whole trip, so good that even after sharing I think one of each of the main courses, the boys went back for more and ordered us one of each dessert as well! We were told the owner’s wife is one of the best pastry chefs in Israel so we could hardly say no!! Coffee was also a treat, made Arabic style with cardamom. Utterly delicious!
We could have quite easily stayed in that peaceful garden all afternoon slowly digesting our gargantuan feast and sipping on copious amounts of SeaHorse Garcia Rose 2013, but instead Alon whipped us into shape and we stumbled fat and happy back to the car to continue our journey.
Alon decided no wine tour would be complete without seeing a) some more of Israel’s stunning countryside which we were able to appreciated as we drove along Burma road and b) an ancient wine press dating back 2,800 years, testament to Israel’s long wine history.
With the tour finally complete (a good 2 hours later than Alon’s usual tours!) we made our way back to Tel Aviv and straight to bed to recover!!
For more information about doing an Israel Wine Tour, which I would highly recommend, contact Alon at: firstname.lastname@example.org