Only in the wine world could a region with an ancient tradition of viticulture suddenly become a sensation! It may have taken a few thousand years but Israeli wines have captured the attention of wine lovers like never before. A recent Wine Spectator cover story declared that "driven by Israelis' search for quality from their native land and by a dawning appreciation for its wines in both Europe and America, the wine industry in the Jewish state is transforming at a rapid rate."
Once primarily relegated to the kosher section of many wineshops, Israeli wines are now being prominently displayed to appeal to a more diverse customer base. I recently had the pleasure of attending a luncheon organized by fellow wine writer Cathrine Todd (Dame Wine) to share wine & conversation with 4 Israeli wine producers that were in New York City to participate in Wine Spectator's New York Wine Experience. Each winemaker had a unique story but a shared passion for making fine Israeli wines and sharing them with the world.
Recanati Winery was my first in-depth experience with Israeli wine and I believe that their approach epitomizes the current state of winemaking in the country - wines deeply connected to tradition yet open to modern techniques and sensibilities. Their Marawi 2015 ($35) is a stellar example of this ancient meets modern esthetic. An ancient indigenous grape, Marawi can be traced back to A.D. 220 and has been described as the wine that Jesus and King David drank. Thanks to Recanati's efforts, Marawi is now available for us less than noble and heavenly beings. Marawi is also a powerful example of collaboration between Israelis and Palestinians - the grapes are grown by a Palestinian farmer and the wine is produced in Israel. Marawi is an elegantly austere dry white wine with crisp minerality, subtle herbal flavors, and the ineffable link to ancient times.
Wild Carignan 2014 ($50) is another beauty from the Recanati portfolio. Rich and supple, this juicy red wine has luscious flavors of blackberries, dark plums, cassis, and violets that are balanced by lively acidity and hints of Mediterranean herbs.
Tzora Vineyards has a very special something that no other winery in Israel does - their winemaker, Eran Pick, is Israel's very first Master of Wine! Eran is also a graduate of the prestigious viticulture & oenology program at the University of California, Davis and has trained at wineries in Napa, Sonoma, Barossa, and Bordeaux. While this international perspective certainly influences Eran's winemaking, Tzora's wines eloquently express the terroir of the Judean Hills. Their Shoresh Blanc 2015 ($38) is a very appealing expression of Sauvignon Blanc. Substantial texture and creaminess from the 7 months that it spends aging on the lees (yeast particles) in French barriques, make Shoresh Blanc a dramatic departure from grassy and super zesty Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand. For red, give Shoresh 2014 ($38) a swirl. A blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, and Petit Verdot, this graceful wine has juicy flavors of black cherries, plums, and hints of spice.
Tabor Winery winermaker Or Nidbach and agronomist/viticulturist Michal Akerman.
Tabor Winery viticulturist Michal Akerman is passionate in her pursuit of "wines that tell a story, from the soil to the table." Situated in the heart of Galilee, the vineyard and winery lay in the foothills of Mt. Tabor. Their Sauvignon Blanc Adama 2015 ($18) is produced from 40-year old vines that extend deeply into limestone soil. Very aromatic, it is a vivacious wine with excellent acidity and layers of tropical and citrus flavors.
In 1988, Eli Ben Zaken followed his intuition and planted a small vineyard on a hilltop beside his home in the Judean Hills next to Jerusalem. That proved to be a very wise decision and today his Domaine du Castel is one of Israel's most respected wineries. Ben-Zaken describes Chardonnay as "the reddest of the white wines" and the winery's 'C' Blanc du Castel 2014 ($50) showcases this complexity. Fermented in French oak barrels and aged on the lees for nearly 12 months, the wine sings with flavors of tropical fruit and citrus with dashes of brioche, toasted almonds, and lip-smacking minerality.
If your local wine shop isn't stocking wines from Israel, encourage them to place an order for Recanati, Tzora, Tabor, and Domaine du Castel. The wines are well-crafted, expressive, and pair beautifully with a wide variety of cuisine. You won't be disappointed in these delicious and culturally rich wines. Also, if you're planning a trip to Israel, many of the wineries welcome visitors for tours and tastings. Cheers!