We tasted too many 2012’s and 2013’s that our group felt were prematurely available for retail purchase— not because they are not excellent wines, but because they need an additional 12-18 months of bottle aging before reaching the consumer. Selling wines too soon, when they are not approachable, can leave you with too much tannin on the finish, closed or muted fruit aromas, and an overall flatness on the palate that hides the complexity of what can evolve to be a great wine in another year. Professionals, who have the benefit of knowing the full spectrum of how a wine tastes at various stages of its maturity, can evaluate a wine’s promise when it is in the barrel years before its release. For regular consumers, especially in a nascent domestic wine appreciation culture such as Israel, the result of offering a wine to the public too early may be poor customer experience.
Moving into the red zone, one of the more colorful winemakers we met is Shuki Yashuv of Agur, a boutique winery producing about 10,000 bottles a year. Shuki learned how to make wine from the founder of Tzora winery, Ronnie James, and he holds strong opinions about everything. While his approach is representative of the Israeli New Wave, he could be the father of several of the other leading edge winemakers.
Agur is hard to find but hard to forget once you’ve found it. The 2011 Agur Special Reserve, aged in French barrels (50% new oak) for 18 months, is a blend of 40% Cabernet Sauvignon, 30% Merlot, and 24% Cabernet Franc. This wine is black velvet, with wonderful fruit on the palate, and a tobacco finish. The 2013 Agur Layam Syrah blends 50% Syrah with 50% Mourvédre, with each varietal aged separately in second year barrels until blending at the time of bottling. The oldest vines used for this wine are 19 years old.
The terroir from these Israeli wines brings black olive, tobacco, and spice box into your palate—the Bordeaux blends, like the 2012 Agur Kessem (40 percent cabernet, 30% merlot, 25 percent cabernet franc, 5% petit verdot), don’t even try to emulate Bordeaux- they stand apart as distinctively Israeli.
We then visited Tzora in the Judean Hills for a delicious lunch and a tasting of some of their finest wines. Eran Pick, winemaker and our gracious host, has a UC Davis/California Bachelors in Oenology and Viticulture and is among a prestigious group of Israeli winemakers with UC Davis credentials including Israel Flam (former chief winemaker at Carmel), Gil Shatsberg of Recanati, Lewis Pasco (formerly of Tishbi & Recanati and now the Lewis Pasco Project) and Dr. Yair Margalit. He works closely with Jean-Claude Berrouet (Pétrus, Dominus). We expect to be hearing in the near future that Eran has joined the exalted and rarefied Masters of Wine (MW).
We were also fortunate to have wine maker Ari Erle and well-known foodie Inbal Baum of Delicious Israel as our guides during different parts of our journey. Ari is a UC Davis trained Napa Valley veteran (former assistant winemaker at O’Shaughnessy and Elizabeth Spencer) who is emblematic of the leading edge of wine making in Israel. He is the general manager and winemaker for Bat Shlomo vineyards. Founded in 2010, Bat Shlomo winery is located in a village that was established in 1889 as a daughter-settlement of Zichron Ya’akov, funded by Baron Edmund James de Rothschild, and was named after Betty Salomon , the daughter of Salomon Mayer von Rothschild (the Baron’s uncle and grandfather). Bat Shlomo is undergoing a complete renovation and wine program expansion under Ari’s guidance. Among other projects, Ari is also working with Napa Valley’s Jeff Morgan of Covenant wines to make Jeff’s first Israeli wine, kosher, of course.
We concluded our journey to Israel with a stay in Tel Aviv, whose highlight was a spectacular dinner at what may be the best restaurant in the country, Catit. Chef Meir Adoni spoiled us with an extraordinary menu rivaling Thomas Keller’s French Laundry. Before dinner we enjoyed a walking tour of Jaffa and the open air market in Tel Aviv, sampling amazing street foods with Inbal Baum. This was truly a memorable trip that Yitz Applbaum and I were delighted to host for the benefit of the charities supported by the Napa Valley Vintners.
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