Last year I missed the Tal Shahar Home Wineries Fair because it coincided with the Jacob’s Ladder Festival. This year I was able to attend the Israeli Wine Fair for precisely the same reason. Jacob’s Ladder is held at Nof Ginosar, and the Israeli Wine Fair took place a short 20 minute drive away in Rosh Pina.
So at the cost of a few missed music performances (I really had wanted to see the Arava Riders), I headed off to the Baron Gardens in the historic center of Rosh Pina. I arrived early with the intention of staying no more than two and a half hours so as not to miss too much of Jacob’s Ladder. Since I only planned to spend time with the handful of wineries that were new to me, and possibly try a few new offerings from wineries I already knew, I naively thought that would be possible. Furthermore, I skipped all four of the Ramot Naftali wineries since I’ll be going to their wine event in a couple of weeks. So it seemed perfectly reasonable that I’d be done in the time I’d allotted. And for a while everything seemed to proceed according to plan. I arrived shortly past 10:00 as things were just getting underway, and by about 12:00 I was nearly done. Just one or two more and I’d be on my way. But somehow, just a few minutes later, it was 14:00. I really have no idea how that happened. Never mind.
On to the show.
First of all the venue. The Baron Gardens in Rosh Pina are lovely. The gardens are landscaped with terraces and the wineries’ tables were spread around under trees on three levels. There was also shade netting overhead to keep things cool during the heat of the day. The atmosphere was very pastoral and relaxing, with pleasant music playing in the background.
As I mentioned before, I arrived early. The advantages were that it was still cool and not yet crowded. The disadvantages were that not all of the tables were manned (personed?) yet, and most of the red wines had not had time to breathe sufficiently.
Generally speaking there was not a bad wine in the lot, though some were quite superior and others more mediocre (IMHO).
I started off with the Levi Winery, which was a completely new one for me; before this event I had never even heard of them. Kobi Levi, the winemaker, told me that the 2011 wines he was presenting were from his first commercial vintage of about 3,000 bottles. Kobi’s father and grandfather are both vintners, and Levi’s wines are made from the family’s own grapes. I tasted two 100% varietals from the 2011 Bareket series – a Cabernet Sauvignon and a Merlot. The former is what I call a medium-medium-medium wine – medium fruit, medium body, medium finish, all in all a nicely balanced and not overpowering Cabernet that was just right for the warm weather. Unfortunately, the Merlot just wasn’t ready to drink yet even though Kobi had aerated it using a neat device from the Brookstone catalog. I’ve actually thought about making something similar from a cheap aquarium air pump, but it wouldn’t look very elegant on the table. Anyway, despite the aeration, the Merlot was overly fruity and rather flat. I’m sure it improved with time.
Levi’s wines are all certified Kosher, and starting with the 2013 vintage, some of them will be organic as well.
Next I visited the Stern Winery‘s table. I have met Johnny Stern before but had never had the chance to try his wines. Now I can say that they are superb. I started with the 2012 Sauvignon Blanc. For me, the gold standard of Sauvignon Blanc in Israel is from the Gush Etzion Winery. It’s crisp, very dry, grassy, not too fruity, and has substantial body – just the way I like. While Stern’s Sauvignon Blanc did not threaten the reign of the Gush Etzion, it is a very pleasant wine indeed. For those who prefer their SB lighter and fruitier than I, Stern’s will be perfect.
After the SB I tried Stern’s 2011 Cabernet Franc (100%), made from grapes grown in the upper Galilee. Full bodied and not overly fruity, I found the wine to be a bit too bitter and astringent. The bitterness probably subsided with time after opening and will undoubtedly decrease with more time in the bottle, as will the astringence. Given another year and a half or so in the bottle it will probably be excellent.
On to two blends – both from 2010. Rotem is a Bordeaux-ish blend of Cabernet Sauvignon (52%), Merlot (19%), Cabernet Franc (16%), and Petit Verdot (13%); Peleg is rather different, with 51% Shiraz blended with 29% Cabernet Sauvignon and 21% Merlot. Johnny told me that the Rotem blend consistently wins gold medals at the Eshkol Hazahav and Terravino competitions, and I can understand why. It is full bodied, well balanced, and just a pleasure to drink. Despite the excellence of the Rotem blend, I actually liked the Peleg even more; not surprising since I love a good Shiraz. What is surprising is that the Shiraz did not dominate the blend, as often happens when the percentage is so high. This wine, on the other hand, is very well balanced and has a softness to it that particularly appealed to me. At NIS 80 I considered this to be good value for money, and I took a bottle – my only wine purchase of the day.
Stern is currently producing some 18,000 – 19,000 bottles a year and they plan to increase that to ~25,000 with the 2013 vintage. Johnny told me that most of the increase will be white wines.
The Galileo Winery is another new one for me. The name of the winery is a mish-mash of Gil (the winemaker), Gali (his wife), and Galil (where the grapes grow). The winery is located in Kibbutz Dan in the Golan (another G) on the banks of the Dan river. Sounds like a place I should visit.
Gil had two wines to taste and I tried them both. The first was a 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon which I found to be very enjoyable and not too heavy, with a nice finish. The second wine was a 2010 blend called Jupiter, consisting of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, and Petit Verdot. The blend was a bit rounder and heavier than the varietal CS with a more substantial finish. Of the two, I preferred the blend.
Jascala was also new to me, though the winery has been around since 2003 – I guess I just don’t get around enough. At their table was one white, one rosé and one red. All were good. The 2012 Sauvignon Blanc was crisp, medium bodied , and fruity, but not overly so. At 14% the alcohol content was high, but not obtrusive.
The 2011 Rosé was made from Cabernet Franc grapes, possibly my first rosé from that variety. The wine was fresh tasting and fruit forward but not overpowering.
Jascala’s red at this fair was their 2008 Aida blend of Cabernet Sauvignon (71%), Petit Verdot (17%), and Merlot (12%). My notes say only “very very pleasant blend,” and I would have taken one but for the price; NIS 180 is just out of my range.
At the Netofa Winery‘s table I tried two Chenin Blancs, a 2011 that was barrel aged for eight months and an unoaked 2012. Not surprisingly, the unoaked wine was crisper and fresher tasting, and on this particular occasion I preferred it. Different venue, weather, state of mind, etc., and I might have preferred the fuller bodied 2011.
Netofa, which is a Kosher estate winery, also had a 2011 red blend called Tinto made from Touriga and Tempranillo grapes. Winemaker Pierre Miodownick explained to me that this is the same blend he uses to make Netofa’s port style wine. The Tinto blend is barrel aged for ten months, and the result is a very complex, interesting, and fine wine.
Unfortunately, I only found two Viogniers at this event, one each from the Ortal and Carmel wineries. I say unfortunately because I think that Viognier is an under appreciated variety, with a number of excellent offerings produced in Israel. Considering the relatively low number of Viogniers I’ve seen on international wine websites, I believe that Israel can become a significant player with this wonderful variety, thus improving Israel’s standing as a serious producer of quality white wines.
To me, the Ortal Viognier was unremarkable, with medium body and not much character. One must, however, keep in mind the number of wines, including more than a few full-bodied reds, I had tasted before getting to this one. Also, others who tried this Viognier liked it a lot, so this is just my personal taste. At NIS 110, this was also the most expensive Viognier I’ve come across.
The Carmel Viognier, from their Appellation series, was aged sur lie for six months, and was much more to my taste. At under NIS 50, I consider it to be a good value.
I also tried Ortal’s red Tel Shifon. This blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Syrah was rather to my liking, with medium to full body and a nice long-ish finish.
By the time I reached the Yiftah’el Winery’s table, I was pretty saturated, so my notes are somewhat vague. Yiftah’el is another estate winery, growing all of their own grapes; current production is about 10,000 bottles annually.
I tried four Yiftah’el wines, starting with their 2012 Rosé called Samuk (meaning blush). This Rosé, a blend of Sangiovese (80%) and Merlot, is pleasantly fruity, but despite no residual sugar, it had a false sweetness that did not appeal to me.
The first red I tried was a 100% Sangiovese that I enjoyed very much, despite high astringence.
Finally I tried two Petite Syrah varietals from the 2009 and 2007 vintages respectively. To my tired palate the 2009 was rough and a bit bitter. The 2007, which had spent 24 months in oak, had a pleasantly earthy aroma, a deeper color, and was considerably more balanced. I have been told by a number of winemakers that it is quite challenging to make a varietal Petite Syrah due to its overpowering character. With their 2007 offering, I would say that Yiftah’el has quite successfully tamed the Petite Syrah.
The last wine I sampled was not from a winery per se, but the product of a winemaking course at the Ohalo College in Katzrin. The students of the course tended and harvested the grapes, and were involved in every stage of the winemaking process, making this 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon rather unique. I would not say that this was an outstanding Cabernet, but as a group effort for first timers it was very respectable. Ohalo’s table was manned by Ari Erle, winemaker of the Bat Shlomo Vineyards, and wine consultant. Ari, who is originally from California, lives in Givat Nili, which is very nearby to my home, so I expect I’ll be running into him more often.
To end my visit, I tasted the cider offerings of Boutique Hagail – one apple and one pomegranate. I had never had a pomegranate cider before, and as I suspected, it was too sweet for me. The apple cider was more to my liking. For this event Boutique Hagail was offering a too-good-to-refuse 1 + 1 deal (one bottle each of pomegranate and apple cider) for just NIS 10. I took 2 + 2 to take back to the gang at Jacob’s Ladder, where I arrived (safely) in time for some of the afternoon performances.
I would like to thank the organizers of the Israeli Wine Fair for putting on such an enjoyable event and for inviting me to attend. I had a marvelous time.