Yossi’s Wine Page

Ramot Naftali Wineries Festival 2013

Ramot Naftali is a picturesque, peaceful hilltop moshav in the upper Galil. These are the vital statistics:

  • Population:  (as of December 2011): 530 souls
  • B&Bs: 14
  • Boutique Wineries: 4

Last spring the four wineries got together and organized their own wine festival. Unfortunately I couldn’t go, but evidently it was successful because this year they did it again. And this time I did go.

Three of the wineries are quite near each other at one end of the moshav, and the fourth is at the other end, perhaps a 15 minute walk away. Supposedly there were tractors with wagons to shuttle visitors between wineries, but I didn’t see them.

Each winery had live music with performances scheduled at different times throughout the day, so Dina & I checked the times for the performances that interested us and scheduled our winery stops accordingly.

First stop – Na’aman. Winemaker Rami Na’aman is a diehard rocker, which explains why he has wines called Deep Purple, King Crimson, Black Velvet (actually more Irish folk than rock, but never mind), and Pink Floyd, the latter being a Rosé of course. In honor of the 40th anniversary of the release of Dark Side of the Moon, Rami retained the services of Herkev Habayit Leyetzira Meshutefet who performed a wonderful set from Dark Side, including an excellent saxophone solo from Money (there’s a youtube video clip here).

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For this festival, Na’aman set up a special walk through tasting room that exited to a courtyard where the band was playing. This arrangement worked quite well, since although there was quite a crowd, there was no trouble getting through.

In deference to the band, the first wine for tasting was the Pink Floyd Rosé. A blend of 60% Merlot and 40% Cabernet Sauvignon, the Pink Floyd is faithful to its name with a lovely pink-orange color. Delicately fruity and off-dry, the Pink Floyd was an appropriate opening for the festival, though I found it to be a bit medicinal.

I then tasted four of Na’aman’s 2010 vintage reds, three blends (Black Velvet, Deep Purple, and King Crimson) and the Petit Verdot varietal. Of these I preferred the King Crimson Cab-Merlot blend and the varietal Petit Verdot, though I believe they are all too young to drink now. This was confirmed by my subsequent tasting of earlier vintages.

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In contrast to the “mass tastings” of the younger wines, the more mature ones were for small groups only in the winery itself. The first was Na’aman’s Merlot Grand Reserve 2010. Although no older than the “young” wines tasted earlier, this Merlot was in a different league altogether. Apparently the temperature in the vineyards reached 40 °C (for the first time anyone can remember) a couple of weeks before the harvest. This increased the acidity and also brought out flavors that these grapes had not exhibited before. Though approachable now, the wine is quite astringent, suggesting that it will improve in the coming years. A visiting winemaker from the barrel manufacturer in France believes that it will be magnificent in ten years or more, so if you have the money, patience, and proper storage facilities, you might want to stash a few of these away. In any event this is a very dark in color, full-bodied, and very well integrated  Merlot, with a lovely finish. Much more what I would expect from a Judean Hills Merlot rather than one from the upper Galil.

Moving on to the 2009 Black Velvet, a blend of 60% Merlot, 30% Cabernet Franc, and 10% Petit Verdot. Also very dark in color, the 2009 Black Velvet was much smoother and better integrated than the 2010 I had tried earlier, which I found to be rough and sour-ish. It will be interesting to taste the 2010 next year to see if it becomes more like the 2009.

Last, but definitely not least was the 2009 Petit Verdot. Softened with 6% Merlot, I love this wine. Lovely dark fruit flavors, smooth and mouth filling. A powerful wine that should accompany strong flavored dishes, and that should be shared with the best of friends.

Our next stop was the 3 Vines Winery, where people were dancing to live South American music.

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3 Vines had the only white wine of the entire festival, a Viognier. This Viognier is winemaker Yossi Ben-Barak’s first attempt at making white wine, and to me it is quite successful. Mouth filling and slightly buttery, this wine also has the acidity of sourish apricots making it quite refreshing – most welcome as the day was starting to heat up.

I am also fond of 3 Vines’ red wines. Yossi Ben-Barak has a quite a different philosophy for his reds compared with those of Na’aman. Yossi prefers to harvest early to achieve wines that are lower in alcohol, lighter in body, and more suited to warm weather drinking, and I think he succeeded quite well. At this festival 3 Vines had five red wines. As recommended I started with the younger ones, the first being a 2011 Syrah. This is a lovely simple wine that goes down easy. Not too fruity and very refreshing, with a bit of a finish. I found the 2010 Barbera to be similar in character, though a bit more tannic and with different flavors. If I’m not mistaken, this is 3 Vines’ first Barbera. When I first tasted it from the barrel last year there was also a first vintage of Malbec. Apparently that isn’t ready for prime time yet since there was none on offer at this festival. If my barrel tasting was any indication, this Malbec will be delightful, so keep a lookout for it.

3 Vines also had three red blends for tasting – one Cab-Merlot blend (Kerem 2010), and two Cab-Merlot-Syrah blends (Emek Kedesh 2006 & 2007). For me, the winner of these is the Emek Kedesh 2006. The 10% Syrah adds a nice kick to the otherwise pleasant but unremarkable Cab-Merlot blend, and the 2006 is definitely more full bodied and better integrated than the 2010.

On to the Ramot Naftali winery, which is the only Kosher winery of the four. We managed to time our visit to coincide with the blues performance in the winery’s courtyard. Dina and I try not to miss the monthly Blues Jam sponsored by the Israel Blues Society, but we knew we wouldn’t to be able to go in May, so we were particularly pleased that there would be blues at this wine festival. Since we had no idea who would be playing we were delighted to discover that the band included Nimrod Margalit on guitar and Oren Shraiber on harmonica and vocals, both regulars at the Blues Jams. The set was excellent as were several of the wines.

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The Ramot Naftali winery is known for its Malbec, which some claim to be the best in Israel. I don’t know about that, but I do know that it has definitely improved since the last time I tried it. Although quite fruit forward, this 2010 Malbec (100%) is nicely balanced with a rather long and enjoyable finish.

Ramot Naftali’s 2010 Petit Verdot is quite different from Na’aman’s. Lighter, fruitier, and less complex, this wine will match with more foods than the almost overpowering Petit Verdot from Na’aman. I prefer the stronger one, but it’s not for everyone. In the final analysis, it’s all a matter of personal taste.

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My favorite of Ramot Naftali’s wines was their 2010 Cab-Merlot (60/40) Duet blend. There are many such blends in Israel, and this one was a real pleaser. With nicely balanced and well integrated flavors, the wine was light enough to enjoy in the heat of the day, while still having enough body to be interesting. It was just a plain fun wine. Also, it went well with the blues.

Our last stop was the Amram Winery, the only one of the four that I had never visited before. By the time we got there the musical performances were finished and most of the visitors had left, so we could sit and relax in the winery’s garden, enjoy the tranquility, and have a nice schmooze with some new acquaintances.

Amram Azoulai has been growing grapes in the Kedesh Valley below Ramot Naftali for some 25 years. In 1993 he started making wine for family and friends, and in 2001, together with his son Ohad, he opened the Amram Winery as a commercial undertaking, releasing 800 bottles. Now Amram makes about 6,000 bottles a year in three different series.

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I tasted the wines in the order offered, which may have been a mistake. The first was a 2009 varietal Cabernet Sauvignon from the Premium series. Aged for 24 months in new oak, I would have expected this to be a very full bodied wine with very strong influence of barrels. Instead I found it to be a medium bodied wine with red fruit flavors and a nice finish. Just goes to show how much I still have to learn.

Amram’s 2010 Cabernet was rather similar to the 2009, but fuller in body and more mouth filling.

My favorite of Amram’s wines was the 2010 Cab-Merlot-Shiraz blend from Harei Naftali (Naftali Mountains) series. At 74% the Cabernet is definitely dominant, while the Merlot adds softness, and the Shiraz contributes extra character. To me, this blend is just right, and so I bought a bottle – my only acquisition of the day.

I must say that the Ramot Naftali four wineries fair was one of the most enjoyable wine events I’ve attended in some time. The atmosphere was laid back, the music was enjoyable, and the wines were good. Each of the winemakers seems to have a slightly different philosophy resulting in a wide range of flavors and characters in their wines. As a result, there’s something for almost every wine lover, except perhaps those who prefer sweet or semi-dry wines, as there was none of that.

I would personally like to than winemakers Rami Na’aman, Yitzhak Cohen, Yossi Ben-Barak, Amram Azoulai, and their families, as well as the various sponsors, for putting on such a wonderful event. If you didn’t make it this year (and even if you did) try not to miss it next year.

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