When I received an invitation from Alfonso Cevola of Glazer’s Distributors, a person whose palate I respect, to attend a celebration to kick-off Israel Wine Week in Dallas, I was curious. As you know, I love finding off the beaten path wines that I can introduce to you. And wow — while these wines are kosher, I can tell you as a card-carrying Catholic that they stand up in taste, complexity and value to almost any wine out there.
Israel has been producing wine for over 5,000 years and started nearly 2,000 years prior to the Greeks and Romans in Europe. In 1882, Baron Edmond de Rothschild, owner of Chateau Lafite, founded Carmel Winery. It took about 100 years for the wine folks in California to conclude that the Golan Heights had the right climate — volcanic soil, altitudes, temperature and water — to make some quality wines. It took Royal Wine Corporation 50 years later to decide to import these wines to the U.S. It took about another 100 years for Sheldon Stein to decide that Glazer’s needed to bring these wines to Dallas and beyond. I’d personally like to thank them all.
The most widely grown varietals in Israel include cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay, merlot and sauvignon blanc with up-and-comers cabernet franc, riesling and syrah. The five wine regions include Gali (Gaililee including the Golan Heights), Shomrom, Samson, the Judean Hills and Negeve appellations. Currently there are more than 250 large-scale, co-operative and boutique wineries that produce 30 million bottles annually.
The thing that I’d like to urge you to do is to not think about these wines as kosher wines (actually not all Israeli wine is kosher), but award-winning wines made with great care and by great people. Lior Lacser, Carmel’s winemaker, discussed the need to bring these wines forward to consumers who drink fine wine vs. a kosher sell. His focused is elegant, balanced wines that showcase Old World style with New World techniques. We tasted 12 wines — a mix of white, red and dessert — in two different categories and at price points from $15 to $80.
We started with several white wines including:
- Carmel Ridge White 09 — fruity, crisp, lots of citrus and pear with good minerality. A very nice everyday food, friendly wine ($17.99).
- Carmel Private Collection Chardonnay 09 — tropical notes with a little too much bite in the finish for me, but as you know, I’m not a huge chardonnay drinker ($21.99)
- Carmel Kayoumi Vineyard Riesling 10 — orange blossom, off dry with honeysuckle, citrus and petroleum. This was an awesome representation of riesling and the winemakers favorite wine today ($26.99)
- Sha’al Gewurztraminer Late Harvest 07 — apricot, honeysuckle, lychee and a fabulous dessert wine ($21.99)
Our red line up included the following:
- Carmel Private Collection Cabernet Sauvignon — spice, cedar and eucalyptus ($22.99)
- Carmel Carignan 07 — this was a labor of love for the winemaker and a grape that used to be part of Israel’s history. Big cherry, spice and mocha. Awesome and full of character ($28.99). Also loved that these labels are “whimsical” with a variety of fauna from biblical Israel that are hand-drawn
- Carmel Petite Syrah 07 — smoke, blueberry, floral with rich, juicy notes. These grapes originally were relegated to grape juice until Gava saw the potential and this is NOT your average Welch’s ($29.99)
- Binyamina The Cave 07 — vanilla, toasted oak, earth, cardamom, sage, black berries and menthol. Lots of depth and layers to this one ($22.99)
- Yatir Red Blend 06 — Herby, fruitier, definitely not my favorite of the tasting, but an interesting wine ($42.99)
- Carmel Mediterranean 07 — big black cherry, leather, earthiness abound; a great wine ($60.99).
- Carmel Limited Edition 07 — a flagship high end wine that is made only when the conditions are optimal. I tasted petroleum, tobacco, chocolate, mocha and eucalyptus. An elegant wine with an elegant price at (86.99), but I’d put this up against almost any high-end Napa wine at the same price point (or even above).
We learned about a new association of 20 Israeli wineries founded a month ago, solely dedicated to taking these wines to a new level in America. From what I understand, there are many fabulous wineries missing not in the Royal portfolio, but it’s a good launching pad. You should be able to find these at Sigel’s, Centennial, Mr. G’s, Central Market and Corner Wines. After almost 200 years of winemaking, I can assure you that they are quite good at it. I plan to buy and cellar some — I’ll keep you posted on the evolution. I challenge you to do the same.