A review of the Yarden wines from Israel’s Golan Heights Winery.
By Lou Marmon
Gazette Newspapers August 22, 2012
In 1972, oenologist Cornelius Ough identified the Golan Heights as an ideal location for grape growing due to its altitude, cool climate and volcanic soil. More than a decade later the award-winning Golan Heights Winery was established and it is credited with invigorating Israeli winemaking by dramatically improving the quality of the country’s wines. Its early successes led to the search for a winemaker that would build upon these accomplishments. In 1992, a young American graduate of UC Davis, Victor Schoenfeld, arrived in Israel to become its new head winemaker.
It could be argued that advanced Israeli winemaking really began that year. As a new winemaking region, the Golan Heights is not subjected to the limitations of tradition. Schoenfeld has enhanced the unique potential of the area with the application of cutting edge farming techniques such as NDVI geographic mapping to assist in the timing of harvest and electroconductivity scanning to evaluate soil variations. They have embraced organic farming, utilize the highest quality plant propagation materials and their ultra-modern winemaking facilities include green practices such as recycled water management, composting and alternative energy sources.
And Schoenfeld was able to convince one of the world’s most recognized winemakers, Zelma Long, to help him identify the ideal sites in the Golan for specific varietals. Schoenfeld says that his winemaking goals are to be careful to “not screw up the fruit” and to “get the best expression of the grapes.” The results of his tenure have been consistently impressive wines with growing international critical praise.
While improved quality has brought much acclaim, Israeli wine remains a poor step-child to the country’s more dominant exports including high-tech and other agricultural products.
“There isn’t much governmental support,” said Udi Kadem, the director of international sales and Yarden’s CEO. “And it has been difficult to get the other wineries to cooperate to help promote Israeli wine.”
He also noted that making strictly kosher wines is a major marketing problem. “We are viewed as a kosher wine that happens to be great but we should really be seen as a great wine that happens to be kosher. We deserve to be on the shelves with the other bottles of the same varietal and not stuck somewhere on the ‘kosher’ shelf.”
At a recent dinner Schoenfeld and Kadem poured several wines from their flagship Yarden label that showed splendid expression and character beginning with the tropical fruit scented Yarden Sauvignon Blanc 2011 ($15), a delightfully complex well-balanced citrus, peach and pear flavored wine with melon, guava and figs in the bright finish.
Next was the Yarden Odem Vineyard Chardonnay 2010 ($20) a creamy, mouth-filling effort with green apple, pear and vanilla flavors with notes of honey and smoke. Matching perfectly with prime rib was their terrific Yarden Tel Phares Syrah 2008 ($50). Schoenfeld said that they deliberately decided to name it “syrah” since they were stylistically committed to a more restrained version than the typical Australian shiraz. It has plum, red berry and dark currant flavors accented with pepper, earth and spice within a velvet grip of tannins that will evolve nicely over the next several years.
While pouring the extraordinary Yarden Cabernet Sauvignon El Rom Vineyard 2008 ($59) Schoenfeld stated that “this wine shows what the Golan Heights can do with Cabernet Sauvignon.” A multifaceted powerhouse of a Cab, it has deep, focused and elegant flavors of currants, black cherries, cassis, plums and mint that continue to evolve in the glass. Delicious but still very young, it is worth cellaring for several more years to enjoy as it becomes even more integrated.