A review of the Alexander Reserve Sandro Cabernet-Merlot 2007 and the Springbank 10-year old 100 proof Cambeltown Single Malt Scotch Whisky.
By Joshua E. London and Louis Marmon
Washington Jewish Week November 23, 2011
While still dominated by the large winemaking companies, the Israeli wine scene is becoming increasingly populated by small, family-owned wineries. The three biggest players – Carmel Winery, Barkanand Golan Heights Winery, along with their respective subsidiaries – account for more than 65 pecent of the 2011 grape harvest.
Include the next two biggest players – Teperberg and Binyamina – and you account for roughly 80 percent. The top 12 players take up a full 94 percent of the harvest, and, well, you get the picture.
Note that there are an estimated 150 to 200 wine producers in Israel today. Exact figures are hard to come by because these “players” range in size from major corporations producing 30 million bottles per annum to small family concerns to one-person operations with uncertain futures.
It is these small family wineries that hold a certain excitement, if only because their passion and commitment is authentic and personalized, and their success or failure is personalized as well. An Israeli family winery entwines traditional Israeli agricultural idealism with that “start-up nation” entrepreneurial spirit, which, when successful, bridges the gap between Jewish family unit and Jewish Nation. The success of the former, adds to the sense of success of the latter. At least, so it seems when quaffing some lovely kosher boutique Israeli wine whether in Israel, or elsewhere in the world.
These wineries are typically launched by passionate hobbyists who initially make some wine in their homes but eventually expand production with incrementally more grape varieties, bottlings, and greater volume. Eventually they outgrow their garages and have to acquire a larger space for equipment and barrels. Thus, avocation changes to vocation and a boutique winery is born!
With a bit of luck, genuine wine-making talent, and access to good grapes, these boutique wineries begin to achieve some local recognition. Few of these winery projects begin as commercially kosher enterprises. There is, after all, a cost involved in obtaining kashrus supervision. So, more typically, kashrus certification is delayed until there are sufficient sales to afford and justify the additional expense.
An interesting example is the Alexander Winery located on Moshav Beit Yitzhak in central Israel’s Hefer Valley. Founded in 1996 in Tel Aviv, the Alexander Winery moved to its current location in 1999 and only became certified-kosher in 2006. Their grapes are sourced from three distinct vineyards in the upper Galilee and their wines are released under the Alexander the Great, Alexander Reserve, and Liza labels.
Their graceful red Alexander Reserve Sandro Cabernet-Merlot 2007 ($22) also contains 4 percent of the white grape Sauvignon Blanc. It is a non-mevushal, medium-bodied effort that has cassis, plum, red berry and earthy flavors with noticeable but not unpleasant tannins and an herb and chocolate-accented finish. A perfect wine for meats, grilled foods and roasts.
In the wide world of distilled spirits, family-owned and operated- concerns are harder to come by. The growing craft distiller movement in America is changing this, but their longevity in a down economy remains uncertain.
In Scotland, by contrast, the overwhelming bulk of whisky distilleries are owned by multinational drinks conglomerate. This is not, in and of itself, a terrible thing – but it does strike a blow of sorts against traditional images of Scotland as the land of close-knit, fiercely independent clans. All the more striking, therefore, are those distilleries that remain independent, family concerns. A stirring example is the Springbank Distillery in Campbeltown – the oldest independent family-owned distillery in Scotland.
In Victorian times, Campbeltown was an ideal setting for whisky production, with an abundant water supply, and local reserves of coal, peat and barley. It was also then widely regarded as the whisky capital of the world based on the sheer number of distilleries operating there. It had as many as 32 licensed distilleries as early as 1759, though none of those have survived. By the beginning of the 20th century, as Scotch historian R.J.S. McDowell memorably phrased it, “Campbeltown malts were known as the Hector of the West, the deepest voice of the choir.” Alas, it all went belly up in the great depression of the 1930s. Today there are only three distilleries there – Springbank, Glengyle, and Glen Scotia. Springbank and Glengyle are both owned by J & A Mitchell and Co. Ltd., an old family firm.
The Mitchell family migrated from the Scottish lowlands to the Campbeltown area in the 1660s, where they excelled as farmers, weavers, rebels, and illicit whisky makers. By the end of the 18th century, Archibald Mitchell, the paterfamilias, had already made a name for himself as an (illicit) producer of quality whisky on the family farm, a reputation continued by his children when they founded and licensed a legitimate distillery in 1828.
It was the Reid family, Archibald’s machatunim (Yiddish for his children’s in-laws) who actually entered Springbank into the world of reputable whisky commerce. Financial troubles hit that family and they sold it to John and William Mitchell, two of Archibald’s sons, in 1837. “J & W Mitchell” eventually became “J & A Mitchell,” as one of the grandchildren got in on the action. Today the J & A Mitchell & Co Ltd. family firm is owned by Mr. Hedley Wright, great-great-great grandson of Archibald Mitchell.
Springbankis also distinguished as the only distillery in all of Scotland to carry out the entire production process on-site at the distillery, from the malting of the barley to bottling of their mature whisky. Remarkably, Springbank is also the only distillery to have never used chill-filtration, a nearly universal process used to clarify spirit and prevent its getting cloudy when introduced to water or ice – but one that strips some of the flavor and character out of the spirit.
As if all this wasn’t already sufficient to make Springbank unique, it is also the only distillery to use its stills in three different configurations to produce three distinctly different single malts: Springbank, Longrow and Hazelburn. Springbank’s production process is distinct as well, but as we are already far into the whisky-geek world, we’ll save that for another time.
Here then is the Springbank 10-Year-Old 100 Proof Campbeltown Single Malt Scotch Whisky ($60): an elegant, robust whisky that holds a remarkable balance between oaky, malty, nutty flavors with some distinct peat smoke, and with a dollop of toffee and fruity sweetness, and all this with an unusual briny, sea-air tang on the nose and finish. This saline aspect lingers a while before dissolving effortlessly into something like coconut oil – the affect of which is most endearing. A brilliant and enticing whisky, both powerful and graceful, from a distinguished, legendary family owned distillery. L’chaim