A review of the Domaine Netofa Galilee 2009 and Highland Park Thor Single-Malt Whisky.
By Joshua E. London and Lou Marmon
Washington Jewish Week June 20, 2012
While kosher wine must be made under strict religious supervision, not all kosher-certified wine comes from strictly kosher wineries. Many are created and bottled under the labels of wineries that select only a portion of their harvest for the kosher market with the rest being made not under supervision and released for the general public. Made with the same grapes and methods, many of these kosher wines are as good, and sometimes even better, than their regular nonkosher counterpart.
The technique utilized is called “shadowing,” where every step of wine production is handled by Sabbath-observant Jews under rabbinic supervision, but all under the watchful eye, or shadow, of the winery’s regular winemaker. Not that the kosher production winemaker and crew are mere automatons. On the contrary, to be effective, they must possess the requisite skills, knowledge and palate to create excellent wines, along with a clear understanding of the underlying approaches of the winery where they labor.
For many years now Pierre Miodownick has been the winemaker responsible for creating many of the kosher wines imported by Herzog family’s Royal Wine Corp, including the French estates Chateau Pontet-Canet and Chateau Leoville Poyferre, along with others from Spain, Portugal and Australia. A native of southern France, Miodownick began working with nonkosher wines in his early 20s. After becoming observant he switched to strictly kosher wines and used his early experiences to create noteworthy wines.
In 1982 he produced Chateau de Paraza‘s first kosher wine, a minervois appellation. It was “a great year,” and amazingly the wine received a gold medal at the prestigious Foire de Macon French wine competition. Enthused by his early success, Miodownick spent the next four years making Vin de Pays (country wine) in the Languedoc before moving on to make wine in Bordeaux, France. In 1986 he began producing the kosher run of Baron Edmund de Rothschild, and from this he became involved with the U.S.-based Royal Wine Corp, taking charge of its European wine division. Other properties soon followed, and he is credited with providing the kosher market with a wide range of quality wines in various styles and prices.
Then in 2005, with some established critical and financial success under his belt, Miodownick began to think about making aliyah and moving to Israel. As he puts it: “I simply began thinking that there wasn’t any future for Jews in Europe.”
“I had friends at Mitzpe Netofa,” he noted, and around this time “there was an opportunity to build there” – so he jumped at the chance. Mitzpe Netofa is a vibrant, religious community located in the Lower Galilee wine region, 15 minutes west of Tiberias, 25 minutes south of Sfat, and 30 minutes north of Afula. Miodownick has 80 dunams (around 20 acres) of vineyards, exclusively planted with Mediterranean grape varietals chenin blanc, touriga nacional, tempranillo, mourvedre and syrah.
He planted his first vines in 2006, making aliyah just three months before the harvest of his first vintage in 2009. At present he uses rented equipment, but he is determined to build a proper winery on his estate by the 2014 vintage. From this first vintage is the very good, medium-bodied Domaine Netofa Galilee 2009 ($20) a blend of syrah and mourvedre in the style of France’s northern Rhone region. It opens with blackberry and mocha aromas that move seamlessly into black plum, red currants, olives, and spicy chocolate flavors.
Shifting to long-established booze producers using high-end marketing campaigns to push “new products,” we thought, spirits wise, we’d turn to Kirkwall, Orkney, to the Highland Park Distillery. Founded in 1798, this is the most northerly Scotch whisky distillery in all of Scotland.
Highland Park is a truly fantastic whisky producer, but, like many Scotch distilleries, it seems convinced that some concept-driven marketing shtick is needed to help push product beyond just their already highly regarded regular portfolio of whisky expressions. Therefore, its newest expression is called Thor, the first in Highland Park’s new cask strength “Valhalla Collection,” an annual limited edition of what will be four unique, “inspirational” whisky expressions. The connection to Viking mythology is … . Well, the Orkney archipelago, which has been inhabited since at least the Neolithic age, was invaded and forcibly annexed by Norway in 875 – it only became Scottish in 1472. So there is clearly a Norse heritage there. Not that any of this actually explains why Highland Park should name a 16-year-old cask strength whisky expression after a hammer-wielding, Marvel Comics-starring, deity associated with thunder, lightning and the protection of mankind. On the hand, it sounds cool, so why not, right?
Also the packaging is pretty neat. The limited edition Thor – only 23,000 bottles of which just 1,500 have been imported into the U.S. – comes in a sleek, clear bottle cradled in an eye-catching, carved, Viking longship inspired wooden frame. The package is definitely overproduced, and really a tad ridiculous, but cool nonetheless.
What matters most, of course, is not the packaging or the marketing hype, but the spirit within.
Highland Park Thor 16-year-old single malt Scotch whisky (52.1 percent abv; $200): this immensely enjoyable whisky exhibits sweet, earthy aromas of ginger, vanilla, light smoke, stewed red fruits, honey and a hint of citrus, followed through with additional flavors of gingerbread, vanilla extract, cinnamon, canned peaches, something like blackberries (which really does seem a bit implausible in whisky, yet there it is), and all with a whisper of smoky peat. Delicious and complex, though pricey.
Yes, this is fine whisky, and a truly interesting expression, but equally excellent, arguably better, Highland Park whisky can be found more easily and bought for less. On the other hand, this is a most worthy whisky and, hey, it’s only money, so don’t let us deter those with extra money burning a hole in the pockets. L’Chaim!