Israeli wine reviews including Recanati, Agur, Ben Hanna, Domaine du Castel, and Yatir.
By Louis Marmon
Washington Jewish Week May 24, 2007
The next time you are expecting guests, whether for an intimate dinner party or an open house, consider serving wine from one of Israel’s wineries. World-class kosher wines are being produced at a growing number number of excellent wineries in the Holy Land, spearheaded by winemakers with a mission to continue to improve their products.
One of these vintners, Lewis Pasco never expected to end up in Israel. A New Jersey native who trained and worked as a chef for many years before entering the wine business, Pasco was learning to be a winemaker in California when the subject first came up. As he tells it: “There were two Israelis studying winemaking with me at UC Davis. They were surprised that I hadn’t visited Israel. One of them said ‘You will go to Israel, work at a winery, meet a nice Israeli woman and raise a family there.’”
And that is exactly what happened.
Pasco was the winemaker at Napa’s Chimney Rock and then moved onto the Marimar Torres Winery located in the Sonoma Valley. His talent was noticed by Leonardo “Lenny” Recanati who established his eponymous winery located in Israel’s Hefer Valley in 2000. Long a fan of fine wine, Recanati believed that there were locations within Israel that could grow world-class grapes. One of the largest and most modern facilities in the county, the Recanati Winery obtains grapes from several sites including the Upper Galilee and the Jerusalem Hills and all of their wines are kosher. They produce about 40,000 cases of red and white wine each year.
A number of the northern Israeli vineyards suffered as a result of the Hezbollah rocket attacks. One of the vineyards that supply grapes to Recanati was damaged by missile fire and then trampled by Israeli tanks moving north. Many vineyards were off-limits to their civilian owners who were unable to tend their vines. Pasco predicts that they lost about 10 % of the expected harvest this year. But everyone remains positive about the quality of the remaining grapes.
Recanati has joined with Yad Sarah, one of the leading volunteer groups in Israel, to assist individuals and communities damaged by latest conflict. The “Appreciation Program” entitles a donor to receive Recanati wines either monthly or before each Jewish holiday, as a benefit for a donation to Yad Sarah. The funds raised will be used to pay for home care, rehabilitation equipment and other medical services for nearly a thousand injured Israelis. For more information contact Yad Sarah at www.yadsarah.org/appreciation or 1-866-YAD-SARAH
During a Shabbat dinner last year, Pasco shared some of the Recanati releases and spoke about the state of Israeli winemaking. While wine has been made in Israel since ancient tines, he believes that, “Israeli winemaking is still in the early stages. We have our traditions but also the advantage of being able to utilize modern techniques.” The increase in popularity of Israeli wines in America, he says is “due to the significant improvement in quality of Israeli wines over the past several years. And an appreciation that kosher wines can be world-class.”
A number of wines were poured that evening, including a wonderful Sauvignon Blanc that is not available in the States. Fortunately the lovely Recanati Chardonnay 2004 ($15) is shipped to the US. Aged in French oak for 9 months before bottling, it has tropical fruit and citrus flavors with a touch of melon on the finish. The Recanati Cabernet Sauvignon 2004 ($15) is a value-priced offering with berry, red fruit and currant notes while the Recanati Merlot 2004 ($15) offers cherry and black fruit flavors with a bit of anise at the end. Also enjoyable is the Recanati Shiraz 2003 ($15) with nicely-balanced spicy red cherry and earth flavors.
Pasco selects his most exceptional grapes to prepare the Recanati Reserve wines. A blend of 70 % Petite Syrah and 30 % Zinfandel, the well-balanced Recanati Reserve Petit Syrah-Zinfandel 2004 ($22) exhibits blackberry, blueberry and plum flavors with a bit of pepper and spice. The Recanati Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2002 ($22) has an interesting smoky aroma with cedar, plum and currant flavors. An exceptional wine is the Recanati Special Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2001 ($38), which contains 4 % Merlot. A full-bodied, deeply flavored wine with excellent balance, it displays raspberry, currant, and dark fruit notes with enough tannins to last for several more years before drinking.
Located in the Judean Hills between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, another group of winemakers has also been working diligently to enhance the quality of Israeli wines. The region surrounding Jerusalem is an ancient winemaking area, with evidence of pre-Roman viniculture scattered in the hills. It is now home to 28 wineries that account for 7 percent of Israeli production. The Judean Hill’s stony soil and wide temperature fluctuations impart the wines with distinct characteristics that were evident in a recent tasting.
Settled in 1948 by immigrants from Kurdistan, Moshav Agur is the home of the Agur Winery who source grapes from the surrounding hills and the Ella Valley the Agur Cabernet Sauvignon Special Reserve 2004 ($ 28) has lovely anise, currant and dark fruit flavors while the medium-bodied Agur Kessem Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot 2004 ($ 23) has black cherry and cassis notes with a touch of citrus on the finish.
Rightfully considered one of the best Israeli wineries is Domaine du Castel. Owner Eli Ben Zaken released only 600 bottles in 1992 but is now selling more than 100,000 bottles per year. Domaine du Castel Grand Vin 2004 ($ 50) is a gorgeous, full-bodied Bordeaux-styled blend of cabernet sauvignon, merlot and petit verdot with raspberry, black plum and cassis flavors along with a touch of chocolate on the finish. It is a truly impressive wine with the structure to last for years. Created to be consumed earlier than their Grand Vin, the Domaine du Castel Petite 2004 ($ 29) is softer and more approachable with black cherry and plum notes with a hint of pepper.
It seems appropriate to feature a camel on the label when some of your grapes come from the Negev. Located in Moshav Kfar Ruth near Modi’in, the Ben Hanna Winery is considered a boutique operation and winemaker Shlomi Zadok’s sense of whimsy is only surpassed by the quality of his Ben Hanna Winery Single Humped Merlot 2004 ($ 19), a lush, slightly minty offering with blackberry, blueberry and plum flavors. Also worth trying is the Ben Hanna Cabernet/Merlot Shalem 2003 ($ 22), a spicy, slightly earthy medium-bodied wine with red cherry and blackberry notes.
The Yatir Winery is located in the Negev, but obtains its grapes from the southern Judean Hills. A joint venture between the Carmel Winery and local growers, Yatir is considered one of Israeli wines upcoming stars. The Yatir Winery Yatir Forest Vineyard 2003 ($ 50) is a big, muscular blend of 82 % cabernet sauvignon and 18 % merlot with smoky black fruit flavors. Put some away for a couple of years, then serve with your best roast.