What’s In A (Wine’s) Name?



A review of the Gilgal Merlot 2007 and the Arran 14 Year Old Single Malt Scotch Whisky.


By Joshua E. London and Lou Marmon


Washington Jewish Week  July 11, 2012


On a plateau within the Golan Heights is a series of five concentric stone circles made up of more than 42,000 volcanic basalt rocks. Thought to be from the early Bronze Age period, this megalithic monument’s outermost wall stands nearly 8 feet tall and around 520 feet in diameter. At the center of this site is a 15 feet tall burial mound. Bear with us, the booze is coming.

This ancient rock circle site is known as Gilgal Refa’im (circle of ghosts). The name also relates to the history of the area. Though refa’im means ghosts or spirits in modern Hebrew, in biblical Hebrew the word is used to refer to the star-worshipping pre-Canaanite people of Bashan (modern day Golan), a race of giants from which King Og was the only remnant at the time he and his army battled unsuccessfully against the Jewish people at Edrei (Deuteronomy 3: 1-13). One legend has it that the ancient Refa’im built this stone circle, nowadays called the “Stonehenge of the Levant.” The circle is thought to have been used for celebrations and ceremonies at the equinox or perhaps for prehistoric astrological calculations and later converted into a tomb.

What does any of this have to do with hooch? Well, these ancient rock circles also provide the name for a series of wines called Gilgal produced by Israel’s Golan Heights Winery (GHW). Here is GHW’s marketing guff to explain the connection: “Some Mysteries Are Better Enjoyed than Solved. Though the Gilgal label is inspired by the mystique of the Gilgal Refaim, our exceptional quality and value will come as no surprise. We invite you to savor our unique fusion of passionate, modern winemaking with the antiquity of the first land known to bear the fruit of wine.”

Seems a little thin, right? Since we lack the marketing degree that presumably would help us understand why this makes perfect sense, we certainly think so. But the wines are good, so we are not too bothered. Indeed the wines were also good when they were sold here in the U.S. as “Gamla,” not to be confused with the totally different, though also good, Israeli wines currently available here in the U.S. called “Gamla.”

Here’s the whole confusing story. GHW produces wine under various labels, one of which is Gamla. For years, GHW’s Gamla-labeled wines were imported to and distributed in the United States by Herzog’s Royal Wine Corp. When the arrangement was made, however, Royal obtained full U.S. rights for the intellectual property that is the wine brand, or label, called “Gamla.”

A few years ago Royal and GHW parted ways, and GHW now imports its own wines into the U.S. Even though Royal no longer imports any GHW wines, they still own the U.S. rights for the Gamla label, and so decided to contract with another Israeli winery to produce wines exclusively for Royal’s Gamla label of wines. This other winery is Carmel, but the wines are made there by Peter Stern exclusively for Royal under special contract (Stern originally made the GHW’s wines back in the 1980s). So starting with the 2009 vintage, all the Gamla wines available here in the U.S. are made by Peter Stern (at the Carmel Winery) and have no connection to GHW. To further complicate things, however, GHW continues to produce wines in Israel under its Gamla label, and these (GHW) Gamla-labeled wines continue to be widely available in Israel and roughly 30 other countries – just not in the U.S.

This brings us full circle to Gilgal (ha!). Not content to lose out on sales, GHW, having lost the ability to sell its own Gamla labeled wines here in the U.S., decided to simply rebrand their Gamla wines with the name “Gilgal” for our market. That is, the Gamla wines that are available in Israel under the name Gamla are now available here in the U.S. under the name “Gilgal” (not Gamla).

Most importantly, the Gilgal wines are made under the supervision of GHW’s head winemaker Victor Schoenfeld, an innovator and master craftsman who is responsible for some of the country’s finest wines. Gilgal is, for the U.S. market, GHW’s middle tier series of mostly early drinking single varietal wines that retain some aging capacity. The very enjoyable Gilgal Merlot 2007 ($14) is a perfect match to grilled foods. Blackberry and plum aromas glide into herbal red cherry, dark currant and vanilla flavors in a medium frame with a pleasant, slightly oak and pepper-accented finish.

Spirits-wise, not wishing to get further bogged down in marketing silliness, we thought we’d stick with a great, solid, straightforward selection from the Isle of Arran Distillery in Scotland.

We’ve written about the Arran Distillery before. The quickie version of which is that even though the distillery was only founded in 1995, we are mighty impressed with its current output.

The whiskies tend to be delicate, creamy, unpeated, with distinct sweet, fruity, citrusy notes.

Their standard 10-year-old whisky, which we wrote about previously, is utterly delightful. This time we thought we’d consider this:

The Arran Malt 14 Year Old, Single Malt Scotch Whisky (46 percent abv; $70.00): Matured in a mix of used American (2/3) and European (1/3) oak casks, this expression of Arran showcases the creamy, sweet-fruity notes with the European oak influence adding a certain depth and balance over the standard 10 year old. The whisky offers aromas and flavors of banana, peaches, apricots, citrus fruits, vanilla, ginger, malt, hazelnuts, caramelized apples, melon, and a little fresh coconut. There are distinct oak notes and little light spice, and some faint brine in the finish. A nice, easy-drinking, delicious, sweet and creamy whisky. L’Chaim!


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