Will Carignan Be The Varietal That Made Israeli Wine Famous?

 

 

A review of the Recanati Reserve Carignan Kerem Ba’al 2009 and the Bruichladdich 10-year-old Single Malt Scotch Whisky.

 

By Joshua E. London and Louis Marmon

 

Washington Jewish Week  February 15, 2012

 

Bruichladdich Laddie TenAustralia has Shiraz, Argentina is known for Malbec, Chile for Carmenere and in California Cabernet is king. Whether by design, regulation or chance, nearly every winegrowing region has “its” grape. It adds a level of distinctiveness and sets a local standard whereby newcomers can be evaluated.

 

Many Israeli winemakers are looking to Carignan as the varietal that will help the country’s wines stand apart. While Carignan is widely planted in Languedoc and Spain, no region is really known for producing high quality Carignan wines, although you will find many good examples from Spain’s Priorat area, and it is often used in blends with fine results. Its ancient Mediterranean roots in southern France, Spain and Italy eventually led to it being planted in Israel in the late 1800s.

 

Made from a single vineyard located near the Dir Rafat Monastery in the Judean Hills is the kosher Recanati Reserve Carignan Kerem Ba’al 2009. The vines are all over 30 years old, have never been irrigated and (unusual for Israel) have been allowed to grow in a bush-like, untrellised fashion, resulting in a low-yield of intensely flavorful grapes. This is Recanati’s first Carignan. The wine offers intense raspberry and spicy black fruit aromas and flavors, along with deep dark currant, herbal, mocha and mild pepper accents. It has good balance and finish. A perfect steak wine, this beauty needs some time in the glass to open and offer itself as a delicious insight into what Israel can do with this unfamiliar grape.

 

Located in the Hefer Valley, the Recanati Winery is Israel’s sixth largest with an annual output of 950,000 bottles. An extremely successful financier and banker, Lenny Recanati is also a passionate wine collector who established his eponymous winery in 2000. His family moved from Italy to Israel in the early 1900s, and Recanati attributes his early interest in wine to the vineyard in the garden of his parent’s Haifa home. Recanati’s goal is to make wines that reflect the character of the Israeli terroir rather than imitate the wine of other countries. The current winemaking team of Gil Shatzberg (formally from Amphorae and Carmel wineries) and Ido Lewinsohn also create wines from Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Shiraz, Zinfandel, Cabernet Franc, Carignan, Viognier, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc under the Yasmin, Recanati, Reserve and Special Reserve labels.

 

Spirits-wise, we thought we’d return once again to Islay, Scotland, to taste the Bruichladdich 10-year-old single malt Scotch Whisky ($60). This is the first 10-year-old release that is fully reflective of the current, fiercely independent, idiosyncratic ownership that took over and refired the stills in 2001. As Bruichladdich’s website puts it, “this is without doubt the most important release in our history, and very much a landmark for the distillery and the Bruichladdich team.”

 

At the heart of the Bruichladdich whisky team is the Islay-born Jim McEwan, who entered the trade at the age of 15 as an apprentice cooper at the Bowmore Distillery on Islay. McEwan spent 38 years with Bowmore, during which time he learned everything about the trade: malting, mashing, distilling, warehouse and wood management, blending, and marketing (or “educating” as the industry usually prefers to call it). McEwan lived a few years in Glasgow during his blending and “Bowmore Global Ambassador” phase, but is happiest back on his native Islay (making him an Illeach). McEwan left Bowmore in December 2000 and started at Bruichladdich on Jan. 6, 2001.

 

Between January and May 2001 Bruichladdich was dismantled and reassembled, with all of the original Victorian decor and, more remarkably, Victorian-era equipment retained. With the exception of things like 24/7 webcams, the distillery is very much an 1880s era throwback – which is part of what the folks at Bruichladdich like. Besides McEwan and his immediate production team (manager, stillman, etc.), the distillery employs around 50 Illeachs, making it the single largest nongovernmental employer on the island (over 60 percent of all employment in Scotland is government, so this is no small thing).

 

Bruichladdich styles itself as “Progressive Hebridean Distillers,” which says more than first meets the eye. They are obviously distillers and they are obviously located on southernmost island of the Inner Hebrides archipelago off the west coast of Scotland. Yet Bruichladdich is also progressive in the ideological or philosophical sense. Bruichladdich places great importance on being local, authentic, and economically, communally, and even sociologically, relevant to the lives of the people of Islay and of Scotland. Always interesting, and only occasionally unmoored or unfocused by their determination to be separate and apart, there is seemingly no modern aspect of the Scotch whisky trade with which the folks at Bruichladdich do not take some level of exception.

 

Thus, the folks at Bruichladdich have not only breathed new life into this 130+ year old distillery, but they have done so with a certain flair, panache and a stubborn insistence on doing things their way. As their website boasts: “There are many attributes we share with our distant Gaelic forefathers: stubborn, resolute, self-sufficient, tough, hard-working, enduring, straight-talking, emotional, passionate, philosophical and engaging … perhaps with a certain roguish quality. We are proudly non-conformist, as has always been the way in these Western Isles.”

 

Andrew Jefford, wine critic and author of Peat, Smoke and Spirit, the definitive book on Islay and its whiskies, wrote of Bruichladdich: “They cut free over a decade ago, and they’ve been jamming and busking and riffing ever since. Different peating levels, local barley, organics, biodynamics, craft distilling, water from the hill, wood from some of Europe’s best addresses, Islay ageing and bottling: they give it all a go. Not a brand, but people, ideas, skills and laughter. Not industry, but agriculture and craft. Not a destination, but a debate.”

 

All of which is a nicely compact introduction for this independent, slightly rambunctious distillery – as is the whisky itself. Without further ado:

 

The Bruichladdich 10 year old (46 percent alcohol by volume; $57) is a smooth, delicious assemblage of both American and European oak-aged whiskies offering aromas and flavors of creamy vanilla, honey, lemon and lemon zest, apricot, tangerine, overripe cantaloupe melon, malt, banana muffin, fresh bread, candied ginger, and with a light but distinct brine. The finish is long and lingering. A delicious, unpretentious, easy drinking yet complex dram. L’chaim.

 

 

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