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07.2006

Massachusetts Beverage Business

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Article By: Sandy Block, MW

As any even casual reader of the Bible or student of ancient history knows, wine has been produced and consumed in the Land of Israel for thousands of years. It has also been exported for many centuries, constituting a favored drink among the Roman legions and among the pharaoh's court in Egypt in ancient times. Today, wine continues to play a central role in weekly Jewish Sabbath observance and is present at other times throughout the year during the celebration of holidays and family milestones. Jews celebrate with wine as a symbol of God's benevolence, a sign of the Covenant and as a blessing that helps bring them closer to the divine presence. Historically, however, Jews have never regarded wine, the fruit of the vine, simply as a drink, and have rarely prized it solely for its pleasurable effects. It is viewed instead as a sacred beverage, essential to family and community life. Talmudic sources even recommended consuming wine as an aid in developing profound insights into understanding the world. So it is not surprising that as we have come to enjoy wine in the last few decades primarily as a delicious and healthful mealtime beverage option, wines from Israel, which were made traditionally for thousands of years but with a different purpose in mind, have not reached a wider audience.

A word about what it means for a wine to be Kosher in Israel. Certification requires that a wine be made under rabbinical supervision with equipment that has been purified. Vines younger than 4 years cannot be used; it is prohibited to grow other fruits or vegetables between the vine rows, and fields must lie fallow every seven years, as commanded in the Bible. After harvest, only Sabbath-observant Jews are permitted to handle the grapes or the winemaking equipment. No work can be performed during the Sabbath or during a Jewish holiday, and the wines cannot be clarified with animal proteins (such as fish glue, gelatin or dried milk) if they're to attain Kosher status. Finally a symbolic amount of wine must be discarded from each vat, representing wine that was required to be brought to the Temple in Jerusalem before its destruction.

This has changed with a new generation of winemaker focused more on quality production techniques and with identifying micro-climates within the country specially suited for cultivating noble grape varieties. While Israel's wine industry is very small in comparison to most other countries from which we import (only 2O,OOO acres are planted to vines, although this is double the acreage planted in 2OOO and quadruple the land under vine in 1995!), and the majority of the wines are still not to a world-class standard, there are a number of outstanding boutique wineries operating that are fully attuned to the mainstream contemporary palate. The Kosher wines that they produce may be hard to find but they are competitive with comparably priced wines from elsewhere. Gone are the days when Kosher necessarily meant sweet and cloying. There have been some outstanding examples from California available for several years and Israel has apparently now contributed many in the past few vintages to match or surpass them. This has occurred as new blood has entered the industry. In particular, there are winemakers educated in the US, Australia and Europe who have brought the most up-to-date technical expertise to bear on the country's mostly warm climate vineyards. Because Israel's weather is so dry and drought is a perennial issue, many farmers of other fruits have turned to planting grapes as the vines require relatively less water. A recent tasting confirmed that despite the predominance of many drab and unexciting wines lacking vivacity or structure, Israel now produces several that are delicious. The industry now has 14O wineries among which are some budding international stars, particularly those who are planting at higher elevation cooler climate sites within the Golan, Upper Galilee and the Judean Hills near Jerusalem.

While it is not required of an Israeli wine that it be Kosher, all of the following are. They are listed, as usual, in ascending order of preference.

HAMSREK CABERNET SAUVIGNON, JUDEAN HILLS, BEIT MEIR, 2OO2 Most of the better Israeli wines that I tasted were red, which makes sense given the relatively hot, sunny climate. Produced at a new boutique winery in the Judean Hills surrounding Jerusalem, this 7OO case facility makes a deeply colored, herbally-scented, ripe Cabernet with medium tannins for early consumption. Bright, but with a tobacco-like edge, its style is half in the New World and half European. Nice accompaniment to casual fare, like hamburgers or grilled chicken. $21

DOMAINE du CASTEL BLANC, CHARDONNAY, JUDEAN HILLS, 2OO4 Highly acclaimed as one of the finest producers in Israel, this boutique estate winery's previous Chardonnay was rated 9O points by wine spectator and my notes indicate the 2OO4 is a superior wine. Product of a relatively cool vintage in Israel, this richly textured barrel-fermented Chardonnay definitely had more definition and structure than any of the other white wines I tasted. Made from vines planted in close proximity on steep slopes, it is full-bodied, vanilla-accented and toasty, with obvious aromatic evidence of lees aging. Plush and creamy in texture, with ripe apple-like fruit and refreshing acidity, the Castel finishes with a good deal of lingering spice. Wood tones are evident throughout, making it an outstanding choice for grilled fish. The stylistic influence of Burgundy, where the owner's son apparently apprenticed, is unmistakable. $35

TZORA CABERNET ZINFANDEL, JERUSALEM HILLS, 2OO3 Produced at a kibbutz in the mountains west of Jerusalem, which makes only about 4OOO cases of wine in total, this is a blend of 2/3 Cabernet and 1/3 Zinfandel that is so spicy, smooth and flavorful it makes me wonder why I haven't seen more of this combination from California. Medium garnet in color, with a raisiny flavor and a chunky, slightly thick jammy texture, this would be a delightful wine with simple meat dishes, such as hamburgers or cold roast beef. The tannins are soft and the alcohol seems moderate. $18

HAMASREK "KINGS BLEND", JUDEAN HILLS, N/V A blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Zinfandel, this multi-vintage wine is engagingly smooth and round, with a slightly spicy flavor. Its charming red fruit and low tannins make it very quaffable. In fact, it struck me that it would also taste good during the summer with a slight chill. Definitely a red wine to complement salads or lighter meat dishes. $12

CHILLAG "ORNA" CABERNET SAUVIGNON, RISERVA, GALILEE, 2OO4 Produced from grapes grown in the north of the country, this Cabernet is aged in French oak barrels for over a year. Polished and elegant, more in a European mode than New World, its understated black fruit flavors are ripe and a bit chewy, but highly adaptable to a variety of meat dishes, from rack of lamb to grilled beef. There is a lot of flavor intensity and a nice lingering finish. $2O

BAZELET HAGOLAN CABERNET SAUVIGNON, GOLAN HEIGHTS, 2OO4 Producers of about 25OO cases in total, this Golan winery is run by an Israeli Australian trained enologist and it uses 1OO% estate grapes from the cool northern Heights of the Golan. This was the best-made, most complex wine from Israel that I tasted. With a slightly mineral-like perfume, laced with vanilla and smoke, its black cherry flavors were extremely ripe. The highly accented, sensual flavors are lush and smooth with undertones of cocoa and exotic hot spices and, although tannins are soft, there appears to me to be potential to age for at least 5 years. An outstanding example of what can hopefully be expected in years to come. $3O

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