Malbec and Petit Verdot are two popular red grape varieties that have been
introduced in Israel over the last 10 years. Both were originally part of the
famous Bordeaux blend, playing a supporting role to Cabernet Sauvignon and
Merlot. However, they have excelled elsewhere and show every sign of being
particularly well suited to the Israeli climate.
Malbec is, in fact, not
exactly new here because it had been planted in Israel before. It was one of the
Bordeaux varieties that Baron Edmond de Rothschild insisted on bringing in 1887.
His agronomists were against it, but Rothschild was determined to make a quality
wine. He sent cuttings of Malbec, along with Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet
Franc, from his famous Bordeaux winery, Chateau Lafite.
A charming but
true story is that when the precious vines became infected by phylloxera,
Rothschild circumvented the problem by bringing in the varieties from a nursery
in Kashmir, India. They then became known and were referred to as the “Indian
The vision to make a really fine Israeli wine was spot on, but
vine disease, some obstinate growers and market realities put an end to that
dream. To build a state took 50 years after Herzl’s prophecy. To make a fine,
world-class Bordeaux style blend in The Holy Land would take longer; nearer 100
In France, Malbec is also known as Cot Noir, or Auxerrois. It is a
variety that is now unfashionable in Bordeaux and has become more associated
with Cahors in southwest France, where it makes almost black, deep-colored
It really found its true expression in the massive wine
industry that developed in Argentina. It had first been planted there in the
late 19th century from cuttings brought from France. There, the variety became
known less for power and body and more for a plummy fruitiness. With the help of
its new home, Malbec became associated with Argentina, the way Zinfandel is with
California and Shiraz is with Australia. It became the national
Malbec returned to Israel in the 2000s. Today, it forms
less than 1 percent of the grape varieties here, so it will not be a big player.
So far, it has mainly been used as a component in blends. It produces wines that
are plush, fresh and fruity with a touch of spice. It doesn’t have the harshness
that was associated with it in Cahors. The Israeli Malbec is closer to
the Argentinean version. Certainly it has potential here, and there will be more
Malbec wines on the shelves in the future.
Petit Verdot, “the small
green,” is another grape variety with roots in Bordeaux, but it has been left
out of the famous Bordeaux wines more and more because it does not ripen in
time. There are no such problems in the Israeli climate, where it ripens well in
the unforgiving Israeli sunshine and appears to cope well in the heat and humidity.
It produces concentrated tannic wines
with a deep color and a scent of violets.
Many winemakers consider it too
onedimensional to succeed on its own. Therefore, its biggest potential is as an
important component in blended wines, where it contributes color, backbone and
structure. In three of Israel’s finest blends – Castel Grand Vin, Carmel
Limited Edition and Yatir Forest – there is a greater percentage of Petit Verdot
than even Merlot. In most countries, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot are the
inseparable partners in blends, but here Petit Verdot is primed to take a more
However, there are some good wines made solely from Petit
Verdot, particularly in Australia. These are usually powerful, tannic wines that
are characterful, reasonably unusual and, though difficult to get to know, they
create a great deal of interest. In Israel, a single varietal Petit
Verdot is a rarity, but it is a grape variety that is garnering more and more
respect “under the radar.” One to watch.
The most prominent of the new
white varieties is Viognier (pronounced vee-onier). It is already
creating interest among wine lovers for producing noteworthy wines. It is very
different from the trio of Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Emerald Riesling,
which tended to be the dominant Israeli white wines for so long. Yet 20 years
ago Viognier nearly became extinct. It was planted in only a few
vineyards in the Northern Rhone, where it produced prohibitively expensive wines
because of its rarity and minuscule yields. It has now made a comeback and has
also recently made its way to Israel.
The attractive aspect of Viognier
is its unique, delicate and fragrant aroma. Nose the wine, and you will smell
enticing aromas of apricots, peaches and pear flesh. Maybe there is also
a whiff of honeysuckle in the background. When you find a good example, it is a
never-to-be-forgotten experience. In terms of weight, the wine is not
sharp like a Sauvignon Blanc but well rounded, so it has become an exotic
alternative to Chardonnay.
Viognier is also often used for blending with
Shiraz or Syrah in the northern Rhone, a habit that has been copied by some
Israeli wineries (for example, the excellent Recanati Syrah Viognier). This
apparently helps with color stabilization and gives a slightly perfumed
character to the red wines. It is also a good blender for white wines,
contributing its tantalizing perfume and soft texture.
There is still
only a tiny amount of Viognier planted in Israel, but those few wineries that
use it are already making wines of character and distinction. For those
unfamiliar with it, I suggest it is well worth a try.
What to drink
The following are arguably some of the best examples of the three varieties
TEPERBERG MALBEC 2009
This is the best example of Malbec up
to now. It comes from Judean Hills vineyards and is aged in oak barrels for 12
months. The wine has a good depth of color, with a juicy fruitiness with
up-front aromas of black berries and plums and a hint of
smokiness. Teperberg 1870 is Israel’s largest family-owned winery, which
is situated at Kibbutz Tzora near Beit Shemesh.
YATIR PETIT VERDOT 2008
A rare single varietal Petit Verdot made by Yatir Winery at Tel Arad in
the Negev, from vineyards within the Yatir Forest, the southern tip of the
Judean Hills. It is made 85% from Petit Verdot and 15% from Cabernet
Franc. Very deep colored, with a bracing structure and gripping tannins
and aromas of black fruit, leather and a bittersweet chocolate taste in the
GALIL MOUNTAIN VIOGNIER 2011
A wine with a generous
aroma of apricots and pears and a pleasing, soft, mouthfilling flavor of
tropical fruit. Medium bodied but with a fresh finish. Galil Mountain is
situated at Kibbutz Yiron on the northern border.
Adam Montefiore works for Carmel Winery and regularly writes about wine in
Israeli and international publications. firstname.lastname@example.org