Wine talk: Sweet wine for a sweet year

Enjoy award-winning local dessert wines this holiday.

wine 311 (photo credit: MCT)
wine 311
(photo credit: MCT)
It is timely to reflect on Rosh Hashana that Israel is establishing a name for itself in producing outstanding dessert wines.
Most Israelis associate sweet wines with kiddush and religious ritual, so the very word “sweet” has connotations of a cheap and nasty wine – something to be avoided at all costs.
However, some of the world’s most sought-after and expensive wines are sweet, dessert wines. An Eiswein or Trockenbeerenauslese from Germany, Icewine from Canada or Sauternes from Bordeaux are sweet, but it would be a tragedy if a wine lover never experienced them because of a prejudice against sweet wines. Incidentally, the world’s most expensive white wine was recently sold, and it was a sweet wine. It was a bottle of Chateau d’Yquem from the 1811 vintage, and it sold for $123,000.
The eastern Mediterranean is famous as being home to some of the world’s most original dessert wines. Commandaria, from 14 villages on the southern slopes of the Troodos Mountains in Cyprus, is the world’s most historic wine, dating back to the Crusades. Greek wines such as Mavrodaphne from the northwest Peloponnese, Vinsantos from the Assyrtiko grown on the volcanic island of Santorini and Muscats from the island of Samos are some of the world’s best dessert wines. The Etko Centurion Commandaria, Achaia Clauss Mavrodaphne, Argyros Vinsanto and Samos Muscat are well worth seeking out. And Lebanon makes quality dessert wines, such as the Kefraya Lacrima d’Oro.
Lately, Israel has joined its neighbors in the eastern Mediterranean and is becoming known for excellent dessert wines. Twenty years ago Israeli wine lovers would sneer at sweet wines. The wine that changed this view was Yarden Sauvignon Blanc Late Harvest 1988.
In 1988 the Sauvignon Blanc from the Ortal vineyard was found to have botrytis (a fungus which concentrates the juice and produces rich, honeyed wines), and the Golan Heights Winery made what may be the best ever dessert wine made in Israel. It was certainly a wonderful wine and totally unique because it was never replicated.
Those privileged to taste the Yarden Sauvignon Blanc Late Harvest will never forget it.
However, it is only in the last 10 years that Israeli dessert wines have consistently gained international ratings at the highest level. The finest of these are two wines, both made from Gewurztraminer grapes and both grown on the Golan Heights. Furthermore, the Yarden Heights Wine and Carmel’s Single Vineyard Sha’al Gewurztraminer are arguably Israel’s most awarded wines of the last 10 years. In the last few months alone, Yarden Heights Wine was awarded the Gran Gold Medal at Vinitaly, and Carmel’s Sha’al Gewurztraminer won a gold medal at the International Wine and Spirit Competition in London.
The Heights Wine, a play on the words “Icewine” and “Golan Heights,” is produced from Gewurztraminer grapes, frozen at the winery. The result is a rich, honeyed and very complex wine. The Sha’al Gewurztraminer is produced from a single vineyard on the Golan Heights, where the grapes are harvested late. The result is more delicate and less rich than the Heights Wine but with a more refreshing, balanced acidity.
Binyamina is another winery with a very good dessert wine from Gewurztraminer grapes.
The Muscat of the Alexandria grape variety is indigenous to the eastern Mediterranean.
Some excellent grapey dessert wines are made from Muscat.
The best are produced by Yarden, Binyamina, Carmel Private Collection and Dalton.
White Riesling is rarer in Israel, but quality dessert wines from this variety are made by Teperberg and Vitkin. More unusual still in Israel is the Yarden Noble Semillon, made from grapes affected by botrytis at the winery.
Normally the wine lover will advocate a dry wine for religious ritual, but at Rosh Hashana a dessert wine served ice cold will be perfect for kiddush.
It will then be suitable to accompany the sweet dishes served. It will even go well with gefilte fish, matching the sweetness and yet toning down the heat of the horseradish.
There is nothing wrong in having a dessert wine as an aperitif. The French do it all the time.
It is then possible to have dry wines for the main course and return to the dessert wine with the puddings. Any of the wines mentioned would be ideal.
They should be served very cold, even spending a short time in the freezer. For Rosh Hashana, it is worth selecting a quality sweet wine to honor the occasion instead of the less expensive, poorer quality alternatives.
So quite apart from the fact that dessert wines are ideal for the Rosh Hashana meal, it is a good time to appreciate that Israel is making some really fine dessert wines.
Adam Montefiore works for Carmel Winery and regularly writes about wine for Israeli and international publications.