Eli Ben-Zaken's boutique winery at his home in Moshav Raziel was born when he planted a small vineyard atop one of the Judean Hills in 1988. By 1992 he was crushing his first Cabernet and Merlot grapes before ageing them for 24 months in new French oak casks. By spring 1995 the wine was bottled and the label read Castel, named after a nearby Crusader fortress. The wine, made with a lot of effort and to high standards, was named Grand Vin. Since then, more vineyards have been planted with different kinds of grapes and the old stable and coop have been transformed into a thoroughly modern outfit. "Everything I know about wine is from visiting wineries in Bordeaux and Burgundy and reading many books," says Ben-Zaken. "Our vineyards are densely planted, and we use limited irrigation, which we think is the correct procedure for growing the best wine grapes." The vineyards are on the slopes of deep valleys facing northwest, at an average altitude of 700 meters above sea level, where they benefit from an excellent summer breeze and shorter hours of sunshine. The grapes are hand-picked in small containers and immediately transported to stainless steel fermentation tanks for about 30 days - depending on the character of the grapes. This is followed by a gentle and low-pressure pressing. The free-run wine and the press wine are mixed according to tasting tests, and then moved to casks for aging. Excavated in the rock beneath the winery are the impressive Burgundy-style cellars where casks are lined up like soldiers in a narrow terracotta-painted room. Two years ago Castel became kosher, and now, with the freshly launched "Grand Vin 2003," each of the winery's products can be savored at a fancy kosher meal. According to Ben-Zaken, becoming kosher didn't affect production. "Crafting wine is something done mostly in the mind, and winemakers can easily supervise the process with no need to touch the product. I want everyone to be able to enjoy the wine I make." Castel's flagship series, "Grand Vin," is a large and intense wine, like its name. A blend of 70% Cabernet Sauvignon and 30% Merlot, this richly aromatic wine is aged for 24 months in new French oak casks. The well-integrated oak provides background notes of buttered toast. The other red series is "Petit Castel," a full-bodied blend of 60% Cabernet Sauvignon and 40% Merlot grapes. It has an intense nose of red berries, currants and a touch of black pepper. Ben-Zaken describes Castel's "C" Chardonnay as the reddest white wine. And indeed it strikes like a red wine. The Chardonnay 2003 has won the winery a score of 90 points by Wine Spectator, the highest rating achieved by an Israeli winery. Full-bodied, rich and expansive, this wine features peach and pineapple aromas reminiscent of a freshly baked apple pie.

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