Wine Talk: Follow that grape!

Two new red grape varieties that are especially suited to our climate are slowly becoming popular.

Follow that grape! (photo credit: Courtesy)
Follow that grape!
(photo credit: Courtesy)
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 vines.”
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 years!
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 tannic wines.
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 variety.
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 dominant role.
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 varietiesTEPERBERG MALBEC 2009 NIS 70 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 NIS 135 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 background.
GALIL MOUNTAIN VIOGNIER 2011 NIS 45 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. [email protected]