Wine Talk: L’haim, sweetie

Where wine is concerned, the very word ‘sweet’ has many Israelis recoiling, associating sweet wine with bad and cheap. But surprisingly, some of the world’s most sought-after and expensive wines are sweet.

Summer Wine_311 (photo credit: MCT)
Summer Wine_311
(photo credit: MCT)
Rosh Hashana is the time when Jews traditionally eat sweet things to symbolize a sweet New Year. Regrettably, the very word “sweet,” where wine is concerned, has many Israelis recoiling. They associate sweet wine with yayin patishim.
This is a phrase well known to Israelis. It literally translates to “hammer wine,” which they remember from their days in the army or from family kiddush as a child. It is a bad wine memory ingrained in the mind from the very earliest days of wine consciousness.
For many, a sweet wine represents everything that was not good about Israeli wine in times gone by. The knee-jerk reaction is that sweet equals cheap and nasty, with a taste more like sugared water than wine. Whatever the connotation, it is something is to be avoided at all costs.
Expensive sweet wines
As I attempt to change your minds, it is worth considering that some of the world’s most sought-after and expensive wines are sweet, pudding wines.
The world’s most expensive white wine ever sold was a sweet wine. It was a bottle of Chateau d’Yquem from the 1811 vintage, and it sold for $123,000! So sweet can relate to quality, and the best sweet wines are much sought after by wine mavens.
An Eiswein or a Trockenbeerenauslese from Germany, Icewine from Canada or Sauternes from Bordeaux are also sweet.
They are among the most sublime wines in the world. If you ever get the chance to taste them, take it with both hands. And by the way, there is a kosher Sauternes called Chateau Piada.
Our region’s varieties
The wider wine region that Israel is part of is the Eastern Mediterranean. This is the area that gave wine culture to the world, and it is particularly famous as being home to some of the world’s most original dessert wines. For instance, Commandaria, produced from 14 villages on the southern slopes of the Troodos Mountains in Cyprus, is the world’s oldest wine brand. It dates back to the time of the Crusades. At its best, it is a treacly, marmaladey, complex amber-colored wine that really is liquid history. However, you have to seek out the good ones to avoid disappointment.
Greece also has some fantastic dessert wines. Mavrodaphne, from the northwest Peloponnese, Vinsantos from the Assyrtiko grape variety grown on the volcanic island of Santorini, and a variety of Muscats are some of the world’s best dessert wines. The Etko Centurion Commandaria, Achaia Clauss Mavrodaphne, Argyros Vinsanto and Samos Muscats are the ones worth seeking out, but there are others.
Lebanon also makes quality dessert wines, such as the Lacrima d’Oro produced by Kefraya in the Bekaa Valley.
So it should not be a surprise that Israel is joining its neighbors and becoming known for excellent world-class, award-winning dessert wines. The first great Israeli dessert wine to start changing minds in Israel was the legendary Yarden Sauvignon Blanc Late Harvest 1988. That year, the Sauvignon Blanc from the Ortal vineyard was found to have botrytis (noble rot), 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 remember it to this day. It was like the perfume of a honeysuckle in a glass.
Israeli dessert wines
In recent years, Israeli dessert wines have been extremely successful in the court of international opinion. It is a wine style that Israel is becoming known for making well. The finest of these are two wines made from Gewurztraminer grapes, both of which are grown on the high-altitude, volcanic Golan Heights. The Yarden HeightsWine produced by the Golan Heights Winery and the Sha’al Single Vineyard Gewurztraminer Late Harvest from Carmel Winery are two of Israel’s most awarded wines in recent years.
The HeightsWine, 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, where the grapes are late harvested. The result is more delicate and less rich than the HeightsWine, but with a more refreshing, balancing acidity. Both are absolute nectar, heaven inspired.
Two other wineries with wonderful dessert wines made from the same grape variety are Binyamina and Tzora. The Binyamina Reserve Select Cluster Gewürztraminer and Tzora Judean Hills Or are both outstanding.
Riesling is rare in Israel, but quality dessert wines from this variety are made by Teperberg and Vitkin wineries. The Teperberg Silver White Riesling Late Harvest and Vitkin Johannisberg Riesling Late Harvest (NK) are the ones to look for. Incidentally, both White Riesling and Johannisberg Riesling are synonyms for the famous German Riesling and should not be confused with the simpler Emerald Riesling, which is more prevalent in Israel.
The Muscat of Alexandria grape variety is indigenous to the Eastern Mediterranean.
I suppose this is the grape variety most associated with sweet wines in Israel over the last 120 years. It is also arguably one of the oldest of all the known grape varieties.
It makes some excellent aromatic, grapey dessert wines. Some of the best are produced by Yarden, Binyamina, Carmel Private Collection and Dalton, and they will usually be less expensive than the dessert Gewurztraminers and Rieslings.
Normally, the wine lover will advocate a dry wine for religious ritual because “dry is for people who understand,” and sweet is for those wedded to tradition. However, at Rosh Hashana, I recommend you splash out on a quality dessert instead of the regular kiddush wine.
It always surprises me that people like to honor the kiddush with the cheapest wine possible.
For this Rosh Hashana, I am suggesting to go for quality sweet instead of cheap sweet. Quality dessert wines normally come in half-size bottles (375 ml.) or half-liter bottles. Generally, they are wines that are not overpriced for their quality. Any of the wines mentioned would be ideal.
What to serve it with
So you have your quality dessert wine to celebrate the New Year. I suggest you put it in the freezer so it really gets ice cold (just don’t forget it there!). Apart from Kiddush, the wine will be the perfect accompaniment to all the sweet dishes served at Rosh Hashana, including the sweet halla dipped in honey, the traditional apple and honey, dates and sweet carrot dishes that begin the festive meal. A dessert wine will even go well with the gefilte fish, matching the sweetness and yet toning down the heat of the horseradish. By the way, there is nothing wrong in having a dessert wine as an aperitif. The French do it all the time.
Which type of glass to use? A normal white wine glass is sufficient and certainly better than liqueur glasses or champagne flutes that restaurants often use for dessert wines.
Of course, it is then possible to revert to dry wines for the main course and return to the dessert wine with the puddings.
There are some very attractive deals in the supermarkets these days, which seem to be matched by the better wine shops.
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.
What a pity it would be if a wine lover never experienced the joy of a really great dessert wine because of a prejudice against sweet wines.
Shana tova! Wishing you a sweet New Year.
Adam Montefiore works for Carmel Winery and regularly writes about wine for Israeli and international publications.[email protected]