Wine Talk: The premiers crus of Israel

Six personal favorites are presented as the country's pick of the crop.

Eli Ben-Zaken, founder and owner of Domaine du Castel (photo credit: MCT)
Eli Ben-Zaken, founder and owner of Domaine du Castel
(photo credit: MCT)
The finest wines in the Medoc region of Bordeaux are known as the Premiers Crus Classés, the “first classed growths.” The top tier includes wines such as Chateau Lafite Rothschild, Chateau Latour, Chateau Margaux and Chateau Mouton Rothschild. What are the premiers crus of Israel? I have chosen six wines as a personal selection of the finest Israeli wines. They are listed below in order of the position of their vineyards, from north to south. One comes from the Golan Heights, three come from the Upper Galilee, and two come from the Judean Hills. They are all blends, with Cabernet Sauvignon being the dominant variety.
Yarden Katzrin 2007, Golan Heights This is Israel’s first super deluxe wine, launched in 1990 by the Golan Heights Winery, which was founded in 1983. This is the pioneering winery of Israel, and the Yarden Katzrin is the finest expression of its master winemaker, UC Davis graduate Victor Schoenfeld. Katzrin is the town in the central Golan where the winery is situated. The wine is made mainly from Cabernet Sauvignon, with Merlot making up the balance. It can develop a cedarwood, cigar-box nose with bottle age. The Yarden Rom rivals the Katzrin as the winery’s finest wine, but I believe the Yarden Katzrin will age better, and it is this ability to age that warrants its inclusion among Israel’s Premiers Crus. Margalit Cabernet Sauvignon Special Reserve 2007, Upper Galilee (not kosher) Dr. Yair Margalit opened Israel’s first serious boutique winery in modern times in 1989. Since then he has consistently produced some of Israel’s finest red wines but continues to remain very small, producing only 20,000 bottles a year. Though his Bordeaux- style blend called Enigma runs close, the winery’s finest wine is the rare Special Reserve. It is made mainly from Cabernet Sauvignon, with the balance being Petite Sirah. Both come from Margalit’s Kadita vineyard in the Upper Galilee. The wine has the nose of a quality Bordeaux. Margalit Winery is situated in a small packing house in an orchard near Hadera. It is hard to find, and visits are not encouraged, apart from those weekends when Margalit launches his eagerly awaited new vintage.
Carmel Limited Edition 2007, Upper Galilee
This is an elegant Bordeaux blend made from Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot, Merlot, Malbec and Cabernet Franc. The grapes are sourced from Carmel’s Upper Galilee vineyards and fermented in the nearby Kayoumi Winery. They are then aged in Carmel’s 120-year-old cellars in Zichron Ya’acov on the southern slopes of Mount Carmel. Carmel Winery was founded by the Rothschilds in 1882. It had always been Israel’s largest winery, but in recent years it has gone through a program of rejuvenation and renewal. The Carmel Limited Edition is made in an old-world style preferred by winemaker Lior Lacser, who studied in France. It has delicate fruit and good balancing acidity.
Recanati Special Reserve 2008, Upper Galilee
Recanati Winery was founded by Leni Recanati in 2000. It is situated in Emek Hefer in the Sharon Plain, but most of its vineyards are in the Upper Galilee. The Special Reserve is the winery’s flagship, and it always maintains a consistently high quality. The 2008 is made from Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Petite Sirah and Syrah. The wine is very fruit forward, quite full bodied, backed by a good structure from oak aging. It is broad and complex. It won four gold medals in 2011, including in Bordeaux. The talented winemaker is Gil Shatzberg.
Castel Grand Vin 2008, Judean Hills
Domaine du Castel, situated in Ramat Raziel, was founded by Eli Ben-Zaken in 1992. It quickly became known as one of Israel’s leading boutique wineries. The Grand Vin is its main red wine, which is a blend of the five main varieties from Bordeaux, grown in vineyards in the mountains west of Jerusalem. The 2008 is one of its best-ever wines, showing elegance and layers of complexity. Castel produces about 100,000 bottles a year, spread among three wines: the Grand Vin; Petit Castel; and ‘C’ Blanc du Castel, a white wine made from Chardonnay.
Yatir Forest 2008, southern Judean Hills
Yatir Forest is the premier label of Yatir Winery, founded in 2000, which is situated in Tel Arad. The vineyards are within Yatir Forest, Israel’s largest planted forest, at an altitude of up to 900 meters above sea level. Yatir Forest 2008 is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot, Merlot, Malbec and Cabernet Franc. These are the five grapes in the classic Bordeaux-style blend. The wine is rich and velvety. The winemaker is Eran Goldwasser, who graduated from Adelaide University in South Australia. Yatir Forest has received 90 points or more from Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate for each of the last five vintages.
Adam Montefiore works for Carmel Winery and regularly writes about wine in Israeli and international publications. [email protected]