Wine Talk: Vintage milestones

The wines that have contributed the most to the advancement of the Israeli wine industry.

Israeli wine (photo credit: Courtesy)
Israeli wine
(photo credit: Courtesy)
As Israel reaches another Independence Day milestone, it is interesting to note what may be the country’s most influential wines on the international stage during the last 40 years. I list below my personal selection of 10 wines.
This is not a list of Israel’s finest wines, but a list of those wines that either signaled change or advanced the image of Israel as a quality wine-producing country internationally. The roster is a story of Israel through its wines – each one contributed to the advance of Israeli wines in some way, and each was a stepping stone in the upward advancement of the Israeli wine industry.
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Carmel Cabernet Sauvignon Special Reserve 1976 Samson Region, Carmel Mizrahi Winemaker: Freddie Stiller
This wine was Israel’s first serious international–style wine. It was the first to be aged in small oak barrels.
The wine was matured in French oak barrels for two years and then aged in the bottle. It was released only in 1980. The wine lasted nearly 20 years. A forerunner of the quality revolution, it was recognized by a photo on the label of Baron Edmond de Rothschild, founder of the Israeli wine industry.
Yarden Sauvignon Blanc 1983 Golan Heights Region, Golan Heights Winery Winemaker: Philip Steinschriber
Golan Heights Winery has never been known for the best Israeli Sauvignon Blanc. However, this was its first vintage, and when this wine was launched it became known – particularly in America – as Israel’s first world-class wine. It was a real breakthrough for Israel – light straw-colored, aromatic and with good acidity, rather than the overly oxidized, flabby, yellowing white wines that were produced up to then.
Yarden Cabernet Sauvignon 1984 Golan Heights Region, Golan Heights Winery Winemaker: Mike Lake
This was the first Israeli wine to win an international prize at the highest level. It won not only the Gold Medal at the International Wines and Spirits Competition in London but also the Winiarski Trophy (presented by Warren Winiarski of Stags Leap fame) as the best red wine in the competition.
This was the first real proof to the wider wine world that Israeli wines were international class. To onlooking wine experts, it was an astonishing result. Of course, the Golan Heights Winery went on to achieve this again and again over the years, but this was the first major prize on the world stage.
Yarden Katzrin 1990 Golan Heights Region, Golan Heights Winery Winemakers: Peter Stern/Victor Schoenfeld
Yarden Katzrin was Israel’s first super deluxe red wine. The first vintage was 1990. It was the country’s first-ever $50 bottle of wine, and today it costs more than $100 a bottle. It is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc and is produced only in especially good vintages. This wine took Israeli wine onto a new level. Israel’s first “Icon” wine.
Castel Grand Vin 1992 Judean Hills Region, Domaine du Castel
Winemaker: Eli Ben-Zaken
This wine was famous because it was Eli Ben-Zaken’s first vintage, but it was also the one “discovered” by Serena Sutcliffe, a master of wine and head of Sotheby’s Wine Department.
She referred to it as the best Israeli wine she had ever tasted. This was international recognition for a new boutique wine start-up, which encouraged Ben-Zaken to build his beautiful winery.
Margalit Cabernet Sauvignon 1993 Galilee Region, Margalit Winery Winemaker: Yair Margalit
Yair Margalit gained a reputation as Israel’s first really international- class boutique winery.
He was Israel’s best-known winemaker at this stage, and this was his greatest wine to date. It drew attention to the quality of a smaller, less commercial style of winery and heralded the boutique winery explosion that was to follow.
Castel Grand Vin 1997 Judean Hills Region, Domaine du Castel
Winemaker: Eli Ben-Zaken
Castel drew positive attention to Israel when the Grand Vin 1997 became Decanter Wine of the Month. Decanter Wine was the United Kingdom’s most prestigious wine magazine. This was a Bordeaux-style blend.
Castel’s success was noteworthy because no Israeli wine had succeeded in being featured in the publication before then.
Yatir Forest 2003 Judean Hills Region, Yatir Winery Winemaker: Eran Goldwasser Yatir
Winery’s prestige wine was the leading wine in the first-ever tasting by Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate. It received 93 points. At the time this was the best score for an Israeli, kosher or Eastern Mediterranean wine. Parker remains the world’s most famous and influential wine critic. This first tasting by Parker’s Israel specialist, Mark Squires, was a milestone for Israeli wine.
Yarden Cabernet Sauvignon 2004 Golan Heights Region, Golan Heights Winery Winemaker: Victor Schoenfeld
This became Israel’s first wine to be included on the Wine Spectator’s list of the 100 best wines of the year. Wine Spectator is the world’s most important wine magazine. This prestigious list is compiled annually.
The Yarden Cabernet was the first Israeli wine included.
Without doubt, the Yarden Cabernet Sauvignon has been Israel’s outstanding wine in international competition over the last 30 years.
Carmel Single Vineyard Kayoumi Shiraz 2006 Upper Galilee Region, Carmel Winery Winemaker: Lior Lacser
This wine was produced from the Kayoumi Vineyard, a vineyard under fire from Hezbollah during the 2006 war. Yet it won both the Regional and International Trophy at the Decanter World Wine Awards in 2010. The organizers referred to it as “the sensation of the competition and the sensation of any year’s competition.” An unprecedented award for Israeli wines in one of the world’s most stringent wine competitions.
Many Israeli wineries consistently win gold medals and trophies in tasting competitions around the world. The Golan Heights Winery has done it for 30 years. More recently, Barkan Winery and Recanati Winery have been prolific collectors of gold medals. Arguably, the most successful wines have been the aforementioned Yarden Cabernet Sauvignon and, more recently, Yarden Heights Wine, Recanati Special Reserve and Carmel Sha’al Gewurztraminer Late Harvest.
However, I believe the wines I have chosen are those that have garnered the most attention and done the most to advance “Brand Israel.”
Wishing you all an enjoyable Independence Day, hopefully accompanied by an Israeli wine!
Adam Montefiore works for Carmel Winery and regularly writes about wine in Israeli and international publications.
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