Passover: Wine and spirits from Israel's city of mysticism

Here are a few Tzfat wines and spirits available throughout the country that would be great accompaniments to your Seder table.

 WINEMAKER DOV BUZAGLO (middle) at the Safed Distillery. (photo credit: Troy O. Fritzhand)
WINEMAKER DOV BUZAGLO (middle) at the Safed Distillery.
(photo credit: Troy O. Fritzhand)

Tzfat is full of spirit and energy when it comes to art, music and religion. Alongside its mysticism, the resting place of Kabbalists, such as the Arizal, it has a thriving wine and liquor scene, with local bars and galleries showcasing the city’s creations.

Wine is integral in Jewish tradition, present at practically every life cycle event, as well as weekly on Shabbat. Prominent among the wine-related traditions is the four cups of wine that are prescribed to be drunk at the Passover Seder.

Here are a few Tzfat wines and spirits available throughout the country that would be great accompaniments to your Seder table. All are certified kosher for Passover.

Earth and Air Winery

Founded by Amichai Cohen and Naftali Menachem, Earth and Air grows its grapes in the Upper Galilee not far from Lake Kinneret. Cohen, who also runs LiveKabbalah.org, explained that they are trying to bring ancient wine practices back to the mainstream, such as with their special edition wines that are kept in clay jugs as was done thousands of years ago. The design is actually a replica of the oldest wine storage facility ever found in the world, in Megido.

I tried two of their wines, a Merlot and a Malbec, both a 2016 vintage. Aged for 18 months in oak barrels, the Malbec was more of a mid-full wine, whereas the Merlot was a full-bodied wine with really good tannins. Both had nice color, the Merlot almost jet black. The legs on each were tight and numerous.

 AVIVIM WINES and Rimon. (credit: Troy O. Fritzhand) AVIVIM WINES and Rimon. (credit: Troy O. Fritzhand)

The Malbec has vanilla undertones and, after around 30 minutes of breathing, developed a strong coffee flavor. The Merlot, on the other hand, was a bit fruitier, which became more intense as it breathed. Both smelled good. Cohen was keen to point out that in regard to wine, one view of alcohol is that the scent is a great indicator of its taste.

Together, they are both great wines, although I preferred the Merlot. The winery makes roughly 7,000 bottles a year, each retailing for NIS 160. They can be purchased on the winery’s website at www.earthandairwines.com

Avivim

The wines from Avivim come from a Moroccan family that lives on a Moshav just north of Tzfat. Their wines have become favorites among locals for the taste and prestige of the vineyard. I tried four of their wines: a 2018 Cabernet Sauvignon; a 2018 Duet; a 2016 Lord; and a 2018 Petit Syrah.

My two favorites were the 2018 Cabernet Sauvignon and the Duet, which is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Syrah grapes. Both had tons of tannins, making them very dry wines. They also each had an almost cinnamon roll-type flavor to them, something very unique. The sweetness was a bit lighter on the Duet, which made for a more enjoyable drinking experience.

The 2018 Petit Syrah was pretty good, with a great smell and full tannins, though the flavor was not strong. The Lord, which is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot, Shiraz and Merlot, was not my favorite. The intense blend seemed to block out any clear flavor, making it one of the more dull wines I tasted.

Avivim’s wines start at NIS 130 and can be purchased at Emmanuel, located at Alkabetz 48; or Tzfat Distillery, located at 32 Derech Hasisim. Emmanuel is a shop that is owned by Emmanuel Bouzaglou, an artist whose expertise is Judaica. Some of his unique pieces have made it to the White House, with former US president Donald Trump lighting his hanukkiah.

Tzfat Distillery is a former pharmacy with an extensive wine cellar in its ancient basement. Customers can purchase higher-end wines and store them in the distillery’s cellar if they don’t have a cellar of their own.

Chateau Tzfat

Chateau Tzfat is a boutique winery on the higher end price-wise, ranging from NIS 200 to NIS 500 and above. Their grapes are grown in the Galilee and are aged for 12 months in French oak barrels. Some of their more popular wines are the Petit Verdot and the Syrah, both of which have unique flavors that have added complexity to these older vintages. The wines are found in either of two places. One is with winemaker and art consultant Dov Buzaglo, originally from Canada. He is also is known in Tzfat as the unofficial mayor and gives tours of the city. The second place is Zusha Bar (16 Tet Zayin Street), a favorite among haredim.

Rashi

Rashi Winery is a creation of a name. Producing only 3,000 bottles per year, Rashi is unique in that its wines are sulfite-free. This is special, as according to some sources, sulfite-free wine is the most ideal wine to drink at the Passover Seder. It is the kind of wine that was used for libations during the sacrifices at the Temple in Jerusalem.

The one I tried, a 2020 Syrah, was grown in the Upper Galilee. It had nice tannins, making it close to full-bodied. The flavor was also very well balanced. Something to know about sulfite-free wines is that because they have no sulfites, their shelf life is much shorter than other wines. This means that unless you have a professional cellar and keep it on its side and not upright, and you must consume this wine within months of purchasing it.

The name says that wine is important outside of the kedusha (holiness) that can be brought with its consumption. To him, the idea of wine is “to bring the tikkun out of olam.”

With this said, it is a wine worth having on your Seder table. It can be purchased at his store in the Old City, alongside a wider selection of wines.

Spirits

Israelis need not worry about getting their fix of alcohol and liquors during the Passover festival when many common foods are more difficult to find due to the need for chametz in their production.

One spirit that stood out was Katzrin Distillery’s Etrog Gin. The gin is infused with etrog, the citrus that is used during Sukkot, alongside nine other botanicals. It has a clean taste and though I drank it straight, it would be nice in a cocktail.

There is also a large selection of absinthe and liqueurs for cocktail making that are available during Passover. Many of these can be found at the Tzfat Distillery. The prices range from NIS 80 to NIS 200.

For those not in Israel, all the shops can ship these wines internationally.

Wherever you are celebrating Passover this year, with friends or family, you are sure to get your cups’ worth with any of these wines from the Tzfat area. The spirit in the air lends itself to the growth of strong grapes creating great wines. With that, L’chaim and Chag Pesach kasher v’sameach.