Tzora Winery – the founding terroir estate of the Judean Hills

Say the word terroir and most folk’s thoughts would consciously, or maybe sub-consciously jump to France, heck the word is French after all. Still, ask what does it mean, and now we are off the races. Why? Because other than its literal translation; land or sense of place, there is no real translation for terroir. I think that is fitting in a way, as the word has really just started its long and obviously complicated journey. According to the incomparable Harold McGee and Daniel Patterson, it all started in the 17th century, when used to describe a wine, in a non-complementary way. My! Fast forward to 1831, when it was first used as a compliment! From there, it has evolved over and over, like clay, or silt, or maybe rocks, in the hand of a potter, changing and evolving to meet the needs of place and/or time.

While researching this article I spent a good few hours, heck days, searching the real meaning of the word terroir. I almost felt like Indiana Jones on the search for the Ark of the Covenant. No matter how hard I searched, no matter the words I typed into the oracle of the web, all I got were old and stale answers. Finally, I fell upon the father of wine tasting, Eric Asimov’s, blog posting on the fore mentioned article, and I screamed Eureka (yeah my wife was not impressed)! On an aside, Harold McGee is my generation’s original scientific foodie, his books are the bible to many of our nowadays chef demi-gods gastronomical feats. It comes as no shock to me that he would be my knight in shining armor, remember wine may well be romantic in verse and scripture, but it is a chemical at its most base, in other words, dead center in Mr. McGee’s wheelhouse!

So, after reading more and more on this subject, it became even clearer to me, that the word may well be derived from the Latin meaning “earth”, but that is just the beginning of its true essence. Flash forward to a lovely early spring day in the Judean Hills, where my friend and I walk into the newly appointed Tzora Winery, sited on Kibbutz Tzora, and surrounded by sumptuous foliage and landscaping. Tzora Winery is the handiwork of one of Israel’s original and unique winemakers, who truly understood terroir, and saw Israel’s and the Judean Hill’s potential to become a world class wine region. In 1978, there was no Yarden winery, there was just a single Carmel Cabernet success, and Israel was just in its infancy, in terms of wine making, but to the visionary viticulturist Ronnie James, it was a path as clear as day. Mr. James was the Messiah to your average vintner. In his 30 years of service to the vine, Mr. James, will always remain the pioneer, not only at Tzora but also on the Israeli wine scene. Among Mr. James contributions were his enormous respect and passion for terroir and his insistence that his wines reflect that passion. James, known as “Dr. Terroir,” was the first to make wine from his own grapes and the first to introduce the vineyard name on a label. He recognized that the character of a wine comes from the site rather than the grape.

The lovely surroundings are as new as the winery, but in 1993, when James founded the winery, it was far from what you see today. When you read the words of the late Daniel Rogov, about his first meeting to taste the 1993 vintage, it is laced with true emotion and fondness for the late Mr. James, who passed away in April 2008. He reminisces his first encounter with James, inside a semi-cooled trailer alongside a building on the Kibbutz, tasting the first vintage of his now famous Gewurztraminer. Wine has that power; it has the power to taste so very different whether it is enjoyed on a hillside overlooking a majestic winery, or while having dinner with a bunch of your buddies. It can pull at your heart strings; it acts like a conduit, a true trans-portal, to the deeper feelings in one’s heart. It is this passion, this very deep sense of self, which Mr. James evoked from people. The passion was clear in his wines, though the scores and flavors were not to the level that he would have wished. To rectify what was missing, or maybe to truly channel the purity of his passion, in 2006 he brought on, the now head wine maker of Tzora, Erran Pick. Soon, after his passing, in May 2008 the winery was purchased by a silent investor, in combination with Kibbutz Tzora, who owns half of the winery, and its vineyards. Soon after the purchase, the winery brought in the new CEO of Tzora, Uri Ran.

It was on that lovely spring day, that we came to the winery for a meeting with Uri. This was not long after I had replied to a question regarding Israeli terroir driven wines, and reading the response, of the now late, Daniel Rogov; Tzora, Tzora, Tzora. So of course, I could not help myself, but start the conversation with – what does terroir mean to Tzora now, after Mr. James passing? Well that is an easy answer, says Ran, it is a combinatorial triangle of the land, vine, and person. This triangle is depicted on every bottle on the now beautifully re-branded Misty Hills label, with Ronnie James tending to the vine with its terroir visible below. On another aside, I cannot honestly think of another Israeli winery that has truly re-branded its image so well, in the past few years. The clean lines, the simple white background, it screams simplicity, with the color being a bit off white, grabbing at you, as if to show the very elegance that lies below. The brand is truly triumphant, it is a theme that runs from the web site, to the label, ensconced in it ethos and elegantly displayed in its wine. The minimalistic view on the vine, the wine, and the man, truly a joy for the senses and the palate. Again, kudos to the team, as a techie, I always look for great websites, and the Tzora Winery’s website is truly lovely.

This was not our first visit to the winery, a month before the passing of Mr. James, we chanced upon the winery. As I state in our posting of that visit in 2008, please make it your business to call ahead of time, when visiting a winery in Israel. Many wineries have a full time staff and a tasting room, but if you want the more royal treatment, I would advise upon a call in advance. During that visit we got to see first hand how wonderful this winery really is, and the awesome potential it has to show its deep terroir roots. Many of the wines that had been imported to America were not their best, at that time, and they were a poor showing for the winery, some 6 or so years ago. If that was not bad enough, the wine was not moving, and it stayed stale in wine stores scattered around the country. Without the correct focus that this winery deserved, many of the lots died on the shelves, further exasperating the unfortunate situation. Fortunately, with the appearance of Mr. Ran, things have been righted in the correct direction. The labels tell a story, and the new announced importer does as well; Michael Skurnik Wines. Michael Skurnik wines is a plum find for Tzora Winery and personally, I would add; visa versa. The Skurnik brothers taste, select, represent and sell to the wholesale trade – quality wines, mostly from small artisanal wine-making families. According to their website, the goal of Michael Skurnik Wines is to search the globe and assemble the finest portfolio of estate-bottled wines available at all price points. Wines selected to be included in the Michael Skurnik Wines portfolio must represent the highest quality and meet our exacting standards as regards character and wine making. All they had to add was the magic word; terroir, and they could have saved a bunch of space, by pointing to Tzora’s website! I have been in recent communication with the Skurnik brothers, and I hope to report back once I get more information about their long term goals with Tzora.

Mr. Ran’s view of things for the Tzora Winery, is to continue to channel Mr. James, with equal and intense focus on the product of the vines and the final product that they produce. The vines continue to be under the ever watching eye and tutelage of the master vine manager, Dor James. Yes, that name better be familiar by now, that very same, Dor, is the son of Mr. Ronnie James. His nickname is James the second! However, for sometime it was a short lived relationship, when Dor the son of the terroir doctrine of Israel, and the heir-apparent to the Tzora Winery, chose another path. He left to engross himself into an academic career in the life sciences. However, in 2004, Ronnie called him back, as he was getting sick, and asked him to come back to the vineyards, and Dor, who wanted to be closer to him during his illness at the time, returned home for the final stage of his apprenticeship. The bond of the vines runs deep now in Dor’s veins, a passing of the reins if you may, but one that is concentrated in the fields, where the very essence of the wine takes root.

Mr. Ran explains that terroir is defined by the viticulture instead of the environment. The environment changes constantly, hot or cold summers, dry winters or wet summers.  These are all examples of what the viticulture and viticulturist must withstand in their quest for the perfect grape, vine, and wine. When I ask him what is the goal of Tzora Winery? He states simply, and poignantly, to grow the best varietal for the given location. It is NOT about the specific variety of interest, it is about the fruit that grows best in the given locale, a vine that fits. To Tzora Winery, locale is the grape that grows best in the location. It may sound obvious and almost pointless, but it is that fact that drives the winery, and the very same fact that many miss. If I need to thin the vines every few weeks, then that is not the correct varietal for the location, states Ran. Tzora Winery has a singular mission, and that is to preserve the vine and wine, and to love the grape, not the critic. It reminds me of what the late Steve Jobs would often say, “You can’t just ask customers what they want and then try to give that to them. By the time you get it built, they’ll want something new.” – Inc. Magazine.

Giv’at Hachalukim was the first vineyard that Ronnie James and Kibbutz Tzora planted, in the late 80s. From there they planted vineyards in Neve Ilan, in 1996, and Shoresh, in 2002, both at a higher altitude than Giv’at Hachalukim, from 600 to 800 meters. The vineyards total, currently, to some 74 acres, of which they use the best of the best, and sell the rest. The winery is producing some 80,000 bottles a year, and hope to slowly increase it as exports grow. Currently, the winery is producing some 7 labels, each with the vineyard it is sourced from, the winery name, and the grape used clearly denoted on the label. If the wine is a blend, then the blend is clearly displayed on the back label. In a way, the winery is channeling its labels from the source of the word terroir, without is failings. France is famous for its AOC (Appellation d’origine contrôlée), the wine regions and their inane rules and regulations. The major failing of this is sourced from its very roots, its very raison d’etre. The AOC rules are based upon the location in which the winery is based, if you are in Pouilly-Fuissé, then of course you must know that the wine can ONLY use Chardonnay, so why bother writing that on the label! However, there lies the rub, very few Americans know this and as such, many Americans pass over perfectly fine Chardonnay from France, and choose ones from elsewhere in the world. The Tzora labels right this wrong, while still keeping to the edict of the grape, vine, and wine.

After our lovely talk, we had a chance to taste two of Tzora’s wines, and I hope to be sampling more of Tzora’s wines soon, and posting about them at that time. Many thanks to Mr. Ran, and the lovely and helpful staff at the Tzora Winery. This is a winery that has clearly righted the ship and one with a bright and terroir focused future ahead of it.

2009 Tzora Neve Ilan (50% oak, 50% Steel) Chardonnay – Score: A-
The nose on this light gold colored wine is redolent with peach, apricot, guava, mineral/stone, toasty oak, orange peel, grapefruit, and pear.  The mouth on this medium bodied wine is rich and bright yet round with clean and rich grapefruit, peach, pear, and guava. The mid palate is balanced with acid, toasty oak, light crushed herbs, almond, and grapefruit. The finish is long and bright, with nice oak, guava, grapefruit, and a hint of orange rind.

2007 Tzora Shoresh (50% new oak for 18 months) 85% Cab and 15% Syrah – Score: A-
The nose on this purple to black colored wine is super rich with ripe blackberry, ripe plum, oak, raspberry, currant, rich chocolate, prunes, and smoky tobacco. The mouth on this massive and full bodied wine is super concentrated with a massive but ripe and structured attack of blackberry, and tar up front, ripe plum, oak, nice tannin, and inky structure. The mid palate flows from the mouth with balance of acid, oak, chocolate, tobacco, and lovely tannin. The finish is long and rich, with vanilla, ripe plum, blackberry, chocolate, and tobacco. The mouth on this wine is massive, but ripe, structured, and concentrated, with soft yet still gripping tannins, all wrapped in an inky structure of dark black fruit, chocolate, and tobacco. This one has a three to four more years left in the tank.

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Posted on November 25, 2011, in Kosher Red Wine, Kosher White Wine, Wine, Wine Tasting, Winery Visit and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

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