Gush Etzion Winery – One of the oldest and up and coming wineries of the Judean Hills

This is the ninth article I am writing on wineries from the Judean Hills wine region of Israel. This particular winery is located just outside the city of Gush Etzion in the Judea region. The winery was a not even a figment of their imagination when Shraga and Tamar Rosenberg moved to Efrat, which is located in Gush Etzion, in the heart of Judea, just south of Jerusalem in 1986. However, the blackberry bush in their backyard looked interesting and their neighbors told them that it could be used to make fermented juice. So with the simple act of fermented blackberry juice (sorry I cannot bring myself to call that wine) was born the desire to, in time, create a world-class winery in the Judean Hills! He was not so different than another pioneer in the Israeli wine world, Eli ben Zaken of Castel Winery, who also left his job to create a world-class winery. Though Gush Etzion has not yet reached the level of Castel in terms of overall wine quality, it is steadily making its way up the hill.

Most would not associate wine and blackberry juice, but for Rosenberg it was a great gateway beverage to acquire the yearning for something a bit more real. With time, Rosenberg realized that wine was his real future and he started tinkering with it in his basement – a classic garagiste! During that time his ultimate dream was growing, of building a winery that would prove the words of the Patriarch Jacob, who prophesied to his son Yehuda some 3000 years ago: “Binding unto the vine, his foal, and unto the choice vine, the colt of his ass; he will launder his garments in wine and his robe in the blood of grapes. His eyes shall sparkle with wine, and his teeth white with milk” (Bereishit 49:11-12). Commenting on these verses, Rashi states, “[Yaakov] prophesied regarding the land of Yehudah, that it would produce wine like a fountain.”

As his tinkering continued friends told him how much they loved his wines and one thing led to another – with Rosenberg officially leaving his managerial position at senior citizen’s home to become a farmer and winemaker! In 1995, with the decision already made, he started to look around for enough grapes to make his dream a reality. To do this he reached out to growers in the area and he quickly found out that if he wanted to make this happen, he would need to plant his own vineyard and augment it in the time being with what he could find in the area. With total control on his vineyard, Rosenberg could manage the vines to make the kind of wine that he sees as world-class, rather than the yield and size that the growers wanted.

As the winery started to grow so did their output. In 1998 the Rosenbergs released their first vintage from their newly minted winery, in the basement of their house in Efrat. They initial vintage consisted of 7000 bottles, which is quite large if you are doing all the work in your basement! The varietals for the first year were all from the Noble grapes; Chardonnay, Cabernet, Merlot, and Sauvignon Blanc. Since then both the varietals and bottles have increased. By 2009 mass planted had expanded the winery’s vineyards to about 120 acres. Among the varieties planted include; Chardonnay, Organic Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, White Riesling, Shiraz, Merlot, Organic Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and Gewurztraminer and Viognier.

The varietals that the winery is now using are becoming more and more common around Israel. Organic vineyards are now common place, with Tishbi, Bashan, Yarden, Or Haganuz, and others using organic techniques to manage their vineyards. It is good for the environment, it is good for the workers of the vineyards, and it is good for all of us that enjoy the wines. Other than the organic farming, Viognier is a hard grape to grow and to sell, and it is no surprise that Gush Etzion does not make a single varietal wine from this grape. The Gewurztraminer, Petite Verdot, and White Riesling are getting far more play now a days as well, and ones that do well in the Israeli heat. We really enjoyed the White Riesling but were surprised by the lack of the classic oily texture. We enjoyed a bottle of Carmel White Riesling at Sommelier and that one was a bit more complex because of the oily texture. We did not get to taste the Gewurztraminer on that day, and the Petite Verdot is currently used solely for blending.

Other than its initial vintage the winery hit its next big growth spurt in 2005 when the winery’s current building was ready to play. The winery itself was finished in September 2004, and has a capacity to produce 50,000 bottles a year. The winery currently produces some 40,000 bottles and caps it at that number to continue to keep its boutique styling and processes. The winery was established in partnership with investors from the United States and Tishbi Winery who buys the rest of the grapes from Gush Eztion’s vineyards.

The new building did more than just expand the winery’s production ability, it added two very important features that more and more wineries are doing or dreaming about doing. Those being adding a restaurant, which serves only local fare, and creating a viewing booth or platform for visitors to be able to watch wine making, bottling, or any other wine process that occurs within the winery itself. The visitor center was designed so visitors can watch the entire production process while staying safely out of the way of the staff. The visitor center in Gush Etzion consists of a steel bridge that is suspended above the inner workings of the winery, allowing guests to view the bottling line, the production area, and the steel vats. You can view the barrel room through a transparent glass window. Attached to the winery is the Mehadrin Kosher milk restaurant/cafe that is open late into the night.

The combination of being to allow guests to essentially do a self-guided tour along with a place to taste the wines and have a meal is a theme that is being replicated all over the world, and particularly well, in Israel. Carmel, Tishbi, and Binyamnia to name a few have implemented this wonderful idea, and in 2005, so did Gush Etzion. The idea is not a new one, but it is new for many of the kosher wineries around the world. A few weeks ago we went to the famous Tierra Sur restaurant that is located within the Herzog Winery, and enjoyed a lovely dinner, along with a very nice tasting. We could have done the self-guiding tour there as well, but we had done it a few years ago, when they were bottling wines. The viewing platform at Herzog is two floors above the winery’s work floor, and viewable by a walkway that is wall-to-wall large pane glass windows that give every single guest a bird’s eye view of the winery’s inner workings.

Though we did not actually meet the Rosenberg’s at the winery, we have heard many first hand accounts of the winery and how lovely the food is at the cafe. Friends of ours went to the winery a year or so ago, and it took me a long time to figure out they were talking about Gush Etzion. For the longest time I thought they were talking about Ella Valley Winery, which is a mere 6 kilometers from Gush Etzion, but Ella Valley does not have a cafe, though they have a large and lovely tasting room.

Instead we met the Rosenbergs at the 2011 Sommelier, like we met Chaim and Yoram from Tanya, and like we met many other wineries as well. During our conversations with Shraga and the rest of the winery staff, we never did talk much about the winery, and that is our loss for sure. Hopefully, the next time we are in Israel we will get a chance to see the winery first hand and experience its lovely ambiance and cafe.

Until then, we are so happy that we had the chance to taste some of the current wines from the winery and hopefully you will also get a chance to taste some of the lovely wines that this old yet up and coming winery has to offer. Most of these wines are now locally available here in the USA and many are worth the time to search them out. The wines are now imported into the USA by a new wine importer – The River. They also import Har Bracha (Mount Blessing) and Kadesh Barnea, two other wineries that we also tasted at Sommelier a few months ago. Look for upcoming posting on these wineries and more.

My many thanks to the entire staff of the Gush Etzion Winery, especially to Shraga for taking the time to talk with us. The wine notes follow in the order they were tasted:

2009 Gush Etzion, Sauvignon Blanc, Alon Haboded – Score: B++
The nose on this light straw colored wine is rich with spice, quince, yellow apple, kiwi, mineral slate, stone fruit, and herbs. The mouth on this light to medium bodied wine is refreshing with tart acidity and spice that help to highlight the fruit and give slight focus to the wine. The finish is long and spicy with more apple and stone fruit. The ripe fruit help to balance the wine’s lemon tartness. A nice enough Sauvignon Blanc but missing the complexity to take it to the next level. Drink in the next year or so.

2010 Gush Etzion, Unoaked Chardonnay, Alon Haboded- Score: B++
The wine is another example of winemakers stepping away from the ABC (Anything But Chardonnay) epidemic by loosening up on the oak and letting the fruit do all the talking. The nose on this light straw colored wine is rich with yellow apple, grapefruit, kiwi, stone fruit, lemon rind, almond shell, and mineral. The mouth on this medium bodied wine does all the talking without having to play footsie with oak. The fruit shines through with enough weight to catch your attention while also being balanced and bright. The mineral and lemon rind helps to highlight the stone and tropical fruit, while adding some complexity as well. Drink in the next year or so.

2009 Gush Etzion, White Riesling, Alon Haboded – Score: B++ to A-
The nose on this light straw colored wine is screaming with rich and sweet honey, dates, lovely flowers, mineral, pit, fig, and vanilla. The mouth on this medium+ bodied wine is dry but feels sweet from the ripe fruit, honey attack, and fig though balanced nicely with tart acidity, and mineral. The mouth feel on the wine is almost coating from the ripe fruit and would go well with spicy dishes. The finish is long and spicy itself with vanilla, flowers and honey balanced by the acid, mineral, and fig. This is a wine that should last a year or so, but is drinking lovely right now.

2007 Gush Etzion Nahal Hapirim (60% Cabernet Sauvignon, 26% Merlot, and 14% Petite Verdot) – Score: B++
The nose on this dark garnet to purple colored wine is rich with crushed herbs, prunes, date, vanilla, sweet cedar, blackberry, ripe plum, cassis, chocolate, and tobacco. The mouth on this rich and full bodied wine shows the influence of sitting for 12 months in French oak, with sweet cedar and tannins that have melded quite nicely together. The flavors flow from the nose and balance nicely with acid, but also show the ripe fruit with slightly raisin overbite. The finish is long and spicy with sweet cedar and chocolate coming together on the finish. Drink this year.

2008 Gush Etzion, Cabernet Sauvignon, Alon Haboded- Score: A-
The nose on this dark garnet colored wine is screaming from 20 months of oak with rick oak, crushed herbs, dark cherry, blackberry, raspberry, plum, chocolate, tobacco, smoky notes, rich mineral, loamy dirt, and vanilla. The mouth on this crazy rich and expressive wine is medium to full bodied with massive tannins that have yet to integrate with the rich oak influence and spice. The mid palate is toasty and balanced with leather being nicely exposed. The finish is long and spicy with the tannins showing some respite along with nice chocolate, leather, and tobacco. This is a powerhouse of a wine that needs a year for the oak and tannins to settle down, and then should be OK for two to three more years.

2008 Gush Etzion, Cabernet Franc, Alon Haboded- Score: A-
The nose on this dark purple colored wine starts off with crazy nice eucalyptus, herbaceous notes, floral hints, black cherry, plum, rich oak, raspberry, toasty espresso, and vanilla. The mouth on this medium to full bodied wine is rich and toasty and again shows clear influence of oak but in a nice and almost integrated manner, that makes for a rich and creamy mouth feel, while the mid palate is balanced nicely. The finish is long, spicy, and lovely with eucalyptus, herbaceous notes, floral hints, raspberry, and vanilla stealing the show. This is a truly lovely Cabernet Franc that shows much of the varietals best features.

2008 Gush Etzion, Shiraz, Alon Haboded - Score: A-
The nose on this black colored wine leaps out and smacks you upside the head with rich black pepper, roasted meat, cassis, oak, rich loamy dirt, mineral, crushed herb, inky nose, garrigue, massive ripe plum, raisin, and tobacco. The mouth on this super rich and layered wine hits you with massive tannin to start that is not yet integrated, along with a lovely inky structure. The mid palate is balanced and flows into a super rich and spicy finish with classic Shiraz flavors showing well; ripe plum, cassis, blackberry, while finishing with nice leather, tobacco, oak, and vanilla. This is clearly a powerhouse wine that has yet to settle down its components and needs a year, and then drink for two or so years after that.

2007 Gush Etzion, Merlot, Emek Bracha (85% Merlot and 15% Cabernet Franc) – Score: A-
The nose on this dark garnet colored wine shows clear oak influence with rich oak, ripe plum, rich and expressive tobacco, raspberry, cassis, and vanilla. The mouth on this rich and mouth coating wine starts off with massive tannin that has yet to integrate, along with rich oak and vanilla. The mouth feel on this wine is so oak and tannin rich and expressive that it takes time for the fruit to come out and take a bow, still the wait is worth the final product. The finish is long and rich with leather, tobacco, and vanilla taking a backstage to the ripe plum, raspberry, and cassis. This is a wine that needs a year or so to integrate and then enjoy for two or so years.

Posted on January 19, 2012, in Israel, Israeli Wine, Kosher Red Wine, Kosher White Wine, Kosher Wine, Wine, Wine Tasting, Winery Visit and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

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