State of the Israeli Wine Industry and shmita 2015 was not a vintage to remember

somm2Sorry for the pause in posts – but I was traveling to Israel and now that I am back I hope to keep the posting back to a regular weekly rate. I travelled to Israel for this year’s sommelier – a wine event held in Israel that is normally attended by many of the upcoming and established wineries in Israel and abroad. I also went all around the country to more than 10 wineries and it helped me to get a very good feel for where the kosher Israel wine industry is now and where it is moving to in the next few years – wine wise anyway.


The event was originally marketed towards smaller and mid-sized wineries and distributors for restaurants, wine shops, and hotels to come and see the wineries that are scattered all over Israel in one place! Over time the event has ebbed and flowed and is now more of an event for smaller wineries to really spend their marketing dollars to garner the biggest bang for their buck. My personal fear is that in the coming years, this will fade, and start to get segregated much like it is in the USA. There are already many city oriented wine events, like the Judean Hills wine event and the Binyamina and Tel Aviv events. Add to that the famous Jerusalem wine event for kosher wines before Passover and I fear that things the Sommelier event will start to move away from a fairly well set of distributed and independent wineries to either a set of wineries run under a few select distributors (like HaKerem, Shaked, The Scottish Company, HaGafen) or worse – to a place where only a couple reign supreme. This will all play out – I fear – to the tune of follow the money. Still, the hope is that the need for small players and some medium ones as well to keep a good and well-lit profile – may mean that the event will stay safely away from the vertical plays going on in the USA.

With all that said, I was very impressed by the event overall this year. It was not over the top and almost drunken like last year, when Tabor was doing Mixology with their beautiful wines! Sadly, the wines were not as impressive as the event was overall. This year the event managers were smart enough to NOT lay down a temporary flooring – THANK GOD! For the past few years that temporary flooring reeked of glue and plastic and made smelling wine an almost impossibility around the winery stalls. It forced me to go to open areas smell the wine and come back and forth and so on until I was done tasting that winery’s wines. This year the lack os such “extra” flooring was a true god send!

Further – the wine event this year saw more kosher wineries than ever and the addition of kosher international wineries to boot! Elvi Wines was showing wines imported by Shaal Rubin, under a large heading of The House of International Kosher Wines. Another great example was Eli Gauthier’s Chianti – which was brought in by Mersch Premium Wines. Also, Bokobsa had a stall showing off some solid QPR wines, with only the Champagne, a Merlot based rose, and the Gigondas scoring high. Overall, ignoring the imports for a second, which is a lot of wine, the majority of the wineries at the event were kosher. Actually, the majority of the wineries, again ignoring imports for a second, were micro small to boutique sized wineries, most of them staffed by the winemaker or owner, kosher, and very passionate and personable folks. Of course there were a few mammoth kosher wineries at the show, including Binyamina.

Finally, I must praise the efforts of many wineries in their stalls, Yatir Winery‘s booth looked beautiful as did Netofa’s.

On an aside, Vitkin went kosher in 2015, yes a Shmita year (more on that in a moment) – but the overall news is great!

So, while I believe this was the best executed and run Sommelier that I have gone to yet, the red wines continue to be a serious letdown for me personally. There was a new winery at the event that many thought was good, called Drimia Winery, which used to be called; Shokek Winery. It was established in 2007 in Sussya, which is in the southern Judean Hills. The wines were ok, they did not show serious flaws, but to me I did not see the real tug that people were seeing. In the end, Yatir and Gvaot, two of my favorite wineries did not have blow out years. Yatir was not showing well with its 2011 vintage and Gvaot had some issues with its 2014 Cabernet and blends showing really ripe in comparison to previous vintages. Overall, the wineries that showed the best overall at the event were Elvi and Netofa.

Finally, I must personally thank three wineries for keeping me sane throughout the tasting of all the kosher wines at Somm. Those would be; Bokobsa for the unending supply of Champagne Demoiselle which has impressive palate restorative powers! The next would be its next door neighbor the 2010 Yarden Rose Blanc Brut – OMG that was impressive and its restorative powers were equally up to the task if not better. Finally, Netofa Winery for its usage of 2014 Netofa white – the acid and mineral were also up to the task with restoring my palate!

Netofa showed beautifully in all their wines, with the 2014 whites and 2013 reds showing the best by far. The same can be said for Elvi – another great showing and lovely wines which will be available in most shops throughout Israel. After them, I would place the rest in this order:

Best kosher wineries at Sommelier: Netofa Winery and Elvi Winery. Their reds and whites continue to impress. Netofa did not make wines in 2015, while Elvi of course made wines in 2015 (as shmita is only an Israel restriction).  Hopefully we will start seeing the 2015 whites soon from Elvi!

The rest follow in no significant order:

1) Tura Winery for their; 2014 Chardonnay, 2013 Mountain Peak, and 2014 Pinot Noir
2) Kishor Winery for their; 2014 Kerem Kishor White, 2014 Savant Viognier, and 2014 Kishor GSM
3) Gvaot Winery – really all the wines were nice except for the overly sweet 12 Gofna Cabernet and the 13 Vineyard’s dance. Though the only wines I would have bought on the spot (if that were allowed) was the 2015 dry Gewurtz – that wine is lovely, but it is Shmita, and the 2014 Petit Verdot – that was lovely!
4) The Gush Etzion wines were quite nice, though some were either overly ripe or all over the place. Overall the whites at Gush continue to impress, add in the Pinot Noir (in its second vintage) and the Bordeaux red and you have the list. The 2014 Chard was funky – Semillon funky, but ok. The 2015 Sauvignon Blanc was impressive (shmita) with ripping acid and body. The 2013 Blessed Valley White was equally balanced and acidic. The 2011 Spring River Red (Bordeaux blend) was also nice showing very good balance. The 2013 Pinot Noir was captivating and it was a bottle I bought (at a store in Jeru) to take home. Finally the 2014 Gewurtz and the 2014 Spring River semi-dry wines were also quite nice. Put better, whites and Pinot Noir are showing well at Gush.
5) Bat Shlomo continues to impress with their whites. The 2014 Sauvignon Blanc was one of my favorites from last year and the newly released 2014 Chardonnay is another winner. The reds are not my cup of tea, showing real ripeness that are beyond my abilities to appreciate.
6) Ramot Naftaly is back! The winery has been one of the best purveyors of the lesser known and appreciated varietals – like Petit Verdot, Barbera, and Malbec. The 2013 Malbec is too ripe for me, the 2012 Petit Verdot is showing nicely, along with the 2013 Barbera.
7) Capsouto Whites and Rose. Well I finally got to taste the 2014 Rose and the white again. They are really impressive, unique and off the beaten path of most wineries. That said, the reds were ok, lacking complexity – but a very good first release from such young vineyards.
8) Galil Winery continues to create red wines that hit the LCD (Least Common Denominator) and while they seem to sell well, I cannot get what makes it so liked. That said, the whites were OK, but the 2014 Viognier was nice. The new 2015 Sauvignon Blanc was really ripe and impressive as well.
9) Yarden Winery – Well you know my feelings here in terms of the reds. I tried what was there, enough said. Still, the whites and bubbly continue to impress deeply. The new 2015 Pinot Grigio (shmita) is really nice! The new 2015 (shmita) Gewurtztraminer is almost dry and very lovely as well. Same goes for the new blend 2015 Gamla Viognier/Chardonnay – really nice, both solid A- wines. The 2014 Yarden Katzrin Chardonnay continues its impressive lineage of fruity, brioche driven wine that is rich and layered, lovely! But the star of the show – maybe the entire show was the 2010 Yarden Rose Brut – WOW!!! That was the ultimate palate cleanser and it was mind blowing wine. It is the best of the three vintages so far and will sell out really fast!
10) As stated – Yatir Winery seems to have gone a bit too far this past year in some of the 2010 (PV) and the 2011. I still believe this winery is one of the better ones in Israel, but 2011 was a tough year for me to appreciate across the board. The 2011 vintage of the blend – now called Mount Amasa was too ripe for me, same with the 2011 Syrah. Thankfully the 2011 Cabernet and Forest were lovely. The wine showing the best at the tasting was the newly released 2014 Viognier, as the 2011 Forest was not officially at the tasting – they were pouring some older wines. The new Viognier blew me away! 2014 is the year of the whites – more on that in a bit.
11) Bakobsa had a stand for the first time this year, and they were there pouring some of their lower priced wines. Still, the many roses they poured were all good enough, but two of them – the Club Noir and Perle de Gris Merlot were both very impressive. The best wine at the stand – for the first day was the Champagne Demoisille, very rich and lovely. The next day they had a bottle of a Gigondas, which was very old world, rich and mineral based – simply divine.
12) Recanati – They were not officially there, but Shaked had a stand and their wines were available to taste. The new 2015 Rose de Marselan (shmita) was nice, but not as good as the 2014. I did taste the 2015 Rose from Barbera and Merlot (also shmita) at the winery and that was really nice, the best plain Rose from Reca in a long time. I also tasted the now famous Recanati Marawi, and I liked it. It had the same body and stylings like a Chard but with the nice Semillon funk that I love. Nice.
13) Tzora Winery – if forced I could call them the best winery in Israel, from their sheer track record and impressive wines, though a few are on their tails. The 2014 Judean Hills white was lovely! The 2014 Judean Hills red was equally lovely, ripe, and well balanced.
14) Eyal Winery has once again created some very nice whites – including the 2013 Eyal Blanco a blend of 70% chardonnay and 30% Emerald Riesling. The wine is ripe and sweet with lovely tropical and fruity notes, but well-balanced. The 2014 Eyal Gewurtztraminer is as good as last year’s and maybe better.
15) At the event the Midbar whites did not show well. I had them at home again after the event and before at the winery and they were lovely and true to form. The Chenin Blanc, Viognier, and White 55 were the true winners, with the Southern Whites showing a bit less acid this time.
16) Honorary mentions – the 2015 (shmita) Alexander Winery Rose was quite lovely, ripping acid and lovely body and ripe fruit. The 2014 Ella Valley Chardonnay was also quite nice, nuanced, round, and brioche – excellent.

Israeli Reds continue to push the ripe factor

The wineries at Sommelier that were not to my taste – continue to push the grape – they continue to create red wines that are so unpalatable – that I feared for my taste buds when tasting them. The classic example is the winery that showed their wines at Sommelier for the first time this year – Metzudah. What can say, this is an insanely overripe and fruit forward wine. Some people will like these wines – not me. Still, they sell as do so many others that were at the event.

This is nothing new, I have complained about this from my original post of my Goodbye to such wines. Even now I wonder what it will take to move the needle a bit? Wineries like Recanati talk the talk and walk the walk, for the most part. Tabor Winery – though it makes some ripe wines, is also pushing the discussion in the correct direction. Netofa makes old world wines in a place like Israel, as does Tzora and Castel. Still, the majority of wineries are pushing it hard.

This year – at somm, the wineries were pouring mostly 2012 red wines and some 2013 as well. For the most part, they were painful. Still, I do want to differentiate what I call ripe and what many would call borderline. A perfect example is the 2011 Yatir Syrah. The wine is well balanced – it has lovely acid, and oak is not absurd, but I cannot handle that ripe/raisin wine smell and taste. Others who were at the event with me, AO and others who share my opinion in more balanced and less fruit forward wines had no issue with it. However, once he finished the glass – I asked him to smell the empty glass, with just a remnant of the wine left in it. Then he could smell those notes right away.

I guess, it is a perception issue for me now. Also, people are more and more trying to convince me and others that there are food wines and sipping wines. From a body wise, sure, a heavy wine with lots of alcohol is better enjoyed with food, but I would not drink those wines anyway. When you hear someone say that is a food wine, take notice! Hajdu and Weiss wines are not low on alcohol, but they are balanced wines that are truly enjoyable, and no I would not call them food wines. To me any well made and balanced wine, wines I like to drink, are both food wines and sipping wines. I bought a bottle of the Yatir PV 2009 for dinner and that was so over the top and out there that even with a lovely steak, I could taste those candied and sweet date notes.

Israel has made a conscious choice and only time will tell where it is going – I hope more wineries will follow Tabor, Recanati, Tzora, Netofa, Castel and others listed above and make wines that can be enjoyed before the meal, throughout the meal, and after as well!

Shmita 2015

Well after two world-class vintages in 2001 and 2008, 2015 was a huge letdown. The white and rose are for the most OK, and nice. The white and rose wines are not at the level of 2014 (more on that below), but they are very respectable. The 2015 reds on the other hand is an entirely different subject.

A few things going on here – first of all the weather was perfect through August – looking like yet another blockbuster Shmita vintage. Wet winter, tons of rain and no deep freezing, followed by very moderate spring (making for good bud formations). This was followed by temperate highs and nice cool evenings throughout the summer, except for a few spikes here and there, that was all until August! In August nature took a very dark view on Israel – starting with some of the worst highs in the history of Modern Israel, and power consumption that peaked for an entire week that broke record after record. August continued with crazy heat – but it was early September when all hell broke loose. September saw a return of the epic sand storm – but on biblical proportions in September. Just look at these satellite images – they are crazy!

Overall, the season was not what it was meant to be. The sand storms brought even higher temps, it all unravelled at the end. The funny thing is that – the wineries that pull early, AKA do not produce date juice, were affected far less – like Recanati and Tabor. The ones who pull later or pull from the Galilee – even if they are great wineries – were affected. In some ways it will mean that lower level wines at wineries will have normally better fruit. It will also mean that many wineries will have less of their flagship wines. Of course this is all from what wine makers and wineries have told me so far. Only time will tell to see what really comes out, but agriculturally, it was not a great year.

Clearly the number of vineyards growing grapes this past shmita have gone done, according to many that I spoke with. As the number of haredi jews in Israel continue to grow, along with their desire for better wines, the buying pool for wineries who made wines in 2015 starts to shrink. The hope is that Israeli exports – aside from America which will not import any Shmita wines – will grow to make up the difference. On all my visits I hear that the export, aside from the US, is growing which is great news. Also, the whites and rose sell mostly in Israel just fine – so those will not be a problem for most Israeli wineries. The reds will be interesting, and this will not really appear on their bottom line until a year or more. Time will tell in how wineries will handle this 2015 shmita vintage, but from the lower agricultural success and from the ever shrinking shmita observant wine buyers in Israel.

On a total aside, this shmita had some of the least fertilized and planted farms in the history of the modern state. The number of farmers who did not plant was rather high this past year – and maybe they were lucky. I do not know. Finally another interesting fact was that most wineries in Israel that did make wine in 2015 used heter mechira, which allowed me to taste through all of them this year – better thank you!!!

A vineyard in the Galilee that is observing shmitta

2013 Year of the reds in Israel

I have had the privilege to taste most of the red 2013 out there, and most of them are not a privilege. Still, of the wineries that I respect – the reds in 2013 are heads and shoulders above the 2012 and 2011 so far. The red wines from netofa in 2012 were impressive – but wait till you read my post of the 2013 reds – crazy! Same goes for Tzora, Castel is a toss up – with 2013 winning by a hair, Flam Winery‘s 2013 is also better. Gvaot and Tura are the exception, but I wonder if the Shomron fruit was not as good as the rest of Israel. Flam gets the best of its fruit from the Galilee, even if it is in the Judean Hills. Recanati 2013 was epic, with the Carignan showing better than the 2012, along with the Cab and Merlot reserves.

Overall, 2013 to me – for wineries I care about showed very well for red wines – with more complexity and fresher red fruit and lovely acid. The 2012 vintages – especially with Netofa and Flam showed more new world than old world. The 2013 wines were like 2011 with deep minerality, dirt, insane acid, while still showing very nice fruit.

Matar was no different – with the Matar reds in 2013 showing less in your face fruit (other than the PV) and more earth and mineral. So far for me the vintage is showing beautifully and when faced with a choice – I would choose 2013 over 2012 on the average. There will always be exceptions, like Tura and Gvaot – for some of its wines, but overall, 2013 is showing to be an exceptional year for reds in Israel.

2014 Year of the whites in Israel

In closing – while white 2015 (shmita) wines for the most part are nice, they do not approach the epic year that was the 2014 whites in Israel. Sadly, 2015 is Shmita and as such the wines will not be exported to the USA, except for Yarden.

The good news is that the USA has lots of the 2014 whites in the country and they are all tasting well. Remember that because 2015 is Shmita, the usual influx of 2015 whites and rose – will not happen. So, we will have to tide ourselves over this year with Israeli 2014, French 2014 and some 2015 later this year, along with Cali rose and whites and a smattering of Spanish and Chilean wines.

Still, to me 2014 was one of the best years for white wine anywhere in the world. It was a truly magical year for Israeli white wines. The vintage was perfect and the resulting wines are all well balanced with very nice acid and lovely minerality throughout. Netofa’s whites in 2013 were nice, but in 2014 they were off the wall, same goes for Tzora, Castel, Matar, Tabor, Gush and on and on and on. The truly amazing fact about 2014 is the balance – not as rich as 2015 (which is a fuller vintage), or 2013 which was far riper. The 2014 vintage is all about balance and impeccable fruit structure followed by acid galore (yes I am sure 90% of it was added) and lovely mineral.

On another side note – I am really interested in yet another concept that I find in SOME wines from Israel, and that is lemon juice. OK, all my friends will be laughing about now, because I crave it in white wine, well not exactly. What I crave is a balance of good acid to fruit, sadly the only way to get that on many wines from Israel is for it to taste like lemon juice. That though is what I am wondering about recently, sure Israel needs to add tartaric acid, the very same component that is derived from grapes themselves, as they are in such a hot climate. My real question is that does it stick out like a sore thumb? Is that the crazy lemon juice I tasted in the 2014 Ella Valley Sauvignon Blanc? That wine was like sucking on a lemon and is that good? It was clearly out of balance, and if you crave acid, maybe you let it slide, but I am seeing that there seems to be acid that registers to me on the finish and acid that I feel in the very front.

I think the more balanced whites I had were balanced throughout and then you felt the hit of acid at the end. The ones that were unbalanced were lemon juice throughout. I am not sure on this one yet, I will keep tasting and see where it takes me. Till then enjoy the 2014 vintage – it is all that we will have for another year (if you do not drink Shmita) and it is better than the Shmita wines I did taste so far.

Finally, the only real exception to the 2015 rule is the insane Gvaot dry-ish Gewurtz – that is a very impressive wine indeed!!

Closing Comments

Well there you have it – I hope you find the 2013 reds and 2014 whites as enjoyable as I did, and keep to my lists of epic whites, rose, and bubbly for 2014 and look for the new list of wines for passover 2016!

Posted on February 14, 2016, in Israel, Israeli Wine, Kosher French Wine, Kosher Red Wine, Kosher Rose Wine, Kosher Sparkling Wine, Kosher White Wine, Kosher Wine, Wine, Wine Industry, Wine Tasting, Winery Visit and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 11 Comments.

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