State of the kosher wine industry – circa 2017
Well, it has been a long time since I have posted, mostly because work is really keeping me busy, thankfully. So, Shana tova to you all, and a Gmar Chatima Tova. So, in a span of fewer than two weeks, in early September, I flew to Israel to taste the wines I had missed this year. I then flew to France to do a tasting of Royal’s French wines from the 2015 vintage and then I attempted to taste as much French wine as I could get my hands on.
The State of Israeli wine
Besides having the opportunity to visit many wineries in Israel, I had many wine tastings of Israeli wines and I can now say sadly that 2016 was not the year we had all hoped for and that Israel wines as a whole are improving, but are not yet at the stage where I can really just buy them and hold them.
The 2015 vintage is one I have described and posted about a few times now, it was not a great year unless you took super care to be careful with it and harvested early, like Tzora’s 2015 wines. The 2015 reserve reds are slowly being released throughout the country and they have no real appeal to me. Yes, as a person I know is wont to say, wine is not coca cola (or beer for that matter), we get what we are given. I agree wine is vintage based, that is for sure, but so far the wines are really not showing well across the board.
Thankfully, though I say 2015 was not a huge winner for reds, roses, or whites, 2016 was a better year for the whites and roses, as I have posted here many times throughout the past few months. It is too early to say if the vintage will be kind to the reds as well. The 2015 Shmita still has a large overhang over Israeli wines, and it needs to be fixed sooner rather than later! We are enjoying the 2016 vintage here in the USA, but in Israel, those wines are not yet released. Why? Because there is too much 2015 that is not sold outside of Israel and that is a lot of wine to sell in a country that drinks 5 liters a person, and that is on a non-shmita year! In shmita years where the Haredi do not drink shmita wines, that is a lot of wine to sell.
Still, the 2016 wines are slowly appearing, the most recent release was the 2016 Carmel Riesling Kayoumi vineyards, and it is nice, but not anything like the 2014 vintage – one of their best ever.
Overall, the 2016 vintage did not impress in regards to it being a savior from the failed 2015 vintage. While there are a few gems from the 2016 vintage, Psagot whites, Tzora whites and so on, it is not a blanket endorsement vintage like 2014 was for Israeli whites. Overall, while I continue to strongly believe that Israel is the top region for white and rose kosher wines, the past two years have made me pause and take notice to regions outside of Israel that are also helping to shape kosher non-red wine landscape.
In regards to red wines from Israel, what can I say, not much has changed on that front at all. The wines continue to be either very fruit forward or outright prune/date juice. Throughout the blind tastings we had, it was painful to drink many of the wines, and none of those wines were cheap or what Israel calls “Supermarket wines” (the baseline plonk of wineries that sell well to the unknowing).
No, these were wines that should have shown far better but did not, simple as that. In the mix of tastings were also many older vintages that were scary to taste three years or two years after release. The wines have fallen from where they were a few years ago. Again, the issue at hand is the out of balance wines that are either flawed or just too ripe for the wine to bear.
I was talking with a few winemakers in Israel on this trip, and one told me that watering back the wines are officially not legal in Israel. California is the “watering-back” capital of the world, as this economist article so well points out. Bordeaux 100% disallows the use of water in wines, well – because it never gets hot enough there to need to water back wine! Israel, which gets hotter than California, though this year felt crazy hot to me in Cali, is not allowed to water back – “officially”.
Watering back is essentially Califonia’s way of getting those really phenolic perfect – UC DAVIS required fruit. The kind of fruit that is so absurdly out of control, but is able to check off every box on the ripeness and mature fruit checklist, in regards to the fruit’s physiological makeup – outside of pH, Acid, and sugar levels. While the Wikipedia post is really nice and well thought out, it does not talk about the impact of these new UC Davis driven fruit requirements. Watering back the fruit and the stuck fermentations. To get that kind of perfect 100% checklist of subjective phenolics that is the talk of Israel, every winemaker makes sure to tell me his fruit hit all the boxes, you need to wait a long time! The longer you wait the higher the sugars go and the higher the alcohol is in the wine after fermentation, if you can get the wine to ferment!
California dreamed up all this madness, so they figured out a way to work around it, water the fruit juice back (mean add water to the crushed wine must). That gets the alcohol levels down – in the finished product, but the water does not affect the phenolics in any real manner, other than watering down the acid a bit, which can be rectified later by additional acid additives. In the end, California is not known for date juice wines – rather they are known for super bold, rich, and extracted wines – that while very fruit forward are mostly balanced. That is the hallmark of Napa and Northern California wines. That happens because they manage the wine – they control it, something that Israel has yet to learn, IMHO.
Whether Israeli wineries can or cannot water back, to other winemakers I spoke to, they do not want to. They like making the absurdly over the top red kosher wines that are being produced today in Israel. Why? Back to the same answer, because it sells well. If you are producing more than 200K bottle of wine, you better make wine that way, because that is still what the public at large is demanding. It is NOT the wine that Tel Aviv drinkers want in their posh restaurants. They want well-balanced wines to go with food. Over the top wines, dominate the food, it tastes off-kilter and really does nothing to improve the meal in any way.
The crazy thing is that in 2007 and earlier, Yarden was making wines that were wonderful, full-bodied, rich, layered, and in full control. They must have been selling them, or so we thought! Then in 2009 everything changed! Since then, the wines are undrinkable, and most of the country that was either just starting, or growing has followed Yarden into the open arms of the date juice loving community.
What Israel needs is “Sideways” Israeli style! We need an Eyal Podell or Brian George to take on Miles and make the zaniest Israeli movie yet. Talk about the wine regions and how he cannot handle “Merlot” or any other wine that tastes exactly like the previous wine or the next one. That is Israel’s problem, in a nutshell, their reds wine all taste the same, over the top, pushed, and really without a soul! Like the perfectly worded economist article, Califonia faced “the standardization of taste and the loss of individualism” ten years ago (a still today to some extent), and Israel is hueing that drug-addled line perfectly – to the detriment of itself and its public.
Of course, there are those exceptions, the wines that are made from top wineries in Israel, like Tzora Vineyards, Carmel winery (a winery that is making better and better wines), Domaine Netofa, Matar Winery, Flam WInery, Domaine Castel, Gvaot Winery, and others. The rest are just copying each other, making bigger and bolder wines – boasting that their wines lie is new oak for 2 years, or a new oak barrel each year for three years! More oak, riper fruit, and overall unbalanced and non-elegant wines that do nothing for the wine other than making it a vehicle to boast about rather than enjoy.
Where this leaves us is that reds in the kosher wine world are really improving, France, Spain, California, even Argentina are showing really well. Again, the hope is that Israel will join in soon. Till then, continue to enjoy the exceptional Israeli reds from the top wineries, and look outside of Israel for more options.
State of wines outside of Israel
Outside of Israel, I can honestly say, wines are improving leaps and bounds, though we are still stuck with impressive amounts of plonk – like a large number of average wines at best from France. In a nutshell, though, the kosher red wine market is steadily improving, outside of Israel and its love for date juice.
The 2015 vintage from France will make people cry when they see the prices. Already prices are starting to show up in France and Pavillon de Poyferre is selling in stores at 80 euro (at an expensive store in Paris)! Yikes! Some have seen Pavillon at 70 euro otherwise, but still a nice bump up from the 2014 vintage. This is not a new fact, I have spoken about it here and here. But now the proof is on the store shelves and it will make people take notice, sorry – you had been warned. There will be some obvious QPR winners, with solid potential and “lower” prices than the rest of the 2015 wines, but I am not sure how the public will react – that is the part I am waiting to watch.
Spain is making headline news every day now, with Catalonia breaking away from Spain. Soon we will have to say that Catalonia wines (Elvi and Capcanes) are top notch and not Spanish! Sure, Elvi makes other wines from around Spain – but it is interesting. I doubt whatever the final outcome of this ratification turns out to be, that it would affect the winemaking or access to those wines, but it proves that very little is happy to sit still in these interesting times.
California continues to produce very impressive wines, the 2014 Herzog Special Reserve Alexander vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon may well be the best cab for the price in years from Cali! Along with its bigger brother, the 2014 Herzog Special Edition. The prices are going up, throughout California, though the Herzog reserve wines are keeping steady, the quality is improving! The Pinot Noirs are showing nicely, from Hagafaen, Herzog, Shirah, and of course Four Gates. California is creating lots of fun and innovative wines. Look at Hajdu’s Italian wines – they are really fun and very well made! Covenant Winery has been making Cabernet Sauvignon for 14 years now, and Chardonnay for 9 years, and they are consistently on my list of top best wines for Passover, the hits keep coming! They even added a few wines made in Israel as well!
Talking of Italy, Terra di Seta continues to impress with their wines. Their Chianti Classico is a super QPR wine and one I stock up on with every order I make from Kosherwine.com (I have no affiliation with kosherwine.com, other than I love their free shipping).
In closing – the kosher wine scene in many ways has improved remarkably and we now can enjoy wines today that we could only have dreamed of 10 years ago. The only real thing that has stayed the same is that the great wines from the great Chateaus in France are still being produced and they are still fantastic, and while that may sound obvious to some, as I stated in my Bordeaux article here, that was not so obvious a few years ago. The great wines that were made from Pontet Canet will not be made again unless someone wants to pat crazy prices. The infrastructure and deep pockets needed to make kosher wines in Bordeaux have returned and we are blessed with that and the intersection of the great vintages of 2015 and 2016.
Israel continues to hue the line of California of old – and it will do so until the wine does not sell. Till then, stick with the top wineries and look outside for more.
Red wines continue to sell very well, with of course Cabernet Sauvignon being king of the mountain for everyone out there. While we have access to great red wines, they have come at a price! The prices of these great red wines continue to elevate and there is no end in sight, from what I can see. The truly sad fact is that while quality and availability are increasing the prices are moving up faster. The kosher wine world sorely needs quality wines at a low price and that issue has not been a rallying cry for almost any kosher wine producer. There are a few exceptions out there, like these few QPR winners:
- 2013 Terra di Seta Classico
- Elvi Rioja
- 2016 Chateau Riganes
- Domain Netofa Red
- Capcanes Peraj Petita
- 2012/2014 Chateau Montroc
- 2014 Louis Blanc Crozes-Hermitage
- 2014 Chateau Malmaison
- 2013 Shirah Syrah
- 2013 Cote de Brouilly Beaujolais
- 2014 Gigondas
- 2015 Baron Rothschild Flechas De Los Andes Malbec
That is a very short list of red wines under 25/30 dollars.
Finally, white wines are selling well in Israel but still not working well outside of the holy land. The USA’s kosher wine buyer is not a white wine drinker and this has not yet changed in any meaningful way – which means that there will be fewer options out there as wine producers do not want white wine sitting in their warehouses as kosher wine buyers attempt to figure out their palates.