Israeli Wines for Passover:
Our Top 25 Recommendations
Over the past six months, the International Wine Review has tasted over 200 Israeli wines in preparing our Report #32 The New Wines of Israel, to be published later this year. We're impressed with the high quality of Israeli premium wines and encourage our readers to try them. What better time to do this than Passover? In this article we discuss the current status of Israeli wines and provide our recommendations of 25 excellent kosher wines that can match the tastes and budget of any consumer. (See box below on What is a kosher wine?)
The Modern History of Israeli Wine.
Although wine was produced in the land of Israel in Ancient times, Israel's modern wine industry dates back to the mid-19th century with the visit of Baron Edmond de Rothschild, owner of Bordeaux's Château Lafite Rothschild. It was Baron Rothschild who first introduced Bordeaux varieties into Israel and helped launch Carmel, the country's first and largest winery. Much later th century, Israel's wine industry received another boost, this time in the 20 from Cornelius Gough of UC Davis who visited the Golan Heights. His advice led to the planting of grapes in the Golan Heights and to the establishment in 1993 of the Golan Heights Winery (producers of Yarden), one of Israel's finest commercial wineries. It also ushered in a new and dynamic phase of Israeli wine development which continues to this day.
Today there are more than 220 wineries in operation throughout Israel from the Golan Heights to the Negev. A small group of 10 commercial wineries, including Carmel and the Golan Heights Winery, produce 75% of the country's wine and are widely distributed in the US. However, the majority of Israel's wineries are like Flam—family-owned and operated boutique wineries in all parts of the country who are producing small quantities of very special handcrafted wines. While only some of these boutique wines are exported to the US, they are very much worth seeking out.
Israel wines are being made by talented winemakers, many trained at UC Davis in California, others in France and Australia. Many are very passionate and aim to produce wines that are uniquely Israeli, reflecting their special terroir. Israeli wineries produce a wide variety of single varietals and blends. The Bordeaux varietals (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc etc.) grow exceptionally well in the Galilee and the Judean Hills. Syrah/Shiraz is also widely grown as are Carignan and even Pinotage from South Africa. Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc are among the most popular white grapes, although Muscat, Riesling and even Chenin Blanc are grown. Both Bordeaux and Rhone blends are also highly successful in Israel.
What is a Kosher Wine ?
Kosher wines follow much the same processes and techniques as most modern wineries employ. However, there are a series of kosher or kashrut requirements in both the vineyard and winery which must be adhered to and certified by the appropriate authorities/rabbi in order for a wine to be Kashrut or Kosher. In brief, to be considered Kosher, Sabbath-observant Jews must be involved in the entire winemaking process and all the equipment, tools and winemaking storage facilities must be kosher. A wine described as "kosher for Passover" must have been kept free from contact with grain, bread and dough.
Mevushal Wines. Unlike ordinary kosher wines, mevushal wines can be handled and served by non-Jews. However, kashrut law stipulates that for a wine to be considered mevushal, it must be heated to 185° F. Whereas in ancient times, mevushal wines were boiled, these days they are flash pasteurized. Under this process, after the grapes are crushed, and before fermentation, the temperature of the liquid/must is rapidly raised for under a minute and then quickly "in a flash" are chilled down.
Tasting Notes and Ratings
Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay
Gamla 2010 Chardonnay Reserve Galilee ($21) 89+
Aromatic and fragrant on the nose, the 2010 Chardonnay displays clean and crisp melon fruit, excellent acidity and freshness, and light toasted oak. It is beautifully balanced and flavorful with a pleasant easy drinking finish.
Golan Heights Winery Yarden 2009 Chardonnay Odem Vineyard Galilee ($22) 89
The Chardonnay Odem Vineyard exhibits a golden color with light tropical fruit flavors. Barrel fermented, it reveals good constraint in the use of oak. The palate is nice and creamy with notes of smoke and honeyed notes.
Segal’s 2009 Chardonnay Special Reserve Galilee Heights ($20) 90
This is an excellent Chardonnay New World in style. It is bright green gold in color and offers aromas of melon and orchard fruit with nicely integrated oak and vanilla highlights. Produced with partial malo, it shows elegance and balance on the palate with excellent acidity and a firm finish.
Flam 2010 Blanc Judean Hills ($35) 89
The 2010 Blanc is a blend of 67% Sauvignon Blanc and 33% Chardonnay. It offers fresh and fragrant aromas of melon and orchard fruit followed by crisp mouth filling fruit on the palate. It is un-oaked but has excellent texture and acidity that extends through to a delightful finish.
Domaine Du Castel 2010 'C' Blanc du Castel Judean Hills ($50) 90
The 2010 “C” Blanc du Castel is 100% Chardonnay. It has a medium green gold color with fresh aromas of white peach, marzipan and honey with underlying yeast and nuttiness. On the palate, it reveals average acidity and mineral flavors, with just a touch of alcohol on the finish . Very good, but this one is more like a Northern Rhone white than a typical Chardonnay.
Carmel Winery 2010
Single Vineyard White Riesling Kayoumi Vineyard Galilee ($26) 90
The Carmel Single Vineyard White Riesling Kayoumi is a nicely made dry Riesling offering aromas of stone fruit, orange peel, and a touch of petrol. It is medium-weight on the palate with a soft texture and delicate citrus fruit flavors with good balance and acidity on a dry finish. A beautiful dry Riesling from an outstanding vineyard, previously best known for its outstanding red wines.
Gamla 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve Galilee ($21) 89
This Cabernet Sauvignon offers attractive aromas of black currants and blackberry fruit with vanilla and cedar. It is straight forward and easy drinking with pleasant fruit flavors on the palate, good balance, round tannin and a firm finish.
Barkan Winery 2007 Altitude 412 Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve Galilee ($44) 92
This lovely Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve exhibits a dark ruby hue with ripe black currant and cassis on the nose. These are mirrored on the palate, which is smooth and fruit-focused with hints of cedar, spice and chocolate. The wine was aged for 14 months in French barriques and shows excellent balance, round tannins and a long lasting elegant finish. The grapes for this wine were sourced from the Avne-Eitan vineyard situated at 412 meters above sea level and the Dishon Vineyard in the Kedesh Valley.
Psagot 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon Judean Hills ($30) 91
The 2009 Psagot exhibits an opaque ruby purple color and aromas of black currants, black cherry and toasted oak. Aged in French barriques for 13 months, it reveals rich and concentrated black fruit and earth flavors on the palate with spice notes. The wine is nicely balanced and structured with soft round tannins and a persistent finish. It is drinkable now but will be even better in a year or two and looks to have good aging potential.
Segal's 2009 Cabernet Sauvgnon Dishon Galilee ($20) 91
Dark ruby in color, this bottling exhibits peppery black and red fruit and big flavor concentration with good acidity and perfect balance. The wine is crushed in small lots and fermented on the skins for 34 days with gentle pump overs, followed by aging in French oak for 20 months. This is a big wine in need of time in bottle for a couple of years; it will drink well for 5-10 years.
Binyamina 2007 Merlot Reserve Galilee ($20) 91
This is a terrific Merlot offering ripe plum fruit and toasted oak aromas on the nose and a soft lush palate with a velvet texture, medium weight and perfect balance. The tannins are soft and round, and the finish is long and elegant. Merlot is certainly one of the top wines being produced by Binyamina in the Reserve series.
Clos de Gat 2009 Har'el Merlot Judean Hills ($31) 91
The 2009 Merlot displays a medium dark ruby color and deep black cherry aromas with some sweet but subtle oak spice. Medium-bodied, it reveals dense, rich black cherry, plum and anise with graphite flavors. It has firm but dense tannins, almost velvety, and has a classy finish. A long, flavorful wine reminiscent of a good St. Emilion or Pomerol, and one of the most expressive Merlots in Israel.
Tulip 2010 Just Merlot Judean Hills ($30) 90
The Merlot reveals a dark ruby color and aromas of plum, prominent toasted oak and spice. Aged for 8 months in French oak, it is ripe and full in the mouth with a soft texture, ripe tannins and a long finish.
Alexander 2009 Syrah Galilee ($38) 91
The 2009 Syrah shows meaty dark fruit aromas with gorgeous dark fruit flavors on the palate like liquid black forest cake with a pure black cherry chocolate finish and soft round tannins.
Barkan Winery 2006 Superieur Shiraz Judean Hills ($60) 92+
The 2006 Shiraz Superieur is a magnificent wine and is the first vintage released by Barkan. The wine is a blend of 86% Shiraz sourced from the Kiryat Anayim vineyard in the Judean Hills, 10% Cabernet Sauvignon from the Dishon vineyard and 4% from the Dovev vineyard, both in the Upper Galilee. These components are aged in French oak for 18 months and blended. Dark ruby in color it offers aromas of red and black fruit with toasted oak and spice. On the palate, it offers a silky texture of concentrated fruit with hints of chocolate, excellent balance and a persistent finish.
Carmel Winery 2007 Kayoumi Shiraz Upper Galilee ($44) 90
The Kayoumi 100% Shiraz exhibits a deep ruby hue and aromas of black fruit, roasted meat and tobacco. Aged for 15 months in French barriques, it is silky on the palate, as well as complex and layered with nuances of black and red berries, coffee, mushrooms and forest floor. The grapes for this wine are sourced from Carmel’s Kayoumi Vineyard located in the foothills of Mount Meron.
Golan Heights Winery Yarden 2006 Syrah Galilee ($22) 89+
The Yarden Syrah is fruit forward with ripe plum, blackberry and earth aromas. It has a velvet smooth texture, dark fruit flavors with black pepper and light herbal notes. Well structured with good acidity, it reveals soft round tannins and a long finish.
Tulip 2007 Mostly Shiraz Upper Galilee ($26) 91
The Tulip Shiraz is a delicious blend of Syrah (65%), Cabernet Sauvignon (35%), and Petit Verdot (5%). It has a spicy cedar and blackberry liqueur nose. Aged for 14 months in 50% French and 50% American oak, it offers a lovely palate of blackberry fruit, toast and ripe tannins. Beautifully put together.
Domaine Du Castel 2009 Petit Castel Judean Hills ($50) 92
A blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Petit Verdot, the 2009 Petit Castel is a fresh, youthful wine showing a medium ruby hue and lots of red fruit and spice on the nose. Aged for 16 months in French oak, it is well structured with delicious red and black fruit flavors on the palate and a good amount of tannic grip at this stage of development. It will drink best after a year or two in the bottle.
Psagot 2009 Edom Judean Hills ($35) 92+
Edom is composed of 61% Cabernet Sauvignon, 17% Cabernet Franc, 15% Petit Verdot and 7% Merlot. Opaque ruby in color, it is aged for 14 months in French oak barrels, and has attractive aromas of pure black currant and red berry fruit, vanilla and sweet oak notes. On the attack it is soft with a velvet smooth mouth feel, and reveals an elegant and restrained palate with silky tannins. This is a gorgeous wine which tastes terrific now and will improve in the bottle.
Shiloh 2006 Mosaic Judean Hills ($60) 91
Opaque ruby purple. The Mosaic is a delicious Merlot-based Bordeaux blend with a touch of Petit Sirah. It offers dark fruit aromas on the nose with notes of coffee, cacao, cigar box, lead pencil, vanilla and spices. Aged for 12 months in French oak, it has a velvet texture with ripe round tannins and a long finish. Has good aging potential for 3-5 years.
Tzuba 2006 Metsuda Reserve Judean Hills ($35) 91
Metusda is a blend of 75% Merlot and 25% Cabernet Sauvignon. Aged for 24 in French oak barriques, it displays a medium ruby hue and aromas of spicy red berries, herbs and toasted oak. It is soft and elegant on the palate and shows good red fruit flavors, charred oak, earth and tobacco. It has good balance and structure and a long persistent finish.
Yatir 2008 Yatir Forest Judean Hills ($75) 92
The 2008 Forest is an opaque black ruby colored blend of 58% Cabernet Sauvignon, 32% Petit Verdot, 5% Merlot, 3% Malbec and 2% Cabernet Franc. Always a selection of age-worthy wines from the principal vineyard in the Forest at 900-1000 meters, it spends15 months in about 35% new French oak. Medium-bodied, it boasts dark cassis, black licorice and a floral bouquet. On the palate, it reveals structured flavors with lots of black fruit, but still a bit closed (compared to the 2007 at this stage of development) and needs 6-8 years of cellaring for peak drinking. Excellent promise.
Barkan Winery 2007 Superieur Pinotage Judean Hills ($60) 92
This Pinotage has an opaque ruby hue and offers flavorful dark plum fruit with toasted oak. Aged for 17 months in mostly French oak, it is soft, round and mouth filling with concentrated red plum and cedar flavors. A delicious wine with excellent balance and purity of fruit that is every bit as good as the Pinotage made in South Africa. It is drinkable now and will be at its peak for the next three to five years. Sourced from Barkan’s Tel-Safi vineyards in the Judean Hills.
Clos de Gat 2007 Ayalon Valley Red Judean Hills ($50) 91
Ayalon is a Bordeaux blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Petit Verdot. Dark ruby in color, it displays a bouquet of black cherry and tea with hints of cassis and very pleasing oak. Aged for 20 months in new French oak, it is richly textured, somewhere between Bordeaux and Washington State with quite rich cassis-berry flavors, integrated oak, creamy yet firm tannins. It is a full and lengthy, well made wine with 5-7 years at least of aging ahead and shows real sophistication.
Dalton Winery 2009 Zinfandel Upper Galilee ($25) 91
The 2009 Zinfandel from Dalton's Mount Meron Vineyard displays a medium ruby color and aromas of ripe plum and blackberry. It boasts a softly textured palate of ripe fruit, cedar, round tannins and a firm finish. A delicious wine.
Recanati 2009 Wild Carignan Reserve Judean Hills ($56) 92
Opaque ruby purple. Sourced from dry farmed, head-trained, low yielding old vines from chalky soil in the Judean Hills, this special Carignan offers aromas of minerals, plum and boysenberry and has a soft and lush palate of cracked pepper and dark fruit flavors, rich, concentrated, and liqueur-like. Delicious with soft round tannins and a long persistent finish. One of the finest Carignans produced in Israel.
Mike Potashnik and Don Winkler