About 90 per cent of wine made in Israel is red but some winemakers are bucking this trend. For publication in the week of 22 February 2016.
When the world zigs, the golden rule for people who think differently is to zag. In the world of Israeli wine, one of the best zaggers is Doron Rav Hon, winemaker at Sphera wines in the Jerusalem Hills.
About nine in 10 of the 60 million bottles made in the country are red, which at first glance seems odd in a region that is hot for eight months of the year, with magnificent seafood and produce. But tradition and culture always influence society as much as logic.
Yonatan Shotts, winemaker at the Binyamina estate, explained that the Jewish tradition of the Friday night (sabbath) meal always involves red wine. “People have been making wine in this area for 6,000 years,” he said. He also noted that “because we’re a hot climate we’re moving towards more white wine”.
Rav Hon trained in Beaune in Burgundy and worked in Meursault before he returned to Israel a decade ago to focus only on whites wines. He sells into Tel Aviv, the country’s financial centre and the most sophisticated market, pointing out that whites are gaining traction in restaurants to become about half of all wines sold.
Domestic consumption is low by world standards at about 5L per head a year (compared with 50L, for example, in France). The 10 largest wineries in Israel produce about 90 per cent of all the country’s wine. Another 250 boutique sites and home-grown “garagistes” make the rest. Sphera is one of the boutique sites, and makes about 16,000 bottles a year from 2.8ha of vines. It was the first vineyard in Israel to introduce Pinot Grigio.
Rav Hon also works with Chardonnay, Riesling, Chenin Blanc, Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc. He harvests early from his range of meso climates to ensure high levels of refreshing acidity and forsakes malolactic fermentation, a way to soften wines with high acidity. A quote from Leonardo da Vinci adorns his bottles: “The first of all single colours is white.” His first vintage was in 2012. Prior to then he purchased grapes from local growers, some of whom have vines more than 20 years old.
In Israel only the government is allowed to own land, so winemakers must rent land and many rely on grape growers. The name Sphera comes from the word for a sphere, as in balanced wine, and an image of a grape sliced through the middle that looks like concentric circles adorns the stylish label. He uses whole bunch pressing to extract only first-run juice, which means he only gets about two thirds of what most wineries produce.
The 2014 White Concepts First Page is a delicious and relatively rare blend of Pinot Grigio, Riesling and Semillon, with a floral and mineral nose and flinty texture. “No place in the world makes wine like this,” he said, noting that Israel has no rules about blends that other nations like France must follow.
The vineyard’s flagship is the White Signature. These wines spend a year in barrel and another in the cellar. The 2013 vintage is two-thirds Chardonnay with the rest Semillon. It has beautiful structure and length, and feels like quality in the mouth. Only one White Signature is made each year and the cepage varies depending on the quality of grapes each vintage. “I’m not making Coca Cola,” he said with a laugh. The 2014 White Signature is 100 per cent Chardonnay, with mild acidity, and is wonderfully drinkable.
A highlight was the 2013 White Concepts Riesling. The grapes are grown next to his house in the Judean hills. It smells of honey and toast, feels sweet in the mouth yet is dry with a creamy texture that stays in the mouth for a long time. It was rare to find such length in several hundred wines tasted in a week in Israel. “When I started to produce Riesling people said are you joking,” Rav Hon said. But he has been vindicated by a string of international awards, in a country where 80 per cent of wine is consumed domestically. Adi Cashlon, CEO of a local wine and beer import company, said 85 per cent of the wine is Israel is locally made and only 15 per cent imported.
The flagship wine at Binyamina estate is The Cave, so named because maturing barrels are cellared in a cave in the nearby hills. The wine is stored in new French oak for 24 months. The number of bottles varies depending on the quality of the fruit – typically 20,000 to 30,000 a year. Grapes come only from the Ben Zemra vineyard in the Galilee.
Winemaker Yonatan Shotts said the cepage varies each year because they only use the best grapes. The 2011 The Cave is 70 per cent Cabernet Sauvignon with the rest Merlot and Petit Verdot. The tannins still dominate; this is a wine designed to be cellared. The 2010 The Cave is entirely Cabernet Sauvignon and is full of ripe blackcurrants and cassis. It would be outstanding paired with the right kind of food, which Shotts suggested should be a slow-cooked stew.
Special mentioned must be made of the Kishor Winery, planted in 2007 and designed to employ adults with special needs. About 80 of them work in the vineyards. Richard Davis is the winemaker and viticulturalist. He initially went to the village to volunteer after taking a break from working as a farm manager in South America and South Africa, and immediately felt at home.
“Work in the vineyards gives the patients a sense of self worth, the biggest thing we can give them,” he said. The wines are impressive. The 2013 Kishor Syrah has cool climate pepper aromas and a mineral tang like the gift of the sea breezes that moderate temperatures there in summer. The Savant range, named for the learning spectrum highlighted in the Rainman movie, are delightful. The 2014 Savant white is a blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Viognier. It is fresh and light and would be ideal for summer lunch when served chilled. The 2014 Savant Riesling is a semi-sweet German style wine that is luscious yet restrained. Both are the kinds of wine that make you want to have a second and third glass.
The Golan Heights Winery is one of the best vineyards in Israel but insufficient space this week means it and a range of other boutique estates will be discussed in a future column.
Disclosure: Stephen Quinn was a guest of the Israel Export & International Cooperation Institute which provided airfares and hospitality.