While on our way out of the Newport Mansions Wine & Food Festival last year, we walked by a table with wines from Israel. At that point we had exactly zero experience with Israeli wines, and we weren’t really expecting much. Still, the Wine Spectator had just done a big spread on the wine industry there, and they were very complimentary. We stopped to see what might be waiting to be discovered.
To say it was a revelation is not embellishing. We tried some really great wines. In fact one of them, the 2013 Grand Vin from Domaine du Castel, found its way to our list of the Top 25 Wines of 2016 (read more about that here). This bottle was serious, world class juice from an ancient land which has a winemaking history that goes back millennia. Of course, they weren’t making Bordeaux style blends back then.
While there were less than ten commercial wineries in Israel as recently as 25 years ago, today there are hundreds. Internationally trained winemakers and vineyard managers work alongside Israeli wine pioneers and innovators. What used to be only low quality production is now an ever improving mix, with kosher and non-kosher wines and some really world class efforts that have garnered praise from the world wine community. Clearly this is a wine region which needs much more investigation.
We recently had a chance to begin that journey with four of the newest releases from Domaine du Castel.
In founder Eli Ben Zaken’s words, which I certainly can’t improve upon:
“It all started when – prompted by intuition – I planted a small vineyard on a hilltop beside my home in the Judean Hills next to Jerusalem. The year was 1988 and four years later, we crushed our first Cabernet and Merlot in an empty stable next to the chicken shed (in retrospect we can say today that it was not a “garage wine” but a “stable wine”!) We aged the wine for 24 months in two Seguin Moreau new French oak barrels and by the spring of 1995 it was bottled. Everything had been done to the very highest standards and even the corks were the best that money could buy. A name was chosen – CASTEL – after a nearby Crusader fortress. A beautiful etching of the vineyard and the house by my friend the Jerusalem artist Arie Azene was used for the label and, with typical Israeli chutzpa, I called it a “Grand Vin” – just to let everyone know that a lot of effort had been put into making this wine. At this point in time, we had not yet thought of making a second wine. I coined an appellation by translating “Judean Hills” into “Haute-Judée. Friends agreed that it was “a great wine”, but friends being friends, I was not convinced. When journalist Dallia Penn-Lerner kindly suggested taking a bottle to a real expert – Serena Sutcliffe MW, Head of Sotheby’s Wine Department, London – I accepted readily as I felt that I had nothing to lose. Her response was stunning…
Dear Dallia, Thank you for bringing over that fantastic 1992 made by Mr. Ben-Zaken. I tried it with my husband, David Peppercorn (also a MW) and we both thought it absolutely terrific. It is quite unlike other Israeli wines and does not have any of those “cooked” and “herbaceous” flavours that I am afraid are prevalent in Israeli reds. This wine is a real tour de force, brilliantly made and very “classic”. Please give him our congratulations. I hope others take the hint and learn how to do it. I wonder if his vineyard is at some altitude. He also must have just the right clones and root stocks. Thank you so much for giving us the opportunity to know this wine.
With all best wishes, Serena London, 15th August,1995
It was like receiving a fax from the Almighty!”
The rest, as they say, is history. That history is still being made however.
Eli Ben Zaken
After being born in cosmopolitan Alexandria and educated in England, Italy and Switzerland, Eli moved to Israel, first working in agriculture and then later in the restaurant business. Eli has no formal winemaking education, and so when he had to decide whether or not to turn Domaine du Castel from a hobby into a formal business he was faced with a formidable challenge.
This really is a family business, with son Eytan now the COO after managing the family restaurant in Jerusalem for many years. Another son, Ariel, is CEO after serving in the Israeli Defense Force and studying winemaking in Beaune. Daughter Ilana is the company’s Export Manager.
The vineyards are at an average altitude of 700m. Most of them are on slopes facing north and some in deep valleys facing northwest where the hours of sunshine are shorter. These hills are the first facing the Mediterranean Sea, enjoy an excellent summer breeze even on the hottest days and in winter above average precipitation (usually 700mm, or 27.5 inches). Most winters they get some snow but rarely is it heavy.
From a micro-climate perspective the vineyards behave as if they were much farther north. It does seem a bit strange to see vinifera grapes grown in what most people think of as a hot, desert climate. The fact that they plant on north facing slopes and in deep valleys is in stark contrast to what you would see in most of the “great” wine growing regions in the northern hemisphere, where the south and southwest slopes produce the premier crop. This is an adaptation to the land, and it works.
The soil is terra rossa, clay and limestone with lots of stones and benefits from good drainage, especially as all the vineyards are on sloping ground. It is an ideal “wine country” soil, very similar to some of the best vineyards in the world.
In the summer, the average daily temperatures are much lower than usual for their latitude and the prevailing winds are northwesterly. The nights are damp and cool and the days are very dry (35% average relative humidity), which is excellent for mold prevention. There is a significant diurnal temperature range, which is critical to achieving both good acidity and phenolic maturity.
There has been significant vineyard expansion over the past few decades, as the original vineyards next to Tsuba, which encompassed 10 hectares (~25 acres) in 1997, are now 28 hectares. They also have vineyards next to Maale Hachamisha, 15 hectares in production and another 12 hectares in new plantings. Grapes grown are Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Petit Verdot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec and Chardonnay.
Most of the work in the vineyard is done by hand, canopy management – pruning and thinning – and after a cluster count in June a number of green clusters are harvested to reduce the yield. They use drip irrigation very sparingly (the equivalent of an average of 1-2 inches of rain) to manage the water stress and to achieve the kind of maturity that make great grapes. The harvest is done by a team of 20 to 30 harvesters
They taste the grapes and test the juice for sugar and acidity before deciding on the best time to harvest. The vineyards are visited almost on a daily basis to check the grapes and the decision to harvest is always a difficult one as they need 48 hours to organize a team of harvesters. Again, the grapes are all hand picked into small boxes.
The White Wine
The Chardonnay grapes are crushed but not de-stemmed and pressed slowly and gently. The must is fermented in French oak barrels (one third new) and the wine is aged on the lees with frequent bâtonnage for about 12 months. The malolactic fermentation occurs naturally.
The Red Wines
They de-stem and crush all the grapes and pump the must into stainless steel tanks at controlled temperatures. The vinification starts with a few days of cold soaking and the fermentation lasts between 8 to 10 days starting at a low temperature and ending at about 30 degrees centigrade. This is followed by a maceration period that can last up to three weeks. The whole process can be as long as 40 days depending on the nature of the grapes. The decision to press is based on taste. As with the Chardonnay, malolactic fermentation occurs naturally in the barrels. After a gentle and low pressure pressing, the free run wine and some of the press wine are mixed according to the quality of the press wine.
C Blanc du Castel
C Blanc du Castel is made of 100% Chardonnay grapes. The must is fermented in French Oak Barrels and aged sur lie with frequent batonnage for nearly 12 months. We have the 2015 vintage in house. Here is what we thought:
The wine is a beautiful light, golden color with a rich hue. We chilled it down and there was more apple on the nose at first, although the wine was a bit colder than you would normally drink it. As it warmed the fruit became more tropical, and the oak came out. It is crisp and beautifully balanced. A little honeysuckle joined the party, as well as maybe a touch of blood orange at the end. Oak is consistent and smooth throughout. One of the best oaked Chardonnays I have had in a long time. Outstanding quality. Probably around $40.
Castel Grand Vin
This is the house’s flagship wine, and the blend is usually a majority of Cabernet Sauvignon with the rest, in order of importance being Merlot, Petit Verdot, Cabernet Franc and Malbec. The blend is not identical every vintage. There has been a significant improvement in the quality of the grapes as the vineyard has matured. The wine is aged in 100% new French oak for 20 to 24 months. We have the 2014 vintage in for review. Our impressions:
This vintage is 46% Merlot, 36% Cabernet Sauvignon and 18% Petit Verdot. A dark purple/red wine, it has a rich nose of dark fruit, oak, a touch of smoke and vanilla. It is full bodied. Smooth tannins frame a complex and very long wine tasting experience. This is another excellent Bordeaux style blend. Not sure which I like better, 2013 or 2014. Looks like this is averaging about $70 based on a quick check with www.wine-seacher.com.
Petit Castel is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec and Petit Verdot. Perceived as the Grand Vin’s younger brother, it is really the product of a different winemaking philosophy. It is aged 16 months in French Oak Barrels. What we thought:
A blend of 58% Cabernet Sauvignon, 28% Merlot, 8% Cabernet Franc, 4% Petit Verdot and 2% Malbec. Dark reddish purple in color, transparent and clear. The nose has dark berry fruit, with blackberry and currant. There is some toasted oak, coffee, vanilla and tobacco. The fruit is a bit more restrained on the palate, and this has a great acid balance. It’s a little leaner than you would expect based on the big nose. The tannins are brisk but integrated, it brings a little spice at the end and it has a very long finish. This is great with food. Around $40.
The La Vie line represents entry level wines for Domaine du Castel, and is new, with the first vintage produced in 2015. The philosophy behind these wines is to make wines that are pleasant to drink on an everyday basis. They are fruit forward and are not barrel aged. Both a red and a white are produced, with the white consisting of a blend of mostly Sauvignon Blanc, some Chardonnay and a bit of Gewurtztraminer. The Sauvignon Blanc and Gewurtztraminer are purchased for now, while they try to sort out exactly what they want the wine to be. The La Vie Rouge uses the typical Bordeaux grapes from their other blends, and represents what is left after the Grand Vin and Petite Castel bottlings. It’s sort of a third wine, but not done at all in the style of the two flagship reds. This red sees no oak at all We have the 2015 La Vie Rouge. Our thoughts:
This wine is mostly Cabernet Sauvignon, (80%) with the addition of 14% Merlot, 4% Syrah and 2% Petit Verdot. True to the goal, this red is very fruit forward and simply delicious. There is an underlying complexity to it that raises it above many other wines which are purposely made to drink young. It is purple to ruby in color, with a nose of dark plum and some savory, meaty tones. On the palate it is full bodied, brings a little acid and some smooth tannins. Good length too. The 2015 is not available in the USA, but they are going to be importing the 2016. It will likely retail around $30, maybe a bit less. This is different and excellent. I might almost have guessed Syrah being a major component, as the character of that varietal comes through even at only 4% of the blend.
While these are only four wines from the now broad landscape of Israeli producers, they clearly show what kind of quality is emerging. Do yourself a favor and try some of these, and some of the wines of Israel. We will be on the lookout for more.
You can find more information about Domaine du Castel on their website: https://www.castel.co.il/en/default.aspx
A votre santé!
Domaine du Castel
Yad HaShemona Haute Judee 9089500 Israel Tel: +972 2 535 85 55 Fax: +972 2 570 09 95 E-mail: email@example.com