Four wineries in Israel’s Judean Hills have joined forces to put this region on the international wine map. Wine has been made here since before Christ but has only recently been recognised as a region that is capable of producing elegant, structured reds and whites that can compete on the world stage. At a landmark tasting The Buyer met The Judean Hills Quartet and was seriously impressed with the wines they had brought to show.
Domaine du Castel, Flam Winery, Tzora Vineyards and Sphera are the four wineries that make up the The Judean Hills Quartet, winemakers that are working in an unique terroir and a harsh climate yet whose altitude and philosophy is allowing them to make balanced wines with flavour and structure.
The Judean Hills Quartet sound for all the world like the kind of smooth jazz band that plays dinner dance functions at country clubs in the Catskills. In fact, when the four winemakers that are the Quartet pose for pictures after their first ever press briefing in London, they could easily be mistaken for musicians reuniting for a new world tour with their tans, smiles and casual wear.
The Eagles never looked this good.
As for where this ‘Fab Four’ make their wine we are talking ancient history. If bottles could survive long enough then the question to ask them when they pull an old vintage out would be ‘is that AD or BC?’
Yep. There were winemakers in the Judean Hills, an area 20k west of Jerusalem, long before Christ. In relatively recent times the area came out of fashion on account of it being hilly (600-700m), stony, with poor soil or translated…just the thing to grow great grapes on.
Eli Ben Zaken of Domaine du Castel, who is the veteran of the four and the first winemaker to put Judean Hills on his wine labels, said that when he started making wine in 1992 it was as a hobby started for personal consumption. The area had other winemakers but none with any commercial intent.
These days there are 30 winemakers in the Judean Hills, 10 of which are serious commercial operators. The six that are not part of the quartet can also say they are from the Judean Hills, as there is no appellation as such and no rules, but they are letting the Quartet take the lead and put the area on the international wine map.
The majority of grapes grown here, as in the rest of Israel, are red with Cabernet Sauvignon the dominant grape, the second most planted grape in Israel is Carignan – not for wine but for grape juice. Wine grapes that are being planted in abundance are Syrah and Petit Verdot.
There is also plenty of experimentation with white varietals, Chardonnay uppermost but then Sauvignon Blanc, Gewürtztraminer and Riesling are also being grown.
The climate is an issue with the vines irrigated and nets used to help protect the grapes in summer where there can be a 17 degree celsius difference between the ambient temperature and inside the grape bunches. The nets also keep the foxes out that are rather partial to Syrah grapes.
Enough of all this. What were the wines actually like to taste?
As for what constitutes a Judean Hills style, the wines we were shown had an elegance, minerality and early-picked freshness about them. Although some of the reds were 14.5% you wouldn’t have known, so balanced and almost gentle were they. Where we have come to expect power house fruit bombs with prodigious use of oak from some Eastern Mediterranean wines, these wines from the Judean Hills had everything in check with a nice elegant style of Cabernet Sauvignon and ‘garrigue’ style herbs to boot.
We were shown nine wines, all well made and worthy of praise.
For me the wines that stood out were both wines from Domaine du Castel, a Burgundian style Chardonnay called ‘C’ Blanc du Castel 2014, whose first vintage was in 1992. This has batonage on the lees, goes through malolactic and spends a year in 3rd fill barrels. It was more evolved than the other style we saw, but had a nice golden hue, well-integrated oak, nice structure and layers. A top class wine.
Ely tells a fun story how in 1985 he and his wife were staying in Montrachet and, oblivious to wine at this stage in his life, asked a dumfounded waiter “What is the local wine? What colour is it?” When he tried it he had tears in his eyes.
His Bordeaux blend Castel Grand Vin 2014 was also influenced by French winemaking and in a weird twist, France is his second largest export market after America. This can be explained by the fact that Castel’s wines like Flam and Tzora are all kosher.
Ely is a big fan of concrete tanks to bring out the density in a wine and the Grand Vin has terrific layers and texture. The nose was savoury and intoxicating, the hue light blood, the acidity keeping the high fruit profile in check. An older vintage he brought along a 2008 was stunning and would fool many in a blind tasting.
“We harvest by tasting not analysis,’ he says.
Tzora Vineyard’s Misty Hills 2013, a Cabernet Sauvignon/ Syrah blend was similarly big but balanced, thanks to an early harvest and short maceration, with none after fermentation. The volume and texture were just right and the wine had a lovely fresh and fruity taste. You couldn’t believe this was 14.5%
Tzora’s Shoresh Blanc 2015, a 100% Sauvignon Blanc, whole-bunch pressed, and fermented on the lees in old oak large formats, was Old World-style, grassy with a nice lemon pith, sour edge and tremendous length.
I liked too Spheera’s White Signature 2015, a 100% Chardonnay that had a sweet edge on the nose and a nice lean, elegant and fresh finish.
For me this was very much more food-orientated and indeed worked well over lunch with a bream and crab tartare starter. The winery specialises in white varietals.
Flam Winery brought its Classico 2014, a blend of four Bordeaux varietals with a splash of Syrah and the Syrah-dominant Superiore 2006. The first had the Judean Hills style with respect shown to the fruit, elegant Cabernet and careful oaking. This made my mouth water, the texture was there and it was tasting of juicy black fruit, lamb’s juices, olive. The Superiore, like Castel’s 2008 Grand Vin showed that these wines are ageing magnificently.
Superiore 2006, posed the question that could Syrah really be one of the dominant grapes in this region? It was nicely evolved with spice, almonds, black plums, incense on the nose and on the palate meats, blackcurrant, black fruits which was all incredibly fresh, apart from slightly dusty tannins on the finish.
And on an end note….
Although a bigger group tried to establish Judean Hills as a wine region in the world’s eyes 15 years ago, it failed because of flawed objectives, argues Eran Pick MW, the winemaker at Tzora, who feels that the time is right now, and the common ground the Quartet share is what will help them achieve their objectives.
“One winery can’t do it alone,” he says, alluding to the massive influence of the Rothschild-established 1400ha Carmel winery that has so dominated the Israeli wine scene. “But we’re very confident with the wines we’re selling.”
And so he should be. These are wines that should be sought out and tasted.