Wine may have been produced in the land of Israel since biblical times, but Israel’s wine industry is relatively new and it’s growing handsomely. Last week’s Sommelier Wine Expo in Tel Aviv offered an excellent opportunity to drink (and drink to) the wines of country’s budding boutique wineries.
We tasted, sipped, swirled wine in our glasses and narrowed it down to our three favorite wineries and one award-winning boutique liquor. We can’t wait to putt these bottles on our table. You’re unlikely to find these products being sold in too many places outside Israel — in fact, you’re unlikely to find them outside specialty wine stores even within Israel — but keep your eyes open, the search is half the fun.
Chillag has the distinction of being one of the few wineries in Israel launched by a female vintner. The winery, based in Yehud, was founded in 1999 by Orna Chillag, and currently produces 20,000 barrels of wine a year. The grapes are grown in the upper Galilee and the Jerusalem hills.
Chillag Sauvignon Blanc 2012 This white wine is actually a blend of 95% sauvignon blanc and 5% viognier, and offers a delicate mix of flavors — very light touches of grass, oak and sweetness, with a smell of green apples. It’s made with grapes that are grown in the upper Galilee. ($23)
Chillag Vivo Cabernet 2008 This dark purple wine smells of berries, and tastes of oak, tannins and a very light hint of sweetness. A fine example of its variety, this wine would do well with red meet and heartier winter fare. ($23)
Gvaot, a small kosher winery located at Givat Ariel, sees itself as continuing the land of Israel’s ancient winemaking tradition in a settlement — the winery sits among hundreds of ancient wine presses surrounding the biblical (and modern) town of Shilo in the West Bank. The winery is relatively new, founded in 2005, and makes 32,000 bottles a year. All in all, we enjoyed the wines we tasted, which included the Masada 2011, a blend of cabernet, merlot and petit verdot from the winery’s premium series, a full-bodied red wine that offered lots of oak and berries.
Gvaot Gofna, Chardonnay Cabernet Sauvignon blend, 2012 Have you ever wondered what a blend of chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon would taste like? This wine, one of the more unusual blends available in Israel, falls into the category of blanc de noir, a white wine made from red grapes. The chardonnay is aged for six months in oak barrels, while the cabernet sauvignon is aged for six months in stainless steel, and then the two are blended. The resulting wine is white with a hint of pink, smells lightly of oak and has a toasty flavor almost reminiscent of Rice Crispies, and a faint caramel aftertaste. ($28)
Gat Shomron, located in the settlement of Karnei Shomron, is another relatively new boutique kosher winery, founded in 2002 that produces about 30,000 bottles a year. The winery gets the most attention for its 24K dessert wine, but we also enjoyed a 2010 syrah and 2010 petit syrah we tasted.
Gat Shomron, 24K Ice Wine This syrupy dessert wine is made from viognier grapes, and both smells and tastes of citrus flowers with a bit of honey. This wine has been grabbing attention, and a previous vintage caught The Forward’s eye at the expo two years ago. ($40)
Boutique Liquor: Passion Fruit Man What would you expect passion fruit liquor to taste like? Here’s a hint: the Passionfruit Man’s liquor doesn’t taste anything like that. It doesn’t taste anything like a passion fruit version of limoncello, and it’s not aggressive, despite being made from a very strong-flavored fruit.
This liquor does indeed taste of passion fruit, but in a light, delicate way — imagine passion fruit essence. The liquid’s delicate flavor and clarity are a result of the long refining process that the passion fruit juice goes through, which took three years to develop. The juice is mixed with alcohol, which is brewed naturally from sugar cane. The resulting liquor is a pale, translucent yellow — the color of an intense white wine — and only 12% alcohol. It hasn’t failed to impress: The product won a gold medal in the 2012 Terravino Mediterranean International Wine and Spirit Challenge. Current production is 1,000 liters a month. Enjoy with dessert, or as dessert