It all started a few weeks ago with a care package from a wonderful girlfriend back in the States. Mary and I go way back, homeschooling, and museum-hopping with the kids over fifteen years ago, enjoying tea parties, beautiful gardens, and the love of fine California wines. I had been a bit “down” during our last phone conversation, and the care package arrived towards the end of my over six week battle against a superbug that antibiotics could not topple. All of the goodies were exactly what I needed – especially the Wine Spectator magazine! I devoured the articles from cover to cover, and the inspiration for four field trips – and blogs – took root. By the time the virus lifted, spring was in full force in Israel; the winter rains were ending; Passover imminent; and my cabin fever screamed “I need to get out into the sunshine!”
Our first planned day trip was to take in four wineries in the Mount Carmel area, just south of Haifa. All of the wineries John and I chose to visit varied greatly in production, varieties, tasting rooms, prices, and service. I must say, our first choice, Tishbi, just outside Zichron Ya’akov, proved more than disappointing. When we arrived, another couple was beginning their tasting, and we were asked to wait a half hour until they had finished. This gave us time to explore the grounds – there was a bakery offering a fair selection of freshly made whole grain breads and croissants and several kinds of jams and jellies made from local wines, which I found rather bitter and not at all to our liking. There was a large patio with ample seating, a large barbecue and smoker and a lovely pizza oven, neither of which were in use. Also, a restaurant on the premises (we did not try this) had both indoor and outdoor seating, with several parties enjoying brunch. When we returned to the tasting room, the young lady – fluent in both English and Hebrew with a snotty attitude to boot – instructed us to wait another fifteen minutes as there was a busload of American tourists on the way, and we would join their group. The tour and tasting turned out to cost 14 shekels ( about $5) per person MORE than what the website advertised. Second disappointment. The tour was all of ten minutes, including a brief history, and look at the stainless steel aging vats outside and barrels in side.
Tishbi is one of the older wineries of Israel, started under the patronage of Baron Rothschild, who was encouraging and bankrolling the new Israeli wine industry in the very early 1900s. Tishbi also has a world-class brandy made from their 1912 brandy still made in France. They get their grapes from throughout Israel, with high production rates, and in our opinion, low quality wines. We joined a group of about twenty other people, and were able to sample a tiny bit of seven wines paired with seven mini Valrhona chocolate mini bars (that was quite nice!). There was no menu or price list available, so I’m glad I had my little wine journal for note taking. Most of the red wines are aged thirty days before going into American Oak barrels. The whites ferment for two weeks before going into the stainless towers outside. The longest barrel aged red is kept for only two years before decanting. We tasted a ’15 Cab Franc that had a weak nose, bitter taste, and harsh finish; a ’12 Pinot (barrel aged one year) that was totally lightweight in nose, color, legginess with harsh tannic aftertaste. The ’13 Shiraz had a fruity nose with a wee bit of oakiness, but proved to be dry and bitter with a harsh finish. Our favorite was a ’10 Merlot which had a delightful chocolatey and cherry nose, fruit forward palette with a hint of olive and bell pepper, but still had a tannic, bitter finish. We were surprised at the rather steep (for us) 85 shekel price (almost $30). There was a dessert wine/port that was offered – from 2012 Merlot grapes, fortified with brandy. I’m always looking for a nice port to use in my fig conserves. This was overly sweet, with the brandy taking over – no complexity that I look forward to in a dessert wine. And the price was incredibly expensive at 145 shekels for a small bottle. We were not able to try the brandy and two of their special estate reserves were sadly unavailable for tasting, but for sale at ridiculous prices. The chocolate, however was amazing, and there was a nice ceramics display, but for as busy as Tishbi had gotten, was dreadfully understaffed with only two people to handle pouring, explaining, selling, and greeting new guests. Not a place I would recommend, and we left empty handed.
We felt we had lost quite a bit of the morning, and visited Carmel Winery in Zichron Ya’akov next. Carmel is Israel’s oldest winery, also supported by Baron Rothschild in the early 1900’s. It was started to supply Kosher Kiddush (sacramental) wines to the Jewish population on a mass-production basis, but in the late 1980’s switched over with a new business plan: to produce not only high quantity, but high quality vintages for the burgeoning Israeli population as well as for export. The tasting room, although crowded, was well-staffed with an educated sommelier who was able to answer many of our questions and several additional support persons. As with Tishbi, the Carmel wines are procured from the four wine growing regions of Israel (the Judean hills just south of Jerusalem; the central valley between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv; the Carmel/Galilee; and the Golan). Only five wines were sampled – no food was served, but there were refrigerators stocked with cheeses and soft drinks/water) and various crackers and olives for sale. The two best wines we tried were the Old Vines 2010 Carrignan which had a nice deep red color and adequate legginess and a lovely oaky, raspberry, cherry nose and jammy taste with a slightly tannic finish. It was 90 shekels (around $30). The Carmel 2010 Petit Sirah was also 90 shekels and had beautiful color – a purple-red transparent hue, with nice cling to the glass. There was a sweet, jammy nose with very little oakiness, and a hint of leather. It had a fruity palate, but was quite bitter at the end. Here, too, we left empty handed. I did like their display of books for sale on the wines of Israel, wine journals, cookbooks, and great books on the history of the area. They also sold wine accoutrements such as a variety of cork pulls, stoppers, aerators, and several different locally produced olive oils.
After a quick, late lunch at a Kosher Italian bistro in Zichron, we set off for Amphorae Wines between Zichron and Ein Hod Artists colony. This was a winery that had made it into Wine Spectator Magazine, so expectations were high. The drive through a valley, fields of spring flowers and vineyards rising to meet the pine and shrub covered hills on both sides was worth the whole trip. Totally invigorating to the senses in every way. Park in the outer lot – the moshav (small residential community) is gated – and take the path to the old stone farmhouses. To the of the lavender lined path at the left is an extensive organic garden, beautifully planned out, bursting with fresh herbs, and veggies, the healthiest I’ve seen in Israel, and obviously well tended. Such a treat!! Continue on the lovely pathway about 1/4 of a mile. Well-marked vines just beginning to bud were a hopeful sign, and we were met by the owner at the front steps of the old 19th century stone farmhouse/tasting room. Were John and I in for the treat of the day!!
The interior of the stone farmhouse has been completely opened up and remodeled to make a bright, wide open foyer with sweeping spiral staircase and tasting room to the right. Towards the back is a large open room with a wall of windowed French doors open to the spacious flagstone patio and gardens. The back room has ample farmhouse tables and seating as well as lounge area and is the perfect spot for weddings and other events. It is a relatively young boutique winery, started in 2000 by Guy Rylov and Gil Shatsberg and produces only 70,000 bottles of the highest quality Israeli wines per year. They are dedicated to sustainability, solar power and ecologically correct growing with minimal amounts of interference with the natural growing process of the grapes. And it shows!!!
Our sommelier, Vadim Tron, was so friendly, very well-informed, fluent in English and Hebrew, and was more than able to answer all our questions as great acoustic Indie music played in the background. This was just a foretaste of what was ahead. Most of their vines are grown in the immediate area. A few of the grapes for their blends are brought in from the Golan and Judean Hills. Vadim told us all about the different grape growing climates here as well as the soils. The Judean grapes are grown in terraced fashion on the slopes of the mountains in terra rossa, rich red earth. They thrive on the cool nights and warm/hot days of Jerusalem. Central Valley grapes are also terra rossa, but receive the thick, cool coastal morning fog and hot days of summer. Golan grapes thrive in the volcanic, basalt earth of the high mountains. It gives the grapes a fresh, even grassy note – great for the whites. It is the up and coming wine production area of Israel. And the Galilee/Carmel area is a mix of terra rossa and limestone, lending its own unique flavor. Israel has an early harvest, usually from late August – September as the sugar content reaches its highest levels.
We started with a ’15 Blanc de Noir (rose), light and fruity with strawberry/peach highlights. It was 73 shekels, once again, and would make a nice summer outdoor evening or picnic wine. Their Sauvignon Blanc, 85 NIS, was a lovely full bodied white wine. Not too dry, not too sweet – great balance. The two wines John and I really liked (no longer being offered due to sell-out) were the ’12 Voyage, a red blend, and the ’09 Izabelle, complex in nose with hints of chocolate, mango and caramel, a beautiful deep ruby red – mix of Grenache, Mouvedre, and Izabelle, fruity, but not sweet with a lovely finish. So sad we couldn’t buy this one, but Vadim had us try it anyway.
The next grouping of wines was the Makura wines, made in typical Amphorae style. With this, we were served a large platter of assorted artisanal organic cheeses, organic veggies, olives, fresh seeded breads, and olive assortment. It was spectacular! In the U.S., the Makura ’09 Cab received a well-deserved 91 points from Robert Parker, and 92 points from Wine Spectator. The ’09 Makura Merlot/Barbera blend was awarded 90 points from both Robert Parker and Wine Spectator, and the ’08 Makura blend got 90 points from Robert Parker. The ’10 Velours was blended by connoisseur winemaker, Michel Rolani of France. At an incredible 500 shekel a bottle, it was an amazing full-bodied, smooth and velvety red with nice legginess. Aged in French Oak for three years, the nose was rich with plums and dark chocolate with a superb fruit-forward taste and excellent balance. Very smooth. Just wish we could afford it! The Makura Cabernet ’09 – 210 NIS-from the Judean Hills vines had a rich mocha, plum and cherry nose with hints of oak. A lush complex Cab, it was well balanced and had an incredibly long, smooth finish. Perfect pairing for steak and roasts. This was one we decided to buy. We also sampled a couple yet unnamed red blends from the barrels, as well as the Merlot Barbera blend’08 (210 NIS): 80% Merlot grapes, 20% Barbera, aged in oak 36 months. Very nice. Rich with raspberry, and mocha with a hint of leather. Full-bodied at the start with a surprising drop off at the end. Quite smooth and velvety. We really enjoyed this one, as it could be paired with meats and rich stews as well as a nice Italian meal. After a couple more wines- excellent ’08 Makura blends 210 NIS ( 31% Syrah, 51% Cab Sauvignon, 18% Merlot aged in French oak 36 months, stored one year), we finished our day’s tasting with Inna, a Madeira based Port 2008- 195 NIS, and Favor, another lovely Ruby Port at 185 NIS. The tawny port was exemplary – smooth, sweet and complex. A perfect ending to the day.
We were also able to meet Asaf, chief winemaker of this boutique winery, and Danielle, the office manager. Like the California wineries, they offer a member’s club with full range of discounts, chef dinners, brunches, concerts, and other events to the guests on their mailing list. We look forward to going to their 27 April event which features tour, brunch, music, and local artisanal gourmet foodie items. Israelis, mark your calendars!!! There are also organic olives and olive oil available for purchase as well as a nice selection of books, all with a nod to the organic, sustainable, and ecological.
At Amphorae, the wine tasting cost 50 shekels per person, the cheese platter was an additional 70 shekels. John and I decided to purchase a mixed case of the ’09 Makura Cab, ’08 Cab, and the Makura Merlot/Barbera. We had one major mix-up. Israelis have a really difficult time distinguishing numbers: for example we were told we would get 50% off the case. We were unable to believe this good fortune, as it would have made it quite the deal, and much more affordable. However, the reality was 15% off!!!! The word endings “ty” and “teen” are more than often transposed verbally. We were assured 50%… so we bought. To help rectify thy mistake, the tasting and cheese platter were credited back to us and we were given an extra bottle of a superb wine. So…. all in all, we spent way more than we would have, but came back with a phenomenal case plus, new friendships formed, and a promise to return soon – 27 April. Thank you so much to Amphorae Wines and especially to Vadim for redeeming the day, and making it a wonderful overall experience.
Amphorae Telephone 04-9840702 in Israel; email@example.com From Highway 4, take route 7021 East… Reservations recommended