The Northern Galilee’s Wine Country: Part 2 of a 4-part Series

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Since the late 1990’s Israelis have been seeking to produce high quality wines grown in the native soil of the Judean Hills, the Mount Carmel region south of Haifa, the Golan Heights, and the Upper Galilee bordering Lebanon. Boutique wineries have been springing up all over the country, many surprisingly great – this coming from ex-California “wine snobs.” We now have over 250 wineries here. There are only about 13,500 acres of vines in all of Israel: less than a quarter of California’s Sonoma County, yet the wines (both Kosher and non-Kosher, red, rose and white) are being exported throughout the world. Many have won prestigious prizes at international competitions. Specific wine tours of Israel are now being offered as well. Just as in California, wine tasting has become a popular pass-time, and in the summer the different regions host local wine tasting festivals drawing crowds from all over the country and beyond.
On the second day of the Passover holiday, John and I decided we would embark on phase two of our wine tour, this time to the wineries closest to us in the Upper Galilee. This time, we decided to ask our good friend, Danny Altshull to join us. Danny was my Hebrew teacher last year. Before that, he was the head sommelier at Cooper’s Hawk Winery in Illinois. Not only is he great fun, but has an excellent knowledge of the grape to bottle process, and his experience in the wine industry would lend a lot to our own understanding and enjoyment of the day. Like last time, we selected four wineries (but only made it to three) each very different in size and scope.

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Our first stop was Ramot Naftaly Wineries, located in Moshav Ramot Naftaly in the mountains between Rosh Pina and Qiryat Shmona. As it turns out, there are four wineries there, as most of this community is in the growing and production business, Ramot Naftaly being the largest. Still, we were surprised to see the vines, production area, and tasting rooms adjoining the family home. It is a complete Kosher winery, meaning the grapes are grown and produced by Torah-observant Orthodox Jewish men, and the production is under strict rabbinic oversight. Only in operation for 15 years, they have received the “Best Boutique Winery of Israel” award, and are known for their Barbera and Cabernet Sauvignon.

Now for the fun part: the tasting of five of their wines, all red. Local olives were served as a palate cleanser between each selection. The first was a 90 shekel (about $30) “Duet” 2015 Cab/Merlot blend with a nice cherry scent (nose); however, we all found it rather light in body with a slightly tannic finish. Cohen was the first vintner in Israel to make a Malbec varietal – and we next sampled his 2014 Malbec, at 130 shekels/bottle. I found the nose was a bit musty smelling. The palate was fruity, resonant of plums and berries, with a slight bitter finish. The ’14 Shiraz was delightful – a deep burgundy red, that had quite a bit of legginess (streaks down the side of the glass after swirling). It was fruity, almost jam-like with low tannins and was quite dry. 120 shekels/bottle. Cohen was also the first to bring the Barbera grape to Israel, and Ramot Naftaly is known for this wine in particular – and this is why we chose this winery. The ’14 Barbara had a nice clear ruby red color with a fruity, summer berry nose with hints of bell pepper. The cling to the sides was just lovely, and the taste – rich and bold up front with a lovely balance of fruit and oak. The finish had a real drop off, with no bitterness or tannic taste, and most of the ‘punch’ at the beginning – very typical of a good Barbera. At 195 shekels per bottle, this wine has medaled in several wine competitions both in Israel and internationally. My favorite was the 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon, leggy, oaky, and complex. The nose had the aroma of plums and dark chocolate mingled with oak. The palate was fruity – cherries and plums with the laziness shining through. John and I decided to buy one bottle of this Cab, to pair with a nice roast for Shabbat. It was 130 shekels/bottle. The last wine sampled here (we just get a small taste of each – all in all, perhaps one half glass, so no worries about tipsiness) was the ’15 “Primo,” at 200 shekels, it’s 70% Barbera and 30% Merlot. For my dear readers in the States, you get it – we don’t. It’s their export wine, and can be found in many fine restaurants and wine shops. With beautiful deep red color and nice legginess, the nose is chocolatey and jammy with leather undertones. Aged two years in barrels, rich with flavors of plums and cherries, very fruit-forward on the mouth with complex oak and a most beautiful finish, this was my favorite. In the US, it should run around $50/bottle in stores.

Ramot Naftaly was a good way to start off the day-trip, but little did we know what was in store for us. Trying to get out of the moshav, we made a wrong turn down a little neighborhood side street. As John was turning the car around, I noticed a small sign outside a home for Amram Wines. So, we decided to check it out, walking around the house, then ringing the front doorbell. Amram Azoulay, grower, winemaker and owner in this three generation family business met us at the front door of his home and led us through a hobbit sized door into his tiny basement wine cellar. The tiniest of rooms, dimly lit, with shelves of bottles on each side and a farmhouse table in the middle made for an intimate setting. Amram took us in, and treated us like family as he told of the history of the area and his small part in the industry. We were in Kadesh, where vines grew and wines were made in Biblical times. It is a microclimate on a hillside enjoying cool nights with evening breezes, morning fog, and very warm summer sun. The soil is a mix of rich, red terra rossa on top of limestone. Amram worked as a grower of grapes for years before studying the craft under Peter Stern of the large Stern Winery in the Golan. Then he started the first boutique winery in Israel about 15 years ago. He explained the real difference between a small family-owned boutique and larger operation was the emphasis on quality over quantity as he poured generous samples of the first wine into our glasses. He also poured himself a glass, and the pride and love of his craft and the product burst forth. All of his wines are French oak barrel aged from between 3-5 years. And he makes only reds.

The first we tasted was a 2013 100% Merlot, an unusual brownish red color with a very sweet, fruit forward nose, redolent of ripe summer plums and cherries. We were all absolutely surprised as the nose totally belies its rich flavor. It was a deep, complex wine, not sweet at all, rich in plum with a dry finish and hints of oak. He told us the price for this lusty bottle of wine was a very unpretentious 65 shekels (roughly $17), so we jumped at it and purchased a case. It would be great served with hearty beef stews and Italian dishes. And at this price, I’ll be sure to use this to make Boeuf Bourginion. If this was the first samples offered, John, Danny and I knew we were in for more greatness ahead. Our next pour was a 2014 Bereshit (pronounced b’ray’sheet, meaning “in the beginning” in Hebrew): 52% Cab Sauvignon/32% Merlot/16%Petit Verdot for a mere 90 shekels. It was an opaque, dark wine, amazingly leggy, leaving beautiful crimson streaks down the sides of the glass after swirling. The nose was fruity like summer berries, chocolatey – with a lingering scent of VIOLETS!!! We were blown away…never had any of us been swept away by such a wine. I could be completely happy just to sit and enjoy smelling its beautiful aroma. The palate was fruity, raspberry, rich and deep, yet not sweet; the finish completely smooth, with no trace of bitter tannins. The best wine I’ve tried in Israel!!! I would serve this with a nice roast beef … or a lamb roast would be the perfect complement to this wine. We bought a case of this one too!

By this time, Amram’s delightful wife, Shosh cam down to join us. What a charming, happy woman. She wanted to hear the story of how we had come to Israel and the North, about our lives and families. She helped me with my Hebrew a bit, and took lots of pictures. It truly was like being with extended family! By this time, Amram served us his Full Moon:88% Cab/12% Petit Verdot. It also was very fruit forward, almost like opening a jar of jam, with a lovely legginess  to the darkest, deepest ruby red wine I’ve seen. Once again, surprise and awe!!! The wine tasted of cherries and dark chocolate, but there was something a bit spicy that, at first, we couldn’t describe…. it was a hint of cinnamon!!!! Nothing extra added, but somehow this was a taste that came through at the end and lingered on the tongue. What a wonderful red for a cold winter night, perfect paired with the finest filet mignon! It was 135 shekels/bottle, but for a wine this fine, quite a bargain. We bought yet another case!!! Budget completely blown, but the tasting was free, and we received a 20%  discount which helped out a bit. We then tried a 2013 Shiraz, which was a beautiful and smooth Malbec/Cab blend at 120 shekels. Towards the end, Amram and Shosh’s son, Ohad, also part of the family business, came in, and we chatted him up for a while. Amazing family. Friendliest people ever! We will definitely be back on the 2nd of June as the whole Moshav puts on a festival with food, music, and wine from 11am-5pm. Amram Wines is a place we will definitely take local friends and out-of-town guests. Very highly recommended!!!!

As the afternoon wore on, we made our way through the beautiful, narrow mountain roads, sometimes clogged with sheep. We passed Druze villages and sleepy Israeli kibbutzim. I stopped at a bus stop to take pictures of the Taggart Fort (for a later post) and met a small group of teenage girls waiting for their ride. They were singing old Israeli folk songs, dancing, and having a great time entertaining themselves. Another highlight that just added to another reason I love this place. So I talked with them for a bit, but we had to move on-

Our last stop was Galil Mt. Winery, butted up against the Lebanese border (who in the world would be brave enough to settle there, let alone build a huge winery????). It was one of the places listed in the US Magazine Wine Spectator, and they made several wines that had received prestigious awards internationally. The place was impressive with huge rooms for fermentation and storage – in both stainless steel and oak casks. We were greeted at the entrance to the tasting room by life sized paper maché figures. A huge store selling not only wines but a full array of handcrafted ceramics, jewelry, quilted goods, soaps and beauty items, books, cheeses and wine accessories plus a sweeping patio restaurant (Kosher dairy) with beautiful views of the mountains and vineyards created an upscale ambiance. The tasting was 10 shekels for 4 samples, the sommelier and all the staff fluent in Hebrew and English.

Our first tasting was the 2013 Yiron Galil bled of Sauvignon Blanc and Vigonier. It had received 92/100 points from Robert Parker and 88 points from Wine Spectator, so we were eager to try this white blend. It was nice and light, with a fresh, grassy, citrus nose and honeysuckle highlights. Not terribly dry, and would make a lovely summer picnic or spa wine. Good with salads, cheeses, fruits or fish, I would call it a good white table wine offered here for about $32. Shekels, dollars, and euros accepted. We then tried a 2016 Cab Sauvignon, which was entirely too light with no nose or cling. What we called a “gateway wine.” Very disappointing, and bottled way too early. The 2013 Yiron Cab had a syrupy nose with nice cling. It was good, but after being spoiled at Amram’s we knew nothing would come close… All of the Galilee Mt. grapes are grown in the immediate area, and the sommelier gave basic explanations of each to our group, more of an introduction to wines, and  not exactly friendly. Our last wine of the day was a Rose: nice light pink in color with a tropical fruit nose and very dry finish, almost bitter. Also, not to our liking. We ended the day with a cheese platter. At 110 shekels, it came with three cheeses, a pepper tapenade, garlic humus, and strawberry jam. It was served with olives, veggies and matzah – it was Passover. For the cost, the platter was rather small and nothing astounding.

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So that wraps up part two of our tour of Israel’s wine country. Our next destination will be the vineyards and tasting rooms of the Golan Heights, and hopefully a stop at one of the tiny chef restaurants up there specializing in fresh, local, grassfed Angus beef. And who knows, perhaps this next time Max will be able to join us? Stay tuned…. until then, I bid you shalom from Israel!

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