Imagine yourself at the Dead Sea, the lowest point on the planet at 1,378 ft below sea level. You are near Jerusalem, slightly south of the halfway point between the northern and southern border of a country that is smaller than New Jersey. You would be floating because this is a sea with levels of salinity so high that no life can be supported – except you – as you take it all in. This sea is dropping at a rate of 3 ft per year exposing forgotten shipwrecks to land.
Stop for a moment and look to the west and north-west. You’re watching the sun set over the Judean Hills (also known as Jerusalem Hills) rising in the distance at up to 3,000 feet elevation, a full 600 feet above the highest elevations in Napa. You are looking at one of the five wine regions of Israel, an up-and-coming region that started to take off in the last 10 years that produced two wonderful wines I tried last weekend when I decided to take this same trip in my kitchen.
Psagot Winery is located in these hills. Sinai (2014, Top Ten Liquors, $23), a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz, was the smoothest and most enveloping of the wines I tried. Pomegranate, fig and sugar plums blanketed my mouth with a hint of sage and a soft but extended finish. The 2012 Edom Bordeaux-style blend (also known as Meritage) dominant with 70% Cabernet Sauvignon had a higher price tag (Top Ten Liquors, $45). It was inky and rich dark fruit with blackcurrant jam, blueberry, vanilla notes and green peppercorns.
The Jordan river empties into the Dead Sea, but we’re going to follow the river up today, closer to its source. The journey will take us past the city of Jericho, a desert oasis and the lowest and longest inhabited city in the world.
As we travel north, we meet the Sea of Galilee. The sea gives way to mountains that extend to elevations up to 4,000 feet above sea level, 1,000 feet above the Jerusalem (or Judean) Hills. The higher elevations mean cooler nights and hotter days, just perfect for slowly ripening grapes to yield restrained but rich flavors and sugars. These wines defy their place.
It is Golan Heights tucked away in the north-eastern corner of the Galilee mountains that produced my first teasing sip at Swirl Wine Bar, a little over a year ago. Last September, I remembered that tease and explored an amazing bottle of cabernet sauvignon in the Jewish Quarter of Prague. Gamla (2012) had bright blackberries and blueberries, vanilla and sage, but the beauty was in the finish that unfolded in long elegant florals like violets.
The pinot noir I had from Galil Mountain in Upper Galilee (Yiron Vineyard, 2013), had the nuance of a Willamette Valley pinot noir at a fraction of the price (~$15). Forest floor and wet peat moss offered a gentle smokiness with the classic dark bing cherry cola I enjoy from Oregon pinots. In the background there was a touch of cinnamon, white pepper and violets. The only thing that held me back from putting it side by side with a much spendier pinot was the finish was shorter than I’d hoped for, and the flavors were all stacked together, sometimes hiding behind one another instead of unfolding gradually and smoothly between the layers.
The Tabor Adama Shiraz (2012, Top Ten Liquors, $21) was my favorite wine I tried in my kitchen tasting this weekend. And that’s saying something, since I don’t generally love shiraz. Dark Bing cherries and lilacs were covered with sunshine, softening and brightening what is usually a little too inky of a wine for me. The finish was elongated and unwrapped beautifully in interesting ways with a sweet kiss at the end making for a pleasant experience long after the wine left my mouth.
The white I most enjoyed was the Mt. Tabor Chardonnay (2016; North Loop Wine & Spirits ~ $15). This value Chardonnay blended lively with smooth. The nose was light with a touch of coconut water but the mouth was luscious like the inside of a lemon bar dusted with powder sugar. There’s a hint of almond in the profile but the acids were still fresh. The winemakers left this in stainless steel and controlled the fermentation to keep malolactic from happening. Translated: Think chardonnay without the oak and butter influences. It was a phenomenal representation of an unoaked chardonnay and a stark contrast from my recent Signs of Spring post.
The history of wine and Israel has been referenced in so many places, yet I didn’t really connect Israel with wine until recently. Much like my exposure, the birth of quality wine in Israel is relatively young, coming into it’s own as recently as the 1970s, slowly growing each year but still relatively unnoticed in the dusty corners of our wine shops.
This weekend, I consciously explored that corner of my neighborhood wine shop and I hope you can find one with a similar corner to explore!