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Wednesday, January 9, 2008
Any day now, Spinnakers Spirit Merchants will have 10 new Israeli wines on its shelves. For some background, here's what Robert Parker's The Wine Advocate had to say about their latest (large) survey of Israeli wines:
Quietly, and without attracting much consumer attention, Israel has developed a wine industry that will confound preconceptions. A country whose wine industry once was largely considered insipid and mostly aimed at satisfying religious needs, today has dozens of wineries and a serious enough industry to have a few trophies. That, to be sure, does not mean Israeli wine production is new. Ignoring Biblical times, Israel has been producing wine since long before it was actually a State. Carmel, Israel's largest winery, was founded by Baron Edmond de Rothschild, the owner of Château Lafite-Rothschild. It traces its roots back to 1882 and it dominated Israel's wine scene for a century.
It is only recently, however, that more than an occasional Israeli wine has attracted serious interest. Even prestigious Golan Heights, an old stalwart familiar for its Yarden label in the USA, did not begin operating until 1983. Its founding was one of the important landmarks in modern Israeli wine history.
In the generation since Golan Heights’ debut, the industry has undergone massive change. While giant Carmel still has a dominating market share, and Carmel, Golan Heights and Barkan together control about 75% of the marketplace, much of the attention has shifted to Israel’s boutique wineries, a relatively new phenomenon. Tiny Margalit, for instance, calls itself Israel’s first boutique winery. Its debut vintage, the 1989 Cabernet Sauvignon, was just released in 1991. This shouldn’t be taken to mean that the larger wineries are bad, incidentally. Golan Heights is on every short list for “Best of Israel,” and Carmel is producing small production, high quality wines, too, both under its own label and Yatir.
The first issue in dealing with Israeli wines is invariably whether they are Kosher. The larger wineries generally produce Kosher wines, but most of the boutique wineries do not. Importer Haim Hassin of SolStars asserted, “There are close to 200 wineries in Israel and about 150 of them are non-kosher boutique wineries.” The total output for the boutique wineries is, however, fairly small. It is fair to say that if you are going to be drinking Israeli wines regularly, you will regularly encounter Kosher wines. The second and therefore more important issue is what significance a Kosher certification has for the non-Kosher consumer to whom such wines must be marketed if they are to be considered mainstream products. The simple answer: no one should avoid wines simply because they have Kosher certifications. Based on my tastings, in fact, Kosher wines are among the best in this report, such as those from Domaine du Castel and Yatir. It seems generally irrelevant....
The most important thing to understand is that those sickly sweet Passover wines Americans are used to have nothing to do with the types of wine Israel is bragging about these days. Now the mainstream wines are more likely to be bottlings of Bordeaux varietals, Chardonnay or Syrah that have typicity and will seem familiar to sophisticated consumers. They can be big and bold, as at Yatir, or graceful and old world, as at Domaine du Castel. You can put a bag over a Bustan Syrah and watch your friends argue about whether it is a Languedoc or Rhône. Israeli wine isn't an oddity any more, and it is certainly not just for those who keep Kosher.
A detailed list of the new Israeli wines coming to Spinnakers can be found here. An overview of them, from their importer, International Cellars, can be found here. Notes from a preliminary Spinnakers tasting are available here. Perhaps not surprisingly, there have been some dissenting political voices; for an example of the rhetoric, go here. More news when the products actually hit the shelves.