Adam S. Montefiore
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A WHITE SHAVUOT

A good time to enjoy the quality and variety of Israel’s white wines
A white Shavuot

Despite distinct changes in both the quality and popularity of both rosé and white wines here, Israelis still predominately drink red wines. Also in the international Kosher wine market, red wines are king. Whether in America, France or England, the wines the Jewish community are buying, tasting and talking about are reds. It is in their genes. Red is the default choice without thought. Not for nothing the two biggest brands in Israeli wine, are not Carmel and Barkan, or Yarden and Castel, but Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. The bias goes back to the very beginning. 

The roots of winemaking began with reds. That was what there was. The Bible is full of references to blood red wine, and sure enough red wine became the wine of choice for the great religions of Judeo Christianity and gradually wine became a symbol of western culture. Wine for Kiddush, Havdalah or the Arba Kossot (four cups at Pesach) was invariably red, and the habit became a preferred recommendation. What was good for the Jews was also adopted by the Christians for their sacramental wines. Altar and Communion wine were invariably red too. Religious ritual chose red.

Fast forward to the early 1990s and people actually drank more whites than reds. Emerald Riesling was the biggest seller. Then in 1992, the idea known as the French Paradox was aired on the influential Sixty Minutes television program. They came to the conclusion that red wines were more-healthy than whites. Overnight consumers switched to red. Just like that. At roughly the same time wineries unlocked the key to making reds like whites (light, fruity, not astringent, flavorful and refreshing.) The Golan Heights Winery’s Mount Hermon Red was the example that led the way. Wineries were forced to graft red varieties onto white rootstocks to cope with the demand.

The ‘only reds’ brigade, came to the fore as Israeli wines were becoming quite good and the consumer was starting to understand something about wine. There came to be an understanding that only reds wine could be great quality. If you wanted to give a gift, or if your boss came to dinner, the only realistic option was to purchase one red wine or another. If you were a collector, especially one of those who love showing off their cellar, you would certainly only buy reds. Wine for experts meant red.

I remember I was once at one of the finest wineries in Greece, being given a tasting in their visitors’ center. Now you can’t visit anywhere in the world without hearing Hebrew. When you hear it your ears prick up because it is familiar. It sounds like home. On the other hand your shoulders drop as you wonder if there is anywhere on the planet you can visit without bumping into Israelis. I was sitting at the bar, (I as an interested customer, not as a wine critic) and I was beginning a tasting menu which started with white wines. Now Greece makes very good whites. They may even be better than their reds. When my fellow countryman was offered the flight of wines I was enjoying, I heard him blurt out with great confidence: “No thank you. I only drink reds!” I cringed, put my head down, shriveled in my seat and determined only to speak English from then on. Obviously he could taste what he wants, but what a missed opportunity! 

This attitude was quite widespread. Nothing would infuriate me more than the wine snob who would proudly pontificate “I only drink reds.” It spread like a disease and became the de rigueur statement of so called experts. They would say it proudly, chest puffed out like a peacock, and the subtext was: “I only drink reds…because I understand wine, and maybe you don’t.” The wine world is full of people who use their knowledge like a blunt weapon. I wish I received a shekel for every time I heard it. 

However wine trends constantly change. What goes around, comes around. And do you know what? White wines are coming back in. In the last ten to fifteen years, there has been a big improvement in the quality and variety of white wines. The consumer is waking up to a world of white. This is most apparent in restaurants where wine trends begin. What the curious wine drinker has realized is that white wines offer more variety than red wines. They are far better for our climate. Who wants to drink a big, high alcohol red on a hot humid summer’s day, when you can drink a lower alcohol, refreshing white?  Also white wines accompany our Israeli Levantine cuisine far better than reds. 

Making white wines is far more fraught than making red. It is the main test of the winemaker’s art. To gain that magic balance of fruit, freshness and acidity needs precision viticulture.  The choice of container used for fermentation and use of skin contact or lees, are key decisions that influence the final style. There is not much leeway for mistakes. From the time the grapes arrive at the winery, there has to be absolute control to ensure the wine does not fall off the winemaking tightrope and lose its aromas and freshness. 

Now we even have our own White Wine Festival. It is called Shavuot, where dairy products are eaten. This is only a step away from Cheese and Wine. This is a partnership that has a familiarity like Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire, Lennon and McCartney or Bibi and Sarah, but the assumption is that Cheese and Wine automatically means red wine. However the stereotype is wrong. White wines go far better with most cheese than reds. To organize a cheese and wine party is easy. You need say five different cheeses, and three different wines. Cut up some vegetables and decorate the cheese platter with a few nuts and grapes on a cheese board, and you are set. Get your guests to contribute by bringing a wine or a cheese. This year, try and support businesses from the north western Negev and the Galilee. For instance, I have already purchased the excellent artisan cheeses produced by Kibbutz Be’eri and will personally make a point of drinking wines from the Upper Galilee.

Here are some general recommendations from across the board.

WINE DRINKERS UP TO NIS 49

Golan Heights, Hermon, Mount Hermon White 2023. This is always under the radar, but if you are looking for a crisp, fragrant white for under fifty shekels, it will never let you down. Produced under the Hermon label, the Mount Hermon White is made from a broad selection of white varieties grown on the high elevation volcanic plateau of the Golan Heights.

Zion, Imperial Sauvignon Blanc 2023. This is really excellent value. It is aromatic with good varietal typicity. Zion Winery was founded in 1848 and is our oldest existing winery. It is the 5th largest winery in Israel, but is still a family winery. Even the winemaker is still from the family, a job passed down over 176 years.

WINE EXPERTS NIS 50 – 99

Porta 6 Vinho Verde 2023. Porta 6 has become a popular, colorful brand in Israel. Made in Portugal, they have now produced kosher cuvees. This is a Vinho Verdi from the Minho region in the north. It is a super wine style for our climate. Comparatively low alcohol, refreshing, easy to like, with a light sweetness. 

Barkan W Chardonnay 2022. This is an Upper Galilee Chardonnay, that Barkan hope to sell alongside their Platinum Red. It is not clear what the W stands for, either it refers to the fact it is a white wine or predominantly white label. The wine itself is good, creamy but with balancing acidity.  Barkan, founded in 1990, is our second largest winery. It is situated at Hulda, alongside Israel’s largest vineyard.

Jezreel Valley Sauvignon Blanc 2023. I have always tended to think of Jezreel Valley as a red wine winery. However, I came across their Sauvignon Blanc and it is a lovely wine. Aromatic, refreshing with good acidity. Still the winery is mainly known for its Argaman and Carignan, but this is worth looking out for. 

Teperberg Essence Chardonnay 2022. A classic traditional Chardonnay with tropical fruit, a buttery character, with a round mouth feel in a fresh style. It has a nicely balanced finish. Teperberg Winery was founded in 1870 and remains our largest family owned winery. It is managed by the 5th generation. The winery is situated at Tzora. 

CONNOISSEURS NIS 100 – 149

Carmel Tel Avital Riesling 2022. This is a new expression of a single vineyard Riesling for Carmel. It comes from the northern Golan, our coolest wine region. The wine is elegant, racy with some of those classic Riesling white flower aromas, with a touch of citrus. It is a replacement for the legendary Kayoumi Riesling, which was a unicorn wine with aging ability. Let’s see where the Tel Avital Riesling goes with a little more bottle age. So far, it promises well. Carmel is the historic winery of Israel. They still make wine at Zichron Ya’acov Cellars, established in 1892, the oldest winery or factory building still in use.

Rimapere Sauvignon Blanc 2022. This is a new edition to the kosher ranks. A high quality, authentic Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand. Rimapere is owned and produced by Edmond de Rothschild Heritage. They make wines in France, Argentina, Spain and South Africa. This branch of the Rothschild family have always produced Kosher runs and supported the Jewish wine drinker. This is the latest example. Those that love Kiwi Sauvignon Blancs will enjoy this and it comes in a screw cap, which is a plus in my book! 

Seror L’Or Blanc 2022. Domaine Seror is a French owned, quality small winery from the southern Golan Heights. This wine is a blend of Chenin Blanc from the southern Golan, Viognier and Roussanne, both from the northern Golan. The Viognier and Roussanne were barrel fermented and the Chenin was fermented in stainless steel. This is a broad flavored, fleshy wine with good complexity and a long well balanced finish. 

Feldstein Sauvignon Blanc 2022. This is a masterful Sauvignon Blanc. The aroma is not the thing here, but the mouth feel, the texture and the minerally character. Avi Feldstein, ex Segal Wines, now owns his own winery at Ramat Dalton in the Upper Galilee. The label is framed by the coordinates of a map. Feldstein Winery is dedicated to finding an Israeli character and a sense of place, in the wine he produces.

FEINSCHMECKERS NIS 150 +

Recanati Special Reserve White 2021.  The flagship white wine from Recanati Winery, which is situated in the Upper Galilee. It is a blend of Marsanne and Roussanne, two partners often blended together in the Rhone. Here it fulfills Recanati’s objective of giving a push where possible to Mediterranean varieties. This is a full bodied, with complexity and length. The Marsanne is fatter, whilst the Roussanne provides the spice and acidity. Always nice to taste alternatives to Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc, and this a beautiful wine. It may even benefit from decanting.

This Shavuot it may be a good time to appreciate the quality and variety of white wines available in Israel today. Get on the bandwagon. The pendulum is swinging. Think ‘White’ this Shavuot.

Adam Montefiore is a wine trade veteran and a winery insider turned wine writer. He has advanced Israeli wine for 38 years and is known as the ‘English voice of Israeli wine.’ He is the Wine Writer for the Jerusalem Post. www.adammontefiore.com

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