Adam S. Montefiore
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HAPPY NEW YEAR

It may be the quality red wines which receive all the plaudits. These are arguably the wines that Israel makes best and the critics love to write about them. Thankfully white wines are making something of a comeback. Wine lovers are realizing they are more versatile with food and are more rewarding in our climate. We are making some very good white wines these days. However, people often forget that Israel is also getting a name for producing wonderful dessert wines.

Unfortunately most Israelis are damaged by a lifelong association with Kiddush wine for Friday Nights, Festivals and Seders. So they associate sweet wine with simply the worst wine, often tasting like sugared water and with religious ritual. Therefore the very word ‘sweet’ has connotations of a cheap and nasty. It is something which is to be avoided, at all costs.

What they forget is that some of the world’s most sought after and expensive wines are sweet, pudding wines. An Eiswein or Trockenbeerenauslese from Germany, Icewine from Canada, Sauternes from Bordeaux or Tokay from Hungary are sweet, are some of the most sublime wines you can taste. There is a world of difference between a dessert wine and a Kiddush wine.

Dessert wines are made in a number of ways. Either by using late harvested overripe grapes, by allowing what is called noble rot, freezing the grapes, or drying them on mats as was done in ancient times. Likewise fortified wines like Port or Sherry were made by adding alcohol either during or after fermentation.

What a tragedy if a wine lover never experiences them, just because they associate the word sweet with Manischevitz, Palwin, King David and Konditon!

Israel in wine terms is part of the Eastern Mediterranean. That is our wine growing region. Some of our neighbours, Greece and Cyprus in particular, are famous as being home to some of the world’s most original dessert wines. Commandaria, from 14 villages on the southern slopes of the Troodos Mountains in Cyprus, is the world’s most historic wine, dating back to the Crusades. Greek wines such as Mavrodaphne from the northwest Peloponnese, Vinsantos from the Assyrtiko grape grown in the volcanic island of Santorini or Muscats from the island of Samos, are some of the world’s best dessert wines. The Etko Centurion Commandaria, Achaia Clauss Mavrodaphne, Argyros Vinsanto and Samos Muscat are world class dessert wines. When you are on holiday seek them out, and bring back bottles for your friends.

The first great Israeli dessert wine that changed many views in Israel, was the Yarden Sauvignon Blanc Late Harvest 1988. The Sauvignon Blanc from the Ortal vineyard was found to have botrytis (what is known as Noble Rot) and the Golan Heights Winery made what may be the best ever dessert wine made in Israel. It was certainly a wonderful wine, and totally unique, because it was never replicated. Those privileged to taste the Yarden Sauvignon Blanc Late Harvest will never forget it. It shocked the cynics, (including the new Israeli wine expert), into realizing that sweet could be ok.

However it is only in the last ten years that Israeli dessert wines have consistently gained international ratings at the very highest level. The finest of these are made from the aromatic, difficult to pronounce Gewurztraminer grape, which is often shortened to the easier ‘Gewurz’.

The Yarden HeightsWine produced by the Golan Heights Winery Sha’al Single Vineyard Gewurztraminer from Carmel Winery, are both made from Gewurztraminer grapes on the volcani plateau of the Golan Heights. Both have been regularly recognized internationally as being world class dessert wines, winning awards and receiving high scores at the very highest level.

The HeightsWine is a play on the words ‘Icewine’ and ‘Golan Heights’. It is produced from Gewurztraminer grapes, which are then frozen at the winery. The result is a rich, honeyed and luscious wine. Carmel Sha’al Gewurztraminer is produced from a single vineyard on the Golan Heights, where the grapes are late harvested. The result of the freezing and late harvesting is that the flavors are wonderfully concentrated and unctuous. Arguably the Sha’al Gewurztraminer is more delicate and refreshing, whilst the HeightsWine is richer and more complex. The Carmel wine has not been made for a couple of years, but there is still some around if you can find it.

Regional variety is provided by the Binyamina Reserve Late Harvest Cluster Select Gewurztraminer. A bit of a mouthful, but they go to the trouble of picking selected clusters of the grapes which are grown in the Upper Galilee. Then is the Tzora Vineyards Or, rare, expensive and wonderful dessert wine, again made from Gewurztraminer, grown in the Shoresh vineyard in the hills that rise towards Jerusalem. The Or has a beautiful balance of fruit and acidity, and the very high acidity prevents the wine from appearing to be too sweet or cloying.

All these are outstanding examples of their art, but there are other dessert wines in Israel covering every price point. The more regular dessert wines are usually made from Muscat. The Muscat of Alexandria grape variety is indigenous to the Eastern Mediterranean. It is a large grape, more commonly known as a table grape for food. However it has been in our area for a long time and may even go back to Biblical times. Some excellent grapey dessert wines are made from Muscat. White or Johannisberg Riesling is rarer in Israel. This is not Emerald Riesling, but the genuine Riesling, famous in Germany and Alsace. The two wineries that make quality dessert wines from this variety are Teperberg and Vitkin.

At Rosh Hashanah, a dessert wine should be served ice cold, even from the freezer (but be sure not to forget it). A regular white wine glass is perfect, just pour in less wine. Avoid the mini liqueur glasses, sherry schooners or mini flute glasses that are so often offered by restaurants in Israel. They will do nothing, apart from contriving to ensure that your precious dessert wine does not show itself at its best.

Remember dessert wines normally come in smaller format bottles, in sizes of half bottles (375 ml) or half liter (500 ml.) They are normally well priced and people tend to drink less because they are sweet. They are wine to sip and savor rather than to quaff.

Your dessert wine will be perfect for the Kiddush. It will then be suitable to accompany the sweet dishes served including the sweet Challah dipped in honey, the traditional apple and honey, dates and sweet carrot dishes which begin the festive meal. They will even go well with the Gefilte Fish, matching the sweetness and yet toning down the heat of the horseradish. Funnily enough, those gourmet kings known as the French, often even start off a meal with an ice cold Sauternes as the aperitif. So that is my recommendation for Rosh Hashanah. Drink sweet!

It is then possible to revert to dry wines for the main course and return to the dessert wine with the puddings. For dry wines I recommend you buy smart. Look in the supermarkets and the larger wine shops. There are some great promotions and good deals to be had. I always believe that the three for 100 shekel category is the best value one. Choose any from Tabor Har, Carmel Private Collection, Golan Height Winery Hermon, or Recanati Yasmin and you will not be disappointed with the wines.

Of course, Rosh Hashanah is not any old Festival, it is the New Year. Therefore it is worth selecting a quality sweet wine to honor the occasion, instead of the lesser expensive, poorer quality alternatives. So quite apart from the fact that dessert wines are ideal for the Rosh Hashanah meal, it is a good time to appreciate Israel’s excellent dessert wines.

A sweet wine for a sweet year. Shanah Tova!

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BEAUTIFULL & PEACEFUL

I set off for Cremisan Winery full of curiosity. After all this was the winery that first decided to focus on the land’s indigenous grape varieties. Maybe, they do not have the nobility of Cabernet Sauvignon, but they do exist and this is news to many wine lovers in Israel.

Secondly I was mindful of the long history. Flashback to the end of the 19th century and there were very few wineries. There was the large Carmel Mizrahi, the first commercial winery, Shor & Teperberg, two domestic wineries in the Old City of Jerusalem, producing mainly Kiddush wines, Friedman in Petach Tikvah and Mikveh Israel. Then there were the Christian owned wineries, one in Sarona owned by the Templars, and the two monasteries, Latroun and Cremisan.

Cremisan is therefore part of our winemaking heritage. I always believe we should take time to learn more from the wine producing countries around us. I include countries in the Eastern Mediterranean, such as Lebanon, Cyprus, Turkey and Greece. Even Syria has a winery which is ranked by some above any Israeli winery. So we should be very humble, look around and learn what we can. We should also learn from those from within who are different. Only then we can really understand about ourselves and our terroir.

We should not forget the crucial role played by Monasteries during the Dark & Middle Ages. They kept the wine trade alive and also staked out the future quality wine regions of Europe. The wine industry of today has a great deal to thank the Church, both for its survival and focus on quality. It is interesting also that the Catholic Church not only needed wine for their ritual, but also appreciated good food and wine. Think of the great cuisines of Europe. What do they have in common, that the countries are all predominately Catholic!

I navigated through the Christian town of Beit Jallah, found with difficulty the imposing Monastery and then drove down to the winery. It suddenly occurred to me how Christians in our area are an endangered species. This seems to be ignored by the world media that is so focused on Israel, that they sometimes don’t see what is happening in front of their noses.

The Cremisan Monastery was founded by Father Antonio Belloni, an Italian Catholic monk, in 1885. The meaning of the word is Kerem Zan, the vineyard of Zan. The Monastery belongs to the Italian Salesian Order. It is situated on the northern slopes of Mount Gilo, northwest of the Palestinian town Beit Jala. It is 5 km from Bethlehem and 12 km from Jerusalem. The Monastery made wine to finance Father Belloni’s social activities to help poor children in the Holy Land and to provide a livelihood for local families.

The most striking thing is the terraced vineyards and olive groves in the shadow of the Monastery and winery. They must be some of the most beautiful vineyards there are. Vines vie with olive trees to showcase those two most stubborn and permanent products of our region. Whether you call it Israel, Palestine or the Holy Land, and talk about Biblical times or today, the products are the same: Wine and olive oil.

In fact, remains found in the vicinity of Cremisan show the existence of human inhabitation back in the Bronze Age. Ancient terraces, and old wine & olive presses, provide evidence of agriculture from the same period.

For years Cremisan simply made wine to satisfy the needs of the Catholic Church and their own communities. When I first came to Israel, the wines were only visible in export markets. Once I visted Aqaba in Jordan, saw the wines and purchased them there out of curiosity. Later I remember finding them in the Christian Arab owned liquor stores in Jaffa. They were also sold to regional monasteries. In those days their better known wines were a rustic red called David’s Tower, the well-known Messa, a Communion wine and their Marsala dessert wine.

Until the middle of the 1980’s, many Israelis were visitors at Cremisan Winery and tasted wines from the Monastery. These days, because of green line and border complications, visits are rarer. However I found it a fascinating and beautiful place to visit. Those seeking the wines without going there, can continue to purchase them at the monastery of Bet Gemal, in the Jerusalem Hills, south of Bet Shemesh.

Previously, the winemaker for forty years was Father Lamon, an Italian monk. He began making the wine in 1968. In 2008, a new project was started with Italian assistance to study and improve native grape varieties. New equipment, advanced technology, imported expertise of an Italian winemaker and agronomist, all combined to rejuvenate the Cremisan Winery. Their spacious winery now combines the new and old under one roof. The new look wines were launched originally at Vinitaly and later at the Sommelier Exhibition in Tel Aviv.

A young Italian winemaker was employed, two young Palestinians were sent to Italy to study viticulture and winemaking. Most significantly, one of Italy’s most famous winemakers, the legendary Riccardo Cotarella, became the winemaking consultant. He is a giant of winemaking and one of the most famous wine consultants worldwide.

There are three vineyards. The Bethlehem area including the monastery itself, were the source of grapes for many years. In 1968, after the Six Day War, they also used grapes from Bet Gemal. Too. They also buy grapes from Dir Raffat and Hebron. Recently they decided to focus more on their unique local indigenous varieties. They studied the varieties, made a short list of those with the best potential and ended up working with Baladi Asmar, Dabouki, Hamdani and Jandali.

Their new wines appear under the stylish Star of Bethlehem label. Creating particular interest is the Hamdani Jandali white blend. It finished first in a tasting of Israeli & regional white wines conducted by the famous wine critic Jancis Robinson MW. It has since reached the finest restaurants in Tel Aviv and exports have increased. Only last month it received 90 points in the Wine Spectator.

Cremisan Winery started a trend. Last year Recanati Winery released a Marawi, which is a synonym for Hamdani. An Israeli winemaker and Palestininian grower using an indigenous grape variety grown here long before politics was the primary issue of the area. I see that as a beautiful cooperation. Ariel University and Hebron University in their different ways have both researched the potential of these indigenous grape varieties, and the work is ongoing.

For years the management of the winery was in the hands of the priests. Today the qualification is professionalism. The winemaker and agronomist is Fadi Batarseh, who never drank wine when he was younger, but decided he wanted to study something different. He went to all the trouble of learning Italian so he could study in Italy. He wrote his thesis on the indigenous varieties, also worked in Italy in the Trentino and Orvieto regions, including at Cotarella’s Falesco Winery. He returned in 2012. The Executive Director of the winery is Ziad Giorgio Bitar, who is young, dynamic and efficient. Together the new team has brought Cremisan Winery into the 21st century.

Most of vineyards in the Palestinian area are in the Hebron region. Approaching Hebron is like being in Spain. There seem to be vineyards everywhere, however most grapes are used for table grapes or raisins, are made into jam, or a grape syrup called dibs; Anything but wine. Leaves are also a precious commodity, being used to produce a dish also prominent elsewhere in the Eastern Mediterranean, stuffed vine leaves.

Cremisan Winery has a permanence that outlives the shallowness of daily politics. They play an important pioneering role in our wine industry and whether their buildings end up in Israel or Palestine, is not the issue. No doubt it is important for them, but one thing I do know. They will continue to be an oasis of tranquility in our stormy waters, and anyone truly interested in wine or with the slightest smidgeon of curiosity, should add them to their list of wines to taste and places to visit.

Cremisan Dabouki 2015
Dabouki is the most planted white variety in the Palestinian vineyards. It is also planted in Israel, where in the past it was used for distillation for brandy or arak. The wine has soft tropical fruit aromas, a fat mouth feel and a broad finish. Price: 50-55 ILS

Cremisan Hamdani Jandali 2015
This is a nice wine made with two Palestinian varieties. The wine has tropical notes, lined with grapefruit and lime. It has reasonably good acidity with a refreshing finish. Price: 50-55 ILS

Cremisan Baladi 2013
A light red wine with prominent acidity. More cranberry or pomegranate than ribena. Less good than the whites, but better on my second tasting. It should be served chilled. Price: 50-55 ILS

Cremisan Brandy
I had to make do with a brief sniff from a cask, but the nose was rich, warm with a dried fruit aroma. When they bottle their brandy, aged over decades, it will be well worth a special purchase. They also produce a wonderful olive oil.

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20 YEARS & STILL STANDING

When I was in England, I was known for being Jewish. Having come to live in Israel, I instead became known as the ‘Brit’ or ‘Anglo’, which is short for Anglo Saxon. An Anglo covers anyone from an English speaking country. Considering the English speaking countries are highly involved in producing wine or selling it, it is surprising that there aren’t so many wineries here with an Anglo influence.

There is of course the legendary winemaker from the Golan Heights Winery, Victor Schoenfeld, who hails from California. Paul Dubb from Tzuba Winery is from South Africa. Sam Soroka, winemaker of Jerusalem Wineries, and Barry Saslove once of Saslove Winery, are from Canada. Then there is Alex Haruni from England, whose Dalton Winery has just enjoyed its 20th year anniversary, and it continues to thrive. It is a great success story.

Dalton Winery was the first commercial winery in the Galilee and they were forerunners of a trend. Fast forward until today and there are many Galilee wineries. Someone once told me there were has many as sixty, taking into account wineries of all sizes.

Also the Galilee has become an area where many wineries, even from the center of the country, planted vineyards. The result is that today the Upper Galilee in particular, is covered with vines, which intermingle with the forests, stony ridges, plunging mountains and running streams. It is Israel’s most beautiful wine region. The Galilee and Golan combined, has in the last 20 years become the largest vineyard area in Israel.

Finally, the very Industrial Estate where Dalton is situated, has itself become the heart of the Galilee Wine Region. Apart from Dalton, Adir and Carmel also have wineries there along with other smaller wineries. Furthermore Recanati are building there too. So Dalton really were the pioneers. They were there first.

Alex Haruni was born in London from a family with Indian roots that dealt in precious stones. He first came to Israel as a 24 year old in 1991 to learn Hebrew. When his father Mati Haruni, was looking to invest in Israel, he specifically chose the Galilee. He wanted a business connected to the land, which would involve tourism and showcase the benefits of the Galilee. It was primarily a Zionist project, tinged with the usual business objectives.

They slipped into wine. Armand Maman had an established vineyard and as was the new trend of the time, he had started making his own wine. He needed help and this was the opportunity. Now the Harunis knew nothing about wine. They were whisky drinkers. However they dived in, learning about wine as they went along. They learnt by trial and error with all the ups and downs.

Building a winery is not easy and returns are far slower than in most business. At some times Mati must have thought it would have been more profitable to sell mineral water, Coca Cola or Johnnie Walker. Sometimes they must have wondered what on earth they got themselves into. However they persevered. They had worked out that they needed to reach 300,000 bottles to be profitable. In 1995 they produced 30,000 bottles.

I remember some of the original bottles were very flash and the labels slightly garish. I say this because with development over time, when Alex Haruni absorbed himself in the business, Dalton was to become one of the most stylish, best marketed wineries in the whole country.

Alex Haruni is very measured and cerebral, talking slowly to be sure of what he is saying. Rather like a seasoned veteran in the diplomatic service. However when someone ruffles him, he can respond with a surprising sharpness that shows the passion flowing within, even if it usually held carefully in check.

It is fair to say that Dalton was the winery that his father built, but it was Alex that filled it with content. His father was very wise at the outset to employ a consultant, something only the Golan Heights Winery did in those days. They started a long relationship with flying winemaker John Worontschak that continues until today. Worontschak is an Australian living in England, and advises wineries all over the world. He still comes here three times a year.

Alex Haruni is one of the most interesting people to talk to in the wine trade, because he has learnt at the sharp end. He is knowledgeable enough to act as a judge in international competitions. It is not a ‘look at me’ winery, and Alex is not a ‘look at me’ type of owner. He manages in a very modest way but he is innovative, and everything he does is stylish and well thought out. I call his a ‘less is more’ approach, and the winery is reflected in this image.

Dalton Winery today produces just under a million bottles a year. The entry level wines are called Canaan. Then there are the Dalton varietals, the D series, the Alma blends, Reserve label and the Single Vineyards. The Homage label of a red and white wine is the prestige label that honors his parents, Matatia and Anna, who invested and persevered. The result of their effort can be seen not only in where Dalton is today, but also where the Galilee is today as far as both wineries and vineyards are concerned.

Alex Haruni is a supporter of new talent. He did not hesitate to appoint a Russian Oleh Hadash (new immigrant), Arkadi Papikian, as a winemaker. His next winemaker was a woman, Naama Sorkin. In those days there were very few women winemakers. His latest appointment is Guy Eshel, which shows confidence in new blood. Eshel is young, with impeccable credentials but as yet untried. One day, if not already, Eshel will thank Haruni for his support and the opportunity. Mind you Haruni will also be grateful for gaining such a young talent for the winery’s immediate future.

As far as wines are concerned, they have also shown innovation. The red Zinfandel was for a time a rare serious attempt at a quality wine from this variety. Their wonderful Petite Sirah shows they are not just tied to the famous grape varieties. They were also the first winery to introduce Pinot Gris and to revive Semillon as a quality variety and amongst the first to produce Mediterranean style blends.

Haruni is a great fan of Shiraz. He believes it grows particularly well in Israel and shows Israel at its best. He likes varieties such Albarino from Galicia in Spain and Gruner Veltliner from Austria. He also has hopes for Jandali, the indigenous variety here, which he believes could develop in to something worthy. Like all of us, he wishes wineries would work together better to market Israeli wine abroad.

So congratulations are in order. We should thank this Anglo for bringing us twenty years of growth and stability in the topsy-turvy world of Israel wine. Under Alex Haruni’s wise stewardship, even better years are ahead of them.

Dalton Alma Vin Gris 2015
An onion skin colored pale pink rosé made from Grenache and Barbera. Very delicate fruit notes with great acidity. Refreshing. Vin Gris (literally grey wine) is the terminology often used in France & Morocco for a pale rosé. PRICE: 75 ILS

Dalton Pinot Gris 2015
Crisp, fresh and fruity, with citrusy notes providing a refreshing finish. One of the first releases of this variety in Israel. PRICE: 65 ILS

Dalton 20th Anniversary White 2014
Limited edition wine made from Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. It has a tropical fruit nose balanced by green apple. It is rich, oaky and flavorful. It shows good complexity as it warms up. Don’t serve it too cold. PRICE: 90 ILS

Dalton Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve 2013
A smooth & deep red, with black berry fruits notes, hints of ripe plum and sweet vanilla. Full of flavor, with a silky texture and a broad, tannic finish. PRICE: 110 ILS

Dalton 20th Anniversary Red 2013
Limited edition. A blend of mainly Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz with small amounts of Grenache, Mourvèdre and Merlot. A full bodied, powerful wine with a bold black fruit nose, velvety texture and prominent oak flavors of vanilla. It has a long balanced finish. PRICE: 200 ILS