Once, internationally trained winemakers were a rarity in Israel. Today there are numerous young Israelis, who have studied in the world’s premier wine universities and have experience working in famous wineries. They have returned to Israel to benefit the domestic wine industry. Some of these winemakers are giving Israel a new name for quality.
Lior Laxer is one of these new bright lights on the Israel’s wine scene. Without question he is also in one of the most high profile positions as Chief Winemaker of Carmel Winery.
This is no easy job. He has to manage & oversee the winemaking activities in Israel’s two largest wineries: the wine cellars of Rishon Le Zion & Zichron Ya’acov, which together comprise over 40% of Israel’s total harvest. In 2005 Carmel harvested 18,908 tons of grapes and in 2004, 24,498 tons. To put the scale of operations in perspective, Zichron Ya’acov may receive up to 750 tons in one day. This is what a medium sized winery like Dalton or Galil Mountain will receive in the three months of a normal harvest!
He has had to integrate Carmel’s new small, boutique wineries into the winemaking program, utilising some of the new vineyards Carmel has recently planted in quality wine growing areas. Yatir Winery at Tel Arad, acts as Carmel’s quality station in the south, receiving grapes from Ramat Arad. The new Ramat Dalton winery, in the Upper Galilee, receives grapes from vineyards in the Upper Galilee & Golan Heights. In addition there is the Zichron boutique and Micro-Winery, within the Zichron Ya’acov facility, which provides added flexibility and more options for a winemaker in pursuit of quality. Each of these are modern, technologically advanced wineries, equipped to make wine of the highest quality. However in some cases Carmel has the option of using a combination of two wineries. For instance the Sauvignon Blanc from the Ramat Arad vineyard is pressed at Yatir, but the fermentation takes place at Rishon Le Zion.
It is the policy that Carmel’s finest wines will now only come from one of these small, new state of the art wineries. It is a paradox that currently less than 13,000 bottles are made of each Single Vineyard & Appellation wine. These are closer to the quantities of a garagiste, let alone a boutique! It appears that Carmel, the mass market winery of Israel, has learnt, at the top quality level, to make wine from the vineyard like a small scale winery.
Many have commented on the resulting new wines being produced by Carmel. There has been nothing short of a quality driven revolution. The investment in quality with new vineyards – new wineries – new winemakers has definitely had an effect.Those who are close Carmel watchers, will have noticed a discernable change in quality between the wines pre & post 2003, when Laxer joined Carmel.
Lior Laxer was born in Tel Aviv. His parents were from Romania, a country with strong wine traditions. He remembers his father had a bar & wine was freely offered to all guests as a matter of course. Without realizing it, this was his first introduction to the world he would make as his career.
After serving in the Artillery in the Israeli Defence Forces, he returned from the obligatory year abroad – in Lior’s case he toured Central America, USA & Canada – determined to be a lawyer. He studied at Tel Aviv University, graduated, finished his Bar Exams, but only then decided this was not the career for him. He instead followed a small voice and headed off to Burgundy in France, for him a place akin to heaven on earth. It was here he first became attracted to the world of wine.
He began to work at Dixie Restaurant in Tel Aviv. He started as Barman, became Shift Manager and in the end was the Wine Waiter. Dixie was then one of the more serious & professional wine restaurants in Israel. Laxer entered the Pras Yarden (The Yarden Award for Wine Service) competition, finishing in one of the runners up positions in 1987. In 1988, he was the outright winner as the best wine waiter in Israel.
His interest & experience in wine further increased when he became an importer. For a short time he represented Chateau Bel Air & imported their wines to Israel. However this was more for fun than a serious business move.
However the result of all this was that he found the world of wine more attractive than the lawyers office and he decided to learn winemaking. He traveled to Burgundy to study and graduated from CFPPA in Beaune with a Winemaking & Viticulture Degree. As part of his studies, he worked at Domaine Comte Armand in Pommard, the largest Cote d’Or village. There he was introduced to biodynamic viticulture.
He then had valuable experience working with Michel Rolland in his laboratory. Rolland is arguably the most famous & influential winemaking consultant in the world. He followed this by working in Chateau le Bon Pasteur in Pomerol, Bordeaux, which is owned by Rolland.
He then decided to get some New World experience. He moved to Australia and worked for Harman’s Ridge Estate in Margaret River in Western Australia, a contract winery for 18 different growers.
In 2003 he joined Carmel Winery just before the harvest and was appointed Chief Winemaker of Carmel’s Rishon Le Zion Wine Cellars. In 2005, still in his early thirties, he was appointed Chief Winemaker of Carmel Winery responsible for four wineries.
He is assisted by colleagues with many years experience like Zvi Skaist, Chief Winemaker of Zichron Ya’acov and Haim Wachtenchaim, the Winemaker at Rishon Le Zion. To these may be added Canadian born Sam Soroka – the winemaker of the Zichron boutique, Kobi Arens – the winemaker of the winery at Ramat Dalton and Eran Goldwasser of Yatir. Interesting each one of these winemakers has graduated, studied or worked in Australia, the world’s pioneer in the new world technology of winemaking & viticulture.
He is advised by Peter Stern from California. Stern worked for icons Robert Mondavi & Julio & Ernest Gallo in the past and currently works for Herzog Wine Cellars. He was winemaking consultant to the Golan Heights Winery from 1983 to 2003. In 2004 he became Carmel’s consultant.
Lior likes to make elegant wines with refreshing acidity, rather than high alcohol, fruit bombs so popular in the New World (and lately in Israel too). It is particularly important to him that the finished wine will show evidence of the terroir of the vineyard, with minimum interference by the winemaker. Amongst the more inexpensive labels, his objective is to make fruit forward, easy drinking wines, where taste & flavor of the fruit dominate rather than the oak. Those tasting the new 2004 Private Collection reds and the 2005 Vineyards Selected (aka Selected in Israel) wines will undoubtedly notice a positive change in style.
He admires wineries like Penfold’s, which he sets as his model. He notes they are able to produce wines in enormous quantities, while still producing high quality wines at every price point – from The Grange to regular supermarket wines. His favorite wine region though, is Burgundy, and part of him would one day like to settle there to make high quality Pinot Noir’s for some small winery.
His current task is taking up all his time & energy for now. His objective is to ensure that the immense progress Carmel has made, continues. In truth, the main compliment lies in the wines and his Single Vineyards & Appellation wines have had rave reviews not received by Carmel since the Carmel Special Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon’s of 1976 & 1979. Yasher Koach!