This article first appeared in the Wine Talk column in the Weekend Supplement of the Jerusalem Post
Dr. Yair Margalit has been a constant and reassuring figure of the Israeli wine scene during the last 25 or more years. He has consistently produced some of Israel’s most well-regarded wines, was the consultant to many new start-up wineries and has also always been involved in wine education, whether lecturing or writing books.
He was born in Israel and studied Chemistry at the Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa. His Masters and Ph.D in physical chemistry focused on Nuclear Magnetic Resonance. He joined the Israel Institute of Biological Research, where he headed the physical chemistry department for five years.
His interest in wine began from the time he was a visiting research professor at The University of California at Davis in the chemistry and enology departments. He also spent time in the physiology department in the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.
In 1985, the veteran grower Jonathan (Yonatan) Tishbi, decided to form his own winery and Tishbi invited Yair Margalit to be his first winemaker. In between his professional academic work, Margalit gained his first experience as a winemaker. Tishbi swiftly gained a name for ‘good value for money’ wines and particularly for fresh white wines.
By this time Yair Margalit had the wine bug. After a few years of home experimental winemaking, he founded Margalit Winery in 1989. In the first vintage they produced a mere 960 bottles! It was not the first of the new wave boutique wineries. That honor goes to Meron Winery from Mitzpe Harashim. However, Margalit was the first serious boutique winery with quality and staying power.
The first wine was a Margalit Cabernet Sauvignon 1989, which was launched in 1991. It quickly gained a following amongst the wine cognoscenti as one of the best red wines in the country. It joined the Carmel Special Reserves 1976 and 1979, and the Yarden Cabernet Sauvignons 1984 and 1985 as one of the legendary, icon wines of the day.
From these little beginnings, Margalit wines grew in production, reputation – and price, but they never outgrew the ‘small boutique winery’ category. The wines became sought after and the rareness of the production created even more demand.
Yair Margalit would invite prospective customers to the premises at Kfar Bilu in Rehovot on two days a year. He offered them the opportunity to buy wines in advance and at slightly reduced prices. Today the wine lover has any number of wine tastings, launches or boutique wineries to visit on any given day of the year. In those days, the idea was innovative. It was a rare place for wine collectors to meet a winemaker, taste wine and buy wines not readily available elsewhere..
As the interest in wine grew in Israel, wine collectors became divided between the merits of Margalit wines as against Eli Ben Zaken’s Castel wines. There were constant debates as to which was better, and each had their own loyal following. One was considered more “New World”, the other more ”Old World”, but both set the bar high for the many new small wineries founded in the 1990’s.
The wine that Margalit became most famous for, was his Cabernet Sauvignon, but his strictly allocated Special Reserve, a Cabernet Sauvignon with up to 15% Petite Sirah, was also a unique and magnificent wine. Over the years he flirted with white varieties producing a Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay. He also produced a Carignan in 1999. It is a fact that the winery grew to specialize in the main Bordeaux varieties, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc. However, credit where it is due; the rejuvenation of Petite Sirah and Carignan in Israel, a significant trend of the 2000’s, may be said to have started with Margalit.
During all this time, Yair Margalit generously gave his time and expertise to advise and assist other new boutique wineries. In this way he helped fuel the boutique wine revolution. His love of the academic world was never far away and he continued to lecture at the Faculty of Food Technology in Haifa, but this time on wine. He also conducted many wine tasting courses, just at the time the Israeli interest in wine was growing. Many of the new wine lovers were enthused by attending his courses.
Eventually, Yair’s son, Assaf, came into the business. He began by helping his father. After studies at the Hebrew University’s Faculty of Agriculture in Rehovot, he went to gain experience at a winery in California. They are a father and son partnership.
Margalit Winery now produces about 21,000 bottles a year. After Rehovot, the winery moved to just south of Hadera. It has now settled in Binyamina. The wines come from two vineyards. One is at Kadita in the Upper Galilee, from where he receives his Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. The other is in Binyamina, where he grows his Cabernet Franc.
With time, the wines have gained a European elegance, and compliments at the highest level. They are also wines that are proven to last. Just a few years ago I tasted the 1993, which was magnificent and still youthful, with time on its side.
Tony Aspler, the doyen of Canadian wine writers, once wrote: “Margalit is making the best wine in Israel today – especially Enigma, which you could mistake for (Chateau) Mouton Rothschild in a blind tasting.” Now that is a compliment that means something!
Mark Squires wrote about his 2007 Special Reserve: “This is mightily impressive. It is gorgeously constructed, tight, penetrating and powerful. Yet, despite the lurking power, it manages to combine the often contradictory elements of sex appeal and elegance in the mid-palate.” Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate gave this wine 93 points which equaled the best for score ever for an Israeli red wine.
The international praise only supports the notion that Margalit’s wines have always been considered amongst the very best Israeli wines at any given time. However whereas most small wineries took early success as a reason to grow and expand the business, Margalit has more or less stayed the same size. He has preferred to remain relatively small, but totally focused on quality.
Over the years, Yair Margalit has found time to write academic books on winemaking. The first was published in 1990. Recently the third edition of both ‘Concepts of Wine Technology – Small Winery Operations’ and ‘Concepts in Wine Chemistry’ was released. Both are published by The Wine Appreciation Guild in San Francisco. They are text books eagerly used by budding winemakers, students or especially interested connoisseurs. No person making wine in Israel should be without them but the appeal is not confined to Israel, but international. The books may be found on the wine shelves of international book stores.
However his biggest contribution to Israeli wine may well be the Cellar Master Program at Tel Hai College. This was the first serious academic program for wine professionals in Israel. Organized by Tel Hai College, Yair Margalit was the Professional & Academic Manager & Co-ordinator from the first year in 2004 until 2009-10. Each year the program has been an overwhelming success and over-subscribed. It gives an opportunity for wine professionals and dedicated wine lovers to gain a serious qualification, which is well-regarded by the industry.
In his own quiet, unobtrusive, but professional way, Yair Margalit, has contributed greatly to Israel wine, as a winemaker, wine educator and as a symbol of the new quality. Now the winemaking duties are more with his son, Assaf Margalit, there is more opportunity to see the wine professor at wine events. He will be seen, usually in a blue denim shirt, with a satchel over his shoulder. His mop of wavy grey hair provides a distinguished look and there is always a ready smile. He remains as modest as ever, in that quiet, slightly shy way of his, but talk about wine, and you feel the passion that beats as strongly as it did twenty five years ago.
Photo: David Silbermam
Adam Montefiore works for Carmel Winery and regularly writes about wine