Dr. Yair Margalit has been a constant figure of the Israeli wine scene during the last 20 + years.
Yair Margalit – The Wine Professor
Dr. Yair Margalit has been a constant and reassuring figure of the Israeli wine scene during the last 20 + 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 United States in the chemistry and enology departments. He also spent time in the physiology department in the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.
In 1985, Jonathan (Yonatan) Tishbi, a family grower with vineyards in the southern Mount Carmel area, decided to leave the Wine Growers Co-operative (Agudat Hacormim) and form his own winery. Baron Wine Cellars was founded in 1985. It was situated between Binyamina and Zichron Ya’acov. Tishbi invited Yair Margalit to be his first winemaker. In between his professional academic work, Margalit gained his first experience as a winemaker. Baron Cellars, since renamed Tishbi Winery, 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 in the Upper Galilee. But 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 and it quickly gained a following amongst the wine cognoscenti as one of the best red wines in the country, alongside Yarden from the Golan Heights.
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. It was also an opportunity for ‘those that understood’ to meet & talk with other like minded individuals, with similar passion.
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.
At 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. Today they are a father and son partnership.
Yair Margalit now produces about 21,000 bottles a year at his winery near the town of Hadera, on the Mediterranean coast (midway between Tel Aviv and Haifa.) He has two vineyards. One at Kadita, in the Upper Galilee, from where he receives his Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot and another at Binyamina, where he grows his Cabernet Franc. His finest wine today is ‘Enigma’, a Bordeaux blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc. His wines are represented in Israel by Shaked, the importers and distributors, who also own the wine store chain ‘Derech Ha’Yayin’ (The Wine Route.)
When James Suckling of The Wine Spectator visited Israel recently, he gave his highest score, a 92, to the Margalit Enigma 2004, writing: “It is a harmonious Bordeaux-style blend with wonderful concentration of fruit and ripe silky tannins.” Tony Aspler, Canada’s no.1 wine journalist, was also most impressed by Margalit’s wine after tasting wines from more than 20 Israeli wineries.
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 focused on quality.
Over the years, Yair Margalit has found time to write three unique, academic books on winemaking. The first ‘Winery Technology & Operations’ was published in 1990. This was followed by ‘Concepts in Wine Chemistry’ in 1997 and ‘Concepts in Wine Technology’ in 2004. Each of the books was published by The Wine Appreciation Guild in San Francisco and each is on the wine shelves of the major book stores, whether Barnes and Noble in New York or Borders in London. They are text books eagerly used by budding winemakers, students or especially interested connoisseurs.
However his biggest contribution to Israeli wine may well be the Cellar Master Program at Tel Hai College. This is the first serious academic program for wine professionals in Israel. Organised by Tel Hai College, Yair Margalit has been the Professional & Academic Manager & Co-ordinator since the first year in 2004. 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 both a winemaker and wine educator.