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Uncorked

Israel's wine on the rise

Region has found footing beyond kosher offerings

By Bill St. John, Special to Tribune Newspapers

August 21, 2013

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In 1988, for 10 days, I visited Israel and its wineries. An intifada was going on; it was scary. But the enthusiasm of Israel's winemakers and grape farmers briefly washed away the worry.

For decades, Israel had produced red seas of mediocre wine for Jewish communities in both Israel and the Diaspora. But Israel was outfitting its wineries with updated, modern equipment; its vineyards were benefiting from advances in plant husbandry.

Since the late 1980s, the wines of Israel have only gotten better.

Each year a few weeks before the Jewish High Holy Days, I and many wine writers recommend that season's better kosher wines, from Israel and several other winemaking areas of the world. But by and large, we reference Israeli wines using only the kosher hook.

It's time to see Israel as a country producing very fine wine, kosher or not, in the same way that we view the wines of France, Australia or our own country. Here's a brief look at Israeli winemaking, with some geography and recommendations. Many of the wines are kosher for Passover; some are mevushal; not all are both. Out of more than 200 wineries in Israel, just a dozen make 90 percent of its wine. However, many newer, smaller, often family-run wineries are starting to star.

Seventy percent of Israeli wine is red (most from cabernet sauvignon, merlot, carignan or syrah); 20 percent is white (of chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, emerald riesling, muscat, gewurztraminer or viognier). Seven percent is sparkling wine; 3 percent, pink.

Israel recognizes five winemaking regions, each with its strengths as a grape grower. Some regions are as historic as the Hebrew scriptures that first mentioned them. I provide both their English and Hebrew names as either may appear on a label.

Galilee, Galil

Home to the most vineyard acreage by far and the most oft-seen appellation on bottles in the U.S., which is the No. 1 importer of Israeli wine. The best thing that Galilee has going for it is its combination of cool, high-altitude vineyards and well-drained, mostly volcanic soils. A superfine district is the Golan Heights near the borders of Syria and Lebanon.

2011 Carmel Single Vineyard Kayoum Riesling: Correctly riesling, but more American than German or Alsatian in style; ever so slightly sweet, but fine acidity. $25

2010 Golan Heights Winery Cabernet Sauvignon "Golan": Refreshing, as cabernets go, with tangy closing acidity; black cherry notes. $17

2010 Binyamina Cabernet Sauvignon Special Reserve: An easy and elegant effort, only moderately tannic and quite smooth. $22-$25

2009 Galil Mountain Red Blend "Yiron": Chewy and substantial, with round texture and a combination of blue and black-red fruit; 60 percent cabernet sauvignon, 35 percent merlot. $24-$29

2007 Recanati Red Blend Special Reserve: Six years' aging gives it a lean and incisive feel, with aroma hints of wood and spice; a gripping finish; 84 percent cabernet, 16 percent merlot. $43

Samaria, Shomron

With warm summers and cool, humid winters, this is the most "Mediterranean" of Israel's winemaking regions. Samaria was the place where, at the end of the 19th century, French expertise and funds kicked into gear modern Israeli winemaking.

Samson, Shimshon

Like Galilee, a favored area because of even, beneficent weather. Named after the biblical figure, Samson sports both coastal plains and fecund rolling hillsides. The most historic and certainly prolific of modern Israeli wineries, Carmel, founded in 1882, has its headquarters in Samson and produces wine from grapes grown there but also from all four other regions.

2007 Carmel Vineyard Mediterranean: This blend of carignan, syrah, petit verdot, petite sirah and viognier comes from vineyards in Galilee, the Negev, Judean Hills and Samaria; very much a northern Rhone style for its plush, fat texture, abundant fruit and plush tannin; vegan. $53-$65

Judean Hills, Harey Yehuda

An area with much promise and home to many new, even experimental, wineries. Cool temperatures in the high hills overlooking Jerusalem, along with steeply sloped vineyards, beckon.

2010 Domaine du Castel Blanc "C" Jerusalem Hills: All chardonnay, in the open-knit, juicy California style. $43

2011 Flam Red Blend "Classico" Judean Hills: Roughly half each cabernet and merlot and a terrific red, equal to a well-made Medoc for its rich fruit, brooding character and soft touch. $28-$34

2010 Psagot Red Blend "Edom" Jerusalem Hills: Three-quarters cabernet, the rest merlot; round and fleshy and substantial; nice clipping acidity and plush tannin. $27-$37

2011 Recanati Wild Carignan Reserve Judean Hills: Just as hefty, weighty, rich, juicy, packed with flavor and aroma, generously tannic and delicious as the same grape from ancient vines in the Languedoc; first-rate and excellent work. $48

Negev, Hanegev

A true desert and an ancient vineyard region; semi-arid, but with large diurnal day-to-night temperature swings that are good for wine grape growing. Cutting-edge technology assists in irrigation.

2009 Kadesh Barnea Red Blend "Red Desert" Negev: How something can be this fresh and lively when its cabernet and merlot grapes ripened in a solar oven is quite the feat; all blueberries and cherries for flavor and aroma; just full of energy. $30

If your wine store does not carry these wines, ask for one similar in style and price.

Bill St John has been writing and teaching about wine for more than 40 years.

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