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April 10, 2008

Finally —delicious kosher wine

Domaine du Castel

http://www.jewishjournal.com/israel/article/finally_delicious_kosher_wine_20080411

Wine and vineyards have been part of Israel's landscape from the beginning of biblical times, with references that include the drunken behavior of several patriarchs of Judaism, including Lot and King David. Despite this storied history, most of the wine was kosher, made in the service of religious rituals, and was not very good. That is being generous. "Insipid" is closer to the mark. (It should be noted that Israel is not responsible for the giddily sweet plonk that American Jews have been choking down for generations. That is a uniquely New World nightmare. Please note: "plonk" is not a Yiddish word, but should be.)

As a result, one would not expect to find much Israeli wine in the hallowed cellars of Domaine du Castel wine bottle serious, secular wine collectors. One might find a bottle or two of leftover kosher wine lying around from the last major holiday, or from Passover 1992, gathering dust and getting shoved further and further out of the way of the "real wine," where it can do no harm and will never again see the light of day.

However, the by now oft-told tale is that that sorry state of affairs has begun to change. "Quietly and without attracting much consumer attention," said wine critic Mark Squires, "Israel has developed a wine industry that will confound preconceptions."

Only in the past 25 years has there been any real quality wine produced in the Promised Land that deserved attention. But now the plot -- though thankfully not the wine -- thickens. A growing number of boutique winemakers have turned the corner qualitatively and are making some superlative wines. Indeed, there is one Israeli wine that plays on the world stage and merits inclusion in any great cellar: Domaine du Castel.

Eli Ben-Zaken, the son of an Egyptian father and Italian mother, moved to Israel following the Six-Day War and opened a popular Italian restaurant in Jerusalem called Mamma Mia. In the late 1980s, he planted a small vineyard at his hilltop farm in Ramat Raziel, 10 miles west of Jerusalem, with an eye toward creating a red wine redolent of classic Bordeaux, including calling it Grand Vin (with a nod to the fabled Chateau Latour, among others), and coining the appellation by translating "Judean Hills" into French as "Haut Judee."

A bottle of their first vintage, 1992, found its way to Serena Sutcliffe, a noted British wine authority who heads the wine department of Sotheby's auction house. She found it "absolutely terrific ... quite unlike other Israeli wines and does not have any of those ‘cooked' and ‘herbaceous' flavors that I am afraid are prevalent in Israeli reds. This wine is a real tour de force, brilliantly made and very ‘classic.'"

Bolstered by this positive feedback, Ben-Zaken sent his son, Ariel, to work for a negotiant in Burgundy to learn the business. The winery that began making a mere two barrels (50 cases) in 1992 now produces over 8,000 cases of wine per year, including the Grand Vin, the excellent "C" Blanc du Castel chardonnay ($40), and their second label red wine, Petit Castel ($40), a merlot blend. Approximately 40 percent of the wine is exported, half of that to the United States. They first produced a kosher version of the Grand Vin in 2002, and all of their wines have been kosher ever since. (Squires says, "It seems generally irrelevant" whether or not a wine is kosher, "as long as they are not also mevushal [boiled].")

Here's some insufferable wine-speak: The estate is located on terraced steps cutting through a valley facing the sea and the prevailing summer winds. The densely planted, deep valley vineyards enjoy cooler temperatures and shorter hours of sunshine, which is excellent for slow, even maturation. The grapes are handpicked and de-stemmed, one reason there is little "green" flavor in the resulting wine, with low yields of 55 hectoliters per hectare. The wine undergoes malolactic fermentation prior to 24 months of aging in 100 percent new French oak barrels, then is bottled unfined and unfiltered.

Translation: Domaine du Castel is made in the same fashion as the very top wines of Napa Valley or Bordeaux. This insistence on quality at each step of vinification is labor-intensive and costly, and is reflected in the relatively high price ($60), but is immediately evident in the glass.

"Rogov's Guide to Israeli Wines," the sourcebook for such things, rated the 2005 Grand Vin 94 out of 100, one of the highest scores offered. (To be fair, he has rated all of their wines 90-plus for several years, reflecting the rather insular nature of the homegrown industry, though only the chardonnay has earned 90 or better from a U.S.-based critic.) His review: "Full bodied, tannic enough to be thought of as muscular but with structure and balance that promise concentration and elegance. On the nose and palate black currants, red plums and blackberries, those matched nicely by spicy wood and hints of Mediterranean herbs. Best 2009-2013." The words "elegant" and "classic" and "graceful" get a lot of play in describing this wine through the years.

Producing consistently high-quality wine made in a traditional French style is a relatively new notion in Israel, and the concept of age-worthy -- vin de garde -- kosher wines is practically a 21st century invention. There is a whole education that is just beginning to take place among Israeli winemakers and their audience around the world. Domaine du Castel's Grand Vin is a serious vin de garde, a wine to save and enjoy in the years to come, when it reaches its peak of maturity. Unfortunately, most kosher wine drinkers have no sense of aging wine for future enjoyment. It seems they, too, buy a bottle for Sabbath or seder and don't give a thought to what might evolve in the bottle down the road.

This is an excellent wine. I doubt it would beat Chateau Margaux in a blind tasting, but it is a world-class wine that speaks to the indomitable spirit of Israel as it approaches the ripe age of 60 and to the great possibility of the Israeli wine industry. If the price seems high, consider that it may be the best of its kind, and still a steal compared to the top French or California wines. Buy a few and save one for a couple years to see what all the fuss is about.

Jeff Smith is the owner of Carte du Vin, a wine cellar management company, and the author of "The Best Cellar" (Volt Press, 2006).

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