Add wine to Israel's wondrous list of accomplishments. No, it's not a miracle the Israelis make wine; after all, they and their ancestral ancients have been squeezing the grape since time immemorial. The miracle is that today's wines from the Golan Heights are world-class -- capable of competing with the best of California and Europe.
The so-called modern era of the grape in the Holy Land began in 1882. Baron Edmond de Rothschild, of the English branch of the banking family, jump-started the Israeli wine industry on dry, arid soil at Rishon LeZion near Tel Aviv with an abundance of French technology and technicians. They envisioned light, airy Provence-like wines, but what resulted were syrupy, sometimes sugared wines, filled with sacramental sweetness without balance and adequate acidity. Inferior grapes were mixed with the best, a practice adverse to single-vineyard optimum wine production. The restrictions of kosher winemaking didn't help matters.
The French branch of the Rothschilds might have also contributed to these initial efforts. Not neophytes to the grape, they had acquired major Bordeaux vineyards acknowledged to be national treasures. Their wines from the heralded vintage of 2000 sell at an astronomical tab of $400 per bottle. My initial taste of the 2000 vintage of the Chateau found the wines to be superb candidates for the best -- since the acclaimed benchmark year of 1961. Indeed, can it be that these two prized bottles fulfill the ambitious baronial dreams for Israeli vintages to come?
In the Golan Heights, Israelis, in confident pursuit of the dream, believe that they can make wine as good -- and I, for one, also believe they can. Try Yarden's Cabernet Sauvignon '99, a youngish intense concentration of claret-style flavors itching to develop into full, mature, ripe taste perfection after five or 10 years of cellaring. Mouton and Lafite command the mandatory respect for disciplined patient bottle aging. Yarden's Cabernets do not, but they should. Recently, I uncorked a bottle from my cellar of the 1989, and voila, it displayed silky smooth nuanced perfection which, in blind tastings with the world's premium reds, would perform remarkably. Another "oldie" from 1994 oozed with velvety charm, which only reinforced the point. The '99, in time, will be better than both.
Mouton and Lafite benefit from generations of winning technology, and adoring affluent fans resulting in a no-argument ascent to the "world-class pedestal." In contrast, Yarden's Golan fledgling winery and vineyards are barely one-quarter of a century old, considered by wine historians to be grape infancy. The cooler Golan climes are a blessing for the Israelis, for here they mine liquid gold in an area that viticultural experts consider to be similar to Napa Valley.
When I visited Israel in 1972, the Golan Heights as a major wine-growing area was not even a gleam in a vintner's eye; actually it was just a beginning agricultural spot for fine orchards of nonwine produce. There was no burning consumer need for complex dry wines as the Israelis didn't have the luxury of time for a glass of wine or two at mealtime. A dinner with the Israelis usually left me yearning for something more than bland beer and sweetened fruit juice.
Not until Israeli incomes rose and their foreign travel increased -- especially to Europe -- did Israelis' thirst for nonritual wine consumption grow. Indeed, it was not surprising then in the so-called good old days that the Israelis dutifully accepted the early wines of Carmel, the 1900 co-op with the Baron Edmund charge to produce palatable kosher wine. Interestingly, a group staff photograph still hangs at its entrance featuring a boyish David Ben-Gurion, a memento of what may have been his first job. Even more interesting is that Carmel today is now on a comeback commercial trail, following the path of Yarden's stunning success.
The continuing in-depth education of the Israeli palate is as important a factor in improving Israeli wine as the Golan Heights wineries' evolution. The winery began in the early 1980s with a debut of a nicely done California-styled sauvignon blanc -- notwithstanding Syrian gun barrels pointing in the direction of vineyards planted on former tank battle sites, grim reminders of ever-present political turmoil.
If political stability and peace prevail, Yarden will produce from those vineyards fine to great wines qualifying its rescue of the 1967 Golan battlefields as yet another sort of miracle. There has been plenty of international help, particularly from UC Davis and Bordeaux enology experts and from former Golan wine director Peter Stern, a noted California consultant, now succeeded by another eminent California wine personality Zelma Long, former chief of Simi Vineyards. Yarden's chief winemaker is Victor Schoenfeld, born in Palos Verdes and trained at UC Davis.
Ascension by the winery to world-class status is not just my personal view. It has won awards and medals at international competitions as well as enthusiastic praise from connoisseurs who are able to taste beyond the prejudice of kosher roots. Some media tasters, which I affectionately dub as the "spittoon brigade," have also not been objective in quickly dismissing Yarden as another aspiring kosher producer. Nothing could be further from the truth.
In February, under the auspices of a wine-fan group known as the Beverly Hills Grape Nuts, I gathered a group of 55 guests at a posh downtown dinner club to sample the top-of-the-line Yarden collection in a handsome formal setting, along with a custom cooked elegant dinner by one of America's finest French chefs, Jean Marc Weber. Most participants were wine sophisticated with in-depth wine cellars featuring, in many cases, bottles from the best of two centuries. Initial skepticism soon turned into stunned pleasure as the wines, as if on cue, spoke with sheer eloquence. It was a case of love at first taste.
Besides the Cab '99, the 2000 Yarden Katzrin Chardonnay was a marvel. Here is optimum quality Chardonnay, not overdone in oak or butteriness, yet rich and delicately balanced with ripe flavors perfect for today's pleasure. Stylish and charming, the wine was fermented in new French oak barrels worthy of the best of California or French Chablis. A slight chill will bring out its best.
If you like the bubbly, 1997 Blanc de Blancs made entirely from Chardonnay grapes in the traditional French method will compare favorably with most California Bruts and French nonvintage champagne. Here's a mixture of floral and taste flavors that meld well with hors d'oeuvres or strike the right note for a celebratory toast. Like any other sparkler, there's always a question of style preference, but make no mistake, the quality is there.
A Merlot 1999 was well-liked because of its ripe undercurrent of cherry and plum flavors. Aged in small oak barrels for 14 months in tight grained French oak, it needs a few years of aging before nuanced perfection. This is something to enjoy while awaiting the ripening of the '99 Cabernet.
The pleasant taste shocker of the evening was Yarden's Heights Wine of 2000, made solely from Gewurztraminer grapes. Here's a sweet-styled wine, not unlike ice wine prototypes from Germany and Austria. The luscious nonsyrupy sweetness here makes for glorious pleasurable after-dinner sipping or as a casual aperitif while hanging out with friends. Harvested by hand from the northern Golan vineyard of El Rom, it is then cooled until November when whole frozen clusters were gently pressed yielding the juice of about 40 percent natural sweetness. A marvelous vinous breakthrough, it can be purchased in half bottles (375 mi) for around $20 and is worth it.
All of the wines are priced in the $18-$21 range depending upon practices of local stores. Prices are higher than most kosher wines, yet remarkably low by current price structuring and, blessedly, not yet overblown by vintner ego-driven price excesses.
For those who want to spend less, try Yarden's Mount Hermon simply labeled as red or white. The red is of note because of its nicely done blend of cabernet sauvignon, merlot and cabernet Franc grapes reflecting easy, generous drinking and sporting nice notes of black pepper and spice. The wine is easily affordable for a sawbuck or less. Age it if you wish, but for myself, I intend to drink it now and use it exclusively for ritual joy.
Will Yarden's wines ever achieve $400-a-bottle status? If the baronial Rothschilds had lived to see the grape-friendly soils and marvelous technological breakthroughs of the Golan, they might have endorsed the notion. Okay, maybe it's a far-fetched notion and a bit early for placement on the pedestal alongside Mouton and Lafite. But surely, this is a miracle in the making, and indeed, there can be no denying Israel is well on its way.
Nathan Chroman, a lawyer and wine lover is author of "A Treasury of American Wine" (Crown, 1972) and a contributor to "Wines of the World" (McGraw Hill, 1982). He is a former Los Angeles Times syndicated wine columnist.