Israel's first steps up the wine quality ladder had a lot to do with the obvious varietals, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Chardonnay. Arguably, however, they're not that well suited to Israel's climate.
Personally, I'd argue that the only reason we have so many of those varietals here is their market appeal and not their suitability to Israel. Now I don't have the technical background to argue this properly and I know winemakers will say that the differences in day and night temperature and the altitude and management of the vineyard can make up for the southern latitude of our Promised Land. But my common sense says these varietals won the battle for survival in Bordeaux and Burgundy because they were suited for those cool climates and I happen to believe in specialization in nature.
The latest trend is towards new varietals, such as Carignan, Syrah, Cabernet Franc. The first two make sense but last time I checked the map, the Loire was much further north than Bordeaux.
Whatever, here are some wines I've tasted recently that are good examples of this trend. Despite my rather critical tone above, I enjoyed them for the most part.
Sea Horse, Antoine, Syrah, 2003
The first bottle I had was pickled with sulphur, I think, though that cleared and it showed what I see as this winery's trademark, a sort of Old World earthiness coupled with Mediterranean spiciness. The second bottle a few months later had been flat and disappointing. My most recent bottle I believe shows where this wine is going.
A nice nose of sweet red fruit (cranberries and cherries) and pepper, later some chocolate. The palate has decent structure, the acidity is okay, but the fruit is still subdued, so it feels a bit tart which is fine, most Israeli reds will just go the other way. But it gets better and reveals sour-cherry fruitiness and hints of minerals on the finish. Mostly it’s just subdued right now with some hollowness in mid-palate. I’d open the next bottle in a year, maybe even two.
Regarding the drinking window, I wouldn't open a bottle 5-6 years post-vintage if I only had one, especially since I find a lot of bottle variation at Sea Horse. You can see a visibile difference in the cork depth in different bottles of the same wine. But I liked the one relatively mature wine of Ze'ev Dunie that I tasted and I'll be very pleased if my last bottle lives to the same age.
Ella Valley, Cabernet Franc, 2004
A nice warm and and ripe nose, earthy, with reasonable complexity. The warmth is present on the medium-bodied palate as well, but something just doesn't click for me.
I had this wine with someone who appreciates the Loire and he said it was typical Franc, but except for the medium body, I don't see this wine as making a big break from the usual Israeli paradigm. He said the next wine we tasted (see below) was less typical and I think the concensus was it was a better wine as well. For some reason, despite being bigger and thus superficially more typically Israeli, I found it less archtypical. So, on to the next wine...
Pelter, Cabernet Franc, 2004
Elegant on the nose, with ripe red fruit, some herbs and a hint of minerals. Rawer on the palate. Full and long. An Israeli wine in need of more bottle time?
Finally, from a boutique that has carved out a niche in atypical varietals, what some regard as their best wine:
Vitkin, Carignan, 2004
Typical ripe Israeli red at first, albeit without the Cabernet characteristics which is a big plus. Meaty, mushroomy notes lend it distinction. Very nice acidity that feels unmanipulated and, despite it’s sweet ripeness and a slight hollowness in mid-palate, has the savouriness I look for. I wouldn’t exactly call it a long-distance runner but it has promising structure for short term cellaring potential.
Coming Attraction: The Four Musketeers Classification System!