In July, Vitkin Winery* launched their flagship wine, the Shorashim ("roots" in Hebrew) 2010, in a series of sit-down tastings showcasing the Shorashim, other current releases and surprises from the library. I attended the final gig at their brand new winery/visitor center, which started with a short video tribute to Nahum Ben Gal, Doron Belogolovsky's uncle, to whom the wine was dedicated (each vintage of the Shorashim is dedicated to someone important to the family). Following that, Assaf talked about the winery's philosophy and history. If I may say so myself, I did a good job transcribing those after my visit this winter, so you can read the full spiel here, but if you want a recap, Assaf wants to make interesting, fruity wines, that pair well with food, don't necessarily require a lot of bottle age and that are imbued with local character. Which is what you'll hear from many winemakers, but Assaf was just about the first to try attempt that with varieties that the industry viewed as scourge: Carignan, Colombard, Petit Syrah, Cabernet Franc.
Vitkin has been a favorite of mine for so many years that when Assaf Paz recalled how tough it was in the early years to sell their concepts, not to mention the wines, I was almost shocked to realize I was probably one of the nay-sayers who were reluctant at first to try wines like the Carignan.
* Vitkin is a family owned winery. Sharona Paz-Belogolovsky runs the show, her brother Assaf Paz and husband Doron Belogolovsky make the wines.
Assaf might well admit that growing and vinifying Riesling in Israel isn't a very convincing way to make a wine imbued with local character. What the hell has the Mosel's favorite son to do with the hot, humid Israeli summers? The answer is he really loves Riesling and was offered good grapes years ago, and with a little foresight and a lot of talent and luck, not to mention good fruit, he wound up making a good dry Riesling. I buy it haphazardly; it's not my first choice in Vitkin whites, my first choice is the next wine, but it's a good drink and my wife likes it (although at the tasting, she too preferred the Grenache Blanc). The 2014 is a little more intense of flavor than previous vintages, rounder as well, while showing good structure and complexity. Right now, it's all about fruit, although not necessarily apples, more yellow summer fruit, such as apricots. Deserves a couple of years. 90 NIS.
Grenache Blanc, 2014
I am very wary of white Rhone grapes, especially Grenache Blanc, due to its association with white Chateauneufs, arguably the one white wine most people never manage to open at the right stage in its evolution. But Assaf made a very intriguing white Grenache in 2013 and this is just as fascinating, with tobacco, ash, summer fruit again, and acidity that brightens the fruit and imbibes it with structure and a saline finish. I don't know if this or future vintages will ever turn to be profound wines, but they will always be a welcome companion to fish and salad dishes. 125 NIS.
Petit Syrah, 2008
For me, this is the real star - of both the winery and the tasting. This is exactly what I want to get from local wines: character and the rough, muscular rusticity that comes from grapes acclimated to Mediterranean weather. It's very impressive, without being a trophy wine, but rather a still untamed, leathery, Old World wine for the discerning middle class, with acidity and savory tannins well matches with a good prime rib. This was made from the fruit of thirty year old vines, but the vineyard was torn down and later vintages came from a plot with even older vines, from the same general area (Ella valley in the Judean hills). It didn't seem to make a big difference in the quality and personality of the wines. 115 NIS for the recent release, 300 NIS for a magnum of the 2008.
At this point, the groom was hoisted in. My first thought was, this is too much in the mold of ripe Israeli reds, with blue, almost liquorish fruit. But, even if it is that kind of wine, a sensitive hand made it, tempered it with good acidity and hints of violets and I think it will turn out very good - it's already starting show the same leathery feel as the Petit Syrah.
Assaf says this 2006 was a vintage of similar characteristics as 2010 and that year's Shorashim was a similar blend of grapes, and thus this wine, with four more years of cellaring under its belt, should be a good indication of where thes 2010 is going. Which is probably true, despite the 2006 still having sweet, baby fat to shed - but you can tell the leather and floral notes are more prominent now. The 2010 is selling for about 300 NIS, so I think it's more expensive than many peer flagship wines. On the other hand, if the 2006 still needs more time nine years post-vintage, then these might be contending with Katzrin level aging specifications. I think these would be a fair deal if futures prices bring them down to about 200 NIS. At any rate, you'd be getting a lot of character in the bottle.
Pinot Noir, 2011
I struggled with the Vitkin Pinot 2006, finding it too full and sweet for my tastes, but the 2011 charms me with crushed berries and leather aromas. I know I shouldn't make comparisons with Burgundy (I'm such a Bourgogne-head that it's hard to avoid them, especially once my nose and palate start to register Pinot-ness), so let's just say this is a good New World Pinot Noir at a decent price. 85 NIS.
Late Harvest, 2011
Made from ripe, botrytis infected Sauvignon Blanc grapes, this is a terrific Sauternes styled dessert wine without the heaviness of a big Sauternes vintage. 125 NIS for a half bottle, a solid price.