I've been following Yaacov Oryah's career through his various stints at Assif, Midbar, Psagot and now his namesake label*. Actually, you could say I've been paying attention to the guy since he walked into one of Tomer Gal's Burgundy tasting about ten years ago. A religious Jew in a tasting of non-kosher Burgundy wines is always an unusual sight.
* I didn't forget Ella Valley - I just never tasted any of the wines he made there.
I was fortuitous enough to taste through a wide lineup of his recent releases over the course of May and June. These included a red wine, a rose, a blanc de noirs, a trio of orange wines and quite a few whites.
Yaacov has always taken pride in his white wines. When I first tasted his Midbar whites about seven years ago, I was quite taken with their refreshing leanness. Drinking through the his latter-day whites now, I find the theme a little redundant. I enjoyed each wine on its own, but it feels as though every blend winds up showing the same lean figure, the strive towards freshness almost formulaic. I found the rose and blanc de noirs much more captivating.
I'm not a great fan of orange wines, but drinking the Alpha Omega series, Yaccov's orange wines, I felt that the extended skin contact gave the wines a little more stuffing while preserving the lean figure of the regular whites. In fact, I mostly wished they were a little fuller and more intense, which isn't something I'd imagined I'd feel about orange wines.
I tasted three wines from the 2016 vintage (I skipped the Chardonnay, which was corky, a very strange experience: a corky orange wine).
One of arguments against orange wines is that they allegedly obscure varietal character. Or terroir. Well, I say, how do you know? Just because we're used to drinking white wines without skin contact doesn't mean it's the best way to capture the essence of grape or place, just that it's arguably the best way to make wine out of white grapes. The safest, anyway. The technique we're the most familiar with. The extended skin contact can take them to places you couldn't readily extrapolate from experience with 'normal' white wines. Take this. Granted, Chenin can be taken to almost outre expressions of minerality even without skin contact, but the slightly deranged nose here surprised me, recalling Nicolas Joly's Savennières, The ripe apricots, pickled mango, ashy earth and roasted cashews are fascinating, but the fruit at the core is soft and I wish Yaacov had coaxed a little more intensity on the palate to match the pungent intensity of the aromas.
With a blend, varietal authenticity is a non-issue, and, considering I like/hate/love the varieties in the blend, extended skin contact might even be a blessing in disguise. The nose has a rocky/earthy sheen that's almost claret-like. Unlike the Chenin Blanc, here the intensity of the flavors are a match for the intricate pungency of the aromas. Whatever picture Yaacov was trying to paint here, it's a great success.
Gewurtz is so deeply tinted and intense to begin with that the skin contact merely intensifies the character of the grape, rather than transforming it too radically. Of all Yaacov's wines, this is the one I was most eager to taste. That's because I have a love/hate relationship with Gewurztraminer, leaning towards hate actually, and I keep getting drawn back a couple of times a year. The nose highlights the rose petals and litchi aspect of the grape (rather than the ginger and white pepper, which I usually prefer) and suggests a sweet wine. However, the palate is very dry, not quite as deep and complex as the nose, and the contrast is interesting. At the end of the day, it's my least favorite of the three.
Pretty As The Moon, 2018
A Petite Sirah, Mourvedre, Syrah blend is a witty variant on the GSM theme even as a red,, let alone as a rose. The result here is a reserved wine that need time to open up, eventually showing more than decent plus aromatic complexity, minerals and herbs taking on a prominent role. The palate is lithe and focused, with a very saline finish. The pleasures of a rose, even an excellent one, are fleeting at best, and the Pretty As The Moon is a very ephemeral rose by Israeli standards - yet it manages to leave a surprisingly lingering impression.
Light From Darkness, 2018
This is a blanc de noirs made of Grenache, Cinsault, Mourvedre and Syrah. I haven't tasted enough BdR's to form any opinion other than that they're never really white and arguably not as interesting as a rose.This, however, is a surprise. The aromatics are charmingly embossed by chalk and flint with a faint echo of red cherries and flowers. If you only sniff it, you really might think it's a white wine. Tasting it blind, though, it's sweeter and rounder than the nose suggests and you'd think it a rose. Either way, I'm engaged.
Eye Of The Storm, 2016
A GSM blend, heavily dominated by Grenache, judging by the aromas and flavors, closer to a Cotes du Rhone than a Chateauneuf. (May 2, 2019)
The Silent Hunter, 2018
Yaacov's signature wines in his days at Midbar Winery were the Semillon and the Semillon-Sauvignon Blanc blend. This is a variation on a theme, Chenin Blanc taking the Sauvignon's place. The name is a homage to Australia's Hunter Valley, which was the first (and only?) appellation famous for varietal Semillon. This is a successful variation, summer fruits adorned by flint and oyster shells. the palate tautly juicy and well delineated by acidity and a saline tang. Quite lovely in its youth.
The Silent Hunter, 2017 is more of the same, not much further evolved. Both are fresh and vibrant, but not especially complex.
The Soulmate, 2018 is a another unexpected blend, Chardonnay (55%) and Chenin Blanc (45%) this time. Like the Silent Hunter, the nose is a mix of summer fruits, flint and shell, while the palate is lithe and tautly fruity, without great length, intensity or complexity, just tasty and charming.
To find out how Yaacov's whites evolve, I turned to the Valley of the Hunters, 2009, a library bottle of his first Semillon from the Midbar days and paired it with the latter day 2018. The 2018 is, again, a very lean wine, almost slender thin, without a lot to set it to apart from the other Semillon variations. The 2017, on the other hand, is starting to come together and show a personal character, lime and minerals, like Muscadet and oysters. Yaacov has always felt the Semillons needed a few years after release to play, if I recall, but if he had expected it to bloom after ten years, then he'd set the bar a little too high. The 2009 is still alive, which is quite an achievement for a first vintage of an Israeli white, but it's past its best, the fruit withered back to a skeletal frame its best and there's not a lot going on beyond an interesting sea water funk on the nose. I'd tasted it quite a few times over the years and it was quite lovely at three-five years post vintage. So I'd recommend cellaring any young vintages you buy for a couple of years. Admittedly, I've read better reports about the 2009, but you know how it is with mature bottles.