Where Have All The Good Times Gone - An Israeli Wine Tasting

Eventually it had to happen. My wine group decided to have an Israeli wine night.

The lineup included several wines we have all loved in the past (albeit different vintages in some cases). As our tastes have developed, we had left some of these wines behind, so to speak. Coming back to them now, I can't say we were thrilled by them anymore. Some would probably not have excited all of us to begin with. Others simply showed too many technical faults and were imbalanced at a very young age. And a couple were old friends about to depart for greener pastures.

We started with the Vitkin, Riesling 2005. A very sharp and focused palate but the nose felt distant and vague. We came back to it a couple of hours later and it had really cleaned up its act. Would stand up to a QBA level wine from a decent German maker and I do mean that as a compliment. In retorospect, the wine of the night.

Next up was a joker. Obviously a Chardonnay, the nose was buttery and nutty in a Meursault style, with obvious oak fenced in by the other elements. The palate was significantly less interesting - very flabby and imbalanced. I thought it was the Castel "C" but it was an oaked village Chablis from 2003 by a producer I'd never heard of, Lamblin.

Next was one of my personal disappointments, Sea Horse, Elul, 2003. Not that I was expecting a lot. Ze'ev Dunie's wines had appealed to me two or three years ago and ever since, not only have I been outgrowing them, but I've been sensing a lot of bottle variations or perhaps simply the wines coming apart in bottle. So right now I have quite a few bottles of his left and I'm singularly unexcited at the prospect of drinking them. The Elul 2003 I find very over-ripe, perfumed like a harlot, with the palate relatively balanced compared to the nose, but not very interesting. And it's rough, almost like chewing gravel, without even the notion of good fruit lurking in the background. We returned to the wine at the end of the evening yet all that time breathing the air in the bottle had left no positive mark on the sorry juice. I think I understand what Dunie is aiming for but the execution is lacking.

On to the Flam, Cabernet Sauvignon, 2000. Flam is the brett lover's favorite Israeli winery, though I suspect recent vintages depend too much on the brett to carry them. Surprisingly, this was still alive, though not in good shape. The nose was a charmer, with bretty notes, chocolate, some mushrooms. The palate still had good acidity and grip yet the flavors were muted and faded. I really liked it once and I'm glad it's dying gracefully. And it's still got quite a nose!

I don't think anyone expected a lot from the Barkan, Reserve, Cabernet Sauvignon, 1997, which was just as well, as it was too simple and ripe and probably was never intended to be drunk in 2007. The Yarden, Cabernet Sauvignon, 1997 is a wine that we would have expected to be drinking well with adequate storage. It did have a lovely nose, surprisingly bretty though in a well measured way. But the palate probably deserves a saying in Yiddish, something about a favorite child not living up to expectations. It was hot and hollow, with indiscernible flavors.

The Vitkin, Cabernet Franc, 2003 was in the same cheap floozy style of the Sea Horse, without putting out as much, and time in glass only harmed it, with the barrel influences growing stronger. The palate was hardly balanced and enjoyable. Maybe it's just age but I remember tasting it a couple of years ago and not liking it even back then.

The final disappointment was my own second contribution after the Sea Horse: Pelter, Shiraz-Grenache, 2004, a wine I had loved only a year ago at the winery. It's actually the most I'd ever paid for an Israeli wine and I was willing to pay it because it highlighted a mixture of Old and New World styles that I thought should be a direction for Israeli reds. As it was then, a wine I would have brought to any blind tasting. A year later: very indistinct fruit; flat, simple and bitter, with not a single redeeming feature.

The Flam's demise was no surprise. Ditto for the Barkan and The Vitkin Cab Franc. The Yarden's state was somehow within the bounds of reason and I really hope the Pelter was an off-bottle. But the Elul was a failure in a class of its own. I can understand why I liked Dunie's wines once but that understanding does not relieve my frustration.


Unknown said…
Hi Chaim: A few thoughts and queries. What was the purpose of this tasting, and why an 03 Chablis as a joker? The Chablis had no relevance to the any of the other wines, and your TN of it only serves to - perhaps - highlight that your anticipation of what you would be tasting brushed a negative patina on all the wines. Interesting that your group's selection of reds were either wines likely to be past their prime, or in the case of the Vitkin CF and the Pelter Shiraz-Grenache, wines likey to be in a bit of a dumb stage, prior to opening. Why didn't you have at some reds from 2001-2003, where most top level Israeli red would be +/- in their prime?

Additionally, you chose most of the wines from garage - boutique producers, where quite naturally technology might be problematic, and certainly with wines made from younger vines.

But to come full circle: are you sure you'd have written the same TN for the Chablis if, instead of tasting it blind and guessing that it was a Castel C, you tasted it knowing full well it was a Chablis? Maybe then it would've tasted better balanced??

Not attacking, just trying to get you to examine all the thought and perceptive processes that go into a blind, but not double blind, tasting.

The Wine Spectator tastes Israeli wines in the same fashion, I'm told. The don't know the wines' specific IDs, but they know they're Israeli - and you know how they score them...
2GrandCru said…
Lewis hi,

A few points and counterpoints:

1) We weren't trying to make it a formal tasting, hence the selection was rather erratic. I myself selected the best Israeli wines I had handy, more or less, and I think the other participants approached the tasting the same way. The Flam was the last of a case bought 4 years ago by the host and he had another wine ready as backup. Some local critics gave it a drinking window of up to 2008 so at least he didn't bring an obvious dud.

2) As for the Chablis, I stand by my integrity and I think I'd have scored it even lower if I knew it was a Chablis, because it didn't smell or taste like a Chablis, more like a Meursault and a mediocre on at that (not that I scored the wines formally, but I suppose you know what I mean). When we tasted it, someone at the table said something like "the French don't make wines like this" and I said, "they did in 2003". In retrospect, an over-oaked village Chablis from 2003 is actually quite an interesting joker for such a tasting, the way the oak overpowered the fruit and sweetened it fits the local paradigm for Chardonnays.

3) I very much doubt many Israel reds live long enough to go into a dumb period but I'm only theorizing.

4) I can tell you that every Israeli wine tasting I'd attended in the last couple of years was as disappointing, no matter what the lineup was.

5) I can't speak for other people regarding a possible bias, but I'm always favorably inclined towards the wines I bring to tastings and I recognized the wines I brought as we were tasting them, struggled to find something positive about them and failed.
Anonymous said…
Hi Chaim,

I have to agree with you and say that Israel reds do not live long enough to go into a dumb period, sadly enough.
Anonymous said…
It amazing how palate evolves, isnt it?
Anonymous said…
At the time I thought that Sea Horse had enough charm and character to make up for technical problems, but some of the wines I have tasted lately have been simply disastrous.

Re Flam I still have hope. The 2000 Merlot might have been better than the Cabernet.

I had to drink up my Yarden 97's prematurely in 2001, and they were very good, but now it is probably similar to many 97 Napas, much as you describe, Chaim.

I haven't tasted any of the other wines.

The Israeli wine market is expanding but I am not sure it is improving. Are the top wines produced today better than the top wines available 5 years ago? Is average quality any better? Hmmm...

After several years watching Israeli wine at home and abroad, I now feel that we may have too much marketing for too little quality and creativity. What has been built here over the last few years is incredible, but it is the begin-all, not the end-all. We need patience, intellect and humility, as consumers, winemakers and critics.
2GrandCru said…

I hear you about Sea Horse, I more or less said the same thing. Though I think we're very good amateur tasters, I can forgive us for getting carried away a few years ago but I don't understand how some professional critics overlooked the faults inherent in his wines. Dunie is a nice guy and all, but still...
Anonymous said…
I was wondering what do you guys think about Margalit's wines?

2GrandCru said…
Re: Margalit, I haven't drunk their wines lately, almost a year in fact since the last time, but I think they're one of the best of the boutiques, and even five plus years post harvest, their wines rarely feel tired. I suspect I'd score them at around 90 points on any given day, though as you can see, it's been a couple of months since I've scored wines. Since I'm a big Francophile wine geek, you'd suspect I'd prefer Castel but you'd be wrong.

The only reason I didn't bring a Margalit to the tasting is that my last Margalit bottles are not stored at home and I didn't have time to get fetch any.

PS. I won't go back and correct my previous comment but in case it's not obvious, it was directed to T.
Anonymous said…
It would be interesting to hear others opinions about Margalit as well.

Unknown said…
Hi Chaim - I wasn't contesting your integrity, but rather questioning your psychological frame of reference for the tasting. The vast majority of Israeli reds, at all price points, are made for consumption within 5 years of the vintage. I think it's difficult to make wines which show well, ie are impressive and at the same time drinkable, when young, and yet still capable of developing with 5 years or more bottle age. I think our growing conditions can allow us those kind of wines, but vintners need to be willing to take risks on how their wines will be percieved when young (at release) in order to achieve that.

One simple example from our house: it would be very very easy for me to make our Petite Sirah - Zinfandel far more tannic and therefor ageworthy than I do, but for what market? Would many Israeli consumers want that - a PSZ to lay down for 5 years or more? I think not, so I make the wine as soft and fruity as I can, without fining agents...
2GrandCru said…

Maybe instead of "integrity" I should have said "ability to step outside the psychological frame of reference". :)

By the way, this summer I tasted the Castel "C" 2004 blind (wasn't even expecting an Israeli wine in the context of the specific tasting) and thought it was a crappy Meursault.
Unknown said…
Thanks for mentioning the 2004 Castel C. I haven't tried it yet, but one US wine rag (The Wine Enthusiast) conparing our 2004 Chard to the "C" rated ours 1 point higher. The scores were not exactly overwhelming: 85 for the Recanati and 84 for the Castel C, and the wines received very similar TNs - both were faulted for an excess of oak, the C moreso... Too bad the WE's taster hadn't been calibrated on some "other" Israeli Chard(s) first! Still waiting your report on the Recanati 05 Ch, from a blind tasting. Please do it - or at least buy a bottle for it - before it's sold out!