Wine and Spirits A Micro-winery Grows Up

Starting as a micro-winery, the Domaine du Castel gradually grew into a concern that now produces approximately 100,000 bottles annually. Since the release of a mere 600 bottles of his first wine in 1992, owner-winemaker Eli Ben-Zaken - who now works with his son Ariel - has consistently made some of the best wines in the country.

The winery, with its exquisitely designed barrel room holding more than 500 barriques, is located on Moshav Ramat Raziel in the Jerusalem Mountains. The winery relies entirely on locally grown grapes - mostly in its own vineyards and some in vineyards under its full supervision.

Grape varieties include Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Petit Verdot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec and Chardonnay.

The winery produces three wines annually. The first, Grand Vin Castel, is an often superb Bordeaux-style blend; Petit Castel, not so much a "second label" as a parallel-produced wine is meant for earlier drinking; and "C" which has often been one of the most exciting Chardonnay wines produced in Israel.

The winery produced a first kosher version of its Grand Vin in 2002, and from the 2003 vintage all of Castel's wines have been kosher.

No one has questioned whether the Castel wines have consistently been among the very best in the country. What has been questioned in recent years is the age-worthiness of some of the red wines cellaring well but not for as long as was predicted or hoped for.

Recent advance and re-tastings show that with continued development in both production techniques and bottling facilities, the cellaring potential of more recently released wines may well reflect a dramatic increase in aging capacity.

Castel, Grand Vin Castel, 2006: A blend focused on Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, flushed out with Petit Verdot and Malbec. Firm, solid and intense, dark garnet in color, full-bodied and firm on first attack but then opening to show a generous array of blackberries, black cherries, currants and dark chocolate. Dense, rich and complex, with hints of near-sweetness that toy comfortably on the palate. With tannins that grip comfortably and in fine balance with wood and fruits. Long and generous, muscular and intense but with a distinct note of elegance. Drink now-2013. NIS 230. Score 92. K

Castel, Petit Castel, 2007: As always a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Petite Verdot. Oak-aged for 16 months, showing soft tannins integrating nicely with spicy cedar wood notes. On first attack red plums and a hint of garrigue, those yielding comfortably to currants, wild berries and a note of bitter citrus peel. Wood and tannins rise on the finish at this stage. Despite that, drinking very nicely indeed at this stage but best only from mid-2010 to 2013, perhaps longer. NIS 115. Score 90. K

Castel, Chardonnay "C", Blanc du Castel, 2008: Shining gold in color, opens with a seductive creamy and vanilla nose, those going on to reveal smoky oak notes. Full-bodied but seems to float on the palate and in the glass opens to reveal apricot, pear, fig and melon aromas and flavors, those supported by finely-tuned acidity and a generous mineral overlay. The longer this sits in the glass the more it shows its depth, complexity and elegance. Drink now-2014, perhaps longer. NIS 135. Score 93. K

Castel, Chardonnay "C", Blanc du Castel, 2007: Bright shining gold with green and orange tints, a deeply aromatic wine, showing full-bodied and floral, with gentle notes of oak parting to reveal a deep array of peach, apricot and melon fruits, those supported very nicely indeed by notes of hazelnuts, vanilla and flinty minerals. On the long finish an enchanting note of bitter citrus peel. Drink now-2011, perhaps longer. NIS 135. Score 91. K

The appearance of extraordinarily good local wines is always a reason to celebrate. In recent days five such wines from two of the country's very best wineries have made their way to local wine shops. These are so good that I would suggest organizing two intimate pre-dinner parties with friends, the first to sample red wines, and the second for the whites.

At each party, supply one glass for each wine, pour the wines and taste without letting people know which wine is in which glass. Only after people have tasted, unveil the wines, discuss them and let people decide on their favorites. Then finish off the wines and on to a good meal.

Yatir, Yatir Forest, 2006: Deep garnet in color, with orange and purple reflections, a Bordeaux blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot and Merlot (50 percent, 38 percent and 12 percent respectively), oak-aged for 16 months in French oak (of which 1/3 were new). Ripe, round and generous, with caressing tannins and a gentle spicy wood influence, opens to reveal layer after layer of currant, plum, blackberry, mocha, and floral notes, all of which linger on a superbly long and mouth-filling finish. A wine that boasts intensity together with grace and elegance. One of Israel's very best. Approachable and thoroughly enjoyable now but this is one for aging and will be at its best from 2011-2020, perhaps longer. NIS 230. Score 94. K

Golan Heights Winery, Yarden, Cabernet Sauvignon, 2006: Full-bodied, with soft, gently mouth-coating tannins and sweet and spicy cedar wood integrating nicely. On the nose and palate ripe black and red berries and currants on a background of Oriental spices and Mediterranean herbs, all touched vanilla and light earthy overtones. Drink now-2018. NIS 115. Score 92. K

Golan Heights Winery, Chardonnay, Odem Organic Vineyard, Yarden 2007: Full-bodied, deep golden with a distinct tint of orange that plays in the glass, a wine reflecting generous wood in fine proportion to acidity and fruits. Opens with pears, grilled nuts and pie crust notes, those going on to show ripe fig, pineapple and baked apple aromas and flavors. Long and creamy with the oak rising on the finish. Elegance on a grand scale. Meant for cellaring, approachable now, but best 2011-2016. NIS 70. Score 93. K

Golan Heights Winery, Chardonnay, Katzrin, 2006: Rich and supple, deep gold in color, full-bodied, with abundant and well integrated toasty oak and vanilla. Opens in the glass to reveal peach, yellow plum and mineral aromas and flavors, those hinting at one moment of figs at another of pears. Hints of cream and spice come in but in the end the fruits carry through beautifully to an effusive finish that will remind many of grand cru Chablis. Drink now-2014. NIS 90. Score 92. K

Golan Heights Winery, Chardonnay, Yarden, 2007: Concentrated and full-bodied, with aromas and flavors of pears, figs, apricots and green apples, all with an overlay of spicy, toasty oak. Rich and persistent, with notes of tangerines and nectarines that come in on the long finish. Drink now-2012. NIS 65. Score 91. K