The wines produced in Israeli wineries may not yet be the equivalent of those of Burgundy or Tuscany, but let it be known, firstly, that our wines are well on the way there, and, secondly, there are few pleasures greater than visiting the wineries of the Golan, the Galilee and the Judean hills. In these areas, the scenery is both as pastoral and as dramatic as that of any of the great wine-producing regions of Europe.
One excursion to do tastings of newly released wines brought me to the Odem Mountain Winery, the northernmost winery in the country. Located on Moshav Odem in the northern Golan Heights, it was founded by the Alfasi family in 2003 and relies primarily on grapes grown in its own vineyards, one of them organic. The winery also uses grapes from vineyards under contract with it in the Upper Galilee and the Judean Hills. Currently based on Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Shiraz and Cabernet Franc wines, production for the 2008 vintage was about 75,000 bottles, and for the 2009 vintage about 85,000. The top-of-the-line series is Alfasi Reserve, the mid-range series are Odem Mountain and Volcanic. The wines have been kosher since the 2007 vintage.
Odem Mountain, Alfasi, 2006: Dark, almost inky garnet in color, full-bodied, with still firm tannins just starting to settle in, but already showing fine balance and structure. The usual Alfasi blend is 60% Cabernet Sauvignon and 40% Merlot, oak aged for 24 months (one year in new oak, one year in 2nd-year barriques ). Opens in the glass to show deeply aromatic with fine blackcurrant and wild berry fruits, backed up by notes of freshly cut herbs and bittersweet chocolate. Long and generous. NIS 220. Drink now-2014, perhaps longer. Score 91.
Odem Mountain, Shiraz, Volcanic, 2008: Showing every bit as well as at barrel tastings. Dark garnet toward royal purple, a concentrated and full-bodied wine with its once-firm tannins now integrating nicely with notes of vanilla and cinnamon from the barriques in which it aged. On the nose and palate are plums, wild berries, cassis and, on the long finish with tannins rising, there are appealing notes of anise and leather. Deep, long and complex. Best 2011-2015. NIS 90. Score 91. K
Odem Mountain, Merlot, Reserve, 2007: Aged in new oak, mostly French for one year and then wisely transferred to used oak (2 years old ) for an additional six months, showing a well-tempered hand with the wood. Medium- to full-bodied, soft and round, with just a hint of earthy minerals to support blackberry, black cherry and currant notes. On the finish, appealing hints of black olives and bitter herbs. Approachable and enjoyable now, but best from 2011 to 2015, perhaps longer. NIS 125. Score 90. K
Odem Mountain, Merlot, Volcanic, 2008: Deep royal purple in color, medium- to full-bodied, with gentle notes of spicy wood. Half the wine is aged in new barriques and half of it in two-year-old barriques, for 12 months. On the nose and palate a generous array of blackberries, raspberries, cassis and licorice. On the generous finish an appealing hint of bitter almonds. Drink now-2012. NIS 80. Score 89. K
Odem Mountain, Cabernet Sauvignon, Volcanic, 2008: Deep ruby toward garnet, with gently gripping tannins and a "just-right" note of sweet cedar, opens in the glass to reveal a well-tuned melange of black and red fruits, those with an appealing overlay of red licorice. Generous and mouth-filling. Approachable and enjoyable now, but best 2011-2013. NIS 80. Score 89. K
Odem Mountain, Cabernet Sauvignon, Reserve, 2007: Full-bodied, with soft tannins integrating nicely and reflecting its 15 months in oak with notes of smoky vanilla. A fruit-rich nose and on the palate traditional blackcurrant and blackberry fruits, the latter complemented by notes of roasted herbs and tobacco along with a hint of black licorice. Drink now-2012. NIS 125. Score 88. K
The Jerusalem hills
Driving either from Tel Aviv or Jerusalem to the Tzuba winery is a treat beyond compare, the scenery of the Judean Hills and their foothills green and lush, with wadis, stone-faced mountains and panoramic views that compare easily with those of some Greek islands or the Dordogne mountains of France.
Tzuba's winemaker, South African-born and trained Paul Dubb, releases wines in three series: the top-of-the-line Hametzuda, produced only in selected years; Tel Tzuba, including varietal and blended wines; and the popularly priced Hama'ayan. The winery's grapes all come from the kibbutz's own vineyards, which feature Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Petit Verdot, Shiraz, Malbec and Pinot Noir grapes, as well as white grapes like Viognier, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. Current production is about 40,000 bottles annually and plans are to increase to about 50,000 from the 2010 vintage. Following my recent visit, the 2008 wines tasted are now making their way to market.
Tzuba, Hametzuda, 2007: Dark garnet, with a nose redolent of black fruits and licorice, a full-bodied blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot, 80%, 15% and 5% respectively. Showing intense and concentrated, with firm tannins and generous wood now settling in comfortably. On first attack, plums and notes of mocha, followed by a generous array of blackberry, cassis and orange peel; on the long finish are notes of bitter herbs and cherries. Long, generous and mouth-filling. Enjoyable now, but best 2011-2015, perhaps longer. NIS 100. Score 92. K
Tzuba, Merlot, Tel Tzuba, 2008: Garnet toward royal purple with orange reflections, full-bodied with soft, gently mouth-coating tannins and showing fine concentration and balance. On first attack, red currants and raspberries, yielding to blackberries and an appealing hint of bitter herbs. Drink now-2014. NIS 70. Score 90. K
Tzuba, Shiraz, Tel Tzuba, 2008: Oak aged for 14 months, inescapably Shiraz, showing appealing notes of plums and red berries, complemented nicely by notes of smoky and spicy oak. Medium- to full-bodied with tannins that grip gently, all leading to a generous and mouth-filling finish. Best from 2011 to 2014. NIS 90. Score 89. K
Tzuba, Cabernet Sauvignon, Tel Tzuba, 2008: Oak aged for 14 months, showing garnet toward brick red. Generously aromatic with notes of berries and sawdust on the nose, showing medium- to full-bodied and still-firm tannins, which need just a bit of time to settle in. On the nose and palate are generous black fruits and notes of bittersweet chocolate carrying on to a generous finish. Drink now-2013. NIS 70. Score 89. K
Tzuba, Pinot Noir, Tel Tzuba, 2008: Deep garnet, with a wood-rich nose, medium- to full-bodied, with generous tannins and resembling Cabernet Sauvignon more than Pinot Noir. On the nose and palate, raspberries, ripe red plums and cassis. Drink now-2013. NIS 70. Score 87. K