Israel’s Most Beautiful Vineyard

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Amphorae Winery on Moshav Kerem Maharal, at the foot of the Carmel ridge.Credit: Roni Sofer

Restraint is not the chief characteristic of the strong wines from Amphorae Winery. Will world-renowned French wine consultant Michel Rolland, whom chief winemaker Arkadi Papikian has brought on board, give the winery some Bordeaux-style elegance?

Just a few minutes into the visit, before I tasted a single drop of wine, I realized that Amphorae deserved the coveted title of Israel’s most beautiful vineyard. This does not seem to be saying much in a country where most vineyards are located near industrial zones, but in this category Amphorae can compete with rural vineyards around the world. At the heart of Makura Farm on Moshav Kerem Maharal in the north, decorated with a stone mosaic and shaded by a red tile roof, is the lovely winery building, with the forested slopes of the Carmel mountain ridge in the background, completing a picture just as charming as any in Tuscany.

Amphorae Winery, which produces about 65,000 bottles of wine a year under Papikian’s direction, was established in 2000 by Gil Shatsberg (now the vintner at Recanati) and Guy Rylov. It has gone through several incarnations since then: wandering into the hands of owner Vladimir Dubov, making wine in the Keshet winery, changing its name (to Maharal Winery) and rebranding itself as Amphorae. Although it has gone through quite a few upheavals for such a young winery, in recent years it has developed a stable persona and style and nurtured a good relationship with its employees — all important factors for a winery’s success.

Papikian is a well-known and influential figure in Israel’s wine community. In addition to his position at Amphorae, he also serves as a wine consultant for quite a few other wineries in the country, including Tulip, Kadma and Somek. He was one of Israel’s few wine consultants for a long time, giving rise to criticism of the typical Papikian-esque identity that became prominent in quite a few Israeli wines in recent years. These were heavy and powerful “blockbuster” wines, which featured woody notes and a high alcohol content.

Despite Papikian’s much-admired professionalism, the crowning glory of Amphorae Winery’s present incarnation is his work with Michel Rolland, who is based in France’s Bordeaux region and known as a “flying winemaker” for his consulting work in several countries.

No one as wise as those with experience

Rolland, considered the busiest, best-known and most successful and influential wine consultant in the world, began working for Amphorae at the blending stage of the 2008 harvest, and the results of his work are available for purchase in wine shops. Since then, Rolland has been visiting Israel twice a year, during the grape harvest and when the blends are created — an indication of Amphorae’s large financial investment, since Rolland does not exactly work for free.

“This cooperation provided the winery with different vantage points, which were essential in terms of the philosophy and approach to wine,” Papikian says of Rolland’s influence. “Rolland plans, and then gets to examine the results of his planning all over the world. His experience shines out. There is no one as wise as the one with experience.”

A taste of Amphorae’s 2008 vintage leaves no room for doubt: the living spirit behind the wines is still Papikian. These wines are well made for their kind, but the same heavy collections that typified the winery’s 2007 vintage remains in place, resulting in a series of crowd-pleasing wines that could cause horror in the taste buds of Amphorae fans. So it will be interesting to see the influence of Rolland, who is not known for his restraint either, in the wines from the next vintage, in which he was a full partner from the first moment.

For now, as far as I know the Makura collection is still spending about 36 months in the barrel, while the wines of the Rhyton collection spend about two years there. Has Rolland changed something about the perception of the date of harvest? Will the style move a bit toward elegance and Bordeaux style? We will have to wait and see. The winery’s loyal fans, the ones who like to get “a lot of wine” with every sip, will certainly be less bothered by that. As for which Amphorae wine to choose, take your pick:

Sauvignon Blanc 2013, 
Rhyton Collection

The 2013 Sauvignon Blanc, made from grapes that come from the Sha’al and Dalton vineyards, is characterized by tropical fruit notes, along with a pleasant acidity and light oiliness. Not impressive but still tasty. 95 shekels ($26).

Blanc de Noir 2013

A blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Barbera, this is a soft blush wine, round- and full-bodied with a flattering sweetness that tends toward off-dry. Thoroughly chilled, it makes a lovely summer drink for those who are not afraid of six grams of sugar. 65 shekels.

Med Red 2011

A red wine from Amphorae’s basic line, comprised mostly of Cabernet Sauvignon grapes, this presents a direct, alcohol-rich bouquet. The taste is light compared with the rest of Amphorae’s wines, and the fruit notes are present and good. A reasonable value for the price. 70 shekels.

Rhyton 2010

The expressive bouquet loaded with dry-fruit notes provides a foretaste of the flavors to come: very high ripeness, sweetness, an abundance of fruit and a warm and sharp finish – evidence of the wine’s 15.7 percent alcohol content. For fans of the genre. 95 shekels.

Cabernet Franc 2010

Amphorae’s first Cabernet Franc is expressive but ripe, spiced with green nuances at the edges. The mouth feel is buttery, soft and full, but with a refreshingly light acidity to balance its elegant finish. A powerful wine, suitable for a rich barbecue. 175 shekels.

Makura Merlot-Barbera 2008

To my taste, this is the best wine in Amphorae’s high-end series. The bouquet is rich with concentrated red-black fruit, while the taste is soft, velvety and balanced. The Barbera grapes inject the blend with a dimension of refreshing acidity. 230 shekels.

Makura Cabernet Sauvignon 2008

A large, bombastic Cabernet Sauvignon in which the fruit notes peek through a serious and slightly burdensome mass of wood. This is another wine that fans of the genre will enjoy. Those who prefer a more restrained style would do well to pass this one by. 230 shekels.

Amphorae Winery on Moshav Kerem Maharal, at the foot of the Carmel ridge.Credit: Roni Sofer
A bottle of Amphorae Makura Merlot-Barbera 2008.Credit: Courtesy
A bottle of Amphorae Rhyton 2010.Credit: Courtesy

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