A Taste of Israel’s New Mediterranean Wines

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The Recanati Winery in the Hefer Valley.

About a month ago, when I noted the date of the visit I was planning to the Recanati winery in my diary, it never occurred to me how well-timed my visit would be — not just for me, but also for the Recanati winery, which is located in the heart of Emek Hefer’s gray industrial zone, at least until it completes its long-awaited move to the north.

The local wine world is not fertile ground for journalistic scoops on most days, and this is even more true when it comes to really good news. So Recanati’s first delivery to the British wine merchant Berry Brothers and Rudd, which had left the dock just one day before I arrived, easily joins the exclusive club of sensational news items (as much as a report about wine can be sensational).

For readers who are not wine devotees for whom the London branch of Berry’s is a pilgrimage destination, Berry Brothers and Rudd is a prestigious British institution. Established in 1698, it is the largest and most important wine dealer in the United Kingdom, one of the world’s major, and most active, wine markets.

Two Recanati wines, Wild Carignan and the petite sirah, are about to become the only Israeli wines to appear in Berry’s portfolio. Besides being a breakthrough that we hope will open a window for other local wineries, the specific choice of these wines is objective confirmation of the success of Recanati’s decision to focus on Mediterranean grape varieties.

Much has been written in recent years about the direction taken by vintners Gil Shatsberg and Ido Lewinsohn (with help from Kobi Arbiv, who is in charge of all the scut-work) at the end of the term of the previous vintner, Lewis Pasco. “Mediterranean revolution,” “wine that matches food,” “high acidity” and “early vintage” are just a few of the slogans that were thrown into the air so frequently that they found themselves becoming cliched.

Making a statement

As is common in the wine industry, it is actually the production that can make the strongest statement. In Recanati’s case, at least the way I see it, that statement is made by the vineyard’s highest-ranking white wines, the Special Reserve White line. The flagship wine, which in the past contained chardonnay, sauvignon blanc and viognier in various proportions, became over the past two years a blend of Mediterranean varieties with inspiration from the marsanne and roussanne blends of France's Rhone Valley, with the former providing the body and structure for an aromatic touch of the latter. And so, at the expense of another good chardonnay, we get a good wine that shows uniqueness in variety and style. A statement.

The Recanati winery produces a million bottles per year in four series with a clear hierarchy. The role of the two lower series is to provide accessible wine for daily use that gives good value for the money. The 2013 Yasmin White, of the basic series, is a classic example. It is a fruity, refreshing, lightweight and flavorful blend of chardonnay and sauvignon blanc at a tempting price (37 shekels).

The wines of the Upper Galilee mid-range series are notable in their lack of pretentiousness. Among the white wines of that series, it is worthwhile to try the 2013 sauvignon blanc, with its delightful tropical flavor and long finish (NIS 60). The choicest of the red wines in the series is the 2013 Shiraz: spicy, young, powerful and delectable. Above all, it is fantastic for the price (60 shekels).

While I find the merlot and cabernet from the same series less attractive than the Shiraz, they still keep to the winery’s character: a balance between good taste, acidity and moderation that allows one to finish the bottle. The merlot, which is a bit green in bouquet, is a pleasant wine, well-ripened and with pleasant fruit flavors (60 shekels). The uncomplicated cabernet has a good body and a great deal of red-black fruit in its modern, proper preparation that does it a lot of good (60 shekels).

The rose, which has become popular over the past few years, is disappointing. The blend of barbera and merlot gave it a bouquet that was floral but not particularly attractive, while the taste was medicinally sweet and lacking sharpness. The good level of acidity that is typical of Recanati’s wines is missing, making the wine a less preferable choice for me.

As of now, the Reserve series, which includes carignan, syrah-viognier, petite sirah and marselan in addition to Bordeaux, seems like the best gamble the vintners made. Over the years, Lewinsohn and Shatsberg studied the types of vineyards, did quite a few experiments and made changes (thank goodness they left out the zinfandel!) to find a formula that would combine their agenda as vintners with the tastes of Israeli purchasers, who do not go all that much for high-acidity wines.

The current interest overseas in Recanati’s carignan and petite sirah wines shows that Recanati has gone in the right direction and is generating interest. It is also flattering when a foreign company with no interest in kosher, but only high-quality wine, expresses interest.

1. 2011 Recanati Reserve Merlot Manara

A ripe merlot, rich in fruit with good acidity with a powerful flavor, yet manages to remain moderate in the same breath. One of the best merlots in Israel. 110 shekels.

2. 2012 Recanati Reserve Petite Sirah

100 percent petite sirah grapes. A strongly-colored, powerful wine with a well-blended presence of wood, respectable amount of black fruit, dense and concentrated, and a smooth and pleasant drinking texture. A lovely and relatively restrained expression of the variety. 110 shekels.

3. 2012 Recanati Reserve Syrah-Viognier

A blend still hidden from Israeli wine-lovers. A soft, velvety, pleasant and highly drinkable wine. Yet even though everything seems to be in its proper place, it refuses to soar and excite. 149 shekels.

4. 2013 Recanati Reserve Marselan (barrel tasting)

I believe that the marselan, a hybrid of the grenache and cabernet sauvignon varieties, is going to be Recanati’s star next year. The wine has a charming grenache-style floral bouquet of violets, exact ripeness and sexy spiciness. An accessible and delectable wine that is simply fun to roll on the tongue and let slide down the throat. It is on advance sale for 570 shekels for six bottles.

5. 2013 Recanati Reserve Wild Carignan (barrel tasting)

100 percent carignan grapes from a naturally-watered (non-irrigated) vineyard with a typically small yield. At present, the wine shows a bright purple alongside the toughness of tannins and a recognizable presence of wood. The fruit is dark, deep and interesting with good flavors, but at this stage the wine is young and unformed, and does not give all it has. An experiment with previous harvests shows that in another year or two, its structure, strength and acidity will combine to create a wonderful wine. Like the marselan, it is on advance sale for 570 shekels for six bottles.

6. 2012 Recanati Special Reserve White

A successful first-time blend of the roussanne and marsanne varieties. A broad, creamy wine with impressive volume. Although there is a bit too much new wood in the flavor, it has a strong fruity flavor and good, precise acidity. Even more impressive is the barrel taste of the 2013 vintage, which expresses the varieties in a lower, more moderate amplitude. Less wood, a cleaner fruit flavor and a great deal more elegance. 149 shekels.

7. 2011 Recanati Special Reserve Red

As things appear, 2011 is an excellent year for red wine in Israel. This wine combines Bordeaux and Mediterranean varieties. A great deal of fruit with pleasant, unimposing ripeness that excites curiosity and is attractive, with complexity and moderation despite the heavy layer of fruit. 195 shekels.

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