Lost and Happy at Israel’s Biggest Wine Show

The offerings of Tel Aviv’s annual Sommelier Exhibition were vast, but we persevered and found some great wines.

After a year’s absence Israel’s biggest wine trade show returned earlier this month to its home venue in Tel Aviv’s Heichal Hatarbut – Charles Bronfman Auditorium, the former Mann Auditorium. Now in its tenth year, the two-day Sommelier Exhibition is an overwhelming sensory experience. Only someone who’s been there can comprehend the difficulty of neatly summarizing one’s impressions of the incredible number of wines available. So, in necessarily eclectic form, I offer some of my impressions about Israeli wines in the show.

This year I had the opportunity to taste the wines of Stern Winery, from Kibbutz Tuval in the Galilee, for the first time. Although by the time I got to it I’d already sampled at least a hundred other wines (with expeditious use of the wine spittoon), I was quite impressed with the repertoire of very pleasant, carefully crafted wines that made me eager to taste more of Johnny Stern’s wares. Try the 2011 Peleg wine, a blend of Shiraz, Cabernet and Merlot named for one of Stern’s children. Flavorful, accessible and most pleasing.

Alexander Winery’s products scared me from afar, from just looking at the label, whose style is, shall we say, far from minimalist. But after I heard a number of wine experts enthusing about them, I decided to try some of the latest wines from this boutique winery, which is located in Beit Yitzhak. While the red wines confirmed my fears, leaving a sense of heaviness and a massive woody presence, I was surprised to discover the 2013 Sauvignon Blanc. This wine, which spends three months in the barrel, has a tropical feel and a clean, slightly tart and very pleasing flavor. Buy some and enjoy.

Tzora Vineyards continues to cement its standing as a top Israeli winery. Its 2012 Judean Hills wine, composed of Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Merlot and Petit Verdot grapes, part of its basic series, surpasses many higher-priced Israeli wines. While lacking the depth and complexity of the higher series, here we get accessibility, balance and a stylish identity. In short, a very good wine.

Most of the big wineries mounted impressive displays at the exhibition. Recanati Winery debuted a 2012 wine made from Marselan grapes (a hybrid of Cabernet Sauvignon and Grenache Noir grapes). It has a concentrated and very fruity taste. The first note is slightly sweet, followed by a light tartness and a long finish. A New World-style wine that is best described as “happy.” That is just the word for it.

And now it’s time for me to do the unpopular thing and give some praise to Carmel Winery. Chief winemaker Lior Lacser is doing a decent job producing quality wines, especially in the winery’s higher ranges. The Shiraz from the Kayoumi Winery, in the Upper Galilee, produces excellent wines, but the winery’s best by far is the flagship Carmel Limited Edition. I recently tasted a 2007 vintage that was one of the best Israeli wines I’ve ever tasted. The 2009 offered at the exhibition was also a balanced, restrained, elegant and well-structured blend that only lacked a bit for depth and complexity. And the cost was a tad problematic too – NIS 260. It may be the flagship wine, but there’s no justification for such a high price tag.

Without question, the star of the exhibition was Cremisan Cellars, based in a monastery five kilometers from Bethlehem, on the border between Jerusalem and the West Bank. The winery, which came back into operation in recent years and recruited a new Italian winemaker, has attracted a good deal of interest thanks to its unique story and its wines that are produced from local varieties of grapes. The 2012 Dabuki is a simple and very likeable white wine. A blend of Hamdani and Jandali white grapes produces the winery’s best wine, that has a tropical freshness and a pleasant tartness. Baladi Asma, a red wine, has a weak aroma and light body, and is not particularly appealing. The wines may be purchased at the monastery. And by the way – the abundance of wineries from over the Green Line that came to the exhibition goes to show that this is no passing trend but rather a rapidly expanding industry. Has John Kerry ever sipped Gvaot Boutique Winery’s Pinot Noir?

While at the exhibition I spoke with two Chinese wine writers visiting Israel at the invitation of the Israel Export Institute: Lancat Su, who publishes a bimonthly wine magazine, and Sara Chan, who writes for a Chinese wine website. The women say the coveted Chinese market has been shifting away from hard liquors to wines, for health reasons. The main target audience is urban and middle-class, and younger Chinese are increasingly interested in wine, though they still tend to go for the cheap Chilean wines that are sold in supermarkets.

I was surprised to learn that Lancat Su wrote an article in her magazine about the Golan Winery. She said she plans to devote about a dozen pages of the next issue to her impressions from her visit to Israel. Both Su and Chan had much praise for Israeli wine and felt there was real potential to increase exports to China. According to Israel Export Institute figures, Israeli wine exports to Asia have doubled in the past five years, but still lag far behind exports from North America. Will Israeli wineries target the Chinese market? It certainly seems likely.

David Silverman
David silverman