You might have thought that the beverage that became the first Israeli wine to win the top prize at the international Terravino wine competition would have been familiar to Israeli oenophiles. But the grand champion of Terravino 2013 turned out to be a wine I had never heard of.
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Called Mythos 2005, the wine that was judged the best out of submissions from 24 countries was made by Benhaim Winery, a small family business in Ramat Hasharon that produces 35,000 bottles of wine a year, using grapes that originate in the Upper Galilee.
The winery is managed by Itai Benhaim, the son of its founders, Eli and Ruth Benhaim. Though the winery was established in 1997, Eli and Ruth had been practicing their trade for decades, as they made homemade wines.
Ruth came to love wine while growing up in a family that made wooden barrels in Romania for many generations. With the founding of Israel, the family immigrated here and set up a factory for producing barrels for aging wine in Migdal Ha’emek, the first such venture in Israel. Eli worked there as an assistant barrel maker and, despite the charm of wooden barrels, decided to switch to where the real action was: producing the wine.
A bit of an oddball
Visiting the winery is an experience that borders on the surreal, since these winemakers are more colorful and unconventional than most wineries can boast. Itai Benhaim is a bit of an oddball on the local winemaking scene. An outsize diamond ring adorns one of his fingers, his tattooed body is as broad as that of a professional bodybuilder, and he rides a Harley-Davidson that he assembled himself. After we had tasted some of his wines, he moved over to the corner of the visitor’s center and played piano with great skill.
Itai’s father Eli, who has no problem admitting to a lack of modesty, listened with great satisfaction to the music, while holding a glass of wine in his hand. Ruth joined us afterward, surveying the sculptures she has produced since her youth. The sculptures are currently on display throughout the winery.
There has been some generational disagreement over issues like the bottle labels and the pricing. Though Eli had boasted to me of his patriarchal rule, he gave in to the younger generation’s demand that the label be changed, cutting out the family photos that used to be part of it. And when I asked how much each bottle costs, Itai told me it was 150 shekels, about $43. Eli lashed out, responding: “Are you selling these for NIS 150? That’s like giving it away!”
The declared philosophy of the winery, obviously connected to the family’s long-lasting fondness for the oak tree, espouses prolonged and intensive use of barrels. Wines in the Tradition line remain in barrels for 16-18 months before they are bottled, whereas the Grande Reserve wines age up to 30 months in barrels. I’m not sure how this approach coincides with the winery’s attempt to follow classic French styles. However, it must be said that the style of these wines, even though not my preference, is notable for its consistent professionalism. This cannot be said of every winery.
Wine competitions are controversial among wine lovers, vintners and winery owners. The prize is an opportunity for Mythos 2005 to make some headway among Israeli consumers, showing that winning a prize can have some long-term marketing and economic benefits. However, this can be a challenging prospect when the price of the winner is 295 shekels a bottle.
Benhaim Chardonnay Reserve 2010
This is made from 100 percent Chardonnay grapes after 10 months in new oak barrels. The wine has a strong fragrance of singed oak. It is full-bodied, rich and buttery, leaving little leftover expression for the fruit, which is actually very impressive. This is a strong and powerful Chardonnay for those who like the genre. Cost: 80 shekels.
Benhaim Cabernet Franc Reserve 2010
This is a mature and concentrated wine that does not have a greenish tinge, as do other wines of its kind in Israel. It has a very pleasant fabric due to the right integration of the wood and fruit flavors, which allows a good acidic flavor to emerge. Cost: 145 shekels.
Benhaim Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve 2008
This is a rounded, rich and concentrated wine, characterized by a sweetness that hits the middle of one’s palate. Despite its richness, the mouth is overloaded with a wooden flavor, giving the wine a somewhat flat and unidimensional aspect. Have I mentioned that it’s for lovers of this genre? Cost: 150 shekels.
Benhaim Mythos 2005
The winery’s flagship wine consists of petite sirah and merlot grapes. This is a balanced and soft wine with delicate sweetness and soft tannins. The wooden flavor is muted and gives space to the fruity flavors that still seem fresh. It’s a good, pleasant wine, but not more than that. It presents opportunities for respectable aging for an Israeli wine. Cost: 295 shekels.