By Steve Kerbel
Despite all the upheaval and social distancing, Passover will soon be here and we will need wine to celebrate.
The availability of great Israeli wine offers an outstanding opportunity to provide economic support to Israeli businesses while buying something you need anyway. I regularly visit wineries throughout Israel, spending time in the vineyards and wineries and I’m happy to share some of what we’ll be drinking at our seders this year.
The revival of rosé as a popular choice has not been ignored by Israeli producers, and if you enjoy flavorful options I have a few to recommend. At the top of the list (and their wines rise to the tops of most lists) is Matar by Pelter. You won’t go wrong with any wines by Tal Pelter, but Matar is his kosher label and his rosé 2018, made from 85 percent grenache and 15 percent counoise grapes is among the best available.
Another unusual offering, if you can find it, is the Galil Mountain Rose, usually containing at least 85 percent sangiovese grapes. This delicious deep pink rosé is moderately priced, but quickly sells out when supplies reach the United States. The boutique Agur Winery makes a pastel pink, light Rosa, which also sells out quickly.
A lesser known winery from central Israel, Asaf Paz’s Vitkin winery in Kfar Vitkin, on the coastal plain, also makes a lovely, moderately priced rosé from a combination of 90 percent grenache noir and 10 percent carignan. I recently found this in a Washington-area wine department and have really been enjoying it.
White wine production in Israel continues to mature and develop. Some of my favorites are from the Galilee region: The Dalton chardonnay (unoaked) from the upper Galilee is light and citrusy chardonnay and a seder favorite with fish or poultry year in and year out.
If your budget allows a few extra shekels, and if it can be found, Jeff Morgan’s Covenant Blue C, a viognier made in the lower Galilee, is an outstanding wine and consistently wins praise on the competition circuit. It runs in the higher price range for Israeli whites at $25-$32.
A new wine from an established wine family, the Ben Zaken family, owners of Castel, one of Israel’s most acclaimed wineries, has released a lower priced line (but to my palate, not lower quality), their 2018 La Vie Label. The 2018 Blanc du Castel is a very enjoyable light white, a more typical Israeli white blend of sauvignon blanc (50 percent), chardonnay (45 percent) and gewurtztraminer (5 percent).
I need to walk back a sweeping statement I’ve made at my tastings over the years, when I said, “if you like pinot noir, buy if from France or the Pacific Northwest. Israel isn’t producing any great pinots.”
That’s not true anymore. I tasted two outstanding pinot noir offerings from Israel this summer, which I’m happy to recommend, to pair with either roasted poultry or beef. (They may not stand up to lamb.)
The first is from the aforementioned Vitkin Winery. Their 2016 pinot noir was sourced from grapes grown on the slopes of the Ela Valley (south of Beit Shemesh, where David slew Goliath) and it is a great pinot.
The best I’ve had so far comes from the village of Rechellim in the Shomron region, the family-owned Tura Winery. I visited with Vered, the business manager and wife of the wine maker, Erez Ben Sa’adon, in August and tasted several of their wines. While they have great chardonnay, cabernet and shiraz offerings, their Mountain Vista Pinot Noir stands out as a great example of a very special Israeli wine.
Also in the higher range ($26-$38), the Merlot and Estate Syrah from Tulip, in Kfar Tikvah, are crowd pleasers. The Kishor GSM, a bit harder to find, is a delicious wine made by a winery employing adults with developmental challenges.
For a more modest budget I recommend the Psagot Sinai blend, reformulated in 2018 from their earlier combination of cabernet sauvignon and shiraz to now include merlot (about a third each). This is one of my go-to wines for brisket, the other being any of the red blends from Galil Mountain (in ascending order, Ela, Alon, Meron and Yiron) ranging in prices from $16-$35.
Whatever your taste preferences or budget, there are great Israeli wine choices for the novice or experienced wine drinker. You just need to experiment to find what you enjoy.
Steve Kerbel is a Jewish education consultant in the Washington area and a lifelong Israeli wine hobbyist, having visited more than 130 of Israel’s wineries since 1985.