Israeli winemakers mix it up


It is often said the best way to make a small fortune in the wine business is to begin with a large one. Indeed, winemaking is an inherently risky business. The weather, obviously, is unpredictable. Wine is subject to complex market forces, stiff global competition and the vagaries of consumer tastes. The prudent approach, it would seem, would be to stick to well-established winemaking formulas and techniques.

Well, not according to Shivi Drori and Amnon Weiss, the owners of Gvaot Winery located in Israel’s Shomron region. They blend together grape varietals with apparently little thought as to what is considered “usual.” Drori and Weiss have released to market such atypical wine blends as chardonnay and gewurztraminer, and cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay. The results of these experiments are surprisingly good, reflecting both the superior nature of their vineyards and their skill in anticipating the ultimate results of these combinations.

Their very first release in 2009 was 100 percent pinot noir, but the next year’s iteration included 10 percent merlot. For their most recent release, they went with 95 percent pinot noir and 5 percent petit verdot, a late ripening varietal more commonly blended with cabernet sauvignon. The Gvaot Gofna Pinot Noir 2011 has more earth, floral and coffee aromas than the previous vintage, along with strawberry and red berry scents.

Gvaot currently produces 30,000 bottles annually of blends and single varietal wines in three levels, beginning with their flagship Masada label followed by Gofna and Herodian.

Winemaker Shivi was trained as a plant molecular biologist, not as a classic winemaker, which may explain his fearlessness when combining varietals.

Spirits-wise, one of us recently returned from a short but very full whisky-tourism trip to the island of Islay, Scotland — home to more distilleries than schools.

First up is a general discussion of Islay itself. The island is something of a mecca for whisky aficionados. Islay (pronounced Eye-luh, Gaelic for island) is the southernmost island of the Inner Hebrides archipelago off the west coast of Scotland.

The most popular characteristic feature of Islay malt whiskies is the pronounced presence of peat smoke. Peat is a Celtic term for compact decayed vegetation, decomposed over thousands of years by water and partially carbonized by chemical change. It is the traditional fuel for the kilns in which malted barley will later be fermented and distilled into whisky. Think of peat as an earthy, smelly, poor-man’s coal.

The smoke generated by peat is robustly aromatic and tarry, transferring and imbuing these compounds (phenols) to the whisky itself. Taste a smoky, peaty Islay malt whisky and it’ll all make sense. Consider, for example:

The Laphroaig 10-year-old Single Malt Scotch Whisky (43 percent abv; $50). Although everything else in the Laphroaig lineup is released at higher proof and is not chill-filtered, and undoubtedly the 10 years is much improved at higher proof and nonchill-filtered, this flagship expression is nonetheless utterly fantastic. It enraptures with its heady yet nuanced mix of iodine, smoke, sea brine, and sweet malt; with its oaky backdrop and whispers of vanilla; and with its rounded, oily, subtle and ever so slightly drying finish. Yet it is a dram with enough of a medicinal, fish oil, seaweedy presence to keep one grounded and alert, like a good-natured thump from an older brother or an old school chum. Not for all tastes, obviously, but this is serious, brilliant whisky. L’chaim!

This column is taken from a 2013 L’chaim piece co-written with Lou Marmon.

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