From the Land of Milk and Honey-Wines to swoon over

27 Jun

The Wihe Wanderers have been in Israel, which has been knocking our socks off for several years now, with  increasing numbers of boutique wineries producing some  staggering vintages.   The soil, climate and slopes of the Galilee and the Judean Hills, the principal growing areas, turn out to be well suited to syrah, cabernet sauvignon and Bordeaux-style blends, but also to some marvellous whites.

A year ago we sat in the ancient port of Jaffa sipping a sublime glass of something really rare – 100 per cent roussanne from the Tabor winery.   It was Israel’s first attempt at making wine exclusively from a grape which the French invariably blend with marsanne, but Tabor’s expert agronomist, Michal Akerman, took a bet that roussanne would perform better in Israel than in the Rhone Valley.   “In our climate, it turned out to be a lot more aromatic,” she says.  “It’s new now, but you’re going to see more and more roussanne made here.”

Tabor acquired the talents of Akerman – and some of the world’s best wine-making equipment – with a huge cash injection from Israel’s Coca-Cola distributors, who were looking for a boutique winery with huge potential.   Founded in 1999 by a grower of fine Galilee grapes who wanted to do his own thing, Tabor was identified in 2007 as the one to go for.   That founding partner, Arie Sela, stayed with the company, although his co-investors sold out, and the original veteran winemaker Arie Nesher also remains.

No longer a boutique winery with sales of nearly two million bottles a year, Tabor has gone on to win many prizes, and their Adama merlot – by no means top of the range, price-wise – was awarded an unprecedented 93 points by the Wine Enthusiast, their highest-ever marks for an Israeli wine.   You can get it on Amazon for £15 per bottle, and won’t be disappointed.    Sadly, the roussanne is not yet shipping to the UK, but Tabor’s signature sauvignon blanc is available and a selection of decent reds, of which the flagship is the Limited Edition cabernet sauvignon.  This gold medal winner is strictly special occasion wine at £30-plus, but it is staggeringly fabulous.

Tabor are no longer restricted to the Galilee; like other winemakers they have realised the potential of the Judean Hills, where ambitious winemakers were once warned they would never be able to properly work the small plots.   There is finally a great place to stay here and the Cramim resort in the shadow of Jerusalem is almost a wine university, offering thrice-daily tutored tastings of wines from the region, with bottles available at minimal mark-up to bring to dinner.   They have great house blends made up for them by Ella Valley vineyards, but the region’s two greatest wineries remain Flam, whose family winemaker trained in Tuscany, and Castel, whose owner is a self-taught chicken farmer.   We prefer Flam’s reds, but Le Blanc de Castel, with all the sumptuous notes of a fine French white Burgundy, is one of Israel’s greatest wines, and Castel has been much-lauded by Robert Parker.

Very little Israeli wine makes it to the British high street, given small production and high prices, but one lovely drop which does is Recanati’s blend of carignan and petite sirah for M&S, also grown in the Judean Hills.  It’s a lovely, elegant drop at £9.99 and has more personality than the Barkan cabernet sauvignon you’ll find at Waitrose for the same price.  But don’t get us wrong – that is rich and full-bodied, typical of the rich reds grown in the Galilee, although it would be good to see supermarket buyers exploring ambitious blends like the Recanati and less obvious grapes.  Roll on mass production of Tabor’s roussanne – we look forward to ordering it one day on Amazon!

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