(By Gabriel Geller)
Every few years, the Golan Heights Winery (GHW) throws out a high-end culinary event, often referred to as “Israel’s Culinary Olympics” by many of the local food writers. As the event took place within the winery’s compound in the town of Katzrin, which is the “capital” of the Golan Heights, the winery took that opportunity to showcase its formidable lineup of wines as well as its state-of-the-art facilities to the public, comprised of both private food & wine lovers and guests from Israel and abroad.
There were 2 sides to the event. First, the winery. The attendees could subscribe to classes, activities and lectures about a various number of subjects such as a tour in the vineyards, barrel and vertical tastings as well as a class on sparkling wine which is one of GHW’s strongest links, and more.
The barrels rooms were set up to host hundreds of guests for the tastings that followed the different classes, all leaded by the winery’s winemaking team. The main theme of Yarden Vintage 2015 was “Creating our future”, with a detailed focus on how wine is made at the Golan Heights Winery and how their methods and techniques are evolving.
The winery usually takes advantage of this event to launch one of their major wines. This time, it was the latest release of the Yarden Katzrin, the winery’s flagship wine. The Katzrin has a cult-following for being considered by many as Israel’s most achieved premium wine. The wine is released only in years deemed as worthy by the chief winemaker Victor Schoenfeld and his team, and it is made primarily from Cabernet Sauvignon, complemented by a bit of Merlot and sometimes Cabernet Franc as well from selected vineyards. The 2011 is the 9th release of the Yarden Katzrin, following the 2008, 2007, 2004, 2003, 2000, 1996, 1993 and the inaugural 1990 vintages.
As well, I participated in a very interesting class which was named “The clones war”. No, it’s not the latest episode of the Star Wars saga. The presentation, performed by Dorit Segev, a talented member of GHW’s winemaking team, was about the project the winery has now been working on for several years: to grow and develop the better clones that will be more resistant to viruses and better suited for the particularities of the terroir in the Golan Heights. It was eye-opening not only to taste and acknowledge the differences between the different clones, but also to witness the outstanding quality and potential of the wines currently aging in the barrels at GHW.
Tasting wine always makes me hungry so after the lecture, I headed towards the many boots where dozens of sous-chefs, coming from some of the country’s finest restaurants, were cooking some of their best specialties for all attendees to try and enjoy. The goal was to encourage the crowd to taste and experience pairing many kinds of quality meats, fish, salads and desserts with the many wines of both the Golan Heights and Galil Mountain wineries.
To start with, the crisp Gamla Hashmura Brut NV was simply perfect with a plate full of freshly picked cherries. There was a delightful “meorav Yeroushalmi” made with a various selection of smoked meats and poultry which I paired with a glass of well-aged Yarden Katzrin 2000. As well, I had a mouth-watering dish of slow-cooked lamb which I enjoyed with some full-bodied, fleshy Yarden Merlot 2008. Of course, I couldn’t miss the Yarden Katzrin Chardonnay 2013, a natural and delicious accompaniment to some fine chicken roasted to perfection. As well, the fresh, slightly off-dry Yarden Gewürztraminer 2014 didn’t disappoint with a duck salad sandwich.
GHW, Gamla Hashmura, Brut NV: This is the latest release of this wine, made primarily from grapes harvested in 2011. Made in the champenoise traditional method with a second fermentation in the bottles, this is a blend of 50-50% Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. As was my first impression at the Sommelier expo 2 months ago, this is likely the best Gamla Brut in a decade at least, since the label changed from Yarden Brut to Gamla Brut. Shiny, light gold in color, with lively medium-sized bubbles. On the nose, notes of green apple peels, lemon curd as well as a hint of toasty bread. Medium-bodied with on the palate very nice, balanced bubbles, juicy green apples, lime zest, pears, white bread, bracing acidity and hints of ginger and roasted nuts on the refreshingly long and satisfying finish. FANTASTIC QPR! 11.5% Abv.
Soon by Ari's Kosherwine! GHW, Yarden, Katzrin 2000: Wow. Now this is an impressive, mature wine that is alive and kicking at 15 years old. Not such a big surprise considering that most Yarden Katzrins have proved their long cellaring ability, up to 20-25 years for some of them. Deep bordeaux red towards brick at the rim, throwing sediments, with on the nose earth and warm spices as well as ripe cassis and raspberries with notes of toasted oak. Full-bodied, with on the palate juicy black and slightly jammy raspberries followed by plums, oriental spices, earthy minerals, loamy dirt and cigar with medium acidity and soft tannins that rise with baker’s chocolate on the long and plush finish. Stunning wine! 14.5% Abv. GHW, Yarden, Katzrin, Chardonnay 2013: Light gold in color, with on the nose fresh ripe apples and pears, lemon pie, white pepper, smoke and toasted bread. Medium, perhaps medium to full-bodied with on the palate ripe golden apples, pears, juicy Meyer lemons, peaches, roasted walnuts, spicy vanilla and white pepper with notes of toasty oak, medium-plus acidity and nice minerals with notes of lemon curd on a long, suave and somewhat creamy finish. Probably the best release of this wine in many years, beautiful but needs some time for the oak to settle down and integrate. 13% Abv.
GHW, Yarden, Merlot 2008: This is one of the best Merlot I've had from GHW. Aged 14 months in French oak barrels. Dark, almost inky garnet with royal purple at the rim, on the nose intense scents of ripe black and raspberries as well as cherries, wet forest floor, smoke and dark chocolate. Full-bodied and deeply extracted with on the palate ripe blackberries and cherries wrapped in smoke followed by slightly jammy raspberries, loamy dirt and minerals, toasted oak, roasted herbs, pipe tobacco, impressive bracing but balanced acidity and slightly chewy mouth coating-tannins with flavors of chocolate-covered candied orange peels on the very long and luscious finish. Great wine! 15% Abv.
GHW, Yarden Gewürztraminer 2014: What a nice Gewurz! Light gold in color, the nose features scents of rose water, spring flowers, ripe apricots, a hint of litchi and pears. Light to medium-bodied and slightly off-dry, much dryer than most Israeli Gewürztraminer, with on the palate peaches, apricots, orange blossom water, litchi and a hint of spice with high, well-balancing acidity and notes of pink grapefruit on the moderately long finish. Very nice, one of the best Israeli Gewurz currently available on the market. 14% Abv.
Once having satisfied my appetite, but not necessarily my thirst yet, it was time for THE event of the day: the release of the Yarden Katzrin 2011. The tasting took place in the winery’s brand-new barrel room and was leaded by Victor Schoenfeld, the winery’s head winemaker for now close to 25 years. Victor talked about the difficulties the winery has gone through over the past decade and how it has managed to deal and get over those issues. As well, he informed us of the many changes that will happen with the better vineyards that have been planted over the past 15 years, as well as about the improved overall quality of the wines from 2012 and on thanks to the fact that they got rid of the viruses which attacked some of the vineyards and to the introduction of some of the most cutting-edge equipment such as the optical grape sorting machine which the winery recently acquired.
The new vintage of the Yarden Katzrin is 2011, a very special year as it was the coldest ever recorded in Israel, following 2010 which was the warmest ever recorded. As a consequence of the cool temperatures, the grapes ripened slowly and unevenly which leaded to a very long harvest season, which ended only in November. Despite the unusual conditions, the grapes attained a quality which the winery deemed as high enough to produce the iconic, flagship wine which has seen some sort of a cult-following since the first 1990 release. Interestingly and especially by comparison to its 2008 predecessor, the 2011 Katzrin already is surprisingly approachable.
GHW, Yarden, Katzrin 2011: The winery's flagship wine, made only in vintages deemed worthy. A blend of 92% Cabernet Sauvignon and 8% Merlot, each variety aged separately for 18 months in French oak barrels and then for another 6 months once blended. Deep, dark garnet towards purple with on the nose concentrated ripe black fruit, licorice, oriental spices, roasted herbs as well as a touch of toasty oak. Full-bodied with fine extraction and a smooth mouth-feel with on the palate loads of very ripe black fruit such as cassis, blackberries and cherries, followed by notes of sweet tobacco, licorice, Mediterranean herbs, black tea, medium acidity and ripe, searing tannins as well as hints of nutmeg, vanilla and mocha lingering on the long and silky finish. I expected more complexity and a firmer structure but instead this is already quite approachable for a Katzrin and it is a very good wine nonetheless. 15.5% Abv.
Overall, it was impressive event at which I was able to learn a lot about the Golan Heights Winery and it helped me to better understand its winemaking philosophy and marketing strategy. My warm thanks to Yael Gai, GHW-GMW’s international sales manager for the invitation.