When you think of the great wine making countries of the world, Israel may not spring immediately to mind. “Yes, in terms of winemaking, Israel is both a very old area and a very new area, all at the same time,” explains Victor Schoenfeld, chief winemaker of Yarden Wines/Golan Heights Winery. Although winemaking in the region dates from antiquity through about the 8th century, the region’s tumultuous and often violent history has left it without any indigenous grape varietals and the hot and often unforgiving climate has proved a challenge for winemakers in determining which international varietals will flourish. “The vast knowledge of our predecessors has been lost and we have had to start over again,” says Schoenfeld, who hails from California originally, where he graduated from the wine program at UC Davis.
“Although there has been wine making in Israel since biblical times, I’ve only been there for 20 years” Schoenfeld joked on a trip to NYC, where we met up with him and tasted some of his wines. “I was enthusiastic about working in Israel because some good wine had been made, and the potential was exciting. To me personally, the Golan Heights terroir is unlike any other place on earth. It is located at the 33rd parallel, the latitude equivalent to San Diego, but because of the high altitudes of the vineyards, the climate is in some ways equivalent to regions on the 45th parallel, like Bordeaux. And the soils are one to two million years old. The combination creates a truly unique environment where the potential is incredibly exciting for me.”
And how many winemakers get to use NASA technology to make their wines? Schoenfeld explained that “We use technology to help accelerate the development of winemaking in Israel and to help us better understand our growing conditions in the vineyards” including imaging technology developed by NASA to understand the environmental conditions within vineyard parcels, and the nuances of different soils.
What we tasted:
2011 Yarden Sauvignon Blanc, Golan Heights ($14.99)
2001 was a cool and wet vintage, with lots of rain — 130% annual rainfall — and harvest lingered well into November. The grapes in this wine were grown in the El Rom and Ein Zivan vineyards on the relatively cool northern Golan Heights. A small prtion of the wine was aged in French oak to add some complexity. The result is a medium bodied, crisp wine with hints of guava, green apple and a little hint of lime.
Pairing suggestions: Grilled trout with garlic and herbs, quiche, wild mushroom pizza.
2010 Yarden Odem Chardonnay, Golan Heights ($19.99)
2010 was a warm and dry vintage, bud break and harvest all began about 2 weeks ahead of normal. The grapes are all from the Odem Vineyard, which at an elevation of about 3900 feet, is the highest and coolest vineyard in the country. This vineyard has been farmed organically since 1989. The wine is fermented and aged on the lees in French oak for seven months. The resulting wine is elegant with good acidity and minerality, with notes of pear and quince.
Pairing suggestions: Grilled salmon, roast chicken, cheddar cheeses.
2008 Yarden Pinot Noir, Golan Heights ($28.99)
This wine is made from grapes grown in cool, high altitude vineyards — Ein Zivan, Kela, and Merom Golan — which are all in the northern Golan Heights. It was aged for 16 months in French oak, about 70% of which was new oak. It is a fairly classic Pinot Noir, with elegant floral and cherry notes.
Pairing suggestions: Grilled salmon, roast beef, wine braised chicken.
2008 Yarden Cabernet Sauvignon, Golan Heights ($32.00)
The grapes for this wine were grown in the Golan Heights and Upper Galilee — the cold climate, high altitude and rocky volcanic soils of these areas are perfect for Cab. The wine was aged in French oak for 18 months, and has great structure and complexity, with notes of spice, cherry, plum and bitter chocolate.
Pairing suggestions: Steak, mushrooms, roast beef.
2008 Yarden Cabernet Sauvignon El Rom Vineyard, Golan Heights ($59.00)
The El Rom vineyard is between 3,300 and 3,600 feet above sea level and the vines were planted between 1983 and 2004. The 2008 vintage was a limited edition — only 14,700 bottles. It was aged in French oak for 18 months. The resulting wine is full-bodied, with strong structure and could age for another decade. But it drinks well now, showing blackberries, cherries, plums and tobacco with herbal notes.
Pairing suggestions: Beef, short ribs, lamb.