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A Wine Lover's Diary, part 165 (December 3, 2007)

Friday, November 23: A 5:15 pm Air Canada flight to Frankfurt. Am seated next to a Sri Lankan who works for the American Red Cross. He's on his way to Colombo on a two-year Tsunami Recovery program. Grab an hour's sleep.

Saturday, November 24: There is a three-hour lay-over in Frankfurt so five of our group – Sheila Swerling-Puritt, Irvin Wolkoff, Alex Eberspaecher, John Szabo and I – sit down at the Goethe Bar and have a beer and a bratwurst sausage. The flight to Tel Aviv is by Lufthansa. Order a Riesling with my chicken lunch. It's pretty awful but marginally better than the split of red wine I had on the Air Canada flight with my beef stew. The flight to Tel Aviv is about three and a half hours. We arrive at 3:30 pm local time.

It is good to smell the air of Israel. I have not been here since 1970. A government agent is there to whisk us through immigration and customs and soon we are in a bus that takes us to the Sheraton Moira Hotel in Tel Aviv. By now our party has grown by three – Debbie Trenholm from Ottawa, Sean Wood from Halifax and Jurgen Gothe from Vancouver, all wine writers. (The last time I traveled with Jurgen was about 12 years ago when we toured the Irish whiskey facilities in the north and south. A riotous time.) My hotel room overlooks the beach and the Mediterranean. A lovely sunset this evening.

I meet Eldad Levy, wine editor of Al Hashulchan, a gastronomic monthly magazine. He gives wine and gourmet tours. He tells me that the duty on sparkling wines (thought to be a luxury good) has just been brought down to 12%, like table wines. Before it was 80%. Israelis drink about 7 litres of wine per capita, 2 litres of which is kiddush wine (for religious purposes).

We are dining at Manta Ray Restaurant on the coast between Tel Aviv and Jaffa, hosted by Binyamina Winery, the fourth largest winery in the country (2.8 million bottles). They buy in grapes from all over the country and were the first to introduce Viognier and Tempranillo to Israel. We start with Yogev Special Reserve Gewurztraminer 2007 Semi Dry: deeply coloured, minerally, perfumed nose tasting of sweet lychee nuts and rose petals; mouth-filling and soft. On the table, Balkan bread with olive oil and balsamic vinegar, eggplant mousse whipped up with camembert. A series of salads follows: cervice, shrimp, deep fried aubergine.

Next wine is Opal Sauvignon Blanc 2005: oaky, austere and very dry without a lot of varietal character. I'm seated next to the winemaker Sasson Ben-Aharon, who tells me that Sauvignon Blanc is a variety that is becoming popular here. He has his own small winery in the Judean mountains near Jerusalem called Ye'arim producing 2,000 bottles.

Next wine: Chardonnay Special Reserve 2005, which has spent 12 months in French oak. Very Macon in style, with more heft; ripe apple and pineapple flavours and a note of fennel. A very successful wine. A delicious plate of carpaccio of yellow tail tuna arrives.

Yogev Cabernet Sauvignon Petit Verdot 2006 (20% Petit Verdot): deep ruby with a nose of red meat and violets; sweet currant flavour, medium-bodied, nicely balanced, firm but soft tannins; quite elegant. This is served with sautéed shrimp and calamari with tarragon and parmesan with cubed mango and cured lemon on yogurt sauce. This is followed with Special Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2004, made from Golan Heights fruit (16 months in French oak). Dense purple colour; minty blackcurrant nose with cedar and inky nuances; sweet blackcurrant fruit. Well balanced but lacking a little energy.

Ben-Aharaon tells me that Israel crushes and average of 45,000 tonnes of fruit, of which 8,000 tonnes comes from the Golan Heights. I wonder what will happen to the Golan winery and the vineyards planted there if there is a peace settlement with Syria. Next wine is Ruby Syrah 2004 with 3% Viognier. It's an oaky wine with a medicinal, animal nose, black fruit flavour and high acidity (overly acidic).

More food arrives – Fennel and roquette salad with red grapefruit, avocado, pecan nuts and sheep cheese and filleted grouper served on organic red rice, mango and chili butter. Then comes the most successful wine of the night, The Cave Cabernet Merlot 2005 – a small boutique winery which stores is barrels in a 16th-century cave at the foot of Mount Carmel. The fruit comes from a single 25-year-old vineyard in Kerem Ben Zimra in the Upper Galilee. The wine is very Bordelais in style, very elegant and firm with a lovely mouth feel. It reminds me of St. Emilion with its sweet fruit and a floral top note. Great length (65% Cabernet/35% Merlot).

The final wine of the night is a Late Harvest Gewürztraminer, which lacks both varietal character and sweetness. This is served with three desserts: cadaif strings served with Port ice cream, ginger whipped cream and poached pears in red wine, crunchy "decadent" chocolate served with two sorts of chocolate grenache, whisky and date ice cream and white chocolate panacotta with saffron, served with chocolate and orange mousse, ginger and anise meringue (delicious). All the wines Binyamina makes, incidentally, are kosher. To bed at 11:30 pm.

Sunday, November 25: Misread my watch and think I'm getting up at 7:15 am but it's really 6:15 am, which allows me to input last night's notes. This morning we leave for the Jerusalem Hills to the Tzora winery. On the bus up to the Judean Hills Chaim Helfgott, our tour guide, gives us a running commentary on the historical sites. The port of Jaffa, he says, is the oldest port in the world. Then Eldad Levy takes over to brief us on the Israeli wine industry and the wineries we will see today. He tells us of the three phases of development beginning with Baron de Rothschild, the owner of Château Lafite, building co-operative wineries in Rishon Lezion and Zichron Ya'acov in the late nineteenth century under the Carmel name. The second phase was in 1976, when the first Cabernet Sauvignon was planted in the Golan Heights, following a recommendation by a UC Davis professor when he visited the country four years earlier. They call this the "quality wine revolution." The third phase happened about ten years ago with the emergence of the boutique wineries.

Tzora, founded in 1993, produces 80,000 bottles a year from Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Chardonnay. It's located on a kibbutz. The winemaker is now Eran Pick, a UC Davis grad, who has taken over from the founder, visionary viticulturalist Ronnie James. James, known as "Dr. Terroir," was the first to make wine from his own grapes and the first to introduce the vineyard name on a label. He recognized that the character of a wine comes from the site rather than the grape.

Pick led us through the wines.

  • Tzora Misty Hills Neve Ilan Merlot Cabernet Sauvignon 2003 (one-third Cab. Sauv): dense ruby colour; savoury cedar, bitter chocolate nose; richly extracted damson plum and blackcurrant flavours, firm structure; minerally, dry finish. Well balanced.
  • Tzora Merlot Shoresh 2005: deep ruby-purple; minerally,nose of blueberries and cedar with vanilla oak and a floral note; dry and firm and a little hollow on the finish.
  • Tzora Ilan Merlot 2001: deeply coloured; dry, cedar, mineral nose with a whiff of oak; lovely mouth feel, mature with a sweet and savoury soy and dark chocolate flavour; firm structure with great length.

Following this tasting, Ben-Ami Bravdo brought in his wines. He and his founding partner Oded Shosheyov are professors of oenology at the Hebrew University (the other founding partner of their winery is a doctor). Their winery, Karmei Yosef, is on the western slopes of the Judean Mountains.

  • Karmei Yosef Bravdo Chardonnay 2005: unfiltered look, golden; spicy ripe pear nose; full-bodied, richly extracted fruit with lively acidity. Good length with a toasty finish. "Fruitiness is the name of the game at our winery," says Bravdo. As a microbiologist, he explained that aromas and flavour compounds are not found in the grape but are delivered to the berry through the leaves. Berries only accumulate sugars and phenols.
  • Karmei Yosef Bravdo Merlot 2005: deep ruby colour; green note on the nose, red berry fruit with dried rose petal; medium-bodied, curranty-chocolate flavour; soft tannins. "A wine that does not have tannin is a dead wine," says Bravdo. Grapes are the only fruit, he says, that have tartaric acid. The first I have ever heard say this.
  • Karmei Yosef Bravdo Cabernet Sauvignon 2005: deep ruby; dry, savoury nose of cedar and currants; sweet currant fruit, full on the palate with dark chocolate and ripe currant flavours; finishes firmly but the tannins are mellow. A very successful wine.
  • Karmei Yosef Bravdo Cabernet Sauvignon 2004: ruby showing some age at the rim; cedar, more intense nose than the 2005; dry, firm and elegant, dense, chocolate flavour. A terrific wine, ready for drinking.
  Eli-Gilbert Ben-Zaken of Domaine du Castel
  Domaine du Castel resembles a Bordeaux chateau

Drove over to Domaine du Castel at Ramat Ratziel, founded in 1992. Eli-Gilbert Ben-Zaken, the proprietor, is obviously a Francophile. His winery resembles a Bordeaux château. The Chardonnay is aged in Burgundy barrels and the Bordeaux blend (all five grapes) in Bordelais barriques that are laid out like a Médoc château. His 15-hectare vineyard is the most densely planted in Israel. There are rose bushes at the end of each row. How French can you get.

  • Castel Blanc du Castel Chardonnay 2006: medium straw; touch of barnyard, apple; spicy, apple, medium-bodied, with lively lemony acidity. Good sensation of minerality, well integrated oak. Well balanced, good length. A lovely wine. Could be mistaken for white Burgundy. 2006 and 2007 have less alcohol than in previous vintages. The above is 12.8% though marked on the label as 13%.
  • Castel Grand Vin 2004: deep ruby; cedar, red berry, spicy oak, currants, and an engaging floral note; firmly structured – very Bordelais. A little green pepper on the finish. Still tight with a tannic bite on the finish.
  • Castel Petit Vin 2004: a more tannic, less concentrated version of the above.
  Ze'ev Dunie of Seahorse winery

A lunch of quiches, cheeses and tomatoes. Then tasting of Seahorse wines conducted by the diminutive Ze'ev Dunie, a film-maker. He made a documentary on wine in 1994 and fell in love with wine. His two favourite wines are Châteauneuf-du-Pape and Zinfandel. Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, he says, are "classical music, suit and tie wines," Châteauneuf-du-Pape and Zinfandel. are "jazz." His wines are named after artists like Fellini. Ages his Syrah in barrels used by Castel for Chardonnay.

  • Seahorse Zinfandel 2004 (with 5% Petite Sirah, aged in American oak): deep ruby; ripe blackberry, vanilla oak. Sweet, raisiny flavour backed by oak, dark chocolate with lively acidity. (Only 1200 bottles.)
  • Seahorse Syrah 2005: deep ruby; rich blackberry with evident oak; sweetish, firm structure, full on the palate; coffee bean note; chunky and a little hot on the finish.
  • Seahorse Elul 2004 (75% Cab. Sauv/20% Syrah,5% Petite Sirah): dense purple-ruby; cedar, blackcurrant, rose petal, rich; well extracted sweet fruit, full-bodied, chocolaty, firm finish. A big wine, fleshy, rustic note.
  Avi Feldstein and me at the Dovev vineyard within sight of the Lebanese border

Drove back to the hotel before dinner with Barkan Winery (the second largest in Israel) at Herbert Samuel Restaurant. I am sitting next to the bearded, pony-tailed winemaker Avi Feldstein. Shmuel Boxer, the CEO of Barkan, says in five years they will be the biggest in Israel. Now they own 700 hectares all over Israel. They make 8–9 million bottles a year. Next year is a "shmita" year – the seventh year, when land has to lie fallow or grow crops. To get around this biblical injunction, the Israelis lease their land for a shmita year to non-Jews. The evening begins with a delicious rosé 2006 called Fusion, made from Tempranillo and Pinotage (dry cranberry and orange peel flavour).

  • Barkan Reserve Pinotage 2005 (the first to plant Pinotage in Israel, started in 1992, first wine in 2001): dense ruby; spicy, raspberry jam flavour; fruit forward, firmly structured.
  • Cabernet Sauvignon Altitude 720 2005 (one of three Cabs grown at different elevations): dense colour; spicy blackcurrant. Well extracted fruit with a roasted note; tight finish, a little blunt.
  • Superior Cabernet Sauvignon 2003: dense purple; concentrated blackcurrant, new leather on the nose; rich plum flavour, still tight.

Segal (formerly Ashkelon Wines) is a winery that Barkan owns, located at Kibbutz Hulda. Avi Feldstein is the winemaker.

  • Segal Galilee Heights Cabernet Sauvignon Special Reserve 2004: dense purple-ruby; peppery, cedar, black fruits on the nose; green pepper note, lively acidity, firm tannic finish.
  • Rehasim Dovev Merlot 2003: dense purple; vanilla, cedar; highly acidic, green pepper notes, short, hard finish.
  • Rehasim Dishon Cabernet Sauvignon 2004: dense purple-ruby; smoky, tarry nose; well extracted, sweet black fruits, tobacco note; firm structure, well made.

The meal: a series of mezes followed by lamb chops and ice cream desserts. Barkan distributes Stock brandy in Israel and is the largest brandy producer. We end the meal with King David Brandy Special Reserve.

John Szabo checking out the spices in a Jerusalem market

  A bagel seller in Jerusalem

Monday, November 26: Bus to Jerusalem.

Visited Ella Valley Winery in the Jerusalem Hills, owned by an American banker who owns Spring Mountain winery in Napa. The winery has three vineyard locations totaling 70 hectares. They harvest at night to keep the fruit cool. Two series of wines – Cabernet, Merlot, Ever Red – also Cabernet Franc and Pinot Noir. Reserve series called Vineyard Choice.

  • Ella Valley Chardonnay 2005: straw colour; apple, spicy pear, vanilla oak; full-bodied; good length with a nutty and warm alcoholic finish.
  • Ella Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2003: dense ruby; blackcurrant, spicy, cedar, plum; thickly extracted, hefty and rustic; rich with a floral top note, licorice. (14 months in oak.)
  • Ella Valley Merlot 2002: dense purple-ruby; ripe blueberries, pencil shavings; well balanced, sweet berry fruit, a little edgy with acidity on the finish. Medicinal note on the finish. Still youthful.
  • Ella Valley Merlot 2004 (5% Cabernet Sauvignon): dense purple; cedar, berry; rich and broad with soft tannins, generous, firm structure, licorice, black fruits, floral note and a warm alcoholic finish.
  • Ella Valley Vineyard Choice Merlot 2003: dense purple black, intense, cedar, spicy, rich fruitcake nose; rich, fruit-driven, mouth-filling, herbal note, black cherry. Full-bodied. A blockbuster wine.

They have a Pinot Noir to be released in a few days. Cooled their Pinot vines (0.6 ha) by netting the vineyard.

Ella Valley Vineyard Choice Pinot Noir 2005: deeply coloured ruby; leather, earthy, ripe black cherry, ripe tannic finish with a floral flourish. Full-bodied, a bit disjointed. But a great first effort.

Shuki Yashuv of Agur Winery, five kilometers east of here, joined the tasting starting with a rosé of Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc 2007 (barrel-fermented): dry, wild strawberries, touch of sweetness. Mouth-filling, well balanced.

  • Agur Kessem Cabernet Sauvignon 2005 (60% CS/30% Mer/10% Cab F and Petit Verdot): dense purple-black: cedar, earthy, red berry; intense, mocha, red berry, mouth-filling, chunky; soft tannins. Full-bodied, chocolate, hefty.
  • Agur Kessem Cabernet Sauvignon Merlot 2004: dense purple-black; cedar, earthy, blackcurrant nose with pencil lead note; ripe blackcurrant and plum flavours, bold and rich with a sweet core. Well made, firm but soft tannins.

Golan Flam, winemaker of Flam, "the biggest non-kosher winery in Israel," did vintages with Carpineto in Tuscany and Hardy's at Tintara. "I hope people will appreciate Israeli wines as Israeli wines not kosher wines," he says.

  • Flam Sauvignon Blanc Chardonnay 2006 (60%/40%): straw; fresh, pear, crisp but full on the palate. Sauvignon not really making an impression until the finish. Carries its 14% alcohol well.
  • Flam Classico 2006 (CS/Merlot 50% each mostly in American oak): deep ruby; cedar, red berries, floral, lovely mouth-feel, sweet red fruit, beautifully balanced; firm structure, cherry and black fruits, great length. A gorgeous wine.
  • Flam Superiore Syrah Cabernet Sauvignon 2005 (81% Syrah, 19% Cabernet Sauvignon): black cherry, pepper, cedar note; medicinal note with ripe black fruits; nicely integrated oak, vanilla. Full-bodied, concentrated. With a red flower finish and a tannic lift.
  • Flam Merlot Reserve Reserve 2005 (with 11% Cabernet Sauvignon and 4% Petit Verdot): deep ruby; cherry, vanilla oak; lovely mouth feel, beautifully balanced, firm structure with ripe tannins, sweet fruit. Needs time, but another lovely wine.
  • Flam Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve 2005 (88% Cabernet Sauvignon, 6% Merlot, 6% Petit Verdot): deep ruby; cedar, vanilla, blackcurrant; ripe blackcurrant, sweet clean fruit; well integrated oak, soft pliant tannins. Full-bodied with a mocha note on the finish. Lovely mouth-feel.
  • Flam Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve 2003 (94% Cab. Sauv/6% Merlot): ruby, very St. Julien in style, ripe red berry flavour, elegant, firm structure, floral note. Lovely mouth-feel. Just a terrific wine.
  • Flam Merlot Reserve 2003 (93 % Merlot, 7% Cab. Sauv.): deep ruby; green note, tannic and tight.

Dinner at Orca restaurant with Recanati from the northern part of the Sharon Valley. We started with a delicious purpose-made rosé 2006 made from Cabernet Franc – light strawberry, elegant with a touch of sweetness. It was made during the Lebanese war and had to be picked early because of the presence of tanks in the vineyard.

I ordered egg yolk ravioli with crabmeat and goat cheese followed by European sea bass laid on roasted egg plant. Winemaker Lewis Pasco was trained at UC Davis, and he has a "new world" style.

  • Recanati Chardonnay 2006: straw colour; ripe tropical fruit noise; buttery, sweet pear flavour. Slightly hard on the finish from acidification.
  • Recanati Shiraz 2004 (80%/20%): deep ruby; medicinal blackberry nose; sweet and plummy, licorice; full-bodied Zinfandel-like with soft tannins.
  • Recanati Petite Sirah Reserve 2005: dense purple-ruby; vanilla oak, sweet blackberry nose; chocolate-like, soft, plushy, easy drinking; no great length but very enjoyable.
  • Recanati Special Reserve Galilee Cabernet Sauvignon Merlot 2004 (92%/8%): dense ruby; minty, black fruits; thick, full-bodied, soft and sweet; easy drinking, very velvety. Delicious.
  • Special Reserve Galilee Cabernet Sauvignon Merlot 2001 (96%/4%): dense purple; spicy, minty, vanilla oak; thick and sweet, loads of fruit but lacks structure.

Tuesday, November 27: Today is the Annapolis meeting between Arab states and Israel. The papers are full of analysis and predict nothing substantive from the talks. We check out of the hotel and drive north to the Galil, stopping at the Sea of Galilee. Alex has a Swiss army knife that registers altitude. He's excited because he has never been below sea level before and his knife tells him he's at minus 220 meters. Our first stop is Chateau Golan on Moshav Eliad. The 37-year-old winemaker, Uri Hetz, was trained in Oregon and California and has a passion for Rhone wines. We taste from Sauvignon Blanc from tank and Viognier and Syrah from barrel before sitting down at an outdoor table to taste the following wines:

  • Chateau Golan Sauvignon Blanc 2006: pale straw with a lime tint; light, green plum nose with a grassy note; medium-bodied and fresh.
  • Chateau Golan Syrah 2005 (3% Cabernet Sauvignon): dense purple with a nose of lavender, blackberries and black cherries; very elegant with lovely forward fruit and a firm finish.
  • Chateau Golan Geshem 2005 (70% Grenache/30% Syrah; geshem means rain in Hebrew): purple with violet highlights; black raspberry nose; elegant, not overstated, medium-bodied, well made. Delicious.
  • Chateau Golan Cabernet Sauvignon Royal Reserve 2005 (10% Cabernet Franc): dense purple-black; sappy, vanilla oak and currant nose; medium-bodied, firm and fruity with a tight, tannic finish.
  • Chateau Golan Eliad 2005 (made from selected parcels,94% Cabernet Sauvignon/6% Syrah): dense purple; pretty floral red berry nose; elegant but firmly structured, beautifully balanced.

Uri says, "I rarely give birth to monsters." His other dictum is "Fuck the pH." Following this tasting we are joined by Yoav Levy, winemaker/proprietor of Bazelet HaGolan winery. Yoav was a hobby winemaker (he made the wine for his son's bar mitzvah and everyone encouraged him to go into the business). He likes to leave his grapes hanging and says he's the last. to pick. His labels show a Roman coin with the head of Dionysus.

  • Bazelet HaGolan Cabernet Sauvignon 2006: deep ruby; sweet rose petal nose; soft full-bodied, easy drinking, spicy, cinnamon; sweet fruit.
  • Bazelet HaGolan Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve 2005: deep ruby; cedar, chocolate, mocha; full-bodied and firm, very forward with soft tannins.
  • Bazelet HaGolan Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve 2004: dense purple; spicy, floral, forward and easy drinking; creamy blackcurrant flavour, soft tannins.
  • Bazelet HaGolan Merlot Reserve 2006: dense purple ruby, elegant, floral, soft blueberry flavour; lovely balance.

Golan Heights Winery, founded in 1983, is the pioneer of fine wine in Israel. Their research and innovations in grape-growing and winemaking revolutionized the industry. The terrain here is rocky and barren, a volcanic plateau.

First flight from vineyards above 900 meters.

  • 2000 Blanc de Blancs: straw; apple and pear, crisp, lemony finish. Elegant, well balanced, good length, light to medium-bodied.
  • 2005 Yarden Viognier: deeply coloured; honey, peach pit; light floral note; hefty, touch of oxidation. Fat and heavy on the palate.
  • 2006 Yarden Gewurztraminer: straw; oily, lychee; grapefruit, off-dry but good acidity; a little hard on the finish.
  • 2004 Yarden Chardonnay Odem Organic Vineyard: straw; spicy, baked apple nose; spicy, caramel, full-bodied, apple and pear, well balanced. Good length. (1200 metre elevation.)
  • 2003 Yarden Pinot Noir: very deep, dense ruby; roasted red berry, vanilla oak; mouth-filling, plummy, firmly structured, full-bodied.
  • 2003 Yarden Merlot: dense purple black; bay leaf, black fruits; sweet plummy, jammy fruit; soft on the palate with evident oak and a firm tannic note on the finish.
  • 2003 Yarden Syrah: dense purple-black; herby, blackberry note, white pepper; firm, well balanced. Nicely done.

The reds have really dense, deep colour.

  • 1999 Yarden Cabernet Sauvignon: cigar box, blackcurrant, cedar; pencil lead; lovely mouth feel, rich, blackcurrant, Bordeaux on steroids; floral, firm, elegant. Lovely wine.
  • 2000 Yarden Cabernet Sauvignon: dense purple black; cedar, plum dark chocolate; sweet blackcurrant, mouth-filling, mellow with a tannic lift on the finish.
  • 2001 Yarden Cabernet Sauvignon: dense purple-black; minerally, going through a dumb phase, but the fruit is there and the structure.
  • 2002 Yarden Cabernet Sauvignon: dense purple-black: medicinal, herby note; plummy, angular, chocolate, tannic.
  • 2003 Yarden Cabernet Sauvignon: dense purple-black; cedar, spicy, currants; richly extracted, sweet fruit, full-bodied, intense, well structured, cocoa-like tannins.
  • 2004 Yarden Cabernet Sauvignon: dense purple-black; closed on the nose, showing oak but little fruit; more elegant than 2003, sweet blackcurrant, firmly structured with a Mocha note. Soft tannins. Will be very good.
  • 2003 Yarden Cabernet Sauvignon El Rom Vineyard: dense purple-black; dry, firmly structured blackcurrant, elegant but still young with herbal, earthy notes. Needs time but should be terrific.
  • 2003 Yarden Katzrin (83% Cabernet Sauvignon/14% Merlot/3% Cabernet Franc): dense purple-black; cedar, currants, Bordelais nose; elegant, sweet fruit; well balanced, firm. Lovely wine.
  • 2004 Yarden Heights Wine Gewurztraminer (freezer frozen): (half bottle) golden straw; honey, toast, lychee; perfumed, still retaining Gewurztaminer character; sweet and fruity. Well made. Delicious.

Alex Eberspaecher gets up close and personal with a camel

We drive to the other side of the Sea of Galilee to Rosh Pina and our hotel for the night.

Mizpe Hayamim, a former sanitarium built in 1950 now a Relais & Chateau spa, is situated on the eastern slopes of Mount Canaan, 570 meters above sea level. The building overlooks the sea of Galilee and in the distance the Golan Heights. The brochure in the room reads: "It comprises an area of 150 dunam, made up fragrant gardens, fruit orchards and shady lanes. There are ponds and streams that run through the herb and vegetable gardens. The location of the hotel and its characteristics create a harmony between man and nature... The Mizpe Hayamim organic farm supplies the products served in the hotel and in the Muscat Restaurant. Cows, sheep, goats and free-running chickens provide the hotel daily with fresh milk and eggs. Our dairy produces a variety of cheeses and fresh fruit, vegetables and herbs are picked and gathered from our gardens and brought to the hotel kitchen as well as to the winery." Under construction is a chocolate factory. Everyone wanders around in white robes and slippers.

I take advantage of the sauna, steam bath and outdoor Jacuzzi in the hope of shedding some of the weight gained on this trip. Futile.

Dinner in the Muscat Restaurant (as opposed to the vegetarian restaurant in the hotel) with Pelter Winery's Tal Pelter, who studied wine in Western Australia.

  • Pelter Blanc de Blancs: yeasty, apple, perfumed on the nose but tart, green apple, lively acidity, good length.
  • Pelter Sauvignon Blanc 2006: pale straw, fresh, herbaceous, green plum flavour; well made with a crisp finish.
  • Pelter Trio Cabernet Sauvignon Merlot Cabernet Franc 2004: (75% CS, 25% of other two varieties) deep ruby; cedar, currants; medium-bodied, fruity, firm and well made; nicely integrated oak.
  • Pelter Cabernet Shiraz 2005: deep ruby; cedar, spicy blackcurrant; lovely perfumed flavour of licorice and black fruits; well extracted, nicely balanced with a firm finish. Well made.
  • Pelter T Selection Cabernet Franc 2005: deep ruby; vanilla, oaky, red fruit bouquet; spicy, coffee bean, cedar and red berry flavours; soft mouth-feel.

At this point Eldad put a variety of wines on the table:

  • Miles Sauvignon Blanc 2006: pale straw; sulphur, sweetish, not much varietal character.
  • Assaf Sauvignon Blanc 2006: straw, cidery note, oxidized.
  • Yarden Mount Hermon Red 2006 (Cab. Sauv. 40%/Mer 45%/Cab Frabc 15%): deep ruby, woody, shy nose; sweet fruit but stylish with a floral note; A drinkable entry-level wine.
  • Gamla Sangiovese 2005: bitter.

By this time I gave up writing notes. Remaining wines tasted: Assaf Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve 2005 and 2006, Ben Zimra Cabernet Sauvignon 2006,Odem Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon 2005 Reserve (which was very good indeed – the highest winery in Israel in the upper Golan Heights), Chateau Golan Eliad 2004, Ella Valley Muscat 2003 and Segal Marom Dessert Muscat 2005.

Sheila Swerling-Puritt near the Lebanese border

  Galil Mountain winery

Wednesday, November 28: Our first stop today is Galil Mountain Winery on Kibbutz Yron in the Upper Galilee. From the terrace of this ultramodern winery you can see the former outpost of Hezbollah on the hills above. We are very close to the Lebanese border here. The winemaker at Galil Mountain is Micha Va'adia, who makes 95% red wines, although we start the tasting with three of his whites.

  • Galil Mountain Chardonnay 2006: medium straw colour; creamy apply nose with a zippy fresh pear flavour.
  • Galil Mountain Chardonnay 2007 (barrel sample): golden colour; nutty, oaky, rich and spicy with a floral note; fuller bodied than the 2006 (it will be blended with stainless steel fermented and aged Chardonnay).
  • Galil Mountain Viognier 2006: old gold colour; winter apple nose, spicy and sweet; a big, mouth-filling wine with a peachy flavour; well balanced and fleshy.
  • Galil Mountain Shiraz 2006 (unoaked): purple colour; fresh fruity nose of black cherries; spicy and firm; a little short on the finish with drying tannins.
  • Galil Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon 2006 (unoaked): ruby, cedar, currants on the nose; well extracted sweet fruit; medium-bodied, firm structure, well made.
  • Galil Mountain Pinot Noir 2005: deep ruby; minerally, dry, tea leaf nose; elegant, sweet cherry with a note of violets. Good length, well made.
  • Galil Mountain Pinot Noir 2006: ruby colour; minerally, violets, smoky oak; fleshier than the 2005, well balanced fine Pinot character. Best Pinot Noir tasted yet.
  • Galil Mountain Shiraz Cabernet 2005 (53%/47%): dense purple; vanilla oak, meaty, tobacco nose; fruity, soft red fruit flavours; easy drinking.
  • Galil Mountain Yron Syrah 2004: deep ruby; medicinal, pencil lead and blackberry nose; spicy, oaky, full-bodied with a long, dry finish.

We then tasted a Syrah 2006 and 2007 that will be components of the finished wine.

  • Galil Mountain Yron 2003 (Bordeaux blend with 7% Syrah): deep ruby; cedar, claret-like nose of spicy blackcurrant; big mouth-feel, firm and very youthful; dry and elegant. Very good.
  • Galil Mountain Yron 2004: deep ruby; cedar, vanilla, currants; very elegant and stylish, well balanced with a firm finish. Lovely. (72% Cabernet Sauvignon/25% Merlot/3% Syrah.)

We learned here that a Katyusha rocket (fired by Hezbollah from Lebanon into the vineyard) takes out 40 vines. This number was confirmed independently by Na'ama Mualem, the winemaker at Dalton.

Next we drove up to Dovev, the rockiest vineyard in the north of Israel, planted ten years ago by Avi Feldstein. The 24 hectare vineyard of shallow terra rossa soil over limestone is situated on a mountain top. "I believe Merlot in such a Spartan area can give great results," says Avi, who until last year had to be accompanied by soldiers when he visited the vineyard because of snipers. "When I come close to this vineyard my heart is singing," says Avi. "It was really grown from nothing."

Next stop is Dalton, in an industrial park in the Upper Galilee. Their first vintage was 1995.

  • Dalton Sauvignon Blanc Reserve 2007 (tank sample): pale straw; crisp, gooseberry flavour; clean with good acidity and true varietal character.
  • Dalton Viognier 2007 (barrel sample): sweet tropical fruit, spicy, very focused and nicely balanced.
  • Dalton Barbera 2006 (oak aged): mature ruby; minerally, sour cherry nose; fruity and fresh, a gulpable wine; good acidity with a spicy finish and a perfumed note on the final taste. Well made.
  • Dalton Shiraz 2006: dense purple; spicy, black fruits with an oaky note; bold flavours of oak and blackberry, sweetish, fruit forward, soft mouth feel with mellow tannins.
  • Dalton Syrah Reserve 2005 (10% Viognier): dense purple; earthy, sweet and plummy nose with a barnyard note; fruity, prune-like rather angular, full-bodied with soft tannins. Needs time to meld together.
  • Dalton Merlot Reserve 2004 (grown at 800–900 metres): deep ruby; tarry nose, cedar, green pepper; lean, sinewy with a firm tannic finish.
  • Dalton Meron Vineyard Merlot 2005 (grown at 700 metres): deep ruby; vanilla oak, licorice and mint on the nose; well extracted sweet fruit with a rose petal grace note. Firm structure.
  • Dalton Zinfandel 2005: dense ruby; plum and leather nose; huge, porty, sweet and fruity, California style (16% alcohol).
  • Dalton Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve 2005: dense ruby-black; sweet black fruits with a medicinal note; sweet, well structured, mouth-filling with cocoa-like tannins.

We drive to the Arab village of Jist to have lunch in a typical local restaurant called Beirut Nights. Hung on the wall is the photo of a young man in a suit and tie. He looks as if he could have been an accountant. The owner tells me he is his nephew, who was killed by a suicide bomber in Haifa.

It is dark by the time we reach Amphorae on the Makura Ranch (an organic farm) on the western slopes of Mount Carmel. The scenery here has a Tuscan look, which is fitting, perhaps, since the young winemaker Roey Ben-Basat studied winemaking in Chianti. The winemakers always tell you the elevation of the vineyard, since this is crucial for terroir and temperature. The temperature drops one degree with every 100 metres you rise.

  • Amphorae Chardonnay 2006: pale straw; pear nose; soft mouth feel, dry, clean citrus flavour; medium-bodied, good length but a little hot on the finish.
  • Amphorae Rhyton Red 2003 (81% Cab. Sauv./10% Merlot/9% Syrah): mature ruby, densely coloured; lovely floral nose with tobacco notes; sweet and savoury plum flavours; firm structure with a spicy, tannic finish.
  • Amphorae Cabernet Sauvignon 2003: mature dense ruby; cedar, cinnamon, dried dark fruits; soft velvety mouth feel; initial sweetness dries out to a plummy, tannic finish.
  Dr. Yair Margalit

After these wines Dr. Yair Margalit took over with his son Assaf. Margalit was Israel's first boutique winery and is, for my palate, making the best wines in Israel. Their first commercial vintage was 1989. Yair says he was burnt out as a chemical physicist (he wrote three technical books on winemaking). While researching at UC Davis he sat in on winemaking courses and began making wine at home. He does not irrigate his vines.

  • Margalit Cabernet Franc 2005 (10% Cabernet Sauvignon): dense ruby; roasted note, dark chocolate and oak; rich and raisiny, well extracted sweet date flavours; firm structure, soft mouth feel with a chocolate finish.
  • Margalit Enigma 2004 (Cab. Sauv. 60%/Merlot 19%/Cab Franc 21%): dense ruby; high toned, blackcurrant, cedar and cigar box nose; sweet fruit, elegant with a rich, spicy curranty flavour; lovely mouth feel. One of the best wines I have tasted from Israel.
  • Margalit Merlot 2002: dense purple-black; roasted note, chocolate, vanilla oak, sweet black fruits; minerally flavour, very Pomerol-like; high toned and individual. "If you rely only on technology," says Margalit, "you make a technical wine."
  • Margalit Cabernet Sauvignon 1993: dense ruby with a tawny, browning hue; soy and brown sugar on the nose; lovely soft, sweet and floral flavour; matured like an old Medoc.

Dinner this evening in Herzeliyah with Barry Saslove of Saslove Winery and his wines at Lechem Erez restaurant (a bakery and restaurant). Barry's daughter Rori has applied to Brock University to study winemaking at CCOVI, an odd choice for someone who wants to make wine in a hot climate.

  • Saslove Adom Cabernet Sauvignon 2004: deep ruby; floral, vanilla, chocolate nose; spicy, forward fruit, intense flavours with a firm finish.
  • Saslove Aviv Merlot 2006: deep ruby, smoky, tarry, oak-driven; sweet black cherry flavour, thick on the palate with a clovey finish.
  • Saslove Adom Marriage 2004 (Cab. Sauv, 60%/Merlot 37%/Shiraz 3%).
  • Saslove Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve 2003: deep ruby; lovely bouquet of rose petals and currants; spicy fruit with a lovely mouth feel, juicy black fruit flavours with a soft finish of cinnamon and chocolate.
  • Saslove Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve 2004: more blackcurrant notes than the 2003 with chocolate and red berry flavours; soft on the palate.

We drank these wines with a series of delicious dishes that kept arriving – cauliflower, beetroot and calamari, fennel and orange salad, turnip, pizza, humus, cooked radishes, gnocchi and artichoke; then fish and meat dishes (including lambs' tails and black beans) and a range of desserts. Another late night.

Thursday, November 29: At 8 am we left for the Carmel Mountains and Vitkin winery. It is located on a moshav and the smell of cows is pervasive. The emphasis here is on unusual varieties and blends. Their flagship wine is Carignan and they like French Colombard when the yield is 2–3 tonnes an acre. They welcome us with a glass of rosé called Varod 2007 ("varod" means "pink") made from Syrah, Carignan and Tempranillo. The winery looks like a garage on a cattle farm. We sit outdoors for the tasting – on the verandah of the house. In the garden are grapefruit and orange trees and bougainvillea bushes of different colours.

They also have an aggressive orange cat given to sinking its claws into legs or trying to get at the parrot indoors by springing at the screen door and hanging off the mesh. The parrot can replicate the sound of a telephone ringing and then conducts a one-sided conversation, which really annoys the cat.

  • Vitkin White Israeli Journey 2006 (Viognier, French Colombard +12% Gewurztraminer): pale straw; aromatic, spicy, brittle finish.
  • Vitkin Riesling 2006: very pale; citrus, light floral nose; fresh, lime with a mineral note. Still closed but nicely made.
  • Vitkin Pinot Noir 2006: ruby; candied raspberry; firm, earthy, well extracted raspberry fruit. Peppery note. A touch bitter on the finish.
  • Vitkin Red Israeli Journey 2006 (Syrah 45%/Carignan 30% + Cabernet Franc): ruby, red berry and black cherry; firmly structured, fruity but firm on the finish, black olive finish. Easy drinking.
  • Vitkin Carignan 2005: deep purple-ruby; black cherry, bay leaf, mint; rich mouth feel, velvety, black cherry; full-bodied, well made. Firm structure. Very good.
  • Vitkin Cabernet Franc 2005 (18% Petit Verdot): dense ruby; cedar, black cherry, earthy, firm structure. Oak dominant at the moment. Well-extracted fruit. Full on the palate.
  • Vitkin Cabernet Franc 2004: deep ruby; cedar, red berry; elegant, rose petal, red fruits; firm and tannic. Well made, needs time.
  • Vitkin Petite Sirah 2005: deep ruby; firm structure, red berry, tannic finish; red plum flavour.
  • Vitkin Late Harvest 2005.
  Neta Mainz, marketing director of Tulip, conducting a tasting; the orange cat waits to spring

This tasting is followed by another winery called Tulip, whose wines are to be used at Ottawa's tulip festival.

Tulip, a boutique winery near Haifa, employs people with special needs. Their slogan is "wine that loves people." This year they produced 85,000 bottles, one of the biggest boutique wineries in Israeli. The winery is named for the tasting glass. Tamir Arzy, the winemaker, leads us through.

  • Tulip Just Cabernet Sauvignon 2005: deep ruby, cedar, red berries; easy drinking, fruity, redcurrant, good length. Touch of sweetness.
  • Tulip Mostly Cabernet Franc 2005 (15% Merlot/5% Cab. Sauv): deep ruby; cedar, evident oak; sweet and savoury, bitter chocolate, herby, green pepper. Firm structure, tannic finish.
  • Tulip Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve 2005 (10% Cab Franc and Petit Verdot): deep ruby, medicinal, eucalyptus; ripe black fruits, firm structure, well balanced.
  • Tulip Syrah Reserve 2005: dense ruby-purple; iodine note, plum, peppery; full-bodied; savoury with a dry finish. Good length.
  • Tulip Port Esperanza 2003 (Cabernet Sauvignon fortified): Tawny ruby; dried fruits, chocolate, tawny style, good length.

Our next stop is Israel's biggest winery, Carmel, which translates as "God's vineyard." Carmel was founded by Baron de Rothschild in 1882. He paid 4 million francs for Chateau Lafite; he spent 11 million francs to construct the wineries of Zichron Ya'akov and Richon Le Zion. Adam Montefiore, an Englishman, who is the marketing director, tells us that the original plantings of Bordeaux varieties were killed by phylloxera and replanted at great expense to Carignan and Grenache. Carmel makes about 15 million bottles and has 35% of the market. The Rothschilds sold their interest in Carmel in 1957. Three Israeli Prime Ministers have worked at Carmel, including Ben Gurion as well as Olmert, the current PM. For our walk-through of the winery we are told not to touch any barrel or tank, as the winery is kosher.

  • Carmel Johannisberg Riesling 2006: medium straw; petrol, lime, honeyed note; light fruit character, off-dry, minerally finish but a little short on final fruit.
  • Carmel Appellation Chardonnay Upper Galilee 2006: straw; pear-like nose; light extract, apple finish. Medium-bodied.
  • Carmel Appellation Cabernet Sauvignon Shiraz Galilee 2004 (60%/40%): deep ruby; black olive, cedar; smoky, iodine, dry and savoury black fruit flavours; firm structure.
  • Carmel Appellation Merlot Galilee 2004: dense purple; cedar, blueberry; well extracted, spicy blueberry and dark chocolate, firm and tannic. Well made. Needs time.
  • Carmel Appellation Cabernet Sauvignon Galilee 2004: dense purple-ruby; cedar, roasted note, currants; floral note. Still tight and closed.
  • Carmel Single Vineyard Kayoumi Cabernet Sauvignon Galilee 2004: dense ruby-black; cigar box, black fruits; blackcurrant, floral note, lively acidity; firm finish. Hard finish.
  • Carmel Single Vineyard Kayoumi Syrah Galilee 2003: dense ruby; baked note, vanilla, animal note; sweet blackberry, chocolate, medicinal note, Good length. Well made.
  • Carmel Limited Edition 2003 (50% CS/32% Petit Verdot/17% Merlot/1% Cabernet Franc): deep purple; pencil lead, red berry; elegant, fine blackcurrant flavours, beautifully balanced; firm, dry finish with good length. A lovely wine.
  • Yatir Forest Cabernet Sauvignon Shiraz Merlot 2004 (40%/40%20%): dense ruby; meaty, earthy, vanilla oak; well extracted, sweet, jammy, spicy, full-bodied wine.
  • Yatir Forest Cabernet Sauvignon Merlot Shiraz 2004 (80%/14%/ 6%): dense purple-black: cedar, rich, broad shouldered, currants, sweet fruit, full-bodied, soft tannins. Well made.
  • Carmel Shaal Gewurztraminer 2006 (Golan Heights): straw; ripe lychee, lime; sweet, well balanced, perfumed, elegant; great length and balance. Delicious and light.
  • Grand Sabra (kumquat macerated in 777 Brandy): intense orange, honey, alcoholic.

Lunch in Givat Olga at Shipudi Olga, a typical Israeli BBQ joint. I have my first beer of the trip here and it really tastes good. Also tasted for the first time a sauce made from mango, coriander and curry powder. Went hunting for it at a Tel Aviv supermarket and eventually found some.

We are invited to dinner this evening by Carmel at Catit Restaurant. But Sheila has made arrangements for those who want to sample some seafood dishes at Mul-Yam, a seafood restaurant on the coast which is one of the best in the country. The dishes keep coming, although we only wanted to sample three. Sheila is right. The food here is spectacular – especially the ravioli made from thin-sliced scallop filled with baby shrimp and the chef's take on eggs Benedict, using lobster and separating the yolk from the egg white and cooking them alone. I order a bottle of Zenato Lugana 2006 from Lake Garda and the sommelier says, "May I recommend something else?" I say no because I have tasted this wine at a Vintages' release in Toronto a month ago and it's wonderful – also one of the least expensive on the list, at 140 shekels. Then off to dinner at Carmela Bistro, where the dishes keep coming and coming. We start with lentil and coconut milk soup after the usual starters of salad, then into fish and meat courses and a plate of four desserts. The wines included Ramat Arad Sauvignon Blanc 2006 from the Negev, a single-vineyard wine next to Yatir, Carmel Kayoumi Cabernet Sauvignon 2004 and Yatir Forest Cabernet Sauvignon 2004. It is midnight by the time we leave.

Friday, November 30: An 8 am breakfast to meet Daniel Rogov, the best-known Israeli wine writer, whose book Rogov's Guide to Israeli Wines is the annual bible. Rogov looks like the food critic in the film Ratatouille. He tells us that Israelis drink 7.5 to 8.5 litres per head (in a population where there are lots of Muslims) and they buy 84% of Israeli wines. Imports are marked up 12% above the universal 15.5% VAT. Supermarkets sell only kosher wine and supermarket sales account for 70% of all sales.

We leave for the airport at 10 am, which is a good thing, because it takes us half an hour to clear security. They go through our luggage, pulling out the bottles and books and literature we have acquired. I finish inputting my notes on the 12½-hour flight to Toronto. Tip: if you fly to Israel make sure you land and take off on a Friday. The place is almost deserted.




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