It’s in Israel‘s north, along the borders with Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan, where you realize that you’re definitely notin Kansas anymore, Toto, viticulturally-speaking. Actually, let’s correct that – it’s not just viticulturally-speaking, it’s just-about-everything-speaking.
Certainly the rocky hills in the Golan Heights and Galilee speak to Israel’s unique location as a transition zone between the Sahara and Europe, with the requisite variations in soils (from volcanic, to terra rossa, to chalk, to te dessert-like Les), climate, and elevation; you know, the standard grape-growing stuff.
But while that sort of geological and climatic scene is mirrored in many wine regions across the globe, there aren’t many that are surrounded by imposing barbed wire fencing, dotted with even more imposing signs warning of land mines, and sporting the occasional airfield patrolled by very imposing drones.
Welcome to wine-growing, northern Israeli-style. It wouldn’t be for the faint-hearted even without the explosives.
As a wrap-up finale on Israeli wine, here are highlights from my not-so-recent media tour there, which culminated in trips to some of the most promising producers in the Golan Heights and Lower Galilee…
I know that I was supposed to finish up my take on the wine regions of Israel… but a) this is my blog, so I’ll do what I want, and b) I’m so late on that anyway that another week (or two?) won’t matter, right?
Maycamas’ winery was built in the late 1800s by a German immigrant who then went bankrupt, and, supposedly, its stone cellar was used to make bootleg wine during Prohibition. The winery’s shadiness had a respite in the `60s, when the Travers family purchased and revitalized it (with deliciously long-lived wines from primo vintages being produced during their tenure), and fame coming in the early 1970s when they were chosen to take part in the famous (or infamous, if you’re French) “Judgment of Paris,” which is the USA’s fine wine equivalent of the Miracle on Ice. In the mid-1990s, Mayacamas became a location-cum-pseudo-character on celluloid, in a romantic dramatic film starring national treasure Keanu Reeves.
It’s been that long since I had my feet on the ground among the vines in Israeli wine country, and until now I’d yet to write a word about the experience, apart from a few social media updates and the odd mini-review.
The mistake I’d made over that period of waiting? Thinking that there would be an appropriate time during which the political maelstrom that is Middle East politics would present a low-key time for me to simply be able to focus on the region’s wines themselves, without the specter of centuries upon centuries of conflict rearing its ghostly head obtrusively behind. And it’s just difficult to do that when you have visited vines that grow among former Lebanese army bunkers, or are surrounded by land mine warning signs, or that have turned up with the occasional IED among them. In that context, waiting for a quieter period of Israel in the national news before focusing on something as simple as vino doesn’t seem like a bad idea.
Buuuuuut… Fat chance. I may never see that time. And so I suppose this is the start of me trying to do a (very) small part of in taking matters into my own hands with giving Israel a bit of media focus that isn’t packed to the gills with cringe-worthy tales of damage to pride, property, and lives. Well, perhaps the writing will be cringe-worthy, but hopefully that’s the extent of it.
Fortunately, Israel’s winemaking history surpases its history of conflict, both in terms of longevity and in interest. There is evidence of winmaking and (particularly along the Mediterranean coast) wine export dating back at least five thousand years. About seven hundred years of Muslim Ottoman influence slowed things down, buy by the 1880s a wave of Zionist immigrants, focused on farming, renewed and rejuvenated the region’s wine industry. Investment from the Rothschilds in France helped to modernize the industry here, and another wave, starting in about 2008, focused the fine wine scene mostly on Mediterranean grape varieties, and saw the development of more modernized marketing approaches.
And despite all of that, as Recanati winemaker Gil Shatsberg told me, “Israeli wine is not really defined yet…”
Well, for those in the know when it comes to Bordeaux, this Pauillac producer was dependable for decades… in that one could usually depend on it to under-perform.
Established back in 1810 by the wine broker who gave it its name (Pierre Urbain Pédesclaux), Pédesclaux rose to prominence rather quickly by Bordeaux standards, being classified as Fifth Growth in 1855. The 20th Century saw successions of ownership and neglect; at one point in the 1950s, the estate was tagged for demolition.
In 2009, Pédesclaux was picked up by Françoise and Jacky Lorenzetti (owners of Chateau Lilian Ladouys), who, according to current manager Vincent Bache-Gabrielsen (with whom, through the miracles of modern technology, I had a nice remote online chat) set about to “legitimize” the estate. This started with the vineyards, which were replanted, reworked, expanded, and eventually given a treatment so detailed that they are now classified into nineteen different terroirs (ranging from gravel to limestone to clay), vinified into 116 different tank fermentations, and aged in barrels from nine different coopers, all to make about 270,000 bottles of just two wine labels.
The aim now is to surprise with a bit of over-performance, even at the $50/bottle price tag. Bache-Gabrielsen put it this way: “The idea is to have freshness, tannins that are just mature, and to make you salivate and want another glass.” Pédesclaux now puts a borderline-obsessive amount of effort into their Grand Vin’s texture. “We want precision in our tannins,” Bache-Gabrielsen explained. He describes their harvest as “al dente” (now my new favorite term for picking ripeness).
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