There are classic signs for measuring whether an emerging wine country has arrived: big articles in top publications, international awards like the sort doled out in London and Bordeaux, fast sales growth, soaring vineyard prices. For Micha Vaadia, head winemaker at Galil Mountain Winery in Israel, the sign read "Costco."
"In the last few years we're managing to get out of just the Jewish market," Vaadia told me over the phone from the Upper Galilee region near the Lebanese border.
Two years ago, Galil Mountain's wines were picked up by the giant U.S.-based wholesale club, he said, "and, as I understand it, that market is not related to Jews." In other words, most Costco shoppers (the retailer moves mountains of wine south of the border but is prohibited from selling alcohol in Canada) are unlikely to care that Vaadia's wines happen to be kosher and thus appropriate for such upcoming celebrations as Passover and next week's Purim. They just want to splurge on good wine with the dollars they save on a 20-pack of organic, grass-fed rib-eyes and a nuclear winter's supply of paper towels and I Can't Believe It's Not Butter! And Galil Mountain's wines are very good, among the better offerings in a country with a storied ancient oenological history but only a recent revival.
Born and raised in Israel but trained in part at the University of California at Davis, where he earned a master's degree, Vaadia, 47, is one of the leading figures of Israel's modern quality movement, having also worked vintages at prominent international wineries including Cloudy Bay in New Zealand and La Crema in California. Some of the other new figures happen to be foreign "flying winemaker" consultants, such as Italy's Riccardo Cotarella and France's Michel Rolland, whose presence in the country is seen as something of an imprimatur. Vaadia, too, has been working with U.S.-based veterans and global consultants Zelma Long and Philip Freese.
Vaadia works with 13 grape varieties at Galil Mountain, the most prominent and promising of which – as is the case with Israel as a whole – are cabernet sauvignon, merlot and syrah. Among other things, the red grapes possess a natural advantage in Israel's sizzling climate: thick skins for sun protection. The other ace in the hole at Galil Mountain is location. Its high elevation, at more than 700 metres above sea level, with some vineyards at 800, gives the grapes cool rest at night, which helps them ripen slowly and fully as well as to retain fresh acidity. Israel's other prime regions, Lower Galilee and the Judaean Hills around Jerusalem, share a similar advantage.
Although Vaadia is proud that Israel's wines – like the kosher offerings below – are winning attention internationally, particularly now among what appears to be a growing number of non-Jewish consumers, he keeps his eyes focused on what's right in front of him rather than off on the horizon. "For me, a good vintage is a vintage where I did better than my neighbours," he says. "It means that I managed to be in tune with nature that year."
Galil Mountain Yiron 2009 (Israel)
SCORE : 91 PRICE : $34.95
The alcohol content – 15.5 per cent – is your first sign that this red will, like a large smoked-meat plate at Schwartz's, be a mouth-filler. Despite the elevated ethanol, it's not at all hot. A Bordeaux-style blend of 60-per-cent cabernet sauvignon with 30-per-cent merlot and fiveper– cent petit verdot, it comes across like delicious and velvety fruit soup thickened with vanilla and dark chocolate, infused with tobacco and lifted by spice. Save it for roast beef or juicy steak rather than brisket on rye. $35.49 in B.C.
Tabor Earth Series Terra Rossa Shiraz 2011 (Israel)
SCORE : 91 PRICE : $24.95
Nice label. It's mostly in Hebrew, which will look cool on your dinner table, especially if you're not Jewish. There is a nod in this Upper Galilee red to the syrahs of France's Rhône Valley, with its juicy profile and peppery spice. And there are other fetching savoury characters, such as mint, tobacco and, literally, dirt. Beef short ribs? I'd say. Available in Ontario.
Saslove Aviv Marriage 2011 (Israel)
SCORE : 90 PRICE : $29.95
Ex-Canadian Barry Saslove, a former computer engineer, pulled up his maple roots in Ottawa long ago to live in Israel. He founded this Upper– Galilee estate in 1998 and daughter Roni, who studied oenology at Brock University in the Niagara region, is part of the winemaking team. The 2011 Marriage is what one might call an unusual Franco-Italian mixed marriage of merlot, cabernet sauvignon, shiraz, cabernet franc, petit verdot and nebbiolo. What a velvety river of molten dark chocolate it is, a veritable fondue studded with strawberries and spiked with cherry liqueur, with roasted nuts and black pepper, too. Great for duck. Available in Ontario.
Galil Mountain Alon 2010 (Israel)
SCORE : 88 PRICE : $20.95
Here's another biggie from Galil Mountain, pushing 15.5-per-cent alcohol. Very ripe, this blend of cabernet sauvignon, syrah, petit verdot and cabernet franc courts raisin-like jamminess, but it's lifted by a peppery quality no doubt owing to the substantial 41-per-cent syrah. Well done. Smooth and chunky, it finishes with hot spice (I think, in part, that might be the alcohol talking). The 2011 sells for $22 in Quebec.
Teperberg Meritage 2011 (Israel)
SCORE : 88 PRICE : $23.95
This winery predates the modern state of Israel by more than a half century. Founded in 1870 in old Jerusalem, it's now run by a fifth generation of Teperbergs. Located on the foothills of the Judean Mountains, it's been playing around with varieties new to the region, such as viognier, malbec and, of Chianti fame, sangiovese. But this meritage – the generic term oft used outside Europe to describe Bordeaux-grape blends – lies in the modern-Israel comfort zone: cabernet sauvignon, merlot, cabernet franc and petit verdot. It's medium-full bodied and, if you'll permit some artistic licence, happy. Bright ice-cream-parlour flavours of berry jam and fresh blackberries collide with subtle vanilla oak. The acidity is crisp and juicy. Try it with roast poultry. The good Teperberg merlot sells for $18.99 in B.C., while the fine 2012 meritage sells in Quebec for $26.20.
Recanati Chardonnay 2012 (Israel)
SCORE : 87 PRICE : $19.95
This could qualify as a crowd-pleaser if not the sort of chardonnay that would drive a white– Burgundy fan into rapture. Plump tropical fruit (thank you, Israeli sunshine) mingles with smooth butter and vanilla. The sweet fruit is nice, but to me it seems to run around in search of more acidity. The 2010 sells for $30.25 in Quebec.
Follow me on Twitter: @Beppi_Crosariol
The Flavour Principle, by Lucy Waverman and Beppi Crosariol, was named best Canadian Food & Drinks Book in the 2014 Gourmand World Cookbook Awards. Published by HarperCollins.