Wines from the Old World

Judean Hills

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One of the most spectacular things about wine – – one of my callings – – is the historical significance. It’s one of the oldest industries in the world (alongside prostitution and war), and has always taken a large role in our ancient civilization. The Greeks had Dionysus (Bacchus),  the Egyptians had Osiris, and Jesus turned water into wine, in one of his most famous miracles.

Trudging through an absurdly hot August in Israel gave me lots of time to reflect (and sometimes hallucinate) exactly where I was and what I was dealing with. The Judean hills sit just outside of Jerusalem, where Abraham planted the first biblical grapes. One would think that the wine industry here would have been booming for the last few thousand years, but after the Caliphate conquest in the middle ages, many of he natural vines were ripped up under Islamic law. Since then, Bordeaux wine guru Edmond J. Rothschild re-established the local wine industry in the late 19th century by importing French vines and European technical know-how.  Soon the Palestinian region was beginning to flourish, and after the creation of modern Israel, winemakers from Europe and Australia were moving in to work with the new area of Mediterranean wines.

In the 1970s, vines began to be planted in the Golan Heights, producing immaculate grapes for wine-making purposes. The basalt terroir, full of volcanic soils, made a wine-maker’s job a relatively easy one compared to many regions around the Mediterranean. The industry in Golan erupted, much like the surrounding volcanoes used to ions ago, and the cannons of territorial war did until very recently. Vineyards blossomed, and fruit orchards were supplemented with grapes in order to gain access to this quickly growing industry.

Not long after, the Judean Hills region to the south, sitting just outside of Jerusalem, began to plant more vines as well. Mostly, grapes were planted for personal use, but as money began to fly in the North, the southern region began to get in on this momentum.

On my tour through Judea, I had the pleasure to visit one of the first wineries created in the modern Judean Hills, Domaine du Castel. Wine-maker Eli Ben Zaken planted the first vines in 1983 and began to make wine for his family and friends. In the last three decades, this modest hobby has turned into a 100 000 bottle organization, and has landed Ben Zaken’s name on the top of  the list of Israeli winemakers. Like many wineries in Israeli, Castel’s wines are Kosher, which means that the complete wine-making process is executed by religious workers. Castel has a small repertoire of wines: a couple of Bordeaux blends, and a Chardonnay, whose grapes are all harvested at the on-site vineyard, or a nearby vineyard managed by a small Kibbutz.

Myself and my party ventured into the tasting room; a small room with antique decor, set to make like an vintage European dining room. The wines were placed in front of us, along with a plate of local, Kosher cheese, paired wonderfully to the wines by our sommelier, Ruth. The Chardonnay, under the label “Blanc du Castel” is crisp and clean. As someone who generally does not run towards Chardonnay, this was a wonderfully palatable wine, which I found myself wanting more of. The use of French oak was very well balanced with the subtle acidity in the wine. The fruity finish left an excellent feeling inside of my body as I was engulfed with a surge of coolness to trump the awesome heat that surrounded my body, still warm from walking through the vineyards. As we began our ascent into the reds, my mind wandered back to when Ruth took us below the crush pad and into the immaculately organized barrel hall. French oak lines the walls like obedient soldier’s waiting for their moment to be heroes. They were filled, or were to be filled, with spectacular wines, and give their part into the ageing process of what was to be in my mouth. We first tasted first the Petit Castel, a majority of which is based off of Cabernet Sauvignon. It’s completed with Merlot, Petit Verdot, Cabernet Franc, and Malbec. The first taste was sharp on my tongue, with a tannic finish, but as I drank the second sip I got a really good feel for what the wine had to offer. It sat in the middle of my palate, balancing as the tannins of the Petit Verdot lapped again the insides of my cheeks. Once I swallowed, I felt the soft finish of Malbec, the velvet, slipping down the back of my tongue towards my throat. The finish was Cabernet Franc: airy and peppery, all the way up into my nasal cavity, and it was all supported by the Cab Sauv, like an army general keeping everything in order. The next item on the list was the flagship wine of Domain du Castel, the Castel Grand Vin. This blend is very similar to the Petit Castel, only in that has a longer maturing period in oak barrels. The winery uses only brand new French barrels, which is something that is seen as a bit odd in most parts of the world. Somehow, though, 22 months in new oak doesn’t seem to effect the brilliance of the fruit used inside of these blends. The Grand Vin had a much softer overtone to it, and the Petit Verdot seemed to be completely lost underneath, perhaps due to the long time in the cellars. The Merlot was definitely more prominent in this wine, winning it’s seat over the Cabernet Franc. This provided a delicious coffee tone to the blend mixed with cranberry, strawberry, and a variety of red fruit. Once the wine was down my throat, I was pleasantly surprised with the strong shock of blackcurrant that in my mouth, mixed with that classic subtle touch of vanilla and nut that only new French can offer. To add to these wines were the amazing cheeses that Ruth had also put before us. Every one of these cheeses, of which there were four, tasted delicious with every one of the wines. Three were goat cheese, and one was from sheep, which really added a whole other dimension to what the wine has to offer as you sit at your dining room table, or outside in the garden, snacking on whatever appetizer you have lying about. These wines were flexible, and I soon found out whenI spent the next night in Jerusalem, that the Blanc du Castel even tastes great on it’s own in a hotel room.

Domaine du Castel provided an excellent insight into Judean wines. Wrapped up in all the delicious flavours and amazing aromas of wines, there was the history that dates back to the biblical era, and also the cradle of the modern-day Judean Hills wine industry. Castel has been well reputed as one of the best wines in not only Israel, but of the entire Mediterranean wine venture. The roster of wines is small, but the taste is big. The reds will age extremely well, so a case of each is good enough to enjoy for the next six or seven years. In the meantime, have some Blanc du Castel to refrain yourself from dipping into your ageing cellar.

Written by Liam Kidner

September 8, 2011 at 7:21 am

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