Sunday, May 27, 2007

Fruit of the Vine

In South Florida’s liquor stores, you aren’t likely to find an Israel wine section. Start tasting Israeli wines, and you will wish you could find them at home.

Most Americans think of Israeli wines in the same category as kosher wines. Kosher wines sold readily in the U.S. don’t usually rate Spectator points, and unless you or your guests keep kosher, you probably won’t want to bother.

Turns out that Israel offers a wide selection of high quality wines, some kosher and some not.

On this trip I’ve tasted a table red wine from Gamla (smooth and quite drinkable) and a superb oaky merlot-cab blend in a 2003 vintage from Yatir, which is located in the Negev Desert (yes, in the desert.)

Today I visited the Amphorae winery, north of Tel Aviv near the town of Zichron Ya’akov. The winemaker there is the highly regarded Gil Shatzberg, who trained in both Israel and California before opening his own winery with a partner. The winery’s first vintage was a 2000; the boutique operation (think hand cut grapes, wine bottled and labeled on premises) produces 70,000-80,000 bottles per year.

Israeli wines, he explained, have a high alcohol content – about 14 percent – thanks to strong sunlight that produces higher sugar levels. He seeks to make wines that fit well with the spices and ingredient in local foods.

The results are admirable. His 2005 chardonnay was fresh and crisp – much lighter than a California-style chard – and retails for under $20. His '04 Med.Red cabernet makes a good table wine and sells for under $15. The day's winner was his '03 cabernet (about $30) that proved to be dry and woodsy, with hints of coffee and chocolate.

Amphorae’s 2006 release will be about half its usual size. The vines themselves are located far to the north, near the border, and many were destroyed by tanks and hungry animals during last year’s fighting. He's calling the vintage Grapes of Wrath. To be a farmer, he says, “You have to be stubborn.’’

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