December 14, 2012

Wines of Israel Part 2 - Tzuba Winery

Yesterday, we had a birthday to celebrate. Because of the slippery accident mentioned in my previous post, dinner was at home in our tiny French apartment, which has minimal cooking facilities. The absolute highlight of the meal was a fabulous bottle of a Bordeaux style blend from Tzuba Estate Winery. This prompted me to share the story of this little winery, which I had the pleasure of visiting last month.
In November, I tasted Israeli wines for the first time and was generally delighted by the quality and diversity.  Israel is a hot, dry country for much of the year, and has a a history of vine growing that goes back to biblical times. Still, as I mentioned in my first article, we generally don't drink much Israeli wine in North America.
The wines I tasted were generally big, bold and balanced - rich in fruit, with nice acidity, earthy elements where required and well integrated tannins. Almost everything was ready for drinking relatively young, suiting 95% of wine purchase requirements, but I have more to explore in this department when I return - next week.
In general, the varieties grown are French, and some Italian and include Syrah, Cab Sauv, Cab Franc, Merlot, Mourvedre, Viognier, Chardonnay, Semillon, Sauv Blanc, Sangiovese and  more. Some are bottled as straight varietals, and Bordeaux and Rhone style blends are common. The modern wine industry in Israel is quite young and still experimental in some ways, so everyone seems to be growing everything to find out what works best.
According to Paul Dubb, the young winemaker at Tzuba, some work is being carried out at Tel Aviv University on a handful of ancient indigenous varieties, some of them from Druze communities, which survived historical uprooting of vines. It will be very exciting if some currently unknown varieties appear in the future.

Paul  hopes that wineries will continue to focus on the particular varieties that grow best in their regions, which comprise Galilee and Golan Heights, Shomron (south of Galilee), Samson (between Jerusalem and the Mediterranean Sea), Judean Hills and even parts of the Negev desert - in other words, most of Israel. 
At Tzuba, in the Judean Hills, they make very good wines - whites, reds and dessert wines, all popular, all good. Surprisingly, despite the hot summers, wine drinkers in Israel sip much more red wine than white. Yet, according to Paul,  the Judean Hills is ideal for Chardonnay and Viognier, as well as Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc. His ultimate goal is to focus on whites, a high end Bordeaux blend and Syrah. Demand for wines from this boutique winery, which only produces about 50,000 bottles a year, outstrips supply. About 30% is sold at the winery, (some before they're even labelled), as much as 60% goes to export and the rest is sold locally.

Paul grew up around wine. His father was a winemaker in Stellenbosch, South Africa ( an area I'm happy to say I'll be exploring in February). He started making wine when he was sixteen, studied Hebrew, and moved to Israel. He's been growing vines and making wine at Tzuba since 1996, with excellent results, due in no small part to careful vineyard management and intelligent experimentation, both with winemaking and cask selection.
In the vineyards, on rocky and ancient terraces, many of the plantings face south west, for equal ripening. At 700 metres, the humidity is low, and the Mediterranean climate provides warm days and cool nights  throughout the growing season. High density plantings and regular thinning throughout the season provides low yields of 7 to 10 tonnes per hectare of high quality grapes. Soil moisture is monitored throughout the season and drip irrigation is used after the harvest to return minerals into the vines.
The grapes are all hand-picked and gently handled during the wine making process.  Paul has carried out much experimentation with different types of French oak, in his quest for the perfect cask for different wines. The winery has its own bottling machine, and so can precisely dictate when the various wines should be bottled.
All of this careful work has resulted in  excellent products, some of which I tasted last month. Here are some reviews.

2011 Chardonnay

I'm not a big fan of overly oaky or creamy Chardonnay. I like my whites crisp, so prefer Chardonnay that hasn't seen any or much oak. Tzuba's 2011 is a great Chardonnay, with beautiful fruit on the nose, (pears, melons, passion fruit, guava) and perfect acidity on the palate to balance the wonderful fresh fruit. I loved this. It was so refreshing. After fermentation, the wine was left on the lees (sur lies) for a while, then half was aged in stainless steel and half in French oak barrels for 8 months, prior to bottling. Previously, I had tried a 2010 version and, for my palate, it was a tad too creamy. Interestingly, the oak aging for the 2010 included two different types of French oak. For the 2011, Paul used only the best, new, Bourgogne Perle Blanche barrels and vinification was identical. Given the consistency of the growing season, year over year, the difference in character can certainly be attributed in part to the specific barrel aging. EXCELLENT wine, around $20. If you're fortunate enough to find any, stock up. Drink it on its own, with many kinds of fish, chicken dishes or with a  fabulous array of appetizers.

2011 Semillon/Sauvignon Blanc

This was a 50/50 blend. The grapes were crushed and pressed together and maturation was 50% second use barrels and 50% stainless steel. This was an elegant wine, gentle on the nose, with aromas of almonds, pears and ripe green apples. It would have been fun to have tasted a slightly aged 2010. But this particular wine is in high demand and  Tzuba can't keep it on the shelves. Nice problem. Paul opened a second bottle of this, as the first one wasn't "crunchy" enough for his liking - a great term! A VERY NICE WINE. Also around $20.

2010 Syrah

Northern Rhone wine lovers - take note. This lovely wine, 100% Syrah, was spicy, big and elegant after 14 months in a  mixture of old and new French oak. This was drinking very well now, with the tannins already quite nicely integrated. It will be lovely for a few years to come. We talked a bit about age-ability of Israeli wines, in general. I haven't tasted a massive amount as yet, but my feeling is that most of them will drink better young. Paul agrees with this and says that about 10 to 15 years would be the maximum for aging the right wines. In the case of this Syrah, the low volatile acidity in the grapes and minimal use of the tannin press, invites early drinking. A VERY GOOD WINE. Match it up with slow cooked lamb shanks in a rich sauce, involving dried fruits.

Metzuda 2009 and 2010

The 2009 version was the one I poured for that birthday dinner I mentioned. An excellent blend of 70% Cabernet Sauvignon, 15% Merlot and 15% Cabernet Franc, aged for 24 months in French oak, this is a well-balanced, elegant wine, with gorgeous black fruits, some minty herbs, and a bit of chocolate on the nose. It's full bodied, silky smooth, with a bit of spiciness and just the right amount of acidity to balance the opulent fruit. it has a long, satisfying finish. Very moreish. Very delicious. Perfect for drinking now and for a few more years. EXCELLENT WINE. $30 range.
The 2010 is a slightly different blend - 60% Cab Sauv, 30% Merlot, 10% CF. It's still young but, according to Paul, will be even better than the 2009. The weather during the growing season was near perfect with few heatwaves, resulting in perfect yields.

Dessert wines

We tried a few dessert wines. A late harvest Chardonnay, (who knew!), sweet from natural fermentation, and, after a year in older barrels, displayed figs, white sultanas and nice acidity. It will mature up very nicely.
Another of the same, after 5 years in barrels, displayed a fabulous nose of honey, apricots, and cognac; but we both agreed that it was lacking in the racy acidity needed to counteract the sweetness. Paul plans to tone back on the heavy presses which dilutes the sugars and diminishes the acidity.
A delicious port style red, made from Cabernet Sauvignon grapes, grown in the outside rows with no shade, was absolutely delicious - resembling a Late Bottled Vintage. The grapes are naturally sweet and delicately handled. They're left on the peel for a couple of months, have minimal fortification to go from about 15% to 18% alcohol and then barrel aged as long as Paul feels is necessary, followed by some bottle aging. OUTSTANDING. Only about 4 cases are produced each year, so I'm delighted that the one in the photo is mine!
With aromas of prunes, figs and raisins, marzipan, Christmas pudding......this will be amazing with cold nights, good friends, chocolate desserts, a strong blue cheese - or Christmas pudding. There you go - Kosher wine and Christmas pudding - a gentle way to integrate the world.

Cheers! L'Chaim!
Check back soon and join me as I visit more wineries.