January 23, 2013

Swiss Wines - Lavaux, a UNESCO World Heritage Site dating back to the 11th Century

Switzerland is a beautiful country full of mountains, lakes, rivers, glaciers, picturesque villages, exciting mountain roads, interesting cities - and vineyards. Everywhere you travel there are vineyards, often planted on the sides of sweeping hills at an angle so precipitous it's difficult to imagine how the grapes are harvested.
Swiss wines are not often found outside the country, purportedly because most of it is drunk in the country, but there are some very interesting and tasty wines being produced in Switzerland, so a  visit there should definitely include some vineyard exploration.
One of the most planted grapes in Switzerland is Chasselas, called Fendant in the Valais, a region which produces about 40% of all Swiss wines. Chasselas wine is the perfect accompaniment to any rich cheesy dish like fondue, raclette and such like. It is also the perfect wine with which to make that aforementioned cheese fondue.
The LCBO has three Swiss wines on the books and they're all Chasselas, under $20. Currently, they're all available at Rideau/King Edward, as well as a few other stores.
If you're interested in unusual grape varieties, look no further than Switzerland where the following are grown - Sylvaner, Humagne, Arvine, Savagnin (also called Traminer, a mutation of Gewurztraminer), Cornalin, Ermitage, Lafnetscha, Himbertscha, Reze, Durize, Eyholzer Roter, Diolinoir, Gamaret, Plant Robert - to name a few! Add to that more well known varieties like Syrah, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Gamay and more, and the country is a veritable tasting paradise.
The Valais wine route is about 60kms long and offers multiple itineraries between Martigny and Leuk. Further north west, on Lac Leman (Lake Geneva) lies beautiful Montreux, home of the famous jazz festival, where I spent a week in October. With its micro climate and abundance of floral delights, it's an extremely picturesque place to visit.

Heading west towards Lausanne, along the north shore of the lake, lies the brilliant area of Lavaux, a UNESCO World Heritage site, with a wine history dating back to monks in the 11th century. From Montreux, I took a local bus and a short mountainous train ride into a tranquil area covering 40km along the lake shore, and including 14 villages and small towns, nestled among vineyards plunging down to lake level. Here, one can walk  for miles, in absolute peace, through ancient pathways and medieval villages. At harvest time I was intrigued to see what looked like a funicular pulley system being used to bring baskets of grapes from higher slopes. Things were buzzing in the vineyards and wineries, but it didn't stop one of the winemakers from handing me a bunch of chasselas grapes to munch on as I wandered around taking photos.
Tastings are available at many of the small wineries, but also at the Lavaux Vinorama in Rivaz, down at lake level, where Sandra Joye and her team delight in instructing and leading tastings of some of the 200 or so wines of Lavaux.
I popped in to the Vinorama and tasted some wines with Luis from Portugal. Among the more unusual wines tasted were..........
  • A 2010 Chemin de Terre blend from Luc Massy Epesses in the village of Dezaley. This was an improbable blend of Pinot, Gamay, Merlot, Cab Sauv and Syrah. Very tasty, with lots of fruit, spice, minerality and good balance, but at over $50 a bottle, (about $40 at the vinorama), I thought it was a tad overpriced.
  • A 2009 Alumisence made from Plant Robert (grape variety)  and produced by Jean Christophe Picard, Le Daley, near the village of Vilette. Luis told me that Plant Robert is a natural mutation of Gamay, possibly ancient and only growing in Lavaux. It reminded me of a Beaujolais Cru; the nose was nicely perfumed, with liquorice, black fruits and violets. It was rich and spicy on the palate, with good structure and balance. This was around $27 at the Vinorama.
  • A 2010 Humagne Rouge (grape variety) from Chateau de Glerolles in Saint-Saphorin. A bit unbalanced - still tannic, but not enough fruit and acidity. Humagne Rouge is a another Gamay mutation. Around $38 at the Vinorama.
The wines from Lavaux are unique but not inexpensive. However the area is beautiful and wonderful to walk through.  It's well worth a  visit!

Cheers! Sante!

January 18, 2013

Carol's picks for Israeli wines at the LCBO

If you're a regular reader, you'll know that I'm in Israel at the moment and that I am thoroughly enamoured with Israeli wines. So I'm going to stick my neck out and recommend some that are on the shelves in limited quantities in a handful of stores. I mentioned in a  previous post that there are about 50 on the LCBO books, but further delving into the online inventory system, showed that many are unavailable in Ottawa, sold out everywhere in Ontario, or represent the entry level wines from the wineries in question. But there are still a few that I invite you to try.
It was about 24C here today, and a quick look at Environment Canada's website is showing -17C in Ottawa - ouch! So, perhaps a nice glass of red wine is just the thing.
Every story needs a few photos, so I'll insert various random and unrelated photos as I go.

Israel produces over 30M bottles of wine a year, and a number of wineries have won top awards and been recognized at lofty levels by Decanter World Wine Awards, Wine Spectator Magazine, and wine experts like Robert Parker and Hugh Johnson. 30M bottles is not a huge amount by global standards. As my next port of call is South Africa, I checked in with the wosa website - Wines of South Africa, and the 2012 production level is estimated at 872M litres.
Nevertheless, in no particular order, here are some recommendations.

Yarden Mount Hermon Red $18.10

About 200 in Ontario, 11 at Rideau and King Edward. Yarden is the flagship label of Golan Heights Winery, one of Israel's most acclaimed wineries. This wine is generally made from Bordeaux grape varieties grown in the Golan Heights. I've tasted many Yarden wines over here and none have disappointed. Last night I had a Yarden Chardonnay from the Odem Organic Vineyard and it was outstanding, as was the fish at Eadra Restaurant on Herzl Street, Rehovot - just in case you're in the neighbourhood.

Shiloh Chardonnay 2010 $23.95

Four stores in Ottawa have some stock. This winery is located in the Judean Hills, a source of some very good Chardonnay.

Clos de Gat Chardonnay 2009 $47.95

Available at Rideau and King Edward and Carleton Place. Not in everyone's price bracket, but the late Israeli wine critic, Daniel Rogov, likened this to a Burgundian Montrachet. Located in the foothills of the Judean Hills, Clos de Gat is regarded as one of Israel's top wineries. Of the 33 Montrachet's in the online system, only one was less than this price.

Recanati Reserve Merlot 2007 $28.95

Available at Bank and Walkley and Carleton Place. A full bodied wine, ready for drinking now. From the best vineyards of this central coast winery.

Galil Mountain Shiraz $17.95

Rideau and King Edward. From a well respected winery and one of the biggest producers in the country. This is from the entry level series. If you like it, request and keep your eyes open for the flagship series - Yiron, Meron and Avivim

Clos de Gat Ayalon Valley 2007 $47.95

Rideau and King Edward, Stittsville and Carleton Place. Made from Cab Sauv, Merlot and Petit Verdot, and awarded 94 by the aforementioned Daniel Rogov.

Margalit Enigma 2006 $98

Only 18 left in Thornhill, but I wanted to mention this Bordeaux blend, from one of the top rated wineries in Israel.

Flam Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve 2005 $75

48 available online, ready for drinking now and highly rated by Daniel Rogov. Grapes sourced from vineyards in the Upper Galilee.

Other wineries to explore

Labels alone don't guarantee good wines, as most wineries have entry level, mid level and high end wines.  The differences reflect vineyard quality, vinification techniques, aging procedures and much more. I've certainly enjoyed wines from Castel, Yatir, Chateau Golan, Tzora, Teperberg, Somek, Tulip, Pelter, Hans Sternbach, Dalton, as well as the others I've mentioned in recent posts.

Hans Sternbach Winery

Located in the Judean Hills, this has to be one of the tiniest wineries in Israel, and one that we stumbled upon, only because of the previously mentioned bunch of grapes sign. Special mention has to be made of the 2009 Janaba Reserve, an elegant  Cab Sauv Cab Franc blend, with definite age-ability, from a  tiny sub-valley within the estate.

Dalton Winery

Dalton is located in the Galilee, with vineyards at an elevation of 870m. The winery produces a wide range of varietals and blends and we tasted a number of them - on Christmas Day, as it happens. There were some great value, tasty whites - chardonnay, sauvignon blanc and chard/viognier. There are a number of Dalton wines in the LCBO, but the reds didn't really speak to me until the high end Reserve Series wines, none of which are currently available in Ontario. A 2010 Merlot reserve was showing good aging potential, the 2008 Cab Sauv had a lovely nose with eucalyptus, mint and blackcurrants, good balance and a nice, underwhelming 13.5% alcohol. The Shiraz reserve 2010, at 16% alcohol was too big a wine for my taste. All of these were in the $30 level at the winery. We didn't taste the flagship Matatia Cab/Merlot blend, priced around $90 at the winery.

Jeep Riding in the Jerusalem Hills

Nothing to do with wine, but that's what I'm doing tomorrow. Stay tuned!

January 16, 2013

Eureka - Amphorae!

 With few exceptions, I've managed to get lost finding my way to most wineries in Israel. For good reason, roadside advertising is generally frowned upon, and signs that exist are small, and often have no English writing. Nothing wrong with that. This is not England. But it does make it awfully hard at times to find places. Our GPS doesn't seem to acknowledge the existence of any wineries, and website maps don't always point to the winery! It's very hard to miss Carmel - Israel's biggest and oldest winery. It looms large in the cute little  town of Zichron Ya'acov, on the slopes of Mount Carmel. But many of the others are small, boutique wineries, sometimes growing their grapes elsewhere, resulting in no vines to point the way.  I've become a dab hand at spotting the occasional sign with a bunch of grapes, surrounded by some words in my favourite incomprehensible language.

Amphorae Winery

Poor navigational skills notwithstanding, I was delighted to find Amphorae wines on the first attempt. The beautiful stone winery building, with a Tuscan feel, stands near the village of Kerem Maharal, on the slopes of the Carmel mountain range.
 Inside the winery, a hospitable team, led by Riva Ilyaev, and one of her team, Sharon, was delighted to open up some fabulous cheeses, warm up some wonderful bread and pour a range of Amphorae wines.

 Amphorae produces about 50,000 bottles a year from vineyards in the northern Golan Heights and the Jerusalem Hills. In addition to their own winemaking team, they successfully engaged the services of renowned wine consultant, Michel Rolland, which says a lot about the desire to produce good wines. The winery is a super visit, and was buzzing with guests the day we were there - probably one of the reasons why they were  out of white and rose wines. The entry level Mediterranean Series, generally priced just under $20, was big in alcohol and flavour - think lamb stews and juicy BBQ fare. Mainly Cabernet Sauvignon with a little Syrah, the 2008 Med Red was admirable, good value, ready for drinking now, and for another 3 years or so. The Rhyton 2008 boasted longer barrel aging, and was a nicely balanced, elegant blend of Cab Sauv, Syrah and Merlot.

 A quick look at the tasting pricelist above will show that the prices jump substantially for the Makura series. Riva tells me that the prices at the winery are higher than in stores, a phenomenon I also noticed in Chile and don't fully understand. Presumably it's to encourage stores to take more stock, in the hopes that consumers will buy there, rather than at the winery. The danger is that many will not follow up on the intent to go somewhere else to buy the wine. Tasters often feel more inclined to buy at the source of the actual experience.
I have to say that the Maharal 2006, a blend of 80% Merlot and 20% Barbera, from grapes grown in Kefar Yuval in the Golan Heights, was one of the best wines I've tasted in Israel. Aged 30 months in new French oak barrels, then further aged for 18 months in the bottle, it was my kind of wine. Perfectly balanced, with a meaty nose and  more earthy, mineral characteristics than big fruit, I simply loved this wine. Served with local olives and a strong, runny, delicious goat cheese with walnuts, this was a culinary highlight.

We also tasted the Makura 2006 and 2007 versions of a blend of Syrah, Cab Sauv and Merlot. The 2006 spent 3 years in oak and 18 months in bottle, and comprised 42.5% Syrah, 35.5% Cab Sauv and 22.5% Merlot. The 2007, made with similar care and attention, appealed more to my palate but generally  I wasn't a big fan of this blend, in these proportions. The 2006, 100% Cabernet Sauvignon was a bit overwhelming - 15.3% alcohol, big fruit and tannins and probably destined to be delicious in 5 years. At about $80, that would be a good outcome. The 2007 was gentler. I would say that serious wine lovers and collectors would do well to taste the Makura line at the winery, make selections, and then check out the prices at various stockists.
 We joined a quick tour of the state of the art winery, barrel room, and bottling area, then headed back to our spot at the tasting bar to taste a drop of the 2008 port style dessert wine. As I overhead one patron lamenting the fact that his favourite white wine wasn't available, I concluded that there's something for everyone at this lovely little winery. And, although it's unlikely, if you don't find a wine you love, there are cheeses and olives and all kinds of other goodies for tasting and purchase.
Cheers! L'Chaim

January 15, 2013


I have an excellent dilemma. I'm very fortunate to be travelling around at the moment, living in new places, absorbing  new cultures, tasting new wines. Each day I have a choice between writing about what's just happened (for an unknown audience, although Google stats is somewhat encouraging) or heading out and doing more stuff. What would you do? The answer's obvious, hence the one month gap since my last story.
Now that the mea culpa is out of the way, I'm here, primarily to continue the euphoria about Israeli wines and to share some travel stories. (Photos at the end of this post).
And the title - Wonderful?

Tabor Winery

So far I've visited or tasted wines from about 30 wineries in Israel, but one of the most surprisingly delicious wines I've tasted is a dry, 5.5% alcohol, sparkling pomegranate wine from Tabor Winery, a gift from the winemaker.
Amir Sarig - one of Tabor's winemakers

I'm not generally a fan of wines made from anything other than grapes, but this is a beautiful summer sipping kind of wine. I realize that this might be a cruel thing to read in Ottawa in January but, never fear,  summer will come around again. The wine, named after a species of pomegranate called Wonderful, is deliciously refreshing, with subtle fruit, not "in your face" pomegranate. The winery uses an interesting closure format for its sparkling wines, comprising a metal strip around the cork, which can be opened with a spoon.
With current production levels close to 2M bottles per annum, Tabor is a well respected winery and the sixth largest in Israel. It's located in the Lower Galilee, with local vineyards, as well as others in Upper Galilee and the Golan Heights.
The charming and knowledgeable Zoe led us through a tasting of some of Tabor's wines. We started with a couple of sparklers from the Pearls collection - a semi sweet Gewurztraminer Viognier blend, followed by a dry Barbera. While the former appeals more to local tastes, I preferred the Barbera - refreshing, with a nice mineral character and gentle raspberries on the nose and palate. Well priced at about $12.
A Chablis style chardonnay from the Har (Mountain) collection at about $10 was a recent "best value" award winner - and rightly so! Likewise, a Merlot from the same collection was very decent.
The 2009 Adama Merlot from basalt soil, was surprisingly light, fruity and crisp for a 14.1% wine that had spent a year in barrel and a year in bottle. At about $15, this was another great value wine. I note that there is a 2009 Tabor Merlot, available in the LCBO for about $18. This could be the same one or it could be the Har Merlot. Hard to say until I see the bottle. As I mentioned in a previous post, Israeli wines go largely unnoticed on the shelves. Such a shame, as there are over 50 Israeli wines on the LCBO books, and many of them are worth a sip or two.
The Adama II restaurant collection has numerous varietal and blended wines from Syrah, Cab Sauv, Merlot and Petite Sirah. The 2008 Syrah, although at a whopping 15.4% ABV, was nicely balanced, with a big rich, spicy, mineral nose, lots of black fruit, great acidity, more spice and long finish. About $20 and fabulous.
Among other things, we bought a bottle of the beautifully packaged, Limited Edition (19,000 bottles) 2007 Cab Sauv, made from the best grapes, best vineyards, aged in the best oak. I think that it was about $29, and we have high expectations after trying the still young 2009 version. One of the issues with not writing things up immediately is trying to decipher Hebrew receipts, which are largely incomprehensible to me, not to mention apparently upside down and backwards. So $29 could in fact be the price of some random grocery item.
As we are leaving Israel in a  couple of weeks and heading to South Africa, and are ever conscious of expanding luggage, the plan is to enjoy the 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon on Friday January 25th, probably without haggis, to celebrate a special Scottish birthday. We should be quaffing Scotch, of course, for Robert Burns' birthday, but we're down to the last dribbles of the  Dalmore 15 year old (very smooth, easy drinking Scotch by the way) and it'll be gone by the 25th.
Courtesy of Dalmore website

Some Israel and Jordan photos

Before I move on to some other wineries, here's a brief pictorial journey through some of Israel and Jordan.

Hula Agamon Lake in Galilee

500 million birds migrate annually
Hula Agamon bird sanctuary

Petra, Jordan


Path to Petra

Petra - 300 BC, stunningly preserved


Camel riding instruction at Petra

Made it!

Petra - built by the Nabateans

Petra transportation system

Petra - impressive

Rock formations in Petra

Rock formations in Petra

Bedouin camel

Eilat on Red Sea, Jordanian mountains behind     

Mishpe Ramon Crater
en route to Masada

Check back soon!