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