This summer, the East Coast received the first fruits of La Forêt Blanche, a new winery in Israel, a few kilometers to the south of the former Livni Winery. It is located in the Yatir forest, a historic wine-growing region where the Judean desert joins with the mountains, called the Hevron Heights.
The winery has a physical connection to the Temple, the Beit HaMikdash, because of the location of the vineyard, as that was where the Levites sourced wine to be used in the Temple. Its name, rendered in French, is a tribute to Yaar Levanon, one of the surnames of the Temple. Its flagship wine carries the name as well, in Hebrew.
Yaar Levanon is translated in English as the “White Forest.” The Holy Temple was considered a flourishing, rooted entity like a forest, that spread spiritual fruits (lavan, or whiteness, representing purity) and love to all nations. In a nod to its French winemaker and French CEO, the winery has taken the name of the winery in French: “La Forêt Blanche.”
Three thousand years ago, grapes from this area were used for wine in all of Shlomo HaMelech’s Beit HaMikdash sacrifices. Pottery shards from wine jugs have been unearthed in Tel Hevron, stamped with the royal seal of the Kingdom of Judah (700 BCE), on which the words “For the King of Hevron” can be clearly seen. At an elevation of 950 meters above sea level, the grapes benefit from the vast temperature ranges from cool nights and warm days, allowing the grapes to grow deep and well-nourished roots.
The gold La Forêt Blanche logo, a melding of the initials LFB, resembles a musical note and a musical instrument, and also calls to mind the columns and grandeur of the Holy Temple. “It’s an illustration of the Temple’s natural connection to wine and music,” said CEO Jacques (Yaacov) Bris. “Our connection to the Temple is in the roots, and we expressed that in the name and logo of the winery. The same way trees flourish and give fruits, the Holy Temple gave the fruits of spirituality and love that spread to all nations,” he added.
Bris told The Jewish Link that Menachem Livni began growing grapes in 1995 at Sde Kalev in the Hevron Heights, and initially sold them to other local wineries. The grapes flourished and he added a cherry orchard; by 2009, he had decided to build a winery to make use of his own high-quality vines. The vineyard grows primarily cabernet, shiraz, petit verdot and some pinot noir; the last began as an experiment Livni was doing with a collaborator, Shivi Drori, a plant molecular biologist who is also chief winemaker of the well-known Gvaot Winery, who has done most of his professional research on indiginous grape varietals.
Bris, formerly an e-commerce professional, was initially involved at Livni only as a wine lover. He had learned to appreciate wine in France from a young age, when he accompanied his grandfather, a French mashgiach/winemaker, on harvest trips. “But in 2018, I decided to take part in the expansion and rebranding of this new winery, with Bruno Darmon as winemaker and now partner with Menachem.”
Darmon came to Israel about 35 years ago from France, where he had worked in Bourgogne (Burgundy). He started out working for Efrat Winery (which is now Teperberg), then Yatir. He joined Livni as winemaker in 2009. While French-trained, he has experience learning in Australia and Italy as well, but seeks to place a Mediterranean footprint, based on the location of the grapes in Israel, on his wines. He doesn’t try to make a “French wine in Israel,” or an “Israeli Bordeaux” or Burgundy, etc.
“He tells people he makes ‘Bruno’ wines,” said Bris.
“We made plans to grow our brand with a wider range of wines and increased production. Livni produced 15,000 and 20,000 bottles. La Forêt Blanche will make 70,000 to 80,000 bottles,” said Bris. To make it happen, the team raised funds with a group of investors to build a new ultra-modern facility and visitors center, about 20 kilometers south of the vineyard.
Bris added that the winery honors the history connected to the Holy Temple, and the names of each wine are conceived to honor the connection as well. “Talpiot, for example, is the surname of the Temple, meaning ‘the mount that all mouths turn towards.’ We want to make a wine that is fruity, young, but sophisticated enough that even wine connoisseurs can connect to it,” he said.
My tasting group greatly enjoyed the Talpiot Red 2017, and learned that our local wine shop in Teaneck, Filler Up Kosher Wines, had already sold out of its first order of this bottle but just received a second. We found it juicy, fruity, with a slight menthol finish. It comprises cabernet sauvignon, shiraz and petit verdot. It was a very well-made wine, meant to be drunk young, and was quaffable and pleasant, certainly ready to drink now through next year.
While my group was not able to taste any La Forêt Blanche whites, we were told that the entry-level white blend is the Talpiot White, a melange of unoaked roussanne and chenin blanc. (These whites and some other wines are made with grapes sources from other vineyards.) The second, the Ariel White, won a gold medal at the recent Israel Sommelier Awards. That wine is a blend of viognier and chenin blanc. The winery also makes a Talpiot Rosé, composed of 80% merlot and 20% syrah.
The next-level wines, the Dvir, are the “expression of land,” blended into the bottle, said Bris. The Dvir Cabernet Shiraz Merlot 2017 was very well-rounded, and with an aroma of dark fruits like cherries and blackberries. It won a silver medal at the Israel Sommelier Awards. This wine, aged for 12 months in a mixture of two thirds to one third French and American oak, has some tobacco essence and, at the moment, a more abrupt finish. It was our group’s sense that this wine would benefit from a few additional years of aging, and that the finish would improve over time. Bris agreed that he is currently opening 2013 wines from the Livni Winery, so La Forét Blanche’s Dvir line will probably blossom fully in 2023 or later. For us, this was a “buy and cellar” choice.
We also had the pleasure of trying the Dvir Cabernet Sauvignon 2017. The wine has a nose of cherries and blackberries along with another sense of thyme or mint/menthol, as noted previously in the Talpiot Red. “This wine was aged for 18 months in the barrel, and takes you on a journey uphill, a full experience,” said Bris.
The flagship wine, which is not yet available in America, is the Yaar Levanon, the full translation of La Forêt Blanche, and is an exciting wine that we will look forward to trying around Rosh Hashanah time. “It tells the story of the winery,” said Bris.
La Forêt Blanche wines are imported by Red Garden, with a range available at Filler Up Wines and elsewhere, and are available online-only in Israel.
By Elizabeth Kratz