Tuesday, March 28, 2023

It was the dream of David Ben-Gurion to make the desert bloom; but perhaps none other than Roni Jesselson and his team at the Yatir Winery, in the Negev at the southernmost end of Israel, have taken this dream so much to heart. Jesselson, who is part of the family that also owns mega-winery Carmel, works with a team of dedicated desert devotees, including Export Director Etti Edri, who has turned Yatir, and its newest brand, Darom by Yatir, into worldwide proof that quality, highly sought-after wines come from the Negev. Industry veteran Eran Goldwasser is the winemaker of these special wines, and Yaakov Ben-Dor, Yatir’s general manager, is one of the winery’s most experienced growers, having worked in the Negev—quite literally making the desert bloom—for the past 40 years.

“This is an excellent place to grow grapes. We have made structured, focused and accessible wines with a value profile,” said Ben-Dor.

Darom by Yatir has three wines—a red, a white and a rosé—and seeks to offer a more accessible price point, designed for a variety of weeknight or Shabbat food pairings, from fish and chicken, to pizza, pasta or even ribs. While the wines’ suggested retail price is just under $30, they are significantly more affordable than Yatir’s higher-end offerings, particularly the flagship wines like Yatir Forest, which retails at around $90.

Jesselson said that the wines with the red anemone-flowered Darom label—darom, meaning “south”—highlights the Negev as an up-and-coming southern wine region of Israel with a “Beaujolais-meets-Southern-Rhône-Valley” feel. The vineyards, hot and dry during the day, enjoy a dry and cold climate at night, with specific varietals of wine, like zinfandel, syrah and marselan, doing extremely well in this type of climate and terroir with extreme diurnal variation.

According to Edri, the wines that have emerged are quality-driven yet mellow, relaxed but also self-confident and unpretentious. “They are affordable but also complex,” she added.

The Yatir team presented its new Darom line last week to members of the media, including myself and our wonderful photographer Bracha Schwartz, whose photography accompanies this article. It was our pleasure to taste all three wines at Salt Steakhouse in Long Branch, where the thought put into each wine pairing was exquisite.

The evening began with the 2021 Darom Rosé served as an aperitif, served alongside sushi and dumplings, as well as with the first course, a stunningly plated yellowtail ceviche. The rosé is a unique blend composed of 34% grenache, 3% old vine zinfandel and 33% red muscat. The citrus and stone fruit scent of the wine’s nose paired notably with the slices of blood orange and cucumber that accompanied the delicate ceviche.

Next, the 2021 Darom White is a 100% sauvignon blanc composed of fruit from two separate vineyards, including the Negev’s Arad Valley. This is a well balanced sauvignon blanc that worked well with a perfectly cooked sous vide chicken breast and slices of a seared goose breast. While they were both technically poultry dishes, the chef’s interpretation showed that chicken and goose are at either end of the white and dark meat fowl spectrum. The chicken was light and moist while the goose had more depth and a meaty texture. The dish was served alongside sunchoke and sweet potato puree, a pomegranate reduction, crushed hazelnuts and a goose demi-glace. For those paying attention to this past year’s wine guide, this bottle ranked No. 10 in the Jewish Link Wine Guide 2022 in the category of “top 25 white wines under $25.”

Finally, the 2020 Darom Red was served with a main course trio of lamb, spicy merguez sausage and red wine-braised short ribs. The deep red wine, composed of 60% shiraz, 20% old vine zinfandel, 12% marselan and 7% grenache noir, is made from fruit from both the Negev and the southern Judean Hills. This wine, initially fermented in stainless steel with some in concrete and large open wooden foudres (vats), was then further aged for nine months in closed wooden foudres. On the nose, the wine has blueberry and other dark fruit aromas, with a lovely mouthfeel, extremely soft tannins and a pleasant finish. The wine went equally well with the spicy merguez, the lush and butter-soft short ribs and elegant loin of medium rare roasted loin of lamb without a drop of fat.

A final course at Salt was the beautifully plated “Chocolate Paradise,” which contained a mixture of chocolate logs, a mushroom-shaped meringue dusted with cocoa, fruit puree and crushed pistachio. A last sip of red wine paired effortlessly with that as well: a final statement that Yatir’s Darom wines are equally at home with the finest dinner out or a casual meal at home.

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