June 6, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

Golan Heights and Yarden: Cool, Crisp Whites and Rosés for Summer

The northernmost edge of Israel has, over the past 40 years, become a magnificent hub for excellent winemaking. The Golan Heights benefits from fertile soil, high elevation and a Mediterranean climate with an impressive temperature difference between day and night. The vineyards on this volcanic plateau rise from 1,300 feet to 3,900 feet above sea level and receive snowfall in the winter. These factors create an ideal environment for cultivating premium grapes.

Golan Heights Winery is located in the town of Katzrin in the central Golan. Victor Schoenfeld, a graduate of UC Davis’ well-known enology program who did stints at Robert Mondavi and Preston Vineyards in California and the French Champagne house Jacquesson & Fils, has been Yarden’s winemaker since 1991. His wines are considered a benchmark for Israeli wine and a standard to which other winemakers must hold themselves. Yarden Wines, in particular, have a reputation for balance, ageability and quality.

While its proximity to Lebanon and the northern border created difficult war-like conditions this past year, their wines have not suffered in quality. Wines from this region, arguably the best in Israel, continue to rise in popularity and acclaim. It should be noted that the Golan Heights Winery 2023 harvest, an 11-week effort, took place immediately before and during the aftermath of the Oct. 7 attack, and took place under exceedingly stressful conditions. “In the lead-up to the vintage, we experienced late seasonal rains, a cool spring followed by a warm summer. The spring saw some damage from frost and hail, while the summer witnessed extreme heat events and fires, causing further damage,” wrote Schoenfeld in his 2023 wrap-up report, which was published on Facebook. “As a result, our yields were 16% below average, though the quality remained high.

“This will be remembered as the harvest of war. Even as we learned of the horrific details of our country’s darkest moment, we rose every morning — and every evening for those on night shift — to fulfill our responsibilities,” he wrote.

With its flagship label Yarden, as well as labels Gilgal (Gamla in Israel) and Mount Hermon, Golan Heights Winery has become known for its distinctive high-end as well as its affordable wines made in this unique terroir, producing a diverse array of offerings, several with unexpected grape varieties, notably Alsatian (pinot gris and gewurztraminer) and Portuguese (touriga nacional and tinta cão). Especially in their crisp whites, their varietally correct and ever-consistent vintages showcase the remarkable diversity and possibilities of Israeli wine. Galil Mountain Winery, which is 50% owned by Golan Heights Winery, works together with Golan Heights Winery on consultation and distribution.

It was a particular pleasure to spend an evening tasting new releases of white and rosé selections from Golan Heights, most from the 2023 vintage. My favorites of the evening were the Gilgal Blanco 2023 ($18) and the Mount Hermon White 2023 ($14). These remarkably affordable wines are fresh, crisp and delicious, with notes of off-dry sweetness in the nose and palate that still finish as dry wines. The Blanco in particular was beautifully balanced with aromas combining two grapes Yarden makes exceedingly well: 55% sauvignon blanc and 45% muscat canelli. The wine’s primary aromas were of peach, apricot, melon, citrus and tropical fruits, creating a pleasing and refreshing wine. The finish is dry but leans toward off dry. Blanco should be in everyone’s fridge this summer and makes an amazing apéritif as well as an excellent pairing for dairy dishes.

By the same token, the Mount Hermon White is likely the best inexpensive Israeli wine on the market, punching way above its price point. Aromas of lemon, honeydew melon, green apple and honeysuckle abound, in addition to notes of unripe peach and grapefruit. In addition to what I think must be a base of sauvignon blanc with a bit of muscat canelli, I believe some amount of chardonnay must be present in this blend, though it is a proprietary blend so the blend is not listed. This wine is exceedingly drinkable and enjoyable, with a fruity but dry (possibly leaning toward off-dry) finish.

 

Another favorite was the Yarden Pinot Gris 2023 ($21), which has a unique quality of salinity in addition to a light fruity aroma of apple and melon, that makes it a great pairing option for smokey or strong cheeses and main courses with tomato sauce. Pinot gris, one of the noble grapes of the Alsace wine region of France, is a blush colored grape which renders a white white with an ever-so-slight-pink tinge. Pinot gris differs from the Italian pinot grigio in winemaking style only, in that gris sit longer together with the skins rather than being separated immediately.

Another noble grape of the Alsace is made by Yarden in the Yarden Gewurztraminer 2023 ($24), which is extremely aromatic with notes of lychee, passion fruit and even spices like clove and cardamom. Tropical fruit abounds here with a lower acidity level and a shorter finish, making it a great pairing option for Indian foods or other foods that are well spiced.

I had the opportunity to taste all three of Yarden 2023 rosé wines, as well as their Brut Rosé 2018 ($50). These wines were less aromatic than the whites but certainly varietally correct, and included charming additions of lesser known grapes such as touriga nacional and tinta cão, two Portuguese grapes that Yarden uses magnificently in their 2T red wine (a winter favorite of mine!). The Galil Mountain Rosé 2023 ($15) has a thinner body with exceedingly light mouthfeel and notes of strawberry and raspberry. The Mount Hermon Rosé 2023 has some nice acidity and an overwhelming aroma of strawberries and cream, with perhaps a touch of cherry candy. The color of this wine is pure pink cotton candy, a beauty which adds to its enjoyment. The pale Yarden Rosé 2023 ($32) has gorgeous notes of pineapple, peach and red apple and is easy and effortless to drink. I think my favorite compliment for this wine is that it has no sharp edges. It’s perfectly balanced and asks nothing of its drinker but to enjoy.

Lastly, I have written before, many times, about the Yarden Brut Rosé, which freaked out our tasting group only a little because the 2018 vintage appears to have little to no discernable pink tinge. It has lovely aromatic notes of apple, yeast and bread, nice round bubbles and later developing fruit notes (as the wine warms in the glass) of kiwi, strawberry and lime. Because it is made in the traditional Champagne method (méthode traditionnelle) and has been aged sur lees for five years, the 2018 is the newest vintage, and it is worth buying for your smachot a few years down the road because the price will only rise or it will become harder to find. This wine sells out annually, for good reason. It is likely the highest quality Israeli bubbly available, exceedingly consistent from vintage to vintage.

Yarden Wines are available wherever fine kosher wines are sold. Chag Shavuot Sameach!

By Elizabeth Kratz

 

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