Vitkin Wine Dinner at Herbert Samuel and July 2020 Winery Visit

This post has been a long time coming. Months actually. I returned from my last trip to the US at the very end of February and the very next open week night – I think it was March 1 – I attended another wine dinner at Herbert Samuel in Hertzlia, this time for Vitkin. I had every intention of writing about the experience, but before I could publish, the Corona pandemic hit in full force – and quite frankly it just seemed out of place especially as the restaurant was and (as of this writing) still is on hiatus. But a few weeks ago, things seemed to be going in the right direction, and I started scheduling visits to wineries to taste through the current releases – and Vitkin was of course on my list. How could it not be? Since its transition to kosher five years ago it has consistently put out good to excellent wines vintage after vintage at all price points.  So the time has come to write up both my most recent visit and the dinner I attended in March which featured some different wines.

Dinner at Herbert Samuel – March 2020

First – while I have written about Chef Mor Cohen and Herbert Samuel in the past, something has become clear to me. In the last year, I have been invited to four or five winery dinners taking place at Herbert Samuel. It is clear to me when the winery really works with the chef to tailor the menu to the wines AND the wines to the menu. I have refrained from writing about the less successful pairings as it’s really not fair. Some wineries are better at creating this type of experience than others – and neither the winery nor the restaurant should be penalized when a winery simply is not as good at others in putting something like this together. What I can say here, though, is that both the chef and the vintner were in absolutely lockstep. Vitkin produces more whites than reds – and the menu was carefully designed to highlight those whites – not at the expense of the reds but in a really well thought out progression. While there are elements of certain dishes that I had tasted before – some off their regular menu, and some at other winery dinners, each was matched to the wines perfectly. 

Assaf Paz, Mor Cohen and Simon Jacob giving the introductions

One other thing – the sheer number of wines that were present at this dinner just added to the absolute festive feeling here. Many dishes had two wines to accompany it. We often talk about pairing wines in two possible ways – either to counter/balance the flavors in the dish being served (for instance when someone will serve an off dry white to balance out spicy Asian fare) or to reinforce the flavors found in the dish. Here when two wines were served, it was so that one could experience both pairing philosophies with the same dish. Not an easy task for chef to have dishes that will go with this varied a selection – and of course it speak volumes about the winery and winemaker that such a deep variety of quality wines are on hand to accompany a meal like this with ease and often with multiple choices. I often talk about the absolute uniformity of many Israeli wines – especially reds. Winemaker Assaf Paz of Vitkin of course proves that this does not have to be the case.

2019 Vitkin Pink Israeli Journey – I divide rosés into two categories: fun wines to chug at the pool or the beach and slightly more elegant wines that can carry a meal. Usually the latter carries a lightly higher price tag. One thing I love about the Pink Israeli Journey, served this evening as an aperetif, is that it straddles the line between both types. It absolutely is a fun wine – with a very nice price tag to match – but has a light weight to it that makes it perfect for accompanying light fair. Made of Grenache Noir, Syrah, and Tempranillo, it has the same basic profile as last year – raspberry & lime with some excellent saline – but it is slightly weightier in the mouth. It is maybe a half step behind 2018, but it’s an absolute winner and in my top three of the year so far.

2019 Vitkin Pink Israeli Journey

Course 1

Raw Amberjack | Roasted Kohlrabi | Avocado & Chili – Talk about contrasts working together to bring out the best of everything involved. The fattiness of the amberjack and creaminess of the avocado were totally balanced by both the chili, which in turn was balanced by the sweetness of the roasted kohlrabi and the amberjack itself. For texture this was accompanied by a white sweet potato chip, which gave the dish some crunch, while accentuating the sweetness here. All of this worked so well with the Gewurtz, with which this wine was paired.

Raw Amberjack | Roasted Kohlrabi | Avocado & Chili

2019 Vitkin Gewürztraminer – I am a huge Gewurtz fan as readers know – but this one is really off the charts. In fact, even for those who are turned off by the usual tropic flavors, one has nothing to fear. This is what I describe as the perfect profile for Gewurtz – melon and grapefruit. Yes there was some pineapple and lychee on the nose, but in the mouth – no tropics whatsoever. Many times the melon side of Gewurtz drifts into lychee. Not here. Just perfection – and BONE dry. Coming in at 12.7%, this wine is an absolute winner, which as one would imagine went with the first course perfectly.

2019 Vitkin Gewurztraminer

Course 2

Baked Melon | Not Cheese | Honey & Spices – This is the third or fourth time I have had Mor’s “Not Cheese.” Here rather than balance it with earthy notes, he accentuated the sweet side by going with baked melon. In this instance the dish was paired with two separate wines, and each played with the flavors of the dish in a slightly different way…..

Baked Melon | Not Cheese | Honey & Spices

2017 Vitkin Insight Macabeo – this wine has progressed slightly from my initial tasting last year. It is now fully mineral driven. I mean a mineral monster here. The fruit then comes but very light. The hay is still there in the middle. The acid it is excellent and the finish is long. This is a wonderful wine that should continue to develop – how long? No idea. This is my only experience with this a varietal wine – and likely the only kosher expression produced with such care.  All in all a super interesting wine that balanced out the sweetness of the dish.

2017 Vitkin Insight Macabeo

2018 Vitkin Grenache Blanc – Another wine that is coming into its own that has a few years ahead. Same profile as in my previous tasting. At the dinner, the honeyed fruit and melon notes really accentuated the baked melon in the dish and spiced honey in the dish. In the winery without the food, there are more green flavors that were showing. IMHO the wine is not yet at peak – which is amazing because it is stunning right now.

Course 3

Chef Mor Cohen using a hammer to crack open the salt encrusted red snapper

Red Snapper | Potato Salad | Seaweed – At each of the wine dinners at which I have been present at Herbert Samuel, Chef Cohen has always presented one dish as a show piece where it is portioned table side. In this case it was the salt encrusted Red Snapper which was an eight kilo whopper. The fish was cooked to perfection and was served with a potato salad and seaweed. Now that sounds rather mundane. But let me say this was absolutely the best potato salad I have had in my life (and I am very proud of my own potato salad!). It had dried fish eggs as a component, adding bursts of saltiness that together with the seaweed totally accentuated the delicate flavors of the red snapper. Just a perfect dish!!

Red Snapper | Potato Salad | Seaweed

Course 4

Duck | Tamarind | Blueberry – Talk about perfectly cooked meats. Wow! Perfectly medium rare with the crispiest skin. Served with jus of duck stock, cranberries, and wine in addition to the fresh blueberries and tamarind alongside a butternut squash cream and roasted bock choy. Now many of us have made duck breast – but here besides being perfectly cooked, the jus was just next level, and the sweetness of the creamy butternut squash just reinforced the beauty of this dish.

Duck | Tamarind | Blueberry

2017 Vitkin Grenache Noir – I love this wine. Talk about finesse. First of all the wine is relatively light – making the pairing perfect. Medium bodied at most. The flavor profile is on point with that slightly roasted meat flavor and the excellent fresh blackberry playing SO well to augment the flavors found in the dish we were served.  The finish is beautiful and earthy with a touch of chocolate and everything you would want to go with this food. Really – just a huge success.

2017 Vitkin Grenache Noir

2016 Vitkin Carignan – Here, the flavor profile is similar, but the presentation is wholly different. Again beautiful berries – blueberries and dark raspberries and blackberries – which augment the dish – but here that fruit is much more up front at first and the body is absolutely full. This has the effect of ramping up the flavors as we finished the dish and whet our appetites for the next dish as I kept on drinking this until it was served. Great stuff.

2016 Vitkin Carignan

Course 5

Lamb Chops| Jerusalem Artichoke Terrine | Sage – Again – perfectly cooked and perfectly paired. I have written about the terrine served here previously so no need to again state how AWESOME it is. The chops were just absolutely perfect and the sage was served as a dust over the chops and the terrine. Just little burst of flavor. There was a very nice spinach puree that was served on the side here as well. Another hit.

Lamb Chops| Jerusalem Artichoke Terrine | Sage

2016 Vitkin Shorashim – This will be the first kosher release of what is the flagship wine at Vitkin. It is released infrequently at best, with the last vintage being the 2011, prior to the winery becoming kosher. The wine is a blend of Old Vines Carignan, Old Vines Petite Sirah, Petit Verdot, and a little Colombard. At first, I did not understand what was going on here the wine tasted like an over the top fruit bomb. But that just shows you how wine served before its time can be misleading. The wine is clearly not ready and all of that is baby fat. Over the course of the next hour, the wine changed DRAMATICALLY. With beautiful notes of chocolate and leather coming out in addition to the rich luscious fruit that eventually calms down. The tannin here is searing and the acid is super-lively. Ultimately this wine showed really impressively. There are layers upon layers of flavor with an incredible structure. It is just SUPER young. I absolutely cannot wait for this to be released (which I would guess is a good year or two off). What a welcome addition to the lineup!

Course 6

Catalan Cream | Citrus  – This desert was crazy. What you get is a desert in the style of crème brûlée. Here is the crazy thing – obviously it is pareve – it is also 100% vegan AND gluten free! I don’t know how he did it; it tastes like full on dairy. I mean perfect. It was served with a lovely citrus salad to cut through the richness. What a way to finish.

Catalan Cream | Citrus

2018 Vitkin Shorashim Late Harvest Botrytis Gewürztraminer – Talk about a pairing – this wine matched the dessert it was served with one for one. I know – I sound like a broken record. But the synergy displayed between chef and winemaker could not be beat. This was my second time tasting this wine. It is, I believe, the first naturally occurring botrytis wine since the 1988 Yarden Late Harvest Sauvignon Blanc – with 70% of the grapes used here infected.   It has moved ever so slightly forward in its development, gaining a touch of weight – otherwise my notes of last year are where this wine is at. Really, really excellent and special. Another wine that I am waiting for with bated breath.

As you can tell, the meal was a tour de force. My thanks to my dear friend Simon Jacob who organized this event with Assaf. Bravo Chef Mor Cohen – you outdid yourself!

Tasting – July 2020

As I finished a first draft of the notes above, I realized that I hadn’t actually visited the winery since last year – so I took the opportunity to make an appointment with Assaf before the harvest started and to taste through a few new releases. In addition, I got to retaste a number of wines that I tasted at the dinner, and so I was able to refine my notes above a bit and I won’t repeat those wines again below. One note – and I am not sure how much this is relevant anymore as the Corona guidelines keep on changing – the atmosphere at the winery is wonderful. I came, I guess, during lunch time, and people would breeze in and out and have a plate of cheese and some wine. From a corona standpoint, temperatures were checked, masks were worn, and distance was kept – yet the warmth that the staff showed the customers really showed through. Customers engaged staff in discussions about the wine, and the staff knowledgably answered. I would highly recommend stopping buy and having a glass or five with a plate of cheese – you are going to thank me. On to the tasting…

Whites

2019 Vitkin White Israeli Journey – A blend of Colombard, Chenin Blanc, Grenache Blanc, Viognier, and Gewürztraminer. On the nose it is all Gewurtz with pineapple, grapefruit, and a little bit of lychees as it opens. In the mouth, primarily lemon with a nice hit of Granny Smith apple. The acid is really excellent, and the mouth feel is nice and full. There is a touch of saline at the end that keeps you reaching for another glass. A very nice food wine. 

2018 Vitkin Riesling – WOW! This wine is DEVELOPING! First on the nose, the funk is all over the place, coupled with stony minerality. Under that, you get the heavier sweet honeysuckle. I had heard that the wine was going through a dumb phase currently, so I was expecting a reduced experience in the mouth – but I was pleasantly surprised. The mouth was super complex. The acid is now calming down a bit and the funk has moved from the edge more into the center with a nice hit of petrol and then the nice rich lemony fruit. Afterwards I was told that the bottle had been opened the night before – which may explain the disparity between what friends of mine are experiencing and what I saw at the winery.

2019 Vitkin Riesling – This wine is still a couple of months from release but is finished and has been bottled. This vintage might be better than the 2018. Yup. It’s that good. Obviously, it is still very young and will need time to develop but all of the building blocks are there. In fact if you take a look at my notes from last year’s tasting of the ’18 you can basically cut and past them here – all of the hits are back. On the nose, you get funk, petrol, citrus, and orange blossom. In the mouth, the wine shows greater complexity out of the gate than the 2018. With clearer layers of flavor as the wine opens up. The funk and petrol are more prominent at this stage than they were on the 2018. On top of that, the fruit is then layered delicately but distinctly. With some excellent mineral and saline on the finish. Great stuff.

Reds

2019 Vitkin Pinot Noir – Another wine that is finished but not yet released. (There might be a slight label redesign for this vintage.)  Let me get this out of the way off the bat: this is their best PN yet. Hands down. It’s an absolute pleasure to drink. On the nose, you get mushrooms and then some mushrooms followed by mushrooms. Did I mention the mushrooms? After that, you get some great earth and just a hint of cherry. I was sold on the nose alone. The mouth does not disappoint. Of course you get the mushrooms up front, followed by beautiful fruit and the perfect light PN appropriate body. Now this is not one of those 20 year Bourgognes. No it doesn’t have the depth or structure for that. But it isn’t trying to be. This is exactly what Israel needs – a well-made PN that actually tastes and feels like a well-made PN. Not too heavy, not too muscular. What a PN should be. It still needs a little time to fully come together – which I am sure it will do prior to release. I am expecting great things though and plan on stocking up.

2018 Vitkin Grenache Noir –  Very nice sweet red fruit on the nose with rich dark candied cherry and strawberry, followed by some very nice earthy notes and a little red grapefruit.  In the mouth, ripe cherry and cinnamon, followed by some great mineral. The red fruit is balanced out by some nice acid. There are some beautiful herbs, some roasted meat, cherry, and finally some tobacco on the finish. The wine comes in at a wonderful 13.5% and is yet another winner. I found it really interesting and almost a cross between the Spanish and French styles. This was one of my favorites of the tasting.

2017 Vitkin Carignan – On the nose, primarily blue fruit with some oregano and basil. In the mouth, surprisingly the herbs are up front with nice focused fruit following. The wine is noticeably softer at first and then the tannin asserts itself, though not in an overpowering way. The finish is nice and earthy with tons more toasted herb and some excellent warm spice. The wine is an elegant expression of Carignan that is delicious now but has the structure to age and develop gracefully.

2019 Vitkin Red Israeli Journey – One thing I have liked about the Israeli Journey Red, besides the excellent price, is that the wine has been rather light, bright, and food friendly . This vintage is a bit heavier than last. The profile is darker with very dark red and near black fruit – I guess the best descriptor would be dark purple. Just when you think that this is a little much for this wine, the acid comes in to keep this wine bright and lively. For me it’s a matter of what my head was expecting vs what my mouth received. Had I had this wine blind, I think I would have been very happy. The wine actually might be objectively better and more balanced.  But I have grown to expect (and appreciate) a certain profile from this specific label and it was a little different. Where I would usually recommend having the Israeli Journey red with a nice pasta bolognaise, I would probably shift that to grilled kebobs for this vintage, if that makes any sense.

2016 Vitkin Petite Sirah – Before I start, I just want to be up front about the fact that I am NOT big fan of varietal bottlings of Petite Sirah. I find the wines in general overly tannic and out of balance. Also, in multiple wines I have tasted in the past I have found that all I am left with is acid in the mouth and not much flavor. It is a grape best left for blending. Having said that, what we have here is the exception. Yes you have all of the typical Petite Sirah flavors – blueberries in spades. In fact it is lush. Like rich fresh blueberry pie filling. It has a ton of acid and mouth-coating tannin. But on top of all that, the wine gives way to some nice earthiness and something that reminds me of a tobacco pipe that a Rabbi of mine used to smoke in the 3rd grade. I know that doesn’t help anyone, but I drank this, and I had a distinct flashback to Rabbi Weinberger’s pipe. It’s a good flavor. Here also, the wine rounds out at the finish with more blue fruit and some nice mocha. It is the first varietal Petite Sirah that I have enjoyed in a very long time.

I just want to say that I ended up spending about three hours at the winery. Much of it was spent discussing wine and the state of the industry in the post corona world with Assaf. But I also just sat back and relaxed, which I find difficult to do of late with the uncertainty and stress brought on by the current situation. I really miss the human interaction.  So thank you Assaf Paz and Vitkin for your generosity, time, wonderful wine, and giving me a brief respite from the new normal.

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