Catching Up on Recent Israeli Vintages

It’s been way too long. I’m sorry for that. Life and work got in the way of writing. I’m still very busy, but I want to clear the decks before going out to France to taste, so I’ll briefly recap where we are in Israel wine-wise in this post and then maybe do one or two more specific posts before I fly. So here we go.

Over the last year or so, I have made it an effort to taste through as many current releases as possible. I often do this with a revolving group of people who are part of a tasting group dedicated to this purpose, but it always includes my friend Alexandre Kassel – who writes a wonderful Hebrew wine blog hosted on Facebook called הריקבון האציל (for whatever reason, WordPress doesn’t like when I link to Facebook – search on the Hebrew words and you’ll find it).  Tasting in this setting is challenging. Usually, we go through 25 bottles in two hours. The tastings are blind, and I try to have as little knowledge as possible about the wines that might be sampled. The only criterion is that the wine has been released during the current season. Due to the setting and time available I am unable to write full tasting notes and really give each wine its full due. On the other hand, it is simply not feasible to taste a substantial number of wines in a year and give each bottle ten minutes of attention. You simply won’t cover enough ground. So the point of these tastings is to give an initial impression and see what has potential. Sometimes, I return to a wine later in the evening to see what’s gone on with it or even take it with me to sample the next day. But obviously that’s a limited number. So I end up writing 2-3 sentences on each bottle and a score on the 100 point scale (rather than my 5 point scale that I publish, which takes in many other factors into consideration, including price and a full note/post, which take me very long to produce), which for now remain unpublished. While this method prevents me from writing full notes on each bottle, it has given me an excellent overview of the last few vintage years in Israel. In fact, between these tastings and various winery visits, I have tasted through more current release Israeli wines than I would have thought possible – especially in light of the pandemic situation.  I happen to believe that in recent times the importance of the vintage year in Israel has never been put in such stark relief as it has for the vintages 2018, 2019 & 2020. Sure, there have been excellent vintage years (2008) and horrible vintage years (2015). But most years are a mix. Here we have three years in a row where I can write the tale of the tape for the vintage, and it will pretty much hold true.

Let’s start with 2018. It was just a stellar year – for both whites and reds, petty much across the board geographically and no matter the winery.  Just about every winery was elevated by the vintage. That’s not to say there weren’t some misses. There is still plenty of plonk out there. But, the quality of the vintage was apparent in every bottle. Some wineries had their best vintage in recent memory. In fact in GHW’s Yarden line, I would say this was easily the finest vintage since 2008. Shift in styles aside, it might even surpass it in the long run. Every single wine from the base level Yarden wines through the Single Vineyard releases have  all been very good to excellent. Each and every one – no matter the varietal. Now not every wine has been released yet, but I’d say we are 90% there, and I would bet on any future 2018 Yarden release. Now as I said, not every winery had its best vintage in 2018 – but I would doubt if anyone had anything less than moderate success. Basically if you find yourself in a wine store and you see a winery that you trust and the vintage is 2018, go for it. You are likely to be rewarded.

Now moving into 2019, we have a mixed bag – but it’s a see through bag, meaning it’s pretty clear what we have. This was a challenging year for many on the white front. Most whites that were put out and saw no oak or other type of finishing process (like skin maceration or time on the lees etc.) were a mess. On the other hand, some winemakers were able to achieve great things. Look at the Latour Netofa White. It is easily the best vintage of this wine released to date. Just a great bottle. 2018 was no slouch, but 2019 is just that much better. On the red front, we have much of the same. There are some wineries that did have EXCELLENT vintages in 2019. An example of which is Mia Luce. I tasted through their entire 2019 portfolio. Each and every wine is a hit. Their 2019 white is the second best 2019 white coming out of Israel. I would say it even beats its 2018. For the reds, again, not a single miss. All are elegant and rival or surpass the 2018 releases. It is wonderful news that these wines are back on the market after a   three year absence (due to an exclusive deal which gave the entire ’16, ’17 and ’18 vintages to a private US based buyer). There were hits besides Mia Luce and Netofa as well – for instance whatever Vitkin has released from the 2019 vintage so far has been good to excellent. On the other hand, there are some wineries – who are VERY well known and whose wines I have loved in the past, who absolutely had a HORRIBLE 2019. This is especially true when you hold a given wine next to its 2018 counterpart. Now, not all 2019 reds have been released – but enough of them have been to know that this is a VERY winery specific year, and some of your favorites may have struck out. I’m not going to call them out here – as again, I will be the first to admit that tasting conditions for these types of run-throughs weren’t optimal – and I want to be fair – but don’t say I didn’t warn you. Be VERY careful with Israeli ‘19’s.

Mia Luce’s 2019-2020 wines (and others)

For 2020, just based on the crazy weather alone, I predicted a mess. Just as harvest kicked into high gear at the end of August, there was a massive heat-wave that lasted a week. Many, many wineries were simply unprepared for this. Brix levels shot up overnight. Many wineries simply did not have the capability to process all of their grapes that quickly.  Others, who normally pick early did not have ENOUGH heat at the beginning of the season for the grapes to reach maturity. In the end, almost ALL whites from 2020 were a disaster. That’s not all of them – but most. They are either super -flabby lacking any acidity or depth – or they have very clearly been acid-corrected to an extent that the artificial acid is apparent in the end product. It’s a disaster. There are some nice wines though. Mia Luce’s Blanc is one. It is VERY different than the 2019, fatter as you would expect – but still very nice. I think Ya’acov Oryah’s 2020 whites are excellent and much better than the 2019’s.

On the red side, 2020 wines are just being released – but as you would expect, they are cough-syrupy and quite honestly undrinkable. This comes from a ridiculously high brix at picking – but where the grapes are simply not really mature – and so there is a greenish medicinal flavor to them as well sometimes.  Again – from wineries that usually do an OK or even very good job. Yes, these are the entry level wines that have been released so far, but it does not bode well for 2020 at all. [There will be exceptions of course. Let’s take Mia Luce again – I tasted barrel samples of the 2020 reds and they seemed very promising. Kobi Arviv is crushing it!] What will 2021 bring? Well, it’s too early to tell. There was a heat wave VERY early in the season which basically blitzed part of the crop. What was able to survive after that may very well produce some nice wines as the rest of the season was mild, and that heat wave might have had a positive impact on yield.  But really, only time will tell. In the meantime stock up on the ‘18’s (and select 19’s) while you still can.

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