In my last article, I spoke about aging wines and where the sweet spot is regarding aging, reaching peak, and value. I got a lot of questions regarding Israeli wines that are age-worthy, and so I thought I would go into a little more detail.
It is important to remember a number of things when discussing Israeli wines in this context:
- Longevity – Historically, the best Israeli wines peak somewhere between 8-10 years. That’s not to say there haven’t been exceptions, but that was a good rule of thumb certainly until ten years ago. But, as your investment adviser will tell you, past performance is no guarantee of future results…..
- Climate – Israel has a relatively hot climate that it is constantly battling against when it comes to producing more balanced, elegant wines. IMHO this is the main contributing factor in why Israeli wines are outperformed by their European and American counterparts in terms of age-ability.
- Mititgating Factors – As the Israeli wine industry matures, it has gotten better and better at adapting to the hot climate – both in terms of winemaking technique and the available technology available.
So what does the above mean in the context of current Israeli wines and their ability to age? Taking the above statements in reverse:
Over the last 20 years Israel has truly advanced in the art of winemaking. There has been a tremendous uptick in base level quality across the board. This is clearly due to the available technology throughout the process, from irrigation, through picking and crushing and storage. Yes, there are still some boutique wineries that still have not adapted, but their winemakers are able to employ a greater skillset than was available to previous generations. Simply put, IMHO, the fact that Israeli wines don’t hold for as long is not a factor of the winemaker’s technical ability or the investment they have made in the process. I think most wines produced in Israel are technically sound overall from a basic winemaking perspective. But, it does take a true professional to be able to rise above the mediocre to poor vintages we have experienced in Israel over the last 10 years.
Over the last 50 years the average temperature has almost constantly been rising [yes, there are outliers like 2011, but the trend is clear] – this make producing wine increasingly challenging with each passing year. The chart below reperesenting the average temeperature in Israel over the last 50 years should tell you all you need to know:
Ultimately, we are going to run into a problem where the climate simply is not cooperative enough to produce wines that are balanced and elegant. This is especially true when talking about Bordeaux varietals like Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Petit Verdot. And, while Rhone and Mediterranean varietals perhaps are better suited for the hotter climate, there are limits to what any grape can withstand and still remain balanced. Hitting a certain sugar level in a grape does NOT mean necessarily that the grape is mature enough to be picked. Unfortunately, this is where Israeli wines get into the most trouble. Either the grapes are picked too early so as not have an overwhelming amount of sugar, but therefore have all sorts of unripe notes that don’t sit well with the wine, or they are picked when they are at peak maturity but are so sweet at that point that the wines come off as either very hot, very ripe, or both. This is exacerbated when dealing with finicky cold climate grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon, but also applies to wines that are typically grown in warmer climates – like Grenache. Israel is slowly moving from a hot climate to an extreme climate when it comes to winemaking. This, unavoidably shows in the wine. Yes, there are outlying vintages like 2018 which for many wineries produced wines without overly ripe flavors. 2016 was also not a bad vintage. Time will tell if they are going to hold up ultimately, but if 2013 which was also hailed as a good vintage, is any indication, the wines might start off OK, but will not outperform. In fact – almost without exception, all of the top-quality wines from the 2013 vintage which I thought had a good chance of going the long haul, are now in decline. That’s not say they are bad wines or aren’t enjoyable, but they usually start to sweeten after the bottle has been open for an hour or two. I fear that this will repeat itself with the 2018 vintage as well. I hate to think of what will happen with 2020 wines and the crazy heat wave those grapes experienced. Of course, this problem is only going to get worse. As time goes on, these wines are going to be over the top for more and more of the wine drinking public. I have no answers here, but something needs to be happen to sustain the Israeli wine industry in the decades to come.
As noted above, historically top tier Israeli wines lasted 8-10 years. In reality, that is only true for wines produced between 2001 and 2011. Prior to 2001 it was not uncommon for Yarden to produce wines that held for 15 years – sometimes longer. Unfortunately, most wineries were just learning their trade in the ‘90’s, so there are very few examples out of Israel other than GHW. And that’s why the 8-10 year figure is usually given – based on the wines from produced 20 years ago. But, as we noted above, the Israeli climate of today is not the Israeli climate of 20 years ago. Yes, you still have wines that can go 8 years. But fewer and fewer. IMHO. That is not to say they fall apart. But, they sweeten considerably and the wines therefore lose balance prior to being able to develop any significant tertiary notes that one would desire after ageing. In effect, the wines just “soften”. Hyper-aeration in that case often accomplishes the same result – getting the tannin to break down and allowing you to taste the fruit. So – if that’s the case, what is the value in aging Israeli wines?
This is where things get difficult. I am a HUGE supporter of the Israeli wine industry and I’m an ardent Zionist. Having said that, personally, I no longer invest my long term wine aging budget in Israeli wines in general. Again – there are exceptions. But it’s simply not a good bet that the wines will progress in a direction that I prefer. It would be crazy for me then to pay a (sometimes VERY) premium price for wines that have a 20% chance of getting to where I think they were worth the investment. Compound this with the fact that there are tons of more reasonably priced options that are far more in line with what I like and it’s a no brainer. But that’s me. It’s not necessarily you. As I have written time and time again, these are MY preferences. Clearly there are plenty of people who like Israeli aged wines. If you are one of those people – consider yourself LUCKY. There is a CRAZY amount of wine to choose from these days. But, if your taste in wines is more in line with mine, pray that Israel finds some way to produce wines that can take some age, remain in balance and improve. Because in the long term I think that it is critical, not just for those of us who enjoy fine aged wine, but for the industry as a whole to survive as things keep on heating up here in Israel.