My first winery visit in Israel was at Meishar, and for me it made a good link between the relaxed artisan wineries I'm used to visit in France and the boutique-winery new wave of Israel. The word boutique wineries is widely used in Israel and it refers to small-size and small-volume units set up by passionate individuals. The original boutique wineries were small wineries set up in 19th-century Jerusalem to make sacramental Kiddush wine.
As Meishar website states it, the area is not by large a renowned terroir and sought-after region for grape growers and winemakers, but somehow, is there because of the draining, sandy soil where vines struggle so much, the light refreshing wind from the nearby sea, Zeev Smilansky succeded to make on the most relaxed way beautiful wines from his 2-hectare vineyard. Zeev has a minimal-intervention approach in winemaking and all the work is done by himself and his family, plus friends for the harvest. He and his wife kept working on the side (he is a mathematician and works in the high-tech sector), so that they could really make quietly their wines without commercial pressure. He jokes that his mathematics background helps him fill the Excel files with all the weather, grape and vinification data...
When we showed up on a saturday (not a kosher winery), Zeev was enjoying the end of the lunch with his wife and a couple of friends on the terrace overlooking the vineyard, drinking under the shadow of an eucalyptus, a very very beautiful quince wine, a high-alcohol sweet wine made from his quince tree near the vineyard. Not on the market yet, just for family and friends but he should consider selling it. Its high acidity complemented beautifully the concentration of its aromas and this first drink was a rare pleasure.
The grass and flowers grow freely on Zeev Smilansky's vineyard, he says that a month ago there were lots of wild Chrisanthemus flowers all over mid-leg high (no weedkillers here). Zeev shows how the Merlot leaves are so much softer compared with the Cabernet ones. Here and there, along the watering pipe, the ground had been rummed into by wild boars at night, and when the grapes are ripe in august, they put an electric fence, because otherwise they just come in and eat all the Merlot (the C.S. is not yet ripe then).
At the end of their slopy lot, we reach newly planted plots, one of Mourvèdre, one with more Cabernet. The other Cabernet is already 17 years old and they're not sure how longer it can live under this climate, so they decided to plant anticipate. I tell Zeev that the hot climate and permanent west-east breeze from the sea makes me think that his Mourvèdre could be as happy here as Bandol's. He says that in 5 years maybe they'll know, the vines need time here to make themselved at home, even with irrigation and some fertilizers supplements.
Asked if experience on this winery initiated copycat stat-ups around here, he pauses and begins by saying that Zionism started here, in the small community of Gdera, when in 1884, 12 people came from Ukraine and settled here. It happens that the first thing they did then was to plant a vineyard, and there is the story about how with donkeys they marched from Tel Aviv with the plants they intended to root here, buying water and the rest. So actually with also the initiative of Baron de Rotschild at this time, there are some vineyards around, but old types of, Carignan, French Colombard, vineyards meant for high yields (5 tons per dunam for the Carignan), which made people think the region was unfit for wine because of these high-yield vines that were planted long ago. Zeev Smilanski thinks that there is no fixed law and that by choosing the right variety and a particular soil in the area you can make good wine (depends also when you harvest, which tresilling you choose, how you irrigate etc...).
We walked into the cask room, which is in the side of the vineyards, not far from the house, a frail-looking construction with the stainless-steel vats in the outside. Zeev Smilansky gives his wine an elevage between 10 months and 20 months. He uses new and old french casks (people say barrels in Israel, I'm almost sure I never heard the word cask here). The total output at Meishar being something like 7000 bottles a year, he doesn't need too many barrels and has an easy time following and tasting each of them. Zeev Smilansky says that he considers that most of the work has to be done in the vineyard to have the best-possible quality on the grapes. In the winery, he does very simple work, nothing fancy. The fermentation takes place in the stainless-steel vats, then they press by hand with the small press, then back to the vats for settling, then to the oak barrels. Usually the Cabernet goes to the newer casks, some new, some one-year old. The Merlot and the Shiraz go to older barrels, some for a year elevage, some for 2 years, that's all. Topping every two weeks; every 4-5 months, they take the wine out, mix it, wash the barrels and put the wine back inside, it helps also aerate it. They do all the heavy work like harvest with friends volunteers and at the end of the day the 30 people or so gather under the big trees for some sort of festival with a picnic and Chakchuka, a dish made with tomatoes, pepper and eggs (the tradition is to say that one's own mother makes the best Chakchuka...). There's a lot of pita and wine too from the year before, to which I say that with his small production, if he begins to drown the pickers, he could easily ruin his winery. Well, he doesn't pour the best wine of course, he jokes, the best, he gives it to bloggers...
__Meishar "730" 2004, the top wine of Meishar winery, a 100% Cabernet Sauvignon, from a 0,25-hectare (2,5 dunams) vineyard. I'm tasting here my first Israeli wine in Israel, we hold our glass forward and say the usualLe Heim (to life) like Israeli do when toasting. Beautiful aromatic nose. The tannins are not sharp at all, this is a 2004, but still. Zeev says that the warm climate is why, and also he destems the grapes. Ripe red fruits notes with spices, chocolate. 14°, no high-alcohol feel. 140 Shekels for this bottle (25,3 Euro or 34,3 USD). I note jammy fruit but that can be seen as negative in Israel according to Haya, and Zeev Smilansky says that in Israel people tend to move away from the overcooked fruit because this is very easily reached, and they tend to reach more on the fresh fruit side. This moving away from the oaked and overcooked-fruit wine is a trend, and some vignerons even boast of "early picking" on the labels to mean that the fruit is not overripe. Zeev says that like many similar collective moves, this reverse fashion has to be taken cautiously. Haya says that if the vintner knows what he wants and keeps free from any fashion, he can succeed making a beautiful wine which is not hostage of ephemeral trends. Back to this Meishar 730 2004, Zeev says that even if differences between vintages are not as big than in France (the summers are always hot here), there are some difference in Israel from year to year, depending of the winter rains and early season. And 2004 was a very good year for wine here. 2005 was terrible and he didn't make any 730 cuvée that year because the vintage lacked the strenghness that you find in the 2004, it didn't have the color and character in spite of being a nice harmonious wine. The 2007 is still in barrels and it is early to say but it should be good. In fact, this Cabernet Sauvignon vineyard seemed to be dying in 2006, with half the amount of harvest compared to 2004, that's why he had a new vineyard planted separately, and in 2007 and 2008 the vineyard seemed to resurect and he has no explanation for this.
__Meishar Muscat. The first vintage that he sells, after experimenting a few seasons. Complex aromas, what a smell... Some residual sugar, but little it seems to me, or the acidity is particularly high. Zeev says that the residual sugar is 6% here. He made 400 bottles of it and this wine has been is a lot of work with the late harvest, the drying and careful vinification. The drying for example is often uneven, some grapes drying at a better pace than others, some are grilled when others dry nicely.
Meishar wines are exported in the US through Israeli Wine Direct.