We left Tel Aviv for the Golan very early on a sunday with Zeev, after I met him outside the train station of Bet Yeshua in the outskirts of Tel Aviv. As often in Israel, the train had its lot of young student-looking service men and women commuting to their base and wearing routinely and casually their weapon on the side or in their back. This is a common sight in this country and a surprising one for a west European but the Israeli society gives nonetheless to the visitor a feeling of security and confidence that we are far to feel in all neighborhoods of our home country, including in our public transportation system.
Israel is such a small country that you can visit different wine regions in the scope of several days and keep staying in Tel Aviv : you visit the northern highlands or the low-lying Negev desert during the day, and before the evening, you're back on the beach in Tel Aviv for a swim. Well, after the Golan we came back a bit late, but a swim would have still been an option. Our goal in the Golan was kibbutz Ein Zivan, for a visit at Pelter winery there. Ein Zivan kibbutz (its gate on the picture right) lies near the north-eastern border between the Golan and Syria (see this map of Golan featuring kibbutz and settlements), very close to the Syrian border in fact. The Golan heights is a high-altitude region which has been for ages (even when still under Syria rule) very sparsely inhabited, and where the conditions have been discovered recently as being optimal for grape growing, with cold nights and lots of sun like in the rest of the country.
Before landing here in 2005, Tal Pelter studied three years agriculture in Israel, then science at the Weizmann Institute in Rehovot(94-95) and then he went to western Australia to study viticulture & winemaking. He had his first degreee in Perth (4 years), finishing in 2001 and spent time in the Darlington Estate working with winemaker John Griffith. That's when he came back to Israel, to where he's originally from, moshav Zofit in center Israel, where he set up a small pilot winery to see if he could make something here. This 2002-2003 trial was positive, so he moved in 2004 to the Golan and settled in the kibbutz Ein Zivan, setting shop in a bland-looking warehouse inside the kibbutz.
He had no connection here but decided to come over here for the potential quality of grape growing. The kibbutz works like a settlement so he just joined with his family: his wife and three daughters aged 9, 6 and 1-1/2, plus a son on his way for august. He rents the facility from the kibbutz but plans to move out in the near future to have his own independance. He planted vineyards here on the Golan heights and 50-60 % of the grapes that he vinifies at the winery come from the Golan and for the rest of the grapes, 20 % come from Eme Kadesh (Kadesh valley) in Galilee and about 15 % of the grapes still come from the Jersusalem mountains where he started originally
In the vineyards, one person is in charge of the water for the irrigation of the vineyard and of the apples, there is a team of three people to do the spray on the vineyard and on the apples, and a person to overlook the vineyard. When it comes to leaf placking, pruning and other such vineyard tasks they call extra staff. The chemical treatment in the Golan is mainly sulphur sprays against powdery mildew, otherwise the weather is quite helthy. They use weedkillers in the first 2-3 years and afterwards, when the vines have rooted deep enough they can go without.
They make two main blends of red wine, Cabernet/Merlot/Caberenet Franc, and a Cabernet/Shiraz. They also have high-tier reds, varietal wines that are not made every year. Comes a good year for this or that variety, and he will make a varietal bottling for private clients and restaurants because this will not be a big volume.
Tal Pelter opens the sliding door of the cool barrel cellar where the 2008 reds are stored. The smallest elevage time is 14 months (the Trio : Cabernet/Merlot/Cabernet Franc, for example) and the longest elevage is 20 months. The 100% Cabernet Franc will make 14 months too, the 100% Shiraz will make 18 months, Cabernet/Shiraz also, the 100% Caberenet making 20 months or more.
Tal Pelter gets a few bottles for us to taste :
__Pelter Sauvignon Blanc 2008. A dry, aromatic wine, with grapefruit notes, candy too. 70 Shekels [100 Shekels make 18 Euro or 25 USD]. 11,5° only, very low alcohol: Tal Pelter picks his Sauvignon the earliest in all of Israel. The bottle closure is a glass cork, very strange and efficient-looking. Can be re-used easily.
__Pelter Unwooded Chardonnay 2008. 13°. Probably the only unwooded Chard in Israel. With solid minerality and acidity which makes a fresh wine in the mouth. Half from grapes of the Galilee, half from the Golan. He started this cuvée in 2005.
__Pelter Semillon 2003. 2003 is a very good vintage in Israel. A few hundred bottles of it only. Superb mouth feel. Lots of minerality. Soil : Terra Rossa with lime, in the Jerusalem hills. 7-year old vineyard. 90 Shekels. Priced cheaply because Semillon has a bad reputation in Israel, legacy of Carmel winery...He studied and worked in Australia and there they have 15-20 year-old Semillon vineyards in Hunter Valley which are very nice, and age very well. This wine will be found in a very good restaurant of Tel Aviv : Messa. You will not find Semillon that old (2003) or older in Israel because people here don't keep whites now, but this particular wine can age very well, that's why btw he chose to bottle it in dark glass.
__Pelter Gewürztraminer (from the Golan). 12 g/liter residual sugar. To drink now, he says. 1st year he makes Gewürztraminer (after trials). Rich aromatic range with some pineapple, lychees, leaves from some exotic tree also, don't know which. Camphre, maybe ? 75 Shekels. He stopped the fermentation for that wine with temperature, SO2 and filter (0,5). This variety, he says, makes a very rich wine and the flavors come very late in the season here, so the sugar is very high. Now, if you let it ferment to dryness you get a very high-alcohol wine. He chose to keep a bit of sugar and have this 13,5° instead of 14,5° or more. It happens to please even new wine drinkers in Israel, plus it pairs very well he says with Tehina and other spicy foods of Israel.
__Pelter Trio 2007. Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc. 14 months in casks. This cuvée is more on the fruit side. Destemmed like all reds. Ripe fruits, some encense aromas. Tannic structure. Freshness on the whole. 78 Shekels. The label says it all about what's in the bottle, he jokes that in France you need an encyclopadia to figure out which variety is the wine made with...
__Pelter Trio 2004. Same blend, also 14 months in barrels. More evolved, ready to drink obviously (not wait). 78 Shekels.
__Pelter Cabernet-Shiraz 2007. Bottled one month ago. 18 months in barrels. This is the older brother of the Trio, he says, a more muscular type of wine. 95 Shekels.
__Pelter Cabernet-Shiraz 2004. Nose less open here. That's an intense and interesting mouth, smoother and more body. Not on the market yet, next summer only. Nice wine.
__Pelter T Selection Cabernet Franc 100% 2005. 14 months in new-oak barrel (Radoux, Tarransaud, Saury...). He uses some American oak (5%) but only for the Cabernet-Shiraz blend, because the flavor is very different.
550 bottle only of this wine. Very beautiful, complex. Lots of joy to swallow this wine. And you feel confusely that it can stand a few more years. 150 Shekels. Not cheap, for sure. He likes Cabernet Franc very much but it is not very popular in Israel.
__Pelter T Selection Cabernet Franc 2007. Same cuvée a couple of years later. Bottled shortly. 14 months in barrels.
__Pelter T Selection Shiraz 100% 2006. Young fruit on the nose. Good, solid tannin structure. Elegant, bodied tannins. 140-160 Shekels (he doesn't remember exactly).
__Pelter Cabernet Sauvignon 2006. Beautiful nose with complex aromas. 20 months in barrels of new oak. 14°. Fermentation is set at 18-20°C to avoid excessive extraction. Very beautiful wine indeed. 140 Shekels.
Pelter wines are exported to the US through Israeli Wine Direct.