The Domaine du Castel winery is located on the Judean hills in the vicinity of Jerusalem. It sits in the Ramat Raziel moshav (collective farm) in the place of a former chicken farm. The moshav structure has evolved throught Israel from the one of a collective farm where co-residents follow a semi-independant life but still centered on commodity production to the one of a residential community. Ramat Raziel, as such a residential community, didn't see positively the setting up of a winery in their midst even though it was to become one of the best wineries of Israel. The Castel vineyard was planted in 1988 and the first wine from these first rows was made in 1992, at a time when outside of the Golan Heights winery which had been founded short time ago, there was not much good wine produced in Israel, the wine landscape being dominated by several long-established mass bottlers like Carmel and Binyamina. This 2-casks-only 1992 wine was bottled 3 years later and through a common friend, one of these bottles landed on the table of Sothesby's Serena Sutcliffe (head of Sothesby's international wine department) who was stunned by the outstanding quality of the wine. Eli Ben Zaken was heartened by this prestigious regognition and it helped make him the move to make wine on a larger scale. The wine production at Castel has been now around 100 000 bottles for a few years now. Eytan says that the size of this production may question for some their being still considered a "boutique" winery, to quote the name of this wave of new small wineries which sprouted all over Israel a few years ago. It's not clear if there should be a limit in terms of production to still be considered a boutique winery, but anyway, they consider themselves as a professional winery whilst keeping with the initial spirit of the early years.
As we tour the winery, we stop in the Chardonnay cask room to taste from the barrel. A religiously-observant staff siphoons some wine for us to taste :
__Domaine du Castel Chardonnay 2008 (barrel). Unfiltered yet. Lots of freshness on the nose whith white-flowers aromas. Greenish color. Very good acidity. Beautiful, well-balanced wine, nice gliding in the throat. Should be worth waiting several years too from what I hear. It should have something like 13,5°-14° alcohol.
Eytan says that from the start here, they kept on with making a very limited number of cuvées at the difference of other Israeli wineries : the Petit Castel, the Grand Vin, and the Chardonnay "K". They feel happy right now with this wine range but could add more in the future. Their first Chardonnay was made in 1998, went on the market in 1999 and people realized that after a few years this wine deserved attention for its aromatic complexity.
The Domaine du Castel holds its name from a crusader fortress (castel) which was uncovered under an abandonned arab village in the vicinity (read about it in this scenic walking itirenary near Ramat Raziel).
We are received by Eytan Ben Zaken, Eli's son. Speaking of the staff, they work with a guy from the village nearby who joined the winery 8 years ago already and knows pretty well the trade now, and also with a young woman who was formerly working as in-flight staff for El Al and is now the assistant of Eytan's brother, Ariel.
We begin to taste the wines right away :
__Petit Castel 2007. A red blend. 50% Cabernet Sauvignon and 50% Merlot. From a 37,5-centiliter bottle. Bright red color. Comes from grapes grown on kibbutz Tzuba, another kibbutz which makes also wine. This wine is supposed to be the second wine at Castel, but that's good... Speaking of the respective character of Canernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc (they have also some), he says that last year was not so good on Cabernet Franc, it turned too fat, had not a nice coloring of the skin and unsatisfying maturation. Could have been because of too much watering. They don't grow themselves all the grapes they use, even if they work in tandem with the contracted growers to have the right vineyard management. They will probably add some Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot in the coming years cecause they planted some. Speaking of the blend, at the beginning they were making a blend from their initial Cabernet & Merlot in proportion of what they harvested, but after a few years they realized that they hadn't to keep a fixed percentage but could focus on the quality of the wine : So the wines are vinified and kept separate for 8 months to 1 year and then blended at the 1st racking in a vat and go back to barrels for elevage.
__Domaine du Castel, Grand Vin 2006. The flagship cuvée of the winery. Great wine. Smooth, complex. Velvety in the throat. Strength at the same time. Released last november. Intense aromas on the nose. In the mouth, the Petit Castel was beautiful, but here, we are in another dimension indeed. Blend is 70% Cabernet Sauvignon, 22% Merlot and 8% Petit Verdot. Castel's philosophy is to make blends, not single variety wines. For example in 2000 his father bottled 12 bottles of Malbec and put them in the cellar for a try and for the last sommeliers event they decided to open these 2000 Malbec which were nice. They still prefer to make red blends until now, even if they keep an open mind about what they'll do in the future.
ack to the Grand Vin 2006 : Eytan says that his father meant this wine to be appreciated best beginning at least a year from now. They're arriving right now to the end of the stock in 2005 wines, so time has come for the 2006. We speak of the age of wines and when they are appreciated best. Eytan recounts the story of his father regarding white wines. For him at the beginning red wine was synonymous to great wine and white wine was not really worth the interest. Once in Burgundy he arrived in their village hotel late one day, tired after visits and sat in the restaurant, asking the waiter for a good wine of his choice. To his dismay, the waiter came back with a white wine and he was on the verge of getting upset after this tiring day to be served a wine that he did not wish, but his wife just said, forget it, let's eat and go to bed. He took a sip of the wine and the second he was doing this, that was a revelation, white wine could be that complex and refined, some thing well beyond what he expected. It changed his attitude regarding white wines. Eli Ben Zaken proceeded later to add white wine in his range and it was Chardonnay, maybe because of this particular Chardonnay that he tasted that day.