Ronnie James, the initiator of the winery venture at kibbutz Tzora played a very important role in the emergence of quality wineries in Israel. Initially an agronomist and a grower, he had spent 30 years growing grapes for purchasing wineries in the Sorek valley (Samson region). Making wine himself with the grapes he grew was a dream for him, but you may know that the original spirit of the kibbutz was rooted in a relatively austere version of socialism, even if human-sized and respective of the individual; wine was not really favorably considered by the idealistic kibbutzim then, it could even be considered as a bit decadent, and it was not among the utilitarian commodities that this type of economic entity was supposed to produce for the development of Israel. But Ronnie James kept pushing in this direction and eventually succeeded to overcome the reluctance of the kibbutz directorate. An other thing made a problem then, says Zeev : in the kibbutz egalitarian culture, everyone is supposed to hold every position and job at a time or another, rotating from the simplest tasks to the highest responsabilities, and that's just not possible in a winery, there's only one winemaker and you don't take the reins overnight unless you don't care about the quality of the wine.
Anyway, the winery was created at last in 1992 at Tzora (see the gate to the kibbutz on the right), some equipment was bought or borrowed here and there (just finding winery equipment was not easy at that time in Israel), and the first vintage yielded 1500 bottles in 1993. Kibbutz Tzora kept growing grapes for other wineries as it did before, but Ronnie James could at last makes wine there from part of the grape production, I would guess from the best of the grapes that Tzora grew, as along the years he had learned which plots and combination of varieties/terroirs yielded the best result. Ronnie James passed away last year in april, alas, and we couldn't ask him firsthand about his experience.
After arriving at the kibbutz and finding the winery and its visitor center (which took time, a kibbutz being a large compound with leafy alleys, not always easy to navigate through), we meet Uri Ran the manager. The winery is now in its adult age and the lanscaping, flowers and tasting room was probably unimaginable when Ronnie James started to make wine. Uri Ran is a young man with good communication skills who studied in universities in Tel Aviv, worked first in the high-tech sector and then in the wine world, importing Bordeaux wines to Israel. He has been working at Tzora for about a year. After the presentation in the visitor hall, we head toward the winery next door, the vat room and cask room in particular. Uri Ran warns that as Tzora winery is now fully kosher, we must be careful not to touch any winery item, the casks for example. While there aren't that much wineries (in the quality-wine sector at least) that are kosher, some of these good wineries decided to become kosher to enlarge their market base : Israel being a small country, its market is not large, even if Israelis are increasing their wine consuption (8 liters or about the American average), and of course the neighbouring countries wouldn't buy Israeli wines, first because their inhabitants are forbidden to by their religion, and secondly because they're not particularly open to the idea of making commerce with Israel (this isn't the EC around here...). So, outside of the export push, which they try too, the easier option to get a larger market is to get the observant jews here buy their wines. For that, the wine needs to be kosher which means respecting several kaschrut rules in the winemaking and thereafter. The main obstacle (that's why many wineries preferred not to make the leap) is that you need to hire a staff of observant jews (the winemaker being virtually never an observant jew) to make all the tasks in the vatroom and caskroom in contact with the wine. Even when he needs to taste a wine from a barrel, the winemaker has to get one of his observant staff siphon the wine. He can't take we wine thief himself and go taste his wines from the casks when the winery staff is gone, for example. That's the drawback, it needs some organisation, and it has a cost, but the reward is that the wines can reach a larger public.
__Tzora, rosé 2007. This is the 2nd year that they make rosé here. It's actually a side effect, they didn't do it in purpose, even if rosé in general has more and more popular recently. This is a nice-structure rosé, relatively dark in color and a nice length in the mouth. A gastronomy rosé for sure. The bottle is Burgundy-style shaped and dark colored. 79 Shekels (but sold out).
Uri Ran winds back to the early years when Ronnie James planted the 1st vineyards near the kibbutz on a place named Givat Hachalukim (stone hill). He was a total autodidact in winemaking, but he understood the value of terroir in grape growing and wine making. He planted two additionnal vineyards in the Judean hills, one in Neve Ilan (1995), in the moshav Neve Ilan, and one in Shoresh (2002), both at a higher altitude than Tzora, from 600 to 800 meters. He was an expert to identify unique terroirs and these two places turned out to be particularly fit for wine grape-growing. Until now, Tzora winery has been working with these three vineyards, making each year a wine from each of these terroirs. It can be a blend or not, depends of the vintage. They keep selling 50% of the grapes they grow to other wineries. They use what they consider as the best grapes to make their wine and sell the rest. Uri Dan says that the winery was acquired by an investor with a vision who has the financial capability to let the winery keep the quality up without comprimising. They are currently reducing the quantity and have been investing in new plantings for a possible surge in wine production in the future, maybe to 100 000 or 120000 bottles a year. They work today with 300 dunams of vineyards (30 hectares or 74 acres), using for themselves 120 dunams (12 hectares or 30 acres) which makes about 80 000 bottles..
Uri Ran says a few words about the way Eran Pick, the winemaker that we will meet soon (who studied in UC Davis), makes the rosé we just taste now : most of the rosé in Israel is made from the bleeding method. In 2007, in Givat Hachalukim (Stone hill) they had two plots, one planted with vines at 1,5 meters from each other, the other one 1 meter from each other. What happened in 2007 was a heat wave which translated in a difference between the two plots. Eran Pick found that one of the plots would make a great rosé, so the wine was not just a leftover from other press wines but was intended as a rosé from the start. The time of the harvest was decided with in mind the rosé wine Eran Pick saw he could make here, waiting to the point of maturation that could fit this rosé, maybe less phenolic taste, more acidity and less sugar. That said, they don't intend to make rosé each year. This year was just good for it, that's all.
__Judean Hills (red) 2007. Released on the market 2 weeks before. The variety of the cuvée may change from year to year. This year it was 100% Cabernet Sauvignon. Nice rose of red, ripe fruits. Jammy fruits, glycerol legs on the glass. 12 000 bottles of this wine. 14°. Well balanced wine. 2nd and 3rd mouth releasing a nice range of aromas with complexity. 79 Shekels.
We speak about the winery revolution in Israel. Uri Ran says that one of the reasons was lots of money made elsewhere in high-tech and other fields translated in investment, which can be costly. That's on the production site. On the consumer side there was also more money with a better economy, and it was spent among others things in restaurant and shops, resulting in quality wine as a luxury product finding a growing market in Israel. The passion of several winemakers, well-educated and well-travelled played a role too. They settled in, with their fans and the market demand and the boutique winery was on its way. This was in the early 2000s', and it had an impact on the old wineries like Carmel and Binyamina which were obliged to invest too and improve quality.
__Cabernet Sauvignon (100%) from the barrel, 2008 wine. It will be too harsh but he says it will help us figure out the style of the wine. Comes from a plot named DuvDevan (cherry), located on a plateau. Long maceration, meaning post maceration, two weeks and total skin contact of 45 days, temp-controlled at 15° in double-jacquet vats. This wine will be another 9 months in casks. This gives a softer wine than the next one. He says that sugar is not a problem, color neither; the problem is to get the right balance between the sugar levels (which get too high-too fast) and the ripeness of the phenols and also the tannins, the color and taste...So they try to have the right pruning and other tasks well done, like leave the right foliage at the right place to protect the grapes and preserve the microclimate of the grapes under their canopy so as to reach this balance at the end.
__Cabernet Sauvignon 2008, barrel also, from another plot named Meubanim (fossils), on a slope 5 meters from the previous plateau. Nose is more reduced here, color is denser, this is a different wine here. A bit harsher in the mouth but nice potential with elegance. Probably about 14°in alcohol.
Eran Pick says that he is often in the vineyard because the checking of the grapes and the vines is very important again. There is a vineyard manager of course (Dor James, the son of Ronnie James) but he is still goes often there too. Speaking of yields, he says that unlike Burgundy where very low yields make very good wine, if they go down too low for some vineyards in Israel, the vines get off balance, so a grower here has to understand what the vine asks and needs. They make a minimal irrigation very close to the harvest (last few weeks), a very small fertilization and some pesticides. That said, they also have low yields for some of their vineyards, like 30 hectoliter/hectare. The vineyard at Tzora are very stony, particularly Shoresh (it's sad we' didn't see it) and they can't use mechanical tools there, so contact weedkillers they use.
__Tzora Shoresh 2006 (we're back to the tasting room, tasting from bottles-Eran Pick left us here). Intense nose of dark ripe, red fruits. Very aromatic. Uri Ran says that in 3-4 years or even 5-6 years this wine will show its best. This is the 1st year that Eran Pick made wine here, Ronnie James was very sick then. In the Shoresh vineyard, there is C.S., Merlot and Syrah. In 2005 they used lots of Merlot for the Shoresh blend. In 2006, the Merlot didn't show very well so they used only Cabernet Sauvignon. In 2007 the Syrah had the largest share of the blend. Every year they use only the best of a given vineyard to make the blend. Still some tannincity here. 125 Shekels.
__Tzora, Misty Hills 2006, Meubanim (fossils). Very complex aromas on the nose. Still-astringent tannins, but civilized ones. 50% Cabernet Sauvignon, 50% Syrah. Some buyers store it two years before selling it on retail. There are only 3000 bottles of this wine. 180 Shekels. Very nice wine. The misty hills terroir is a place where the Jerusalem hills wind meets the breeze from the Mediterranean, giving the place a particular micro-climate. Misty Hill is a brand name and not a particular plot name actually. They planted their new vineyards of Mourvèdre and Petit Verdot very close to these vineyards.