If there's someone who can be credited for starting the boutique winery movement, that's Yair Margalit. This scientist-trained, turned-winemaker/wine-lover created his winery in 1989, well before the other independant small wineries which sprouted all over Israel in the early 2000s'. We must remember that until the mid to late 1980s', Israel's wine landscape was quite uninteresting, there was basically only mass bottlers like Carmel around and virtually no small player or independant wineries set up by passionate individuals like the ones that came later.
Yair Margalit learned the trade in California and wrote his first winemaking book there in 1990, a book that is dubbed the bible of winemakers in Israel and helped many aspiring vintners to make the leap and start a winery. He has since published other books (bottom of the page) about winemaking, all with a scientific approach on the different stages of winemaking.
Chemist and physical-chemist by profession, he worked in research in Israel and started his interest in winemaking while in California when he was at UC Davis, studying chemistry unrelated to winemaking. The enology school at UC Davis was right near the chemistry department, he adds with a laugh, so he sneaked inside and from the 1st lecture he had there he fell in love with this field. So he took in one single year the full enology course which is usually stretched over 4 years (because you can study everything you want there, in parallel to your initial field). When he eventually came back home in israel he began making wine with his son who was very young then, crushing grapes with the feet.
So today, Yair Margalit receives us at his home in Caesarea for a tasting of his wines and a chat about his work. Caesarea is a leafy upscale town on the Mediterranean between Tel Aviv and Haifa in the north of the country. When we show up, he is busy doing some gardening work. His son Asaf is there too. Asaf is doing now many things in the winery and vineyard management, he is the next generation in this adventure and seem fully involved.
__Margalit, Enigma 2006 Kadita [vineyard]. Red wine from Margalit's upper Galilee vineyard. A beautiful, full-bodied red wine made with Cabernet Sauvignon (60%), Merlot (17%) and Cabernet Franc (23%). The grapes come from the Kadita (upper Galilee) and Binyamina (central, lowland Israel) vineyards. Red fruits on the nose, not exposive. Very good balance in the mouth and not high alcohol feel. Says 14° on the label. Roundness and lots of pleasure to drink. Soft tannins, no asperity. 5000 bottles of this wine.
Speaking of the Kadita vineyard, Yair Margalit says that it is not irrigated at all. This may sound normal but with the extreme summer temperatures here in Israel, this is extremely rare to meet a grape grower who doesn't irrigate (even if it usually involves a parcimonious drip system). Asaf says that the irrigation systems are barely 50 years old or so when grapes have been grown thousands years ago in the region without problem, so it's not impossible to do it. Growers see often higher yields as akin to more volume and more money but the quality of the wine is the result of lower yields. Speaking of the non-irrigation option, Yair adds that nobody's taking the risk, growers just prefer the drip-system shortcut. He says that for Margalit wines, the yield is about 40 hectoliters/hectare. The problem in Israel he says, is also that most wineries here don't own the vineyards and the vineyard management is done by someone else. Yair Margalit says that a drip system makes the root system, the onion-shaped root hairs concentrate at the surface, forcing the growers to keep the drip system for ever because on the surface in summer it's terribly dry and if you stop irrigating the vine won't make it through the summer. The other negative side effect is that the concentrated root hair being too concentrated on a small volume of earth, they deplete the available minerals and nutrients there, forcing the grower to add fertilization in the water. If you don't irrigate (except the 1st couple of years), the roots will go deep into the soil where the root hair will spread on a larger width, finding nutrients and some humidity.
Yair Margalit says at one point an interesting thing about winemaking, grapes and science : he thought initially that just by following some scientificly-proved processes you can make a good wine, which is the general thinking in the new world, but he realized that it's not the case. He changed in mind after visiting many wineries in Europe and in France (Burgundy, the Loire, Provence), tasting wines there along the way. He realized that good wines come from good grapes, and that's not just because people use to say that, but it's true: anything you may do thereafter doesn't alter the original quality of your grapes, you don't improve the juice during the vinification. If the grapes are not unique, you will not make good wines, and he, as a scientist, has made all the way from the other side of thinking to this awakening and he is now convinced of this. Of course, it's not enough to grow grapes the right way, you have to get a good terroir too to make good wine from these grapes. The rest, meaning for the winemaking, the key is just not to make mistakes. Once, he was in the Bordeaux region visiting Chateau Yquem with 4 or 5 people, one of them took the group a couple of kilometers from there in a small winery which was a shock for him : the guy was using a manual pump in the winery to have water, everything was a mess in this winery, even dirty, so much different from what he used to see in wineries. The guy there followed biodynamie which seemed weird, but when he opened a bottle, this was an awakaning, he never tasted such a beautiful Sauternes before. And the crazy thing is that when he asked for buying, he was selling 20-year-plus old bottles for something like 30 or 40 Euro, which was incredibly cheaper than a Chateau Yquem next door where the new vintage would cost some 150 Euro. In a blind taste, there's no doubt you would have chosen the Sauternes of the small messy winery...
__Margalit Cabernet Franc 2007. You want to taste Cabernet Franc, asks Yair Margalit, a bit of the Loire here. Single vineyard, from Binyamina. Bottled 4 months ago and released one month ago. 95% Cabernet Franc, 5% Cabernet Sauvignon. Nose : lots of aromatic concentration. Glycerol legs on the glass. Earthy notes, complexity, makes a superb mouth, especially the 2nd mouth. 4000 bottles of this wine. Speaking of yeasts, they use cultured yeasts, not wild yeasts because it is too risky. Yair Margalit says that they use two kinds of yeasts which work well. They use 1/3 new barrels, 1/3 one-year_old, 1/3 2-year-old. French oak, only from Seguin Moreau. Good barrels, each having still a different impact on wine. The cost od barrels in Israel are about 700 Euro. The oldest wine they have in the cellar is the 1989, and it is still very beautiful.
The vinification at Margalit : they destem, use temp control, the juice fermenting in stainless-steel vats for 5 to 10 days with skim contact between 2 to 3 weeks. asaf says he tastes every day, they talk about how the wine goes and decide when it seems the right time to go forward. They don't press, by the way, they don't even have a press in the first place, they just use the free-run juice because the press stage gives more potassium, higher phs, more seedy flavors and they prefer the fruit side. They loose some juice but get a better one. after fermentation, one or two rackings, then to the barrels for a year, with topping every other week, tasting regularly from the casks (it's not a kosher winery here, they can go the casks when they want). They don't make the blend at the end of the elevage, they do it right after the fermentation. They're not religious, says Asaf with a smile, so let's leave these wines live together before the final wedding, the final blend when they correct and give some additional touches to the initial blend....
They would like to build the winery along this Cabernet-Franc as they own additionnal land here but the government doestn't allow it because it's agricultural land.
Speaking of the harvest, it is made by hand in baskets, starting at 5am or 6am.
Asaf says that some winter tasks like pruning mus be done faster than in Europe because the weather is changing faster in Israel, the vines react fast and if a particular plot is done in a long time span, it will result in different maturity times later in the season.