Vitkin is a small family winery making small-batch cuvées near Netanya, north of Tel Aviv, from vineyards located on the Carmel mountain slopes and in Ella valley in the Judean hills.
A convergence of destiny made the three people involved in this venture to enentually follow the winery life after other life experiences. Just think : the current winemaker Doron Belogolovsky was a marble and stone dealer in his former life. For his business, he travelled regularly to Italy, in particular to Verona for a couple of years, where he got used to, and learned to like, guess what ?, wine. This was the 1980s', wine was a commodity then virtually non-existent in Israel, speaking of quality or even of drinkable wines. His wife Sharona was an architect, and she happened to have a brother, Asaf, who went to the agricultural school with different side courses and who eventually studied winemaking. That was right at the time Doron's interest into wine increased a few notches, especially after one of his Italian marble-and-stone business partners brought him to a family winery there for a visit and tasting in the cellars. That was a revelation. This is how it all had its start. The family farm in moshav Kvar was the ideal place to begin, and they're still there today, 7 years after the winery formally opened (2002). Doron was the initiator and wine lover (not that the two others don't like wine I guess) turned winemaker, Asaf got the formal winemaking education, with internship abroad, in Bordeaux, California and Australia. And Sharona, after keeping her architect job for a while, joined when the business took pace.
We interrupt our conversation because I ask Sharona to pause with her Brother Asaf and her husband Doron in the vatroom. She suggest the barrel room but I point that this small vat room is just nice and real and that I like to see real places like that even if the owners often condider them messy. So here we go for a picture. There's a peristatic pump on the side, Italian, like lots of tools here. A crusher, a destemmer, a very small (the smallest and the smartest, Sharona says) pneumatic press. When they bought it they made 8000 bottles and they had a goal of 30 000. Now they make about 50 000 bottles, it takes more time to press but it's a smart press and they take the time it needs. At 1000 bottles per dunam (1/10 of hectare), they work roughly with the equivalent of 5 or 6 hectares. Vineyards are in the Jerusalem area, from Bet Shemesh to Gush et Zyon, Ella Valley.
The Vitkin winery from the start wanted to make wine from Anything but Cabernet, Chardonnay and Merlot. To sum this up, Doron says that he looked for the local variety of Israel : most of Israel is hot and humid and it's important to find the right variety to grow in these conditions. Another reason was to look to variety that are not looked after by other wineries. That was the case of Pinot Noir, few wineries do Pinot Noir here, Riesling also, especially that Vitkin chose to make dry Riesling (a handful of others make semi-sweet). Among the 5 wineries that make White Riesling (not Emerald Riesling), Vitkin was singled out as the only one which makes a Riesling which has the right character of a dry Riesling. By the way, the last vintage is sold out. The vineyard is not at a high elevation, but it has a very good meso-climate with extremely cold nights. Asaf says that even though Israel is not known for its spring frost, in the particular spot last year in april, a few vines suffered from frost. It sits in a side valley near Ella Valley.
Looking at the temperature-controlled vats in the vatroom and asking where they come from, I find that they're made in Israel by M.G.T. [picture above], a stainless-steel vat manufacturer located near Maalot. They've been cooling the room too, putting water on the floor because they didn't want the temperature to go up more than 16°C.
About their relation with the growers, they give them instructions and occasionally visit the vineyard. They tell the grower what to do (not how : the grower knows better) and how much grapes that want and which quality. They have close relations with the growers, who each work mostly for them. If they decide to have vineyards planted, they tell the grower which type of planting, on which rootstock, the density of plantation, the training, the type of irrigation at the beginning.
This visit takes place on a saturday, meaning that the winery is not kosher (you'll never be able to visit a kosher winery on a saturday) and I can touch the barrels if I want. Doron says that they live next door in the house in the front and that they can come any hour to taste the wine or even work on saturday, prepare the tanks or clean, or whatever.
For the vinification of the reds, they crush the grapes, put them in a tank [tank is more used than vat in israel], starting very cold at about 10° and depending of the variety, there may be a cold maceration and then fermentation with added yeasts which lasts arounf 2 weeks with variants between types of grapes. Then the red goes to its malolactic fermentation and then the barrels. The white doesn't go into barrels except the Viognier (they have maybe 3 barrels of it). That's at this point of the conversation that Doron's son arrives in the cellar (picture below). The Viognier will be blended in the White Journey, they want to keep the share of wood very small in the white wine.
The French Colombard (a white variety) is among the very first variety to have come back in Israel in the 19th century. It happens to be very suitable in Israel, along Carignan, Petite Syrah, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot, very good results here. They blend the Colombard into the White Journey range.
About the white grapes, they press right away after the harvest, then 2 days on cold temperature to settle the lees, then the juice goes to ferment at temperatures between 10° and 13° for a one-month fermentation, stays in stainless-steel vats for 3-4 months, the malolactic fermentation being prevented through cold temp and SO2, and 4 months later, they'll bottle it.
__Vitkin Rosé 2008. Pink Israeli Journey. Mostly Carignan and Syrah, plus Tempranillo and Cabernet Franc. Bottled in colorless glass. Made of both blood wine and direct press. Chose to have a relatively low maturity for the fresh-fruit side. Rather dry wine. 11,5° or 12,5°. To get the color, they need from 1 hour to 24 hours depending of the variety, and they taste regularly to decide when the bleeding is to be done.
__Vitkin Pinot Noir 2007. 13°, bottled in dark glass. Interesting nose of jammy fruits. Vineyard in the Jerusalem area near Bet shemesh, near a small creek, a place which is cold at night. The vineyards sit at an altitude of 400 to 600 meters surrounde with bushes and garrigue. Striking notes of clove and eucalyptus on the 2nd nose. Macerated a week before the fermentation, at 10°C. Fermentation during 3 weeks at 20°C. The wine is in 350-liter barrels that were previously used for Viognier. They own this vineyard but not the ground (which they lease to the State). Gross filtration here only. Ample mouth with tannic feel.
__Vitkin , Red Israeli Journey (missed the vintage here). Syrah, Carignan and Cabernet Franc. 10 months in casks, less than 10% new oak. Also low yields for the Carignan, 30 ho/ha. Complexity felt on the nose. Beautiful wine, a pleasure to drink. the Cabernet Franc brings the spicy side and the freshness. Fermentations are made separate, they try to blend before the cask stage, making adjustments at the end. The 13,5° of this wine is quite low for the region. they actually have brought the alcohol down at Vitkin these last few years.
__Riesling 2008. Not on the market yet. Classical vinification for a Riesling. Fermented in stainless-steel, kept in bottles 5-6 months. Freshness on the nose. They say it was noted by Robert Parker as the best white he tasted here. The 2003 Riesling keeps well and tastes still fine. Aromas of white flowers, pineapple. The guy at Laffayette Gourmet (fine wine store in Paris) tasted the 2003 (which was their first vintage of Riesling) in 2007 and wanted to buy volumes of it. They used a simple basket press at the time, they didn't have the small pneumatic press. It gains every year more complexity, Asaf says. The wine we taste may be released in a month or so. Asaf works on the side at the big winery Binyamina where he is one of the winemakers, making wines that cost from 20 Shekel a bottle to 200 Shekel (100 Shekel make 18 Euro or 25 USD). Different work over there.
__Vitkin, Cabernet Franc 2006. Blend of 86% Cabernet Franc, the rest in Petit Verdot. Well rated in the Revue des Vins de France. Very beautiful nose, almost floral, with spicy notes. The grapes come from two vineyards, one in the Judean hills, the other near Vitkin. Very nice, subtle wine, my choice, and that's not a Loire bias. Still many years ahead for sure. They say that they tasted a C.F. 2004 recently and it is still young. Cost : 115 Shekel.
__Vitkin Carignan 2006. Other wine, completely different. Dark color, purple ring. Old vines in Zichron-Binyamina with yields from 10 to 30 hectoliter/hectare. That's a powerful wine on the nose. Prune, menthol notes, eucalyptus again. Powerful in the mouth too. Nice wine, even if I prefer the previous reds. they say it's close to the Priorat wines in Spain. Plum, pomegranate, plus an earthy, spicy character. Mouth not very long.
__Vitkin, Petite Syrah 2006. They say that they got this wine with a beef rib, the wine being 2 hours in a decanter, and it was so beautiful with the meat. Their 1st P.S. was in 2002, in very small volume. In 2003 they made more bottles and had it tasted around the country. In 2007, the Petite Syrah 2004 got the Double Gold medal at Terravino. Nice nose, complex. Mouth has a very good length, it is intense, complex and elegant with thin tight tannins. We enjoy it with some of the cheese that our hosts put on the table. This wine has many more years ahead to make people happy, I think. Back to the cheese, it's made by Jacob's, a good address near Qfar Haroé, and we eat it with bread and a very tasty, acidic olive oil. the wine again : third mouth much closer to my taste, more refined, less on the powerful side.
__Vitkin, Late Harvest 2006, a white in 37,5-cl bottle. Alsatian-styled bottle. Riesling mostly with a bit of Viognier. Not selection grains nobles but cluster selection. Lots of freshness on the nose. Acidity. When the grapes are picked (end of october to middle of november), they have become dry raisins. the Riesling has its own natural acidity. 40 brix at the winery, now there's 10,5° alcohol and 150g res. sugar. Very good balance indeed between flavors, sugar and acidity. Nice end of a tasting. The hardest type of wine to make, Doron says : 1st you have to pick the right grapes in the vineyard (in 2007 & 2008 they didn't make any), 2nd it's hard to make in the winery, hard to press, 8 hours of press, 3rd also this is the end of the season and they are already tired by the regular harvest and vinifications, and have to go through another again.... Cost 90 Shekel for half bottle. they pay for these grapes 3 times the price of their most expensive other grapes and hardly make any profit with this wine. Volume : 2000 bottles. Hard to sell in Israel becazuse people associate sweet wine with kidush (sacramental) wines (which are very bad). They see it as good for Foie Gras, stinky, blue cheese.
Price range at Vitkin is between 60 Shekel and 120 Shekel.Export to Canada, France. They sold recently a load to a Japanese buyer.