In the New-World wine country that is Israel today, the Carmel winery plays the role of a dinosaur, but from what Adam Montefiore [picture on left] told me during this recent visit at the winery, the Israeli company which makes 15 million bottles a year has been through a massive rejuvenation in its winemaking techniques and also to some extent in its vineyard management. This pioneer winery was created in its time by the daring entrepreuneur baron de Rotschild. In the second half of the 19th century, the French Bordeaux magnate decided to help the jewish settlers in Palestine by setting up a winery and thus give work to the willing growers who would be guaranteed the purchase of their grapes. Everything had to be started from scratch in this arid and destitute land that was not yet named Israel, and this pay-per-weight factor along with the fact that the vineyards were planted in agricultural land were almost the prequisite conditions to bring back the growers and the wine production in a region where the wine culture went through several centuries of forced oblivion. But what was a blessing (massive plantings and production) then turned progressively into a curse later in the end of the 20th century as the name of Carmel became synonym with cheap high-yield wine, much of it consisting in sweet sacramental wine. What accentuated this feeling was the double revolution that the wine culture went through in Israel during the last years of the 20th century : The first one was the setting up of a UC-Davis inpired quality winery on the Golan Heights (the Golan Heights Winery). This took place in the mid-80s’ and its was the first time wine amateurs awakened to the idea that this country could produce wines that could compete with the rest of the world. The second revolution was the wave of what is called here the boutique wineries, small-scale units set up by passionate winemakers coming from various countries or background but whose small-batch wines were standing out. At Carmel, change was urgently needed in order to adapt to a different wine scene, and from what I learned from Adam Montefiore (whom I met thanks to my friend Zeev during my second short trip in Israel), big changes have already been implemented even if somehow the image still lags behind in the eyes of many consumers.
By the way, Carmel was not really the first winery opened during the jewish awakening of the 19th century, the first known winery of that wine-comeback era being a small home winery in Jerusalem, using local grapes bought to arab growers and coming from varieties named simply Hebroni, Dabuki or Zeitani. The original varieties used in the antiquity in the region had been uprooted and replaced by table-grape varieties because of the muslim rule, and it was Carmel's founder Baron de Rothschild who helped wine grape varieties return here.
The turning point of the long-waited change at Carmel was when Peter Stern was hired as a consultant in 2002, Peter Stern being the man who presided over the success of the first qualitative Israeli winery, the Golan Heights winery, founded in the early 1980s'. This Californian is known for paying as much attention to the vineyard part of the wine as the winemaking part, and his advice translated into the fact that Carmel let down part of its less valuable vineyards and planted others in selected terroirs all the while revamping its winemaking tools. Carmel set up two other wineries and had new vineyards planted in regions more suited for qualitative wines. The new Carmel-owned wineries are Yatir in the south Hebron mountains near the Negev, and Kayoumi in the upper Galilee, a mountainous region known for its fine wineries. The whole planted surface of Carmel Israel-wide is still big, with 1400 hectares spread all over the country, but a small-but-growing part of it is dedicated to make higher quality wines. Adam Montefiore says that there are many micro climates in Israel and for example, if the harvest in Fra,nce is stretched over two months (september and october), here in Israel it can go from mid july to the first week of november because of the very different climate conditions.
Speaking of the quality revolution observed in the 1980s' at the Golan Heights winery, Adam Montefiore says that what was important was that for the first time in Israel the decision making regarding the vineyards went from the grower to the winery. That means that instead of the winery having to work with grapes grown in high yields because it did not owned vineyards, the Golan Heights Winery imposed from the start its vineyard management rules to the Golan growers it partnered with. This way, and not the other way around was a prerequisite for making good wine. The new rule was in short "you grow how and where I want you to, you prune when I want you to and you harvest when I want you to". The Golan Heights was a partnership company owned by 4 kibbutz and 4 moshavs based in the Golan whose growers understood what the UC-Davis trained expert wanted : grapes that were fit for quality wine. Carmel also had worked on a cooperative type of relation with its growers but for ages the pay-per-weight concept left no hope for higher quality wines.
The other thing for increasing the quality is the construction of several small wineries by Carmel : Yatir, Kayumi and ..... Carmel also hired a new winemaking team with now at its head a winemaker named Lior Lacser who graduated in Beaune, Burgundy then worked in different wineries in Burgundy, Bordeaux and Australia, working as well with Michel Rolland. He began to work at Carmel in 2003 and became chief winemaker there in 2005.
Adam Montefiore says that also 10 years ago all Carmel wines were Mevushal which means flash pasteurized. Now none of their wines, even the ones from cheap brands, are flash pasteurized. Carmel also decided to let go in 2005 some other food companies they owned like olive oil factories, vinegar, arak and other non-wine production plants, to concentrate on wine only, plus grape juice and brandy because it more closely connected to grapes.
Overall, Carmel is still into kosher wines which means that only observant jews can manipulate wine and touch the vats or casks. Key winery staff have thus to be religious people. Almways a strange concept to figure out for a non-jew like me, but it doesn't impair with quality as many of the best wines made in Israel are made this way. Here, that's Mordechai's job and I was very happy that he allowed me to take his picture in one of the vatrooms...
At Carmel, the wine maker is French trained and while all Israeli wines tend to be new-world style, Adam Montefiore says that their objective here is to make wines as close as possible to the old world, like for example Shillag, Castel or Flam in Israel. Lio Lacser, the winemaker, likes to make wines with good acidity, soft tannins, not too high in alcohol and not fruit bombs, and so he is usually making élevages of 14-16 months. In that regard of discreet wood also he says that they are pushing for larger capacity barrels, like 300 liters for example.
Adam Montefiore says that there is an excess in the use of the expression boutique winery in Israel, as small size (boutique wineries are the one making up to 50 000 bottles a year) seems here to imply top quality. He says that people forget that Chateau Mouton Rothschild makes 300 000 bottles a year.
While upper cuvées get an élevage in casks or tronconic vats like shown on this picture, the lower, mass-market wines known under the "Selected" label gets wood imprint through the use of staves put into the vats for a certain time. Adam Montefiore says that they honestly admit it, but he adds that this is a better practice than the wood chips (which they don't use) for cheap wines.
Adam Montefiore points to an interesting detail about the bottle labelling : as many jewish immigrants arriving in the future Israel did not read either Hebrew or even English, the people at Carmel found a trick so that they still could recognize and buy a wine they liked : numbers. This bottle of Palwin N°4 (read : Palestine Wine) could be reduced to an easy-to-remember N°4 and the illiterate customer would be happy with his booze.
As for the bottle on the right, who said that rosé wine was a new thing in Israel ? Here is a pink dry table wine of unspecified vintage which probably made many unsophisticated drinkers happy (I'd be curious to see how it tasted though)...
__ Carmel Viognier 2010. From upper Galilee vineyards. Opulent nose of flowers. Good acidity. Viognier is starting in Israel, there's less than 1% of the planted surface with Viognier right now in Israel. Winemakers often keep making oaked Chardonnay here while people are beginning to prefer unoaked whites. This Viognier costs 55 Shekels (11 € or 16 USD), which is a bit expensive for a summer white, Zeev says. It's actually hard to find affordable whites or rosé compared to what we find in Europe.
__ Carmel Riesling 2009. Upper Galilee. Nice refined nose with white flowers, peony notes. Maybe lacks acidity and structure. 12 °. Off dry, Adam Montefiore says : there's a little bit of residual sugar. Petrol character too.
__Carmel Cabernet Franc 2008. Upper Galilee. 85 % Cabernet Franc and the rest in Petit Verdot. Generous nose of compote fruits and oriental herbs aromas. 14 °. A bit hot in the mouth but the serving temperature is a bit too high too which makes alcohol feel more than it should be. Costs 65 Shekels (13,2 € or 18,8 USD). C.F. is one of the varieties brought by Baron de Rothschild in the late 19th century but it did not work well then.
__Carmel Carignan 2007. From Zikhron Yaakov vineyards (near here on the Carmel mountains). Also 10 % Petit Verdot in here. Old vines wine, 40 years to be precise. The vines on the upper Galilee vineyards are much younger because Carmel had them planted some 10 years ago. 13,5 °. Petit Verdot is very popular in Israel, says Adam Montefiore, and Yatir for example (Carmel-owned winery near the Negev) has more Petit Verdot than Merlot in its blend. Nice nose with animal notes and complexity. Well balanced in the mouth, nice wine. 2 years ago there were only 2 wineries in this country making Carignan wines, he says. Now, there are 15 of them at least. There's a future for this variety here, and Carignan is also by the way part of the blend of the highly revered Chateau Musar blend in Lebanon. 13 000 bottles made of this Carignan cuvée. Costs 80 Shekels in Israel (16 € or 23 USD).
__ Carmel Petite Syrah 2007. From the Judean hills. Old vines. A bit of Bret he says. More like an animal type of wine. I like the nose.
__ Kayumi Cabernet Sauvignon 2007, Single Vineyard. From the Upper Galilee (Mount Meron). 14 month élevage in casks. Nose with freshness, good acidity level in the mouth. Tannin feel on the side of the mouth but gets in line with the mouthfeel. Costs 120 Shekels, rather cheap (24 € or 34 USD). 10 000 bottles.
__Mediteranean 2007. Blend of Carignan, Syrah, Petit Verdot, Petite Syrah and Viognier. Picked from selected plots all over Carmel vineyards. Aged 15 months in old casks. Got 98 points in the Wine Enthusiast, Adam Montefiore says. Nice nose of red fruits. Balance and nice to drink, after the first mouth which feels a bit powerful. Moderate in alcohol actually. Costs 150 Shekels (30 € or 43 USD).
Limited Edition 2007. Blend of 5 varieties : Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot (both grown in Upper Galilee only), Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Malbec. Nice nose, albeit more discreet (a bit closed, needs carafing I guess when you serve it at home). Well balanced wine in the mouth.
__ Sha'al Gewürztraminer Late Harvest. Vineyard at an altitude of 750 meters on the northern Golan Heights. Made through cryo-extraction method. Very beautiful wine with a feel of gold and honey going down. Very fresh indeed, a very nice wine Harvested at the end of october. Costs 85 Shekels (17 € or 24 USD).
Special thanks to Mira Eitan & Adam Montefiore (both pictured on right) for this visit and the time they spent with us.