Amphorae is a very recent winery which operates from the bushy hills of Kerem Maharal in the Zikhron-Ya’akov area (Carmel mountains). It is making New World wines, and mostly reds by the way. It sits in a small valley with a feel of Provence all around with all these aromatic plants and bushes; this is may and this looks like summer in the south of France already.
The winery which was founded in 2000 by high-tech-sector businessmen, has been purchased soon after in 2008 by Russian investor Vladimir Dubov, who was one of the shareholders of the Russian oil giant Yukos. The winery went then through major refurbishing, investments in new tools and new staff even though it was still very recent. The wine partners working with the news owners had already made wine since 2006 in Kfar Kisch, a kibbutz-like community in lower Galilee with many immigrants from eastern Europe and the former Soviet republics. The manager whom we met is Russian-born Dimitri (Mitia) Gurevich, he has been working for 10 years in the wine industry before this job. There are quite a few other Russians in the winery which makes it even more interesting although the quality of its wines suffice largely to justify a story. [Again, I can't but lament that the Russian administration virtually doesn't allow small artisan wineries of this scale to exist in Russia].
The initial founders of the winery looked for the top quality from the start, and their wines were already awarded in 2001 in a competion in the country.
There are a few vineyards around the winery but the grapes actuially come from Manara in the upper Galilee, a region with excellent conditions for wine grapes. They have long-time agreements with growers there, and they also have their own vineyards in the Golan Heights, in Sha'al as well as schech, where altitude, soil parameters and climate suit particularly for vine growing. Some grapes are also contracted near Psagot in the Judean hills. Psagot is considered the best place in Israel to grow Cabernet Sauvignon, and they exploit a small surface there (7 Dunams or 0,7 hectare).
The grapes are picked manually in the different vineyards they work with, and brought to the winery in boxes with refrigerated trucks. There's a cold maceration for the reds, from 7 to 10 days. As I noticed that the tannins of a particular wine I was tasting were not harsh at all (tasting details at the bottom), Alon says that this is because of the ripeness of the grapes, they look more for ripeness of flavors than ripeness of sugar. Sometimes he says, people pick according to the sugar level but at Amphorae they check that harvest takes place a bit later even though the alcohol may be hiogher then. Overall, he says, he doesn't feel that the alcohol level is out of balance. Asked if they do some micro-ox to soften the tannins like Michel Rolland is said to favor [maybe be an excessive reliance on Mondovino from our part], he says not at all. He visited Michel Rolland's winery in Argentina and there too, the approach to ripeness is similar to what is implemented at Amphorae, but he didn't see any micro-ox use either.
__ Amphorae Blend, from a cask. Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot. Refined and powerful. Signature collection. Inky wine, some wood but not ourtwardly.
__ Amphorae Cabernet Sauvignon 2009, from a cask. Marana vineyards in Upper Galilee. Nice mouth feel, aromas of eucalyptus and stone minerality. Very concentrated though. 2nd nose yields these eucalyptus leaves and similar aromas. Very nice. The wine spends lots of time for the élevage, usually 2 and a half years in casks.
__ Amphorae Cabernet Sauvignon 2009, from the Jerusalem hights, on the eastern side overlooking the dead see at a 900 meters elevation in Psagot, from the top cuvée. New cask, Mercurey cooperage. They use a few other cooperages but Mercurey is the one they prefer. Plus, they tend to use mostly larger-volume casks, like 300-liter and 500-liter ones. Makes the wood more elegant, Alon says. The yields on this vineyard is 500 to 600 kilograms per dunam (5 to 6 tons per hectare) even thoug they irrigate. Last year's harvest there was october 1st (this week it should be 2 or 3 weeks later).
Nose on the incense, oil range of aromas, petrol and garrigue (Provencal bushes) notes too. Thin tannins but well marked. Length. Alon says that in Psagot the soil is very poor, with basically only 15 centimeters of earth, then you find the limestone rock. Still powerful wine for me though, not my usual wine. Will be very good with a meat dish for sure.
__ Amphorae Unica. Merlot Barbera 2006. Bottle (we're back on the street level at the tasting room). Unica is the top range of their wines at Amphorea, will be named Signature. It is considered a very unusual blend, Alon says that it was made to deal with the problems many wines face in Israel, the lack of acidity. Barbera has very good acidity (its ph was 3,3 at harvest), and it is grown in Kfar Yval near Kiryat Shmona up north near the Lebanese border. It has been blended here with 83 % of Merlot coming from Tsuva in the lower part of the Jersusalem hills. In general they don't correct the acidity even though they keep the possibility if needed. Other winemakers usually don't aknowledge it but it is a common practice in the country.
What a nose here ! Very good acidity in the mouth indeed, and good length. Asked about the SO2 addings, Alon says that they make checks to monitor the needs in that regard, but usually they add some at the arrival of the grapes, then at the end of the malolactic fermentation and then they just check the levels a few times, correcting it if necessary. Filtering is very scant here, this is just to remove the big particles in te wine. They made checks of their wines a few years ago through a specialized lab in France and it turned out that after 2 or 3 years of élevage the wine is totally clean of bacteria, rendering filtering unnecessary, that's why they do a very simple one. A tasting before and immediately after their filtering shows no difference in the taste by the way.
The bottle costs 275 Shekels, not really my kind of prices (56 € or 81 USD).
__ Amphorae Unica Shiraz (majority with 45 %), Merlot (35¨%) Cabernet Sauvignon (20 %) 2006. All grown in upper Galilee vineyards. Bernadette says that this is definitely the best wine here, thanks in particular for the quality of the Shiraz here. The first nose is less expressive, here is a wine that needs some time to open. The mouth feel is more tannic and also more on the acidity side. 15,6 ° in alcohol, feels like 14). Again, Alon says that they looked for fruit ripeness even if the alcohol went up, because in the end there's a balance that makes the whole wine hold. He says that for the last harvest, he remembers that the ph was between 3,8 to 3,7 at harvest and was 3,65 in the barrels, so if there's a correction it is a very light one.
__ Amphorae Cabernet Sauvignon 2006. Long élevage in those large-capacity casks. Very nice nose, aromatic mediterranean leaves, eucalyptus and the likes. 15,3 °. 6000 bottles, a very small batch. First mouth is closed, will open after a few minutes. Nice generous wine but out of reach at 325 Shekels (65 € or 96 USD).
__ Amphorae Inna 2006. Desert wine.Sweet fortified wine. 300 bottles made of it, sold only at the winery. More adapted to the Russian taste, someone says. This is a Madeira style of wine made with Chardonnay. Late harvest. Fermentation stopped by alcohol adding. For the aging stage, the interesting thing is that it hasn't been topped up and after 4 years there was almost only half of the barrel full. Excellent wine, with good acidity. 195 Shekels (39 € or 57 USD).