You may not have heard much about this winery but is is quietly yielding some of the best Israeli wines with little fanfare. The Frenchman and Morocco-born Michel Murciano started this venture with several other French investors with the aim of producing first-class old-world wines, and their wines were spotted by a couple of critics in specialized tasting events abroad. The winery is located in a very ancient agricultural region, and the 31 km road (19 miles) between Jerusalem and Hebron winds through a very scenic and hilly landscape (see picture on right) with a patch geometry of small terraces and tiny walled fields dotted here and there with large houses, whith grapes, fruit trees and other crops being grown on a still very artisanal way by local arabs. Many of these terraces and walled fields may have already been in place in the biblical times I guess. The region is also known for its shaky inter-religious relations, with strong views about who-should-or-should-not-be-allowed-to-live-there expressing themselves sometimes by other means than words.
There has always been grapes grown in the area going back several millenium, just that for a few centuries the only allowed varieties were table grapes. The Hevron Heights winery which represents today a timid rebirth of this ancient wine region should be taken into account for the qualty of its wines as they are undoubtly among the best of the country.
Like you may see on the picture above, the vines are trained high with a maze of wires holding horizontally the branches and foliage so that the grapes will hang underneath in the shadow.
Michel Murciano, whom I met a couple of times in Paris at wine tastings, has been setting up this winery in 2000 with the backing of several French investors intended to revive the long wine history of the area. While we drive from Jerusalem to Hebron, Michel Murciano tells me that vines have been grown in this area for 6000 years and that this is undoubtly the best terroir for vine growing. The mountainous settings have this altitude between 850 to 1000 meters and a rich soil with good nutrients for the vines. The climate while hot and dry has big temperature differences between day and night which is excellent, and the desert bordering the south of this area takes all moisture away, making these vineyards almost disease exempt. Before the muslim conquest here the area was known as one of the best for wine with several quotation of the bible or other ancient texts naming it in that regard.
The lot is still a large piece of unused, rocky land shaped like a small hill. They found it 7 years ago now, but it took an additional 6 years to get the administration green light and to get the papers. They plan to take advantage of the slope on this small hill and build with gravity in mind so that the different stages of the winemaking make as little use of pumps as possible, from the harvest reception to the fermentation vats and to the cask room. They will dig underground cellars too for the élevage.
Before showing me the facility where they have been making the wine until now near Kiryat Arba, Michel Murciano warns me that it’s messy and not really nice but what I saw seemed to me very correct and clean, and I’ve seen more mess in many of the best wineries in France (I've told him repeatedly). After driving through a passage outside of Kiryat Arba (which is actually a modern suburban community with fences all around to prevent from terror attacks) we park along a group of aging cement wharehouses with few signs hinting at a winery except a few pallets of empty bottles and a few vats. The presses which have been stored outside are protected from the scorching sun by a light roof. Hevron Heights winery employs 10 staff, among them Ouajdi who poses here with Michel in front of the winery.
Another great vat, Michel Murciano says, is this special vat (pictured on right) used for very long fermentations. With this vat, which also comes from Slovenia, they can take the seeds out without moving the wine. One must know first that grape seeds are a potential danger during long fermentations because they release greenish, undesirable notes into the wine.
They also have a flash-pasteurization tool for the niche market of mevuchal wines, sacramental wines. This machine made by Gilson in France brings the mevushal wines to a temperature of 85 ° C for a few seconds then cooled back to normal. Of course the best cuvées are not pasteurized, only the lower wines. The market for meshuval wine is going down anyway as the jewish public becomes more demanding.
Speaking of tools, there is also this special vat that they bought in Beaune (in a winery) : this is an horizontal vat with a system inside which is moved slowly by chains and reproduces a punching down : the grapes move smoothly up and down and the result is very nice. See the picture on the right.
They bottled everything here with a Costral Comet machine. But an important thing to say is that their high-tier cuvées are stored in the cellar for a minimum of 8 months after bottling in closed (dark) pallets, without the labels, in tiré bouché like the vignerons say in France. For example when I visited they were in the process of putting the labels on a batch of Hevron Heights, Jerusalem Heights 2005 which stayed in casks two years that is until the spring of 2008 and is only going out from its bottle élevage now.
Here on the right you can see a wall of bottles stored in the dark (except when we drop in the room for acheck...), these are Hevron Heights, Jerusalem Heights Cabernet Sauvignon 2007, it spent 14 months in casks and is still having its bottle élevage now.
These olive trees seem really extremely old. We have also old olive trees in France (although many froze in the big frost of 1956), but I nerver saw such big and old-looking olive trees there. That's why they could indeed be 800 years old. Otherwise, in the History-of-Hebron document linked at the bottom of the page, I found these lines speaking about olive trees on Tel Rumeida, but it's not clear if they were planted then (200 years ago) or if they were already planted since long time ago :
In 1807, the Hebron community, by means of its agent, Rabbi Hayyim Yeshua Bejano, purchased additional parcels of land in two locations: the area abutting the Jewish quarter (the “market”) and a large area including Tel Hebron (Rumeida). The acquisitions are identifiable to this day by the olive trees that were planted there. The heads of the Muslim Waqf confirmed the purchases by means of signed kushans (deeds).
__ Hevron Heights Chardonnay Elone Mamre 2010. Not on the market yet. The first such Chardonnay was made in 2002, then none until this small batch of 1500 bottles and Michel wanted me to taste it. Nice richness and gliding feel in the mouth. There's a bit of wood there, which he aknowledges and will correct for the next batch (they should have a bigger volume of Chardonnay in 2011). Marme is one of the names given in the antiquity to the city of Hebron, as you can find in the bible he says. Sometimes, the city is also named as Qiryat Arba in the bible. Elone Mamre means the Oaktrees of Mamre.
__ Hevron Heights, Judean Heights Tempranillo. I'm ashamed, no notes, even though I remember that was a nice, powerful wine (we were having lunch with Michel and his wife at their Qiryat Arba home when he opened it).
You can find my notes for the last available wines that I had tasted a few months earlier in France on this post (scroll down).
Michel Murciano and his wife have 5 children, one of the youngest, a cute little girl, brought me (as we were having lunch) a plastic mug on which she had drawn a tree and several people... 60 % of Hevron Heights wines are exported, to the United States (see also here in New Jersey), the Netherlands (here is a wine product page), France (here are the prices for the French market), Brazil, Panama, Mexico and Japan.
Tasting notes for Hevron Heights Cab-Merlot 2005 (including Jancis Robinson's notes)
Detailed History of Hebron
Day visit to Hebron from Jerusalem.