The wines from this region have critics raving
High elevation, volcanic soils and ancient vintner skills work together to make these fine wines.
Napa, Bordeaux ... sure, we've heard of those wine regions. But have you tasted a wine from the Golan Heights?
The mountainous area in northern Israel provides distinct growing conditions for vines. And I had the chance to sample some varieties at a recent lunch at Union Square Cafe in the heart of New York City.
"It's an incredibly exciting time to make wine in Israel," Victor Schoenfeld of Yarden Wines told us as we sat down to eat, drink and learn about about the region's wines.
Israel, which has five recognized wine regions, is fairly south in the Northern Hemisphere for high-quality wine growing, but a skilled winemaker knows how to make magic with what he has to work with. What Schoenfeld has – aside from 26 years of winemaking experience – is elevation, good soil and optimal climate.
The Golan Heights has some of the highest altitudes in Israel – ranging from 1,300 to 4,000 feet – while also having some of the coolest climate. The volcanic soil in the area is beneficial for growing healthy vines that produce complex flavors.
"We have a classic Mediterranean climate," said Schoenfeld, "which means cold, wet winters allowing for deep dormancy for the vines; and warm dry summers, resulting in very little disease pressure, including rot. We have a long and surprising gentle growing season."
"What is important to the vine is a combination of temperature and humidity," said Schoenfeld, pictured here. "Our days in the ripening season are dry and almost always have afternoon winds. At night, it is cool with fog or dew. The vines love this."
While this all makes for a region where grapes thrive, there are many regions around the world that make good wine. So, I asked Schoenfeld for a few reasons why wine drinkers should be specifically looking to Yarden as well as the Golan Heights area for wine. Here's what he told me:
- The wines from the region are flavorful. Yarden exports to more than 30 countries around the world, including here in the U.S., and one thing Schoenfeld hears constantly is that the "wines just taste damn good."
- The winemaking tradition in the region is one of the oldest in the world. There are ancient wine presses that dot the landscape, and Israel is now redeveloping its ancient varieties.
- The Golan Heights is a microcosm of the vast geographic diversity found in Israel – especially for such a tiny country. (By comparison, it's about the same size as New Jersey where I live.) In the 25-miles-as-the-crow-flies climb from the 1,300 foot elevation to the 4,000 foot elevation, there are five distinct types of volcanic soil allowing Yarden to produce many varietals and wine styles successfully. Schoenfeld doesn't believe there is another region like it.
Schoenfeld is not exaggerating about the character and quality of Yarden's wines. We tasted nine wines at the lunch, and they were all high quality. My personal favorite was the Yarden 2011 Brut Rosé, made from chardonnay and pinot noir (with a suggested retail price of $34). Talk about a great value for quality. This sparkling wine with flavors of tart apple, toast and citrus tasted like a much more expensive bottle. Its complexity will only increase as it ages. Yarden's portfolio includes varietals such as cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay, gewürztraminer, malbec, syrah and a blanc de blanc sparkling wine.
The winery is one of the brands under Golan Heights Winery, Wine Enthusiast's 2012 New World Winery of the Year.
MORE FROM THE GRAPEVINE: