Icon 3:Yarden Series of Golan Heights Winery
By Eldad Levy
3 – Yarden Series of Golan Heights Winery
There are few cases in the global wine industry when a single wine makes a decisive impact on an entire industry. In Israel, Golan Heights Winery generated a major and substantial change with Yarden Cabernet Sauvignon. Golan Heights Winery’s Yarden series was accorded the “Icon of Israel” label in the framework of the Israel Wines portal’s unique project, headed by Eldad Levy. Eldad Levy tells the story, from the beginning till today.
“In the beginning, Baron Rothschild created the Carmel Mizrahi wineries. And Carignan ruled over the desolate land, and here and there the spirit of God hovered over one winemaker, Freddie Stiller. And Stiller produced two amazing Cabernet Sauvignon wines, in 1976 and 1978. And then the land was silent for six more years, until the emergence of the first Cabernet Sauvignon from Golan Heights Winery.”
This, perhaps, is how someone will ultimately write the opening scene of the most important revolution the Israeli wine industry has ever experienced. The story is well-known: Soon after the Six Day War, Professor Cornelius Ough, a senior faculty member at the University of California, Davis, visited the Golan Heights. After an enthusiastic assessment of the potential of the basaltic and high terrain in the area, several communities decided “to go for it” and to establish a commercial winery in the Golan Heights. Quite quickly an ownership group came together for the newborn venture – seven communities from the Golan, and one from the Galilee.
The first wine produced by the winery was a Sauvignon Blanc that won rave reviews. But the real revolution began with the Cabernet Sauvignon in the Yarden series that first entered the market from the grape harvest of 1983. At the time, we did not know much about medals and trophies, so we paid little attention when the 1984 harvest was awarded a gold medal and trophy in the IWSC competition in London. When the wine from the next harvest also won honors (in 1987), we woke up a bit. “The double win was a turning point,” says Victor Schoenfeld, the winery’s chief winemaker since 1991. “At the winery, they did not understand the significance. It was the English importer who entered the wine in the competition, but the potential of the area was clear. A young area, vineyards only seven years old, and already such a prize!”
A few years later, “the French paradox” was publicized, informing the world that red wine is good for one’s health; the Americans became drinkers of red wine, we followed behind them – and the rest is history. And Israel changed from a land of Carignan and Semillon to a land of Cabernet.
The Uniqueness of the Yarden Series
There are few cases in the global wine industry when a single wine makes such a decisive impact on an entire industry. Reports on the harvest of the past decade tell the story in absolute numbers: Cabernet has surpassed Carignan and is responsible for more than 20% of the grapes harvested in Israel. In second place is the previous king, Carignan, with about 17%, but most of this is used to produce grape juice or who knows what. So if we focus on the premium industry, Cabernet accounts for about half, plus or minus. If this isn’t a knockout – what is?
One could argue that this is a not a big deal. Cabernet is an international, well-known and popular variety that is easy to grow almost anywhere that wine grapes are cultivated. The exact same reasons can be cited to argue that this variety does not offer any advantages in competition in international markets. All this is true, yet the Cabernet of the Golan Heights is the wine that took the sleepy – if not to say backward – wine industry and turned it into a modern, successful and popular industry. Today, the popularity of the local wines in Israel seems natural. But two decades ago, until the wine revolution of Golan Heights Winery, we drank much more imported wine, most of which was not even of particularly good quality. Today, in a nearly exact mirror image, we drink red and Israeli wine, apparently in a much larger absolute quantity (though still very insufficient). There is no dispute that Golan Heights Winery sparked this process, and they did this with the iconic label of Yarden Cabernet Sauvignon.
The Yarden Cabernet has a clear aesthetic signature: ripe, concentrated fruit with a present wood frame, and tannins that will always be soft and friendly, even when the wine is young. Thus, it became the yardstick of the entire industry. Some of the vineyards try to produce a cabernet that will be “more of everything”: more fruit, more wood, more richness and concentration. Some of the vineyards adopt the opposite approach and try to present Cabernet wines that will be “less of everything” – less alcohol, less concentration and less wood. But both almost always consciously measure themselves against the Yarden Cabernet. Incidentally, the first to admit this was Yair Margalit, who said he used to set the price of his Cabernet at twice the price of the Yarden Cabernet.
Until this point, the Yarden Cabernet was the most expensive wine in Israel, and probably also the only one that today’s marketers would define as quality-premium. But even today, with a much broader and deeper basket of products, the Yarden Cabernet is still considered a nearly sacred product at the winery. Even when there is Katzrin and Rom and single-vineyard wines – first and foremost, there is the Yarden Cabernet, and all of the other wines are born only if there is enough quality material to ensure the consistency in its style and quality. “Wine is not a short-term game,” says Schoenfeld. “And the most important part in the business is to maintain consistency.” Arnon Harel, the winery’s marketing director, agrees: “Actually, this is the winery’s flagship wine. From a marketing perspective, we could make a lot more of it. In practice, what determines the amount we produce is our ability to make it without compromises.”
It is impossible to separate the work of Golan Heights Winery from its main wine that has recorded over twenty harvests at the winery. When Schoenfeld arrived at the winery, white varieties accounted for 80% of its plantings. Today the situation is the opposite, “though in recent years we have consistently been short of white wine.” Schoenfeld arrived earlier in Israel and worked at the Tishbi Winery in 1985-1986. He was in charge of the vineyards there, and the winemaker was none other than… Yair Margalit. “Contrary to what is happening today, the studies at Davis were separate for viticulture and winemaking.” The pedantic Schoenfeld realized in order to be responsible for the entire process, he needed to learn winemaking. He returned to California, completed his studies, came back to Golan Heights Winery – and the rest is history.
Tasting the Wines – From the Mature to the Young
Is there a point in conducting a study of the vineyards, blends and percentages that build the Yarden Cabernet? “There is nothing thematic in this search,” Schoenfeld says. “In our view, the wine in the Yarden series is a ‘regional wine’ that should reflect the character of the center and north of the Golan Heights, and most of the relevant vineyards participate in the game every year.” In most years, there was also Cabernet from the excellent vineyard (of blessed memory) in the Kadesh Valley in the Upper Galilee. Incidentally – if there is 85% or more fruit from the Golan, then “Golan” will be written on the Hebrew label. If not, the label will read “Galilee” – which is the wider region. In any case, “Galilee” will be written on the foreign labels, because there is no separate recognition of the Golan in the Israeli wine standard.
First Group: The Veterans
(Note: These wines underwent quick filtering en route to the decanter and then immediately from the decanter to the glasses.)
1988: The age is evident in the color. Raisins and dried fruits already overwhelm the nose. A bit of old leather. It even feels “Pinot Noirish” – forest floor, red fruit, leather. A little sherry and chocolate. The mouth – alive, with good acidity and remnants of fruit. We drank it with pleasure – a fascinating wine that elicits respect.
1990: Just two years – and the wine feels much younger. You could say that it is an upgrade over the 1988 in terms of the vitality of the fruit. The nose suggests red fruit, a drop of cassis, something earthy with a nuance of mushroom. In the mouth – high acidity, the fruit is in retreat, but still offers original flavors. A good finish. An experience.
1993: After 1990, we drank another Katzrin year for those who remember. Another upgrade. The fruit is already deeper and even has something fresh in it. A bit of tar, lightly smoked, a bit green, leather and a little truffle. On the mouth – the volume is good, the fruit is a bit in retreat but feels complex and balanced on the palate. The tannins are still present, but are soft and not “kicking.”
1995: At first, it feels a bit less lively than the 1993. But after a while, it awakens and takes its place – the youngest in the foursome. In the nose – aromas a bit smoked and even “whiskeyish”/mineral (malt iodine), and lots of fruit. The mouth – lacks volume a bit, though it lasts in a completely honorable way. Here we meet the original and sweet flavors of the fruit for the first time. Schoenfeld: “At the time, I recommended drinking the wines within a decade. In some ways, this wine re-writes the books and the winemaker notes – you can still feel the freshness nearly twenty years after the harvest.” At the top of the list: There is a nearly complete consensus for the 1990 and 1995, with lots of respect for the older of the two.
Second Group: Prime Time
1996: Apparently the most dramatic year in the history of Yarden Cabernet, and not for the proper reasons. If you take a peek at the pictures, you can see that the wine received “California-style” bottles that year. The issue was with the corks – they did not exactly fit the new bottle, and very quickly dampness was detected around the cork. The market responded with hysteria – despite the winery’s claim that there was no problem. “Those who benefited were the employees,” Victor smiles. “We bought quantities of this wine, and at an excellent price.” Change the corks? “The damage would outweigh the benefit, if there was indeed damage.”
Apparently there was no damage, because the wine we taste – with an original cork and a bit wet – is simply amazing. Even young, with loads of initial fruit, together with dried fruits, raisins and carobs. A bit of cassis, full of life, perhaps the first in the series so far. Very ready for drinking, with the correct balance of age and fresh fruit.
1997: Less expressive than the previous, but more detailed and nuanced. A bit green, toward cooked vegetables, but they are very much in the background and do not disturb. A bit mineral. On the palate, there is less fruit than the 1996, but still enough, and it is lively and does not crash. It reminds one of the 1990, the character of a cold year, and it is the most exceptional wine of the foursome. And apparently the weakest of them.
1999: Really wow. Not only because it successfully meets the test of time – but in general. Black fruit, juicy and fresh with truffles and a bit of moss, excellent volume on the palate, a long finish and full of the flavors of original fruit. A charming wine and full of life. Good concentration. We go up another level: From here and onward, it is possible to easily keep the bottles for a number of years.
2000: A nose very much “in place,” serious, and less abundant than the 1999 (a bit mineral and green), but very precise and … young. Impressive volume and vitality that commands respect. Relatively sweet fruit, a bit of cassis. The finish is a bit tannin and dry, but perhaps this due to an accumulation of tannin during the tasting.
Aviram: 1999 / Arnon, Mor and Ayala: 96 / Cooper: 99, 97 / Ehud: 96 and the 2000 will get there / Anat: 97 right now / Eldad: 99, 96 / Uri: 2000
Third Group: Funky Town
This is the most fascinating foursome in terms of the great diversity of the wines. Most of them are at a stage that is not very communicative, with an abundance of aromas, some of which can be considered “funky”(not clean), closed. In short, something that reminds one of human adolescence, for those who have raised teenagers in their home.
2001: The most precise of the four. A combination of ripe fruit, black, fresh and invigorating. A bit of mineral, seasoning and chocolate in the background. Excellent volume, good fruit concentration, a long and full finish. Seasoned, compressed – the age is not yet clear. Just emerging from “adolescence.”
2002: An extreme heat wave in August gave a bad name to the harvest that year. With a bit of imagination, your nose can detect it. The mouth – a little soft, a bit thin, a relatively short finish. The acidity is a little high vis-à-vis the fruit. In comparison to the others, it seems a bit mature, but as a ten-year-old wine it is very impressive. Aging potential – less, but it is much better than the reputation of this harvest at the time.
2003: This was the least convincing for me of the four. A bit of cooked vegetables, a bit soft and ripe on the palate. It seems that it is mainly a matter of the stage in life – lots of fruit, but closed and tightened. The summaries stage proves that is apparently worthwhile to give it time to rest.
2004: Similar to 2001, but much younger and kicking. Seasoned, with cassis and even a hint of liquor. In the mouth it is also very rich and seasoned, full and invigorating. Young. It needs time – and a lot, but it is worth saving. A moment before the “teenage” years; those who want the fruit direct and pristine – this is the time, or forget about it for 3 or 4 years.
Uri: 04, 01 / Aviram: 04 / Mor: 01 / Arnon: 04, 01 / Cooper: 04, 02 / Ehud: 04, 03 / Anat: 01, 04 / Ayala: 01, 04 / Eldad: 01, 04
Fourth Group: Childhood Dreams
All of these wines are in their childhood stage – original fruit, fresh, vigorous, kicking and not always restrained. Of course, unfortunately 90% or more of the bottles are gulped down at this stage. Not that the wine is bad, but it is capable of more.
2005: The most seasoned of all. The nose offers an abundance of seasoning from the barrel and in general. Relatively extroverted, with aromas of aniseed, licorice, perhaps a bit simplistic in comparison to the more successful years. All in all – very Cabernet.
2006: A bit out. Very seasoned, young and fresh. The fruit is very out front and so is the barrel – well blended, but present. But it has something a bit different than the “regular” line of wines, mainly in the aromas.
2007: The complex one. It undoubtedly presented the most interesting aromatic profile. There are those who found that there is a bit too much of everything here. Will time moderate it? Schoenfeld “All of the predictions are a bit out of context. It’s hard for me to say whether it will be similar to this or that, and when it will occur. But I can say that nothing will disturb it from aging honorably.”
2008: The paradox of the child. Not as deep and powerful as the 2007. Completely a child. “Yarden Cabernet Sauvignon always looks better after two years in the bottle,” says Schoenfeld. That is the paradox – it starts to look good just after it is gone from the restaurant market.
Uri: 08, 05 / Arnon: same / Mor: same / Cooper: 07 / Ehud: 07, 05 / Anat: 07, 05 / Ayala: 07 / Eldad: 07
The most interesting way to summarize the tasting is to examine several undisputed “axioms” regarding Israeli wine.
Golan Heights Winery and Israeli wines are the “most new world” around
If wines of the new world are built for “accessibility” more than “aging” – that is not exactly the category of Yarden Cabernet Sauvignon. And if the wines of the old world punish someone who touches them in their youth – okay, here too, this is not the case (though not everyone will relate to its abundant style). Cabernet Yarden is on a third path – a combination of the new world and the old world. Wines that are very accessible in their youth, but offer something else and reward those who manage to be restrained and keep them long enough.
There are no differences between the harvests in the State of Israel
Think again. The differences exist, and they are not negligible. Through the narrow prism of tasting Cabernet Yarden, we saw that there are differences. The differences are not necessarily dramatic, but they affect the character and aging ability of the wines.
Cabernet Yarden is a first-rate Israeli icon
Okay, sometimes the axioms are as solid as a rock.
For more information on the Icon Wines of Israel project
To the site of Eldad Levy