In the recent turmoil in Israel, there arose a single bright flower amidst all of the bramble and underbrush, Yarden Wines from Golan Heights, Israel.
Celebrating his 30th year as a winemaker at Yarden, Victor Schoenfeld held a Virtual Lunch Break for international wine journalists via Zoom. The session was accompanied by a dazzling sampling of Yarden wines, which were shipped in advance to the participants along with a recipe for Shakshuka, a traditional Israeli tomato, herb and spice dish, and a jar of Harissa, an aromatic Mediterranean chile paste, used in its preparation.
Presented were Yarden Sauvignon Blanc 2019 ($19.99), Yarden Merlot 2017 ($29.99) and Yarden Allone Habashan Syrah 2017 ($87).
If you knew nothing about wines from Israel, you would have sworn that they were from someplace in California or maybe Australia, or possibly France. They’re hard to place, but they’re awfully good.
The lunch dish was Victor’s Soft Steamed Egg Shakshuka, a traditional Israeli dish that is a sautee of onions, sliced bell peppers, diced tomatoes and herbs with the tantalizing addition of Harissa, an exotic Mediterranean pepper sauce, which Victor described as ‘Jewish Hot Sauce.’ It was all topped with sliced soft-cooked eggs, which Victor explained was a favored local ingredient, typical for a home cooked meal.
“Eggs are just about everywhere in Israeli cuisine, especially at dinner time. They’re light and flavorful and perfect for the evening meal. In the Mediterranean, we tend to eat our bigger meal at midday. The evening meal is usually something simple served with some crusty bread and a glass of wine. Shakshuka is the perfect combination of flavors for Yarden Sauvignon Blanc.”
With the advent of warm summer nights, Yarden wines and a steaming plate of Shakshuka or some nice grilled meat with Harissa and some grilled veggies dusted with olive oil and garlic are just the thing!
Yarden wines are bursting with that quality we wine people call ‘terroir,’ that almost inexplicable sense of climate, time, and place.
“We’re trying to create wines that express the unique place where we are on the planet,” Victor expounded, with the sound of a dog barking in the distance, a reminder that he was comfortably ensconced in his study just off of his vineyards.
“I don’t know of any other place that combines our elevation, which is at the 33rd parallel, with vineyards that are close to 4 thousand feet and which have volcanic soil. Golan Heights is located on a volcanic plateau.
“ It’s a unique combination. We feel that if we aren’t creating wines that reflect our singular spot, then we’re not doing our job.”
The first wine we tasted was the Yarden Sauvignon Blanc 2019 ($19.99). It’s unusually powerful for a Sauvignon Blanc. It has none of that typically grassy overtone that you’d expect. Its heft and complexity suggest something quite different.
“Our Sauvignon Blanc is really fresh,” Victor observed while swirling the wine in his glass. “A lot of people have told me that when they taste our Sauvignon Blanc, they can’t really place it. It’s not exactly like something from New Zealand. It’s not like French or California either. It’s obviously the varietal Sauvignon Blanc, but it’s a little hard to place where it comes from. That speaks to our goal of trying to grow fruit that gives forth a lot of expression and gives you a sense of where it came from.”
With 30 years under his belt, Victor has had quite a bit of time to work out his individualistic approach to making wine. “I’ve pretty much dedicated by professional life to creating vineyards that reflect our unique place,” he said emphatically. “The answer to that question is slowly revealing itself.
“The way we think about things at Golan Heights, we’re always looking ahead to new tools and new technologies. It’s hard to even think back to what we were doing as little as five years ago. Instead, we’re using a lot of new technologies to try to understand our natural conditions now.
As far as using new technologies are concerned, Victor is very circumspect. “We aren’t very hi tech when it comes to the actual winemaking, but we are very high tech when it comes to wine growing.”
Everything Victor espouses can be experienced in the glass. “If you aren’t familiar with our Sauvignon Blanc, it can be surprising. It’s very flavorful. It’s quite full-bodied. We ferment 25% of it in oak. We found that is an amount that adds a little flavor and presence. It lengthens the wine and gives it body without dominating the base of the fruit.”
Yarden Sauvignon Blanc is lush with tropical fruit flavors and a flinty mineral backbone. “The bottom line is that it makes for a really enjoyable summertime wine that is great with everything,” Victor noted.
Sunny slopes at higher elevations and complex volcanic soils make for red wines of uncommon complexity and flavor. Yarden Merlot 2017 ($29.99) is a perfect example.
Made from Certified Sustainable vineyards in the central and northern Golan Heights, the wine is aged for 18 months in small French oak barrels. The result is a jammy, concentrated wine that delivers a mouthful of ripe, red fruit.
Concentrated flavors in the Merlot, inspired Victor to expound on the soil striations that made that quality possible.
“A large part of what makes Yarden wines so different is the diversity of the land and the soil,” Victor explained. “Soil and climate are two major factors that impact the wine.
Displaying a map that showed Israel’s relation to the rest of the world, Victor embarked on a short lesson in geography.
“One of the things that strikes people right away when they visit Israel is the incredible diversity of climate and topography. Even though we’re a very small country, we have the geography and geology of a large country. You can travel very short distances and see a tremendous difference in what things look like in terms of vegetation, the types of animals, the way the land looks, in short, everything!”
To illustrate his point, Victor gave us a look at a photograph of the Golan Heights at harvest time. With its volcanic mountains in the distance, and the dominating view of the vineyards on the valley floor below, it could very well have been a picture of Mount St. Helena overlooking the Napa Valley.
“Israel is a tiny country. About one-eighteenth the size of California,” Victor explained. “California is a huge state with a lot of diversity. Israel is a tiny place with just as much diversity.”
Israel’s location is strategic. “We’re right at the intersection, the junction, if you will, of Europe, Asia and Africa, that’s right where we are.
Because of our location, we’re one of the major flyways for migrating birds. Every year, 500 million birds migrate over Israel. We are a paradise for birdwatchers.”
Yarden Allone Habashan Syrah 2017 ($87), was the star attraction of the afternoon. I shared with Victor my recipe for butterflied Leg of Lamb, rubbed with a mix of Mediterranean spices, including Cardamom, Cumin, and Harissa .
I rubbed the lamb with a combination of Harissa, herbs and olive oil. I then placed it on the grill directly over the flame just long enough to give it those nice grill marks. Then, I slowly roasted it for an hour and a quarter on the opposite side of the grill, far away from the coals. The meat was crunchy on the outside, with the caramelized coating of herbs and spices, and tender and juicy on the inside. A generous sprinkling of fresh squeezed lemon juice, a dusting of smoke paprika and a handful of fresh cut cilantro sprinkled on the still-warm meat gave it an extra oomph!
Paired with this wine, you can take yourself on an imaginary trip across the Sea of Galilee, and continue flying high above for a bird’s eye view of the fertile Golan Heights vineyards below.
Many thanks to Victor for a delightful excursion of his wines at the Yarden Table and a virtual trip to Golan Heights Winery. For more on Yarden Wines of Israel, visit yardenwines.com.