KATZRIN, Israel - You may wonder how a nice California boy with a degree in winemaking from UC-Davis ended up producing exceptional Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and sparkling wine in the Golan Heights, a stone's throw from the Sea of Galilee.
Victor Schoenfeld, born and raised in Rancho Palos Verdes, Ca., more or less always knew what he wanted to be when he grew up. His lifelong interest in gastronomy took him to Davis, but before that Schoenfeld made a pilgrimage to Israel where he met the owners of the Golan Heights Winery, a contact that would prove fortuitous as he launched his winemaking career.
He made cameo appearances in minor roles at the Robert Mondavi Winery in the Napa Valley and Sonoma County's Preston Vineyards and Chateau St. Jean before working a harvest at the prestigious Jacquesson Champagne house prior to joining Golan Heights in 1991.
Though it may have appeared to the unenlightened that Schoenfeld had been banished to a viticultural wasteland, the reality was quite different. Over his 16 years at Golan Heights Schoenfeld has tapped into the vast potential of an area - Golan Heights is a sub-appellation of the larger Galilee wine region - that was largely undiscovered and under-utilized until he arrived and began to push the boundaries on quality.
Though Schoenfeld's technical skills and quiet determination are widely respected throughout the wine industry, he has reached out in recent years to the legendary California winemaker Zelma Long.
'You can get into trouble sometimes bringing in a consultant with expertise in only one area,' said Schoenfeld. 'But Zelma had such vast experience internationally that she was a perfect fit for our situation.'
The fact that a winemaker of Long's stature would embrace a wine project in the Middle East was surely a sign to the rest of the world that there was something going on here. Chateau Musar in neighboring Lebanon had long been recognized for the quality of its Cabernet Sauvignon, but no winery in Israel had come close to similar acclaim.
Until now. Golan Heights Winery's 'Yarden' wines have captured a number of international prizes in recent years, successes that are far from a fluke. The volcanic 'tuffa' of the Golan Heights coupled with a moderate climate (contrary to the conventional wisdom) make the Golan Heights an ideal location for winegrowing.
With vineyards planted at elevations between 1500 and 3000 feet, the grapes benefit from daytime temperatures that fluctuate between the low 70s and high 80s farenheit, and night-time temps that dip into the high 50s.
Cabernet Sauvignon is the star red grape variety at the moment, but in a wine region that only found its legs some 25 years ago, there continues to be exploration with other varieties. Merlot from the region is solid, but if any other red grape is to challenge the preeminence of Cabernet it most likely will be Syrah.
There is some Pinot Noir planted, but Pinot here is still a work in progress. The two vintages I tasted from the Golan Heights Winery Yarden line were unimpressive.
The Yarden whites wines -- primarily Chardonnay and Gewurztraminer -- are nearly as successful as the Cabernet. Famed Italian winemaker Angelo Gaja was so impressed with the Gewurztraminer that he started selling it in Italy through his import company. The Organic Chardonnay won a gold medal this year at Challenge International du Vin, France's largest wine competition. And Yarden's 1999 Blanc de Blancs took a Grand Gold medal -- it's second in three years in the 'Other Sparkling Wine with Fermentation in the Bottle' -- at this year's prestigious Vinitaly wine competition.
During a recent visit I had an opportunity to taste a number of Yarden wines covering several vintages and have selected a few of my top picks for review. These wines are imported to the United States in small quantities and distributed through Southern Wine & Spirits.
Yarden 2000 Blanc de Blancs, Galilee (Israel, $20): This 100 percent Chardonnay (harvested from the northern Golan, Israel's coolest winegrowing area) fits into the 'brut' category, but it is drier than most, perhaps reflecting the elegant style Schoenfeld fell in love with at Jacquesson. The nose is floral and delicate, and on the palate it shows complexity and minerality, with a light overtone of citrus fruits. 91
Yarden 2006 Gewurztraminer, Galilee (Israel, $12): A classic nose of rose petal and spice, this Gewurz is made in the voluptuous, slightly off-dry style of Alsace, which gives it more body and weight on the palate than most other New World (in wine terms) Gewurztraminers. Delicious aromas of litchi, citrus and honey on the palate deliver impressive complexity. 88
Yarden 2002 Syrah, Galilee (Israel, $28): Although this was considered an 'off' vintage in the Golan, the Syrah came out remarkably well. It attacks the senses with an inviting nose of black pepper and blueberry, and shows layers of red and black fruits on the palate, finishing with a sensuous floral note. This Syrah is the personification of elegance and sophistication in an Israeli Syrah. 91
Yarden 2003 Cabernet Sauvignon, Galilee (Israel, $28): The fruit on this basic Yarden Cab is fresh and youthful and, if anything, I've underrated it a bit. It shows excellent depth, nuances of black fruits and a persistence of flavor on the finish that is impressive. Tannins are nicely integrated, so even though this wine could improve with a few years in the cellar, it can be drunk easily and with great pleasure right now. 89
Yarden 2003 El Rom Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, Galilee (Israel, $36): Easily one of the finest Cabernets I've tasted this year, the '03 El Rom from Yarden offers depth, impressive palate weight, complex aromas of black fruit, dried herbs and vanillin, and exquisite balance. 93
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