Think Israelis Are Aggressive? We dare you to try their wines.

There are few nicer spots to sample Israeli wines than from the rooftop of Jerusalem’s chic Mamilla Hotel. It’s usually the first place I go once I drop my bags in my room. The view of the Old City is spectacular — a real “Welcome to Jerusalem” post card — sweetened by an equally spectacular list of Israeli wines. Late one afternoon I sought refuge there after many hot hours visiting merchants in the Old City (all for you, dear readers! The night before, one the hotel’s sommeliers, Maor Efrati, had suggested I book a wine tasting after I’d ordered a glass of wine from a very familiar Israeli winery. He fixed me with a look and said, “May I bring you something else?”

A little taken aback, I said, “Sure… but why?”

“I want you to experience something new.”

 Thus the next day I sat atop a bar stool, ever the eager student.

 Maor and me in Mamilla’s Mirror Bar. Photo by Eliran Dahan.
 “There are a lot of attempts now to make good wines out of local grapes,” Maor explained, setting down an empty wine glass before me. “But it’s not always successful.”

Most wine grapes grown here, as elsewhere, are instantly recognizable: cabs, merlots, chardonnays etc. What Maor meant as a “local” grape referred to one indigenous to the Mediterranean — Roussanes, Marsannes, and the mystifying “carignan.” There is an Arabic “Daboki” grape but — “I tried it. No good.” The vineyards clamber all over Israel — in the Golan Heights, which is like a mini-Napa if Napa shared a border with Syria; the Judean Hills outside of Jerusalem; and even further to the south, where the wonderful Yatir boutique winery produces its famous “Forest” vintage.

Maor poured a flight of three for me — travelers to Israel take note (I don’t know if these are yet available in North America). The first was a Recanati Special Reserve from 2012, a blend of local Roussanne and Marsanne; the second was a very affordable 2013 “big” blend from the Teperberg winery, one of Israel’s oldest and largest wineries, of Cabernet, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Bordeaux; the third an even boomier 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon from the Bazelet Hagolian winery in the Golan.

The Recanati — oaked for 8 months — was similar to a Chardonnay but crisp and lighter, “toasty,” as Maor put it.  The moderately priced Teperberg could hold its own with more pricey Californian counterparts — similar to a pinot noir, smooth and tasty without being “super-full-bodied.” No XXXL needed, in other words.  The last, oaked 18 months, was, as Maor warned, “a little aggressive.” (“Like Israelis?” I suggested. “Yes,” he agreed.) This was the wine to have with a big fat steak — a XXL-sized wine that got smoother  and friendlier by the minute. Also like Israelis, come to think of it.

“I’m really trying to open up people’s minds here,” Maor explained. “I try to find small wineries and give them the stage they deserve. Some wineries might only produce 8,000 bottles but if they are good, we will put them on the list.”

So next time when you are browsing Israeli wines or confronted with a confusing wine list, remember those names. Two I’d add as well: Anything by Pelter in the Golan Heights, and my all-time favorite Israeli red, the Grand Vin by Domain du Castel in the Judean hills (but anything by Castel will be good).