We drive along Highway 1, the scenery changing from a bustling cosmopolitan city to a scene from a medieval painting. We are driving from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Eli Ben-Zaken, owner of Domaine du Castel, is speaking in his soft, slightly hoarse voice, “I used to think the art of survival was one stage of existence while the art of living was the next stage. But now, I’ve come to realize that the art of survival is part of the art of living.” He says this without bitterness or sadness, just a personal observation, a nugget of wisdom from a man who has lived through several wars.
Military conflict and uncertainty is a way of life in Israel. Like all Israeli citizens Eli’s three children served in the Israeli army – three years for the boys and two years mandatory service for the girls. I read David Grossman’s beautifully written novel about an Israeli mother’s struggle with life and meaning while her son is in the army during a time of conflict. But I still wasn’t prepared for everyday life in the epi-centre of such uncertainty.
While Eli Ben-Zaken talks about his high density vineyards planted at 6,600 vines per hectare (three times the country’s average), I am wondering why a young couple who had a good, safe life in Italy chose to establish roots in a precarious, newly established country like Israel. He is talking about the challenges of vineyard management 740 metres above sea level in the Judean Hills during these recent drought years while I am amazed that despite continual conflicts and terrorist attacks, Ben-Zaken chooses to be part of an industry that creates for the next generation.
We drive for about 40 minutes and the old city of Jerusalem, with remains of its thousands of year old walls comes into view. The city has an ochre-coloured glow. “That is all Jerusalem limestone,” Ben-Zaken explains to me. “We are not allowed to use any other stone to build in this city.” Synagogues, mosques, churches exist adjacent to and sometimes on top of each other. Crusader arches meet Roman columns and orthodox Greek lamps. Fragments of history are everywhere. My foggy memory of religion class in college is jarred awake by a statue of King David who ruled from this site 3000 years ago; I remember fragments from the bible as I pass through the site of Jesus Christ’s crucification, burial and the Temple Mount.
So much here to preserve and to keep alive! And suddenly I understand a little about why one might choose this place versus any other place in the world to live. Eli Ben-Zaken is thoughtful as we are driving back to Tel Aviv. “I feel really old. I’ve lived a million lives and I am not afraid of dying. I have seen and done so much in my life, when it happens, it happens, one can’t be afraid of death,” He smiles, his tone grateful without a touch of weariness.
There are now approximately 300 wineries in Israel, most of them small boutique producers aiming for quality wine. The best wines listed below reflect the hopes and dreams of the people who live in the midst of a turbulent reality and make wine for the love of it.
2007 Domaine du Castel Blanc: This youthful vibrant Chardonnay dances on the palate, with the acidity providing the rhythm and the toasty, nutty, stone peach flavours doing pirouettes. While the delivery is exuberant, this is a serious wine with a steely acid backbone and long finish. Classy wine that can easily be confused with top white Burgundy in a blind tasting. 92 points
2005 Domaine du Castel: One of the most feminine, spicy, seductive wines tasted from a lineup of 12 vintages of Domaine du Castel. This is a classic ode to Bordeaux with its cedarbox notes and hint of cassis and ripe blackberries. The 1995, 1996 and 1998 showed how well top Israeli wines can age. Eli Ben-Zaken’s winemaking skill lies in crafting consistently good wine year after year. This 2005, one of my favourites, is beautifully woven with a very long finish. 93 points
2007 Golan Heights Yarden Cabernet Sauvignon El Rom Vineyard: This vineyard was planted in a very cool site 1100 metres above sea level and it shows in the firmness of its tannins and acidity. It has gorgeous aromatics reminiscent of ripe Bordeaux. Cassis, cedar and red dates are supported by firm ripe tannins and an underlying minerality that surfaces in the finish. Not produced every year. 93 points
2005 Margalit Cabernet Sauvignon Special Reserve: The grapes for this wine come from a single unirrigated vineyard at 800 metres above sea level on the Galilee mountains. This blend of 85% Cabernet Sauvignon and 16% Petit Sirah (Durif) displays a complex layered fruit expression with a wonderful minerality. There is depth without heaviness and the finish is lingering. 92 points
2007 Pelter Cabernet Franc: The first vintage of this wine from 1100 metres above sea level was in 2002. This is a gentle, surprisingly delicate Cabernet Franc aged in 100% new French barrels, which have been beautifully integrated into the wine. A polished, elegant wine with good varietal expression. 90 points
2008 Sea Horse winery James Chenin Blanc: From 35-year old vines arises a delightful ripe-appley expression of Chenin Blanc. The grapes were originally destined for table grapes. Beautifully made, still youthful with no oak influence – crisp, rounded flavours with a fine acid line. 89 points
2007 Segal’s Unfiltered Cabernet Sauvignon: A medium bodied red made from 15 year old vines planted at 700 metres above sea level in the Upper Galilee. While the nose is not that expressive the flavours unfold layer by layer on the palate. A wine with grace and a fairly long finish. 90 points
Reprinted with permission from South China Morning Post