A special wine is not just a drink and a dry tasting note. It is also a memory and an emotion. I have memories that have accompanied me throughout my career, with one wine above others: Yarden Cabernet Sauvignon. As a buyer, representative, competitor and wine writer, I have experienced this wine in different seminal moments of my wine life.
Earlier this year, the Yarden Cabernet Sauvignon 2014, won a Gold Medal at the International Wines and Spirits Competition (IWSC) in London. It was a praiseworthy result not only because Gold Medals are exceedingly rare for Israel at the IWSC, but it also proved a reminder of an event thirty one years ago that signaled the rise of Israeli wine for the first time. Then an unknown Israeli wine called Yarden Cabernet Sauvignon 1984, made by an equally unknown Golan Heights Winery, won not only the Gold Medal but also the Winiarski Trophy. This was the first major award for an Israeli wine and the first outward sign of a wine revolution in Israel.
In those days, the IWSC was the major wine tasting competition, and for those onlookers who observed the results, it was an astonishing performance. The surprise and shock by wine lovers, connoisseurs and wine professionals alike, was similar to when China won a major trophy at the Decanter World Wine Awards (DWWA) a few years ago.
The Golan Heights Winery had been founded in 1983 on the high elevation Golan Heights. With only its second vintage it won these prestigious awards. This was first time Israel put its hand up and said, “hey, look at us, we are producing quality international class wines!” Here there was a stroke of luck. When its first three vineyards were planted in 1976, two of them, Yonatan on the Golan Heights and Ramat Naftali in the Upper Galilee, turned out to be two of the best vineyards they had for Cabernet Sauvignon. This was not because of vineyard research, the view of an expert agronomist or winemaker intuition, it was more a heavy dose of good fortune. This meant that the fruit going into those early Yarden wines was already above par. This allied to new world technology, expertise from California and a new desire to make the best wine possible, was enough to transform Israeli wine.
Peter Hallgarten of Hallgarten Wines, doyen of the English wine trade, explained that he visited the winery in the early days. He was asked to taste an early vintage of Cabernet Sauvignon. He said it was not that special. He then went to visit the vineyards, and on his return, he tasted the wine again. It had opened up, and he thought, “now, that is something special”. He became the importer of the Golan Heights Winery in the United Kingdom. Then, I was still in England and I remember thinking: “Israeli wine? That’s interesting!” In those days Israel had no place at the big table.
My personal relationship with Yarden Cabernet Sauvignon covered each stage of my career. In the 1980s I was working in the English wine trade and heard about the Golan Heights Winery from Peter. He told me about the technology, raved about the night harvest and I absorbed all the information like a sponge. I was the wine buyer and marketer of wine in a hotel group of 60 hotels and I was quick to support the Israeli winery where I could, though Israel was scarcely a household name in the wine stakes. Gamla Cabernet Sauvignon and a wine called Golan Mount Hermon White were the main sellers. Yarden Cabernet Sauvignon and Yarden Sauvignon Blanc were more expensive & exclusive. This was my introduction to the quality wines of Israel.
The Yarden Cabernet Sauvignon the 1985 was a revelation. It was the best Israeli wine I had ever tasted. I was proud that Israel could produce a wine such as this and was keen to show it in tastings. Nothing like brown bagging an Israeli wine at a blind tasting to surprise and educate. What is true now, was also true then. When I made Aliyah in 1989 I had already worked for a few years with the wines and was in contact with the winery before I made the big move. At my memorable farewell dinner the Yarden Cabernet Sauvignon 1985 was served in between Corton Charlemagne Bonneau du Martray and Chateau Mouton Rothschild. I still have the beautifully designed menu.
In the nineties I was already working for the Golan Heights Winery and as export manager, enjoyed showing the wines at international exhibitions like Vinexpo in Bordeaux. The Yarden Cabernet Sauvignon always had a high profile. A special event for me, took place in 1999. The Golan Heights Winery was invited to the New York Wine Experience, which was the most prestigious wine tasting in the wine calendar. It featured the top 200 wineries in the world and participation was by invitation only. The Golan Heights Winery was the first Israeli winery ever to be invited. It is really an event for owners and winemakers, but I was fortunately sent, because no-one at the winery really understood the uniqueness of the event. When I arrived and looked around, I saw many of the world’s most legendary wines and wine personalities, and there was I, on my own, representing Israeli wine. The Golan Heights Winery stand was near that of Chateau Margaux. It was like being present at a private party at which all the wine Gods were invited. The wine that was my partner in explaining Israel to the world, was the Yarden Cabernet Sauvignon 1996. I was immensely proud and excited to be there, and the crème de la crème were able to taste this wine amongst the finest wines on earth. Since then, Israel has regularly been invited to this wonderful event, but the first time is always extra special.
By the 2000’s I was working for Carmel Winery, a competitor to the Golan Heights Winery. In those optimistic days Carmel went through a quality revival and came out with a series of single vineyard Cabernet Sauvignons. You may remember the Ben Zimra Cabernet Sauvignon 2002, Kayoumi Cabernet Sauvignon 2003 & 2004, Ramat Arad Cabernet Sauvignon 2002, and Zarit Cabernet Sauvignon 2003 & 2004. The wines were pretty good and it was an exciting new path for Carmel in those days. When we wanted to test ourselves and judge what we achieved, we had to consider a suitable competitor to blind taste against. It’s not a surprise to those reading this article, that we chose Yarden Cabernet Sauvignon 2004. We considered this to be the standard for Cabernet in Israel. It is somewhat indicative that Yarden Cabernet Sauvignon is as good as ever after thirty two vintages, while not one of the Carmel wines that made me smile at the time, are made any more. Later the same Yarden Cab 2004 became the first Israeli wine ever to be selected in the Wine Spectator Annual Top 100, another milestone for Israeli wine.
I always wrote about wine, and sometimes in great detail about the Golan Heights Winery, however because I was seen as a competitor, I was ignored. When I left Carmel and became truly independent, I was welcomed back into the fold. I was now treated as a bone fide wine writer. The first event I was invited to was one where the Yarden Cabernet Sauvignon 2013 was being poured. Out of all the wines I tasted, it was the one that stood out; a grand vin in every way and it symbolized to me that Yarden Cabernet Sauvignon was still up there. The DWWA agreed and gave it the Platinum Trophy and 95 points, so the wine was still holding its own as Israel’s number one wine ambassador. Talking about a closing of circles, this same wine was being poured few weeks ago at the 2018 New York Wine Experience, nineteen years after my breathless debut!
These days the Golan Heights Winery makes many more wines than it did thirty years ago. Now there are prestige , deluxe wines like Yarden Katzrin and Yarden Rom, and there are single vineyard wines like the Yarden El Rom and Bar’on, which are made in tiny quantities and are priced higher. However, the legendary winemaker of the Golan Heights Winery, Victor Schoenfeld, winemaker since 1992, still regards the Yarden Cabernet Sauvignon as the true flagship of the winery. Of course, he is right. To make tiny quantities of a rare, strictly allocated wine is relatively easy. To make larger volumes of wine, whilst maintaining standards of quality and succeeding to make an authentic expression of a particular terroir, is far more difficult. Not only is Yarden Cabernet Sauvignon a symbol of the Israeli wine industry, it is still regarded as arguably the finest Cabernet Sauvignon in the country, and it represents outstanding value, being priced far more reasonably than many of the offerings of boutique wines and wineries elsewhere.
It is also a wine that can age, unlike the image for Israeli wines which, as a generalization, talks about a 10-12 year maximum. The Golan Heights Winery recently hosted twelve Masters of Wine at the winery in Katzrin. The guests were given the Yarden Cabernet Sauvignon 1995 to taste blind. This is a twenty three year old wine! It was astonishingly youthful and showed incredibly well, belying the view that Israeli wines don’t age. Recently I needed a wine for a twenty year anniversary and opened the Yarden Cabernet Sauvignon 1998. It was browning, in decline but it had a wonderful delicate, sensual bouquet. It was an absolute delight. Yarden Cabernet Sauvignon has proved to be one of the wines with the best record for cellaring over the long term.
The Yarden Cabernet Sauvignon is made from blending fruit from the finest Cabernet vineyards in the the central and northern Golan Heights. The winery’s vineyards are divided into numerous blocks. Wines are grown, harvested, fermentead and aged in individual lots, using a data base of current and historical information that make the Golan vineyards arguably the most analyzed agricultural land in Israel. Only then are they blended to provide an authentic taste of the Golan Heights terroir. The wine is usually aged 18 months in small French oak barrels, 40% of which were new. If they produce 300,000 bottles, it sounds a lot, until you realize Chateau Mouton Rothschild produces the same. The wine usually has deep ripe fruit aroma, and a silky, concentrated character, a combination of New World power with Old World elegance.
These days, Israeli wines have come of age and regularly gain third party recognition at the highest level with high scores, good write ups, and numerous Gold medals and Trophies. The Golan Heights Winery is not alone. Today there are many wineries and wines flying the flag, but there is one constant. Wherever Israeli wines have been tasted or marketed, the Yarden Cabernet Sauvignon has always been there at the forefront as a high profile ambassador. Also, whenever Israeli wines have been scored or judged, the wine has been a steady presence and is arguably Israel’s most awarded wine. As we go to press, we hear that the Yarden Cabernet Sauvignon 2014 has received 91 points in the Wine Spectator.
I recently wrote about the leading wines of every decade of Israel’s 70 years, indeed Yarden Cabernet Sauvignon was my choice as the wine of the 1980’s. However, if I had to select one Israeli wine only, as the finest ambassador of Israel wine over the last 35 years, it would be Yarden Cabernet Sauvignon. If there is one wine that represents the story of Israel’s quality wine revolution, this is it!
Adam Montefiore has advanced Israeli wines for over 30 years. He is referred to as the ambassador of Israeli wine and is the wine writer for the Jerusalem Post. www.adammontefiore.com