?By: Daniel Rogov
Wednesday morning (19 January) had me on the train from Tel Aviv to Binyamina, there to do re-tastings, advance and barrel tastings at the Biyamina winery. As the train made its way north I could not help but reflect on my earliest visits to the some of those well over twenty years ago when the winery was still known as Eliaz. I will not go so far as to say that entering the Eliaz winery was life-threatening but it was tricky at best: the concrete floors were cracked, wet and slippery; the many pigeons flying under the roof dropped whatever it is that pigeons drop with remarkable aiming ability that focused on human heads and shoulders; and the aromas although far from asphyxiating, were certainly neither clean nor appealing.
The first sign that things were going to change came about in 1994 when a group of investors bought out and renamed the outdated winery and appointed Ilan Hasson as CEO and Sasson Ben-Aharon as senior winemaker. From the moment of this new beginning it became apparent that Hasson and Ben-Aharon were going to succeed in bringing Binyamina into the 20th century. More recently, in 2008 the winery changed hands again and the new owners (the Chetzi Chinam chain of supermarkets) have demonstrated that they intend to continue this upward quality movement. By making major investments in both vineyards and the physical plant itself, Binyamina is rapidly moving towards being a state-of-the-art winemaking facility. No less important, the owners have wisely given the Binyamina team the freedom to produce wines not only at the more-than-acceptable entry-level but also at the very upper end of prestige labels. Simply stated, visiting Binyamina today is an unmitigated pleasure.
The winemaking team of Sason Ben-Aharon and Assaf Paz provides yet another example of how two talented people, although of vastly different personalities, can work together in producing wines of both quality and interest. Be there no question but that Binyamina is now a winery to be taken quite seriously.
The winery, now the fourth largest in the country, produces about 2.6 million bottles annually from a large variety of grapes, those from vineyards in many parts of the country. Wines are released in several series: Avnei Hachoshen (English-language labels use the title ?The Chosen?), Reserve, Yogev, Bin and Teva, The boutique arm of the winery also produces a blended red under the name of The Cave.
For those not familiar with Hebrew, Avnei Hachoshen refers to the precious stones that adorned the vest of the high priest in the days of the Temple; Yogev is the Biblical term for a farmer, in this case a clear bow to the grape-growers; and Teva means nature. As to the Avnei Hachoshen series: Sapir = Sapphire; Odem = Ruby; Yashfeh = Jasper; Tarshish = Aquamarine; Shoham = Onyx; Leshem = Opal; and Ya?alom= Diamond.
My thanks to Ilan Hasson for his warm greeting and to both Sasson and Assaf for a fine tasting, their good company and, lest it be forgotten, several cups of good espresso. My tasting notes follow, not in the order of the tasting but categorized by the series in which the wines belong.
Binyamina, Cabernet Sauvignon, Tarshish (Aquamarine), Avnei Hachoshen, 2008: Cabernet Sauvignon from two Golan Heights vineyards (Tel Fares and Kidmat Tzvi). Dark garnet towards youthful royal purple, full-bodied and with fine balance between still gripping tannins, smoky oak and fruits. On the nose and palate traditional Cabernet aromas and flavors of blackcurrants and blackberries, those complemented nicely by notes of minted chocolate. Approachable and enjoyable now but best 2012-2017. Score 90. K (Tasted 19 Jan 2011)
Binyamina, Cabernet Sauvignon-Shiraz-Merlot, Sapir (Sapphire), Avnei Hachoshen, 2008: A blend of 35% Cabernet Sauvignon, 45% Shiraz and 20% Merlot. Dark garnet toward royal purple, a full-bodied and intense wine with soft tannins and a gentle layer of near-sweet cedarwood. Muscaular and ripe but all in fine balance. On the nose and palate blackberries, cassis and blueberries, those yielding to notes of black cherries and espresso coffee. Long and generous with tannins and fruits rising on the finish. Best from mid-2011-2015. Score 90. K (Re-tasted 19 Jan 2011)
Binyamina, Syrah, Odem (Ruby) Avnei Hachoshen, 2008: Blended with a small percentage of Viognier, dark garnet, a big full-bodied wine, rich and tannic with generous but not at all overpowering oak. On the nose and palate a fine array of raspberries, plums and chocolate and, from mid-palate, rising notes of saddle leather and dark chocolate, all lingering nicely. Best from 2012?2016. Score 91. K (Re-tasted 19 Jan 2011)
Binyamina, Cabernet Sauvignon-Syrah-Petit Verdot, Ya’alom (Diamond), Avnei Hachoshen, 2008: A blend this year of 50% Cabernet Sauvignon, 40% Syrah and 10% Petit Verdot. Deep, intense garnet in color, with a nose rich with purple plums and spices. Gripping tannins and generous wood in fine balance with fruits and needing a bit of time to integrate at this stage, but showing fine promise for the future. On the nose and palate currants, wild berries and plums, those on a background of cedar wood and oak resin, the last turning to a note of tar on the long finish. Best 2012-2018, perhaps longer. Score 91. K (Tasted 19 Jan 2011)
Binyamina, Chardonnay, Shoham (Onyx), Avnei Hachoshen, 2009 (Advance Tasting): Deep glistening gold, reflecting its ten months development in oak with generous but well-balanced notes of vanilla-rich wood. On first attack gooseberries and citrus pith, those followed by aromas and flavors of white peaches, Anjou pears and pink grapefruit. Not so much a lively wine as a complex one, deep enough to match nicely with veal or chicken stews. Drink from release-2013. Score 90. K (Tasted 19 Jan 2011)
Binyamina, Emerald Riesling, Teva, 2010 (Advance Tasting): Deep, almost burnished gold in color, medium-bodied, moderately sweet with pineapple, green almonds and mint on the nose and palate. An entry-level quaffer. Drink from release. Score 84. K (Tasted 19 Jan 2011)
Binyamina, Chardonnay-Sauvignon Blanc-Viognier, Yashfeh (Jasper), Avnei Hachoshen, 2009 (Advance Tasting): A medium-bodied blend of Chardonay, Sauvignon Blanc and Viognier (50%, 30% and 20% respectively). Aged in new and old oak for six months, shows a complex nose on which butternuts and ripe pears those continuing to the glass and opening to reveal notes of honeydew melon, and citrus peel. Finishes generously with a near-buttery texture. Drink from release-2013. Score 89. K (Tasted 19 Jan 2011)
Binyamina, Cabernet Sauvignon, Reserve, 2009 (Barrel Tasting): My second barrel tasting of this wine and showing fine progress. An aromatic Cabernet, showing mint and chocolate on the nose, both carrying over to the palate on which one will find traditional blackcurrants and blackberries, those complemented by an appealing tarry note. Full-bodied and round with soft tannins integrating nicely. Drink from release?2014. Tentative Score 87?89. K (Tasted 19 Jan 2011)
Binyamina, Cabernet Sauvignon, Reserve, 2008: There are muscles to this deep garnet, medium- to full-bodied winebut they restrain themselves nicely, with gently gripping tannins in fine balance with spicy oak, fruits and acidity. On the nose and palate blackcurrant, blackberry and plum fruits, those on a background of fresh herbs and exotic spices. On the finish a hints of espresso and licorice. Drink now-2014. Score 91. K (Tasted 19 Jan 2011)
Binyamina, Merlot, Reserve, 2009 (Barrel Tasting): Deep royal purple toward garnet, deep and concentrated, full-bodied and with still-firm tannins and spicy wood integrating nicely. On the nose and palate blackberries, plums and wild berries, those supported by notes of espresso coffee, cedarwood and sage. On the long finish a note of dark chocolate.. Best 2012?2016. Tentative Score 88?90. K (Re-tasted 19 Jan 2011)
Binyamina, Merlot, Reserve, 2008: Oak-aged for 14 months, showing medium- to full-bodied, with soft, gently gripping tannins and light spicy wood, opens in the glass to show generous black fruits, those set off nicely by notes of mocha. Round and generous. Drink now-2012. Score 89. K (Tasted 19 Jan 2011)
Binyamina, Shiraz, Reserve, 2009 (Barrel Tasting): Garnet with violet hues and deeply aromatic. Full-bodied, with gently gripping tannins showing aromas and flavors of red and purple plums, near-jammy wild berries and, to add complexity notes of saddle leather, bacon and spices. This one will round out nicely as it develops. Best 2012-2016. Score 89. K (Tasted 19 Jan 2011)
Binyamina, Shiraz, Reserve, 2008: Blended with 2% Viognier, medium- to full-bodied, showing fine concentration. Soft tannins and a gentle wood influence make way for aromas and flavors of plums, wild berries and smoked meat (dare one say “bacon”?). Rich and long with an appealing note of tar on the finish. Drink now-2013. Score 90. K (Tasted 19 Jan 2011)
Binyamina, Chardonnay, Reserve, 2010 (Barrel Tasting): Developing in French oak, with one-third of the wine having undergone malolactic fermentation. Light gold with a green tint, with finely tuned acidity to highlight aromas and flavors of pears, melon and citrus peel, those on a mineral-rich background. Drink from release-2013. Tentative Score 88-90. K (Tasted 19 Jan 2011)
Binyamina, Chardonnay, Unoaked, Reserve, 2010: (Advance Tasting): Fresh, fruity and aromatic, medium-bodied, with good balancing acidity to highlight aromas and flavors of white peaches, pineapple and citrus. Not a lively wine but one that will match very nicely with grilled fish, seafood or veal schnitzels. Drink from release-2012. Score 87. K (Tasted 19 Jan 2011)
Binyamina, Gewurztraminer, Reserve, 2010: True to its variety, opening with a gently floral and spicy nose, a medium- bodied, off-dry white opening on the palate to reveal traditional litchi and rose petal aromas and flavors, those complemented nicely by notes of citrus, citrus peel and stony minerals, all with a light flinty overlay. Fine balancing acidity keeps the wine simultaneously mouth-filling and lively. Drink now-2013. Score 87. K (Tasted 19 Jan 2011)
Binyamina, Gewurztraminer, Late Harvest, Cluster Select, Reserve, 2009 (Advance Tasting): My second tasting of this wine. With 20% of the grapes impacted on by botrytis, full-bodied and nearly thick in texture, with an appealing light note of botrytis funk to highlight aromas and flavors of honeyed dried apricots. Low in alcohol (9%) and with fine balancing acidity to keep the wine lively, a tempting dessert wine. Drink now-2016, perhaps longer. Score 92. K (Re-tasted 19 Jan 2011)
Binyamina, Cabernet Sauvignon, Yogev, 2009: Dark garnet with a royal purple robe, medium- to full-bodied with soft tannins and the barest hint of spicy oak, those parting to make way for aromas and flavors of blackcurrants and ripe berries. On the moderately long finish appealing hints of spices. Not complex but a fine match to small cuts of beef, or lamb. Drink now-2012. Score 86. K (Tasted 19 Jan 2011)
Binyamina, Cabernet Sauvignon-Merlot, Yogev, 2009: A blend of equal parts of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Dark ruby toward garnet, medium- to full-bodied with gently gripping tannins and a light note of spicy oak. A red fruit nose makes itself felt nicely and, on first attack blueberries and blackberries, those followed by red currants, spices and, on the finish an appealing note of licorice. Round and well-balanced. Drink now-2013. Score 87. K (Re-tasted 19 Jan 2011)
Binyamina, Cabernet Sauvignon-Petit Verdot, Yogev, 2009: Showing better than at an earlier tasting. Oak-aged for about six months in second and third year barriques to intentionally impart only a gentle feel of the impact of the wood. A blend of 80% Cabernet Sauvignon and 20% Petit Verdot showing medium- to full-bodied, with soft tannins, the jammy notes I found earlier now receding nicely. Drink now-2013. Score 86. K (Re-tasted 19 Jan 2011)
Binyamina, Ros?, Yogev, 2010 (Advance Tasting): As has become the winemakers’ wont, a blend of 60% Malbec and 40% Carignan. Seen head on appears a light rusty-red, viewed at an angle dark rose petal pink. Medium-bodied, with appealing aromas and flavors of strawberries, black cherries and raspberries, those with appealing light notes of white pepper and earthy minerals. Drink from release. Score 88. K (Tasted 19 Jan 2011)
Binyamina, Sauvignon Blanc-Chardonnay, Yogev, 2010 (Advance Tasting): An unoaked blend of 70% Sauvignon Blanc and 30% Chardonnay, light gold in color, medium-bodied, showing lively aromas and flavors of pineapple, mango and citrus fruits and from mid-palate on a tempting note of bitter almonds. Fresh and refreshing, with just enough complexity to grab the attention. Drink from release. Score 87. K (Tasted 19 Jan 2011)
Binyamina, Aromatic Blend, Yogev, 2010 (Advance Tasting): An off-dry blend of 45% French Colombard, 40% Muscat and 15% Gewurztraminer. Even though the Gewurztraminer is in a minority here its aromas and flavors dominate nicely. Opens with a floral and spicy nose, goes on to reveal aromas and flavors of citrus, litchis and rosewater, all on a background that hints at one moment of white pepper and at the next of crushed juniper berries. As good as an aperitif as a dessert wine. Drink from release-2012. Score 86. K (Tasted 19 Jan 2011)
Binyamina, Cabernet Sauvignon, Bin, 2009: Dark cherry toward garnet, medium-bodied, with soft tannins and with clean, fresh black fruit aromas. Opens in the glass to reveal blackberries, wild berries and cassis notes. Not at all complex but easy and pleasant to drink. Drink now-2012. Score 85. K (Tasted 19 Jan 2011)
Binyamina, Merlot, Bin, 2009: Cherry red towards garnet, medium-bodied and with soft tannins, a round and gentle wine showing appealing blackberry and cassis notes. Easy to drink, a fine entry-level wine. Drink now-2012. Score 86. K (Tasted 19 Jan 2011)
Binyamina, Chardonnay, Bin, 2010: An unoaked Chardonnay, light gold in color, light- to medium-bodied, with lively apple, pineapple, citrus and citrus peel notes on a background that hints of kiwis. A fine entry-level quaffer. Drink from release. Score 85. K (Tasted 19 Jan 2011)
Binyamina, Pinotage, Teva, 2009: Deep garnet, medium- perhaps medium- to full-bodied, with gently gripping tannins and generous black fruits on the nose. Opens in the glass to reveal aromas and flavors of purple plums, wild berries and a gentles hint of roasted herbs and saddle leather. Drink now-2012. Score 87. K (Tasted 19 Jan 2011)
Binyamina, Shiraz, Teva, 2009: Garnet in color, medium-bodied, with soft tannins showing true to the variety with appealing purple plum and wild berry fruits, those on a background that hints of fresh herbs and cigar tobacco. Drink now-2012. Score 85. K (Tasted 19 Jan 2011)
Binyamina, Muscat, Teva, 2010 (Advance Tasting): Off-dry, opens with a generously floral nose, goes on to reveal aromas and flavors of citrus, pineapple and ripe pears. A pleasant little quaffer. Drink from release. Score 84. K (Tasted 19 Jan 2011)
Binyamina, Moscato, Teva, 2010 (Advance Tasting): Much in the style of Moscato d’Asti, sweet but with fine balancing acidity to keep in lively, lightly frizzante, with aromas and flavors of tropical fruits and candied apples. A fun, fresh quaffer. Drink from release. Score 85. K (Tasted 19 Jan 2011)
Binyamina, The Cave, 2007: A full-bodied blend, this year of 65% Cabernet Sauvignon, 33% Merlot and 2% Petit Verdot. Oak-aged in primarily new wood for 20 months, showing gently gripping tannins and spicy wood, those parting to make way for black fruits on a background of roasted herbs and earthy minerals. Concentrated, mouth-filling and long. Drink now-2016, perhaps longer. Score 90. K (Tasted 19 Jan 2011)
A fascinating informal but most informative tasting of two wines, both from the Upper Galilee, both treated to very similar winemaking procedures, one of an Australian clone and thus Shiraz, the other of a French clone and thus Syrah. Remarkable clonal differences
Binyamina, Shiraz, 2010 (Barrel Tasting): Full-bodied and as intense on the palate as on the nose. Aromas of black fruits and vanilla, opens in the glass to reveal generous red fruits, those going to black after several minutes all on a background of gripping tannins and spices in fine balance with the fruits. At this stage a muscular blockbuster, with its elements needing time to integrate. K (Tasted 19 Jan 2011)
Binyamina, Syrah, 2010 (Barrel Tasting): Medium- to full-bodied, with a nose that pours out spices and red berries. In the glass generous but soft tannins and generous cassis and earthy minerals. Generous and concentrated but already showing elegance K (Tasted 19 Jan 2011)
And finally, barrel Tastings of four wines, the future blending of which remains to be seen so in this case only very tentative tasting notes.
Binyamina, Malbec, 2010 (Barrel Tasting): From relatively low yield vines, showing dark garnet with orange and purple reflections. Full-bodied, showing a traditional Malbec floral and peppery nose, opens in the glass to reveal blackberry, figs and cr?me de cassis, that matched by fine acidity and on the finish notes of lead pencil and lavender. Very promising. K (Tasted 19 Jan 2011)
Binyamina, Merlot, 2010 (Barrel Tasting): Full-bodied, with near-sweet tannins that grip nicely and showing forward berry, black cherry and cassis fruits, those complemented nicely by notes of earthy minerals and fresh Mediterranean herbs. K (Tasted 19 Jan 2011)
Binyamina, Cabernet Sauvigjnon, 2010 (Barrel Tasting): An earthy Cabernet, full-bodied, with still firmly gripping tannins showing red fruits and stony minerals. Fine promise here. K (Tasted 19 Jan 2011)
Binyamina, Petit Verdot, 2010 (Barrel Tasting): From a Negev Desert vineyard, a fullbodied powerhouse that shows gently gripping tannins that make way for spicy overlays on blueberries, black cherries and cassis. Promising. K (Tasted 19 Jan 2011)