Since their first vintage in 1992, the Castel Winery has been among the vanguard of wineries setting new standards for Israeli wines and two decades later they still remain list in the conversation of Israel's best producers so much so that any writer's list of top ten Israeli wineries is often suspect if Castel isn't somewhere on that list if not at the top.
When I first started writing about Israeli wines I was fortunate enough to be introduced early on to Eli Ben Zaken, the founder and senior winemaker, and meeting with him over two days in 2009 at the winery I not only developed an affection for their wines but their philosophy of winemaking and a level of comfort that in becoming a trumpet for what good and great about Israeli wines that this winery and family would be one of those benefitting and in turn my efforts would be easier with such good wine and people already recognized for being world class.
Recently, at a quiet day at the winery I got to sit down with Ilana Ben Zaken, the daughter of Eli and the winery's export and procurement manager who I had known in passing over the years but never before got to have a meaningful conversation since we were typically seeing each other at wine events with plenty of distractions including free flowing Castel which is a rare enough occasion that emitting words are scarce as great wine is sniffed, ingested and appreciated.
So on a quiet day where Ilana seemed to be the only Ben Zaken on the premises, I sat down with Ilana to catch up on what the winery is up to and to get a formal tasting of the current releases which I had tasted before in some settings but not without the distractions that allow me to give a fair and compatible scoring of their wines.
2013 Castel Rose du Castel ( 13% alc.) 92 points NIS 95
A blend of Merlot, Malbec and Cabernet Franc, the Rose is a Bordeaux blend like their two red wines and the grapes are from a dedicated picking to insure that the wine has the acidity that a rose or a white typically needs to make it shine. This is a wine intended to drink young and Ilana suggests that this unoaked wine be drunk within 2-2 1/2 years from the vintage date and that it’s a wine ready to drink from release to when it starts waning 2 years later. For a summer wine that is age worthy, that's part of the role of their Chardonnay.
Notes of white raspberry, pink grapefruit, ginger, strawberry, white pepper and a smooth creamy body ending with a crisp finish.
I have a special affection for this wine since I first tasted the 2009 vintage in February 2010 before they even chose to release it and pleaded them to put it in the marketplace to encourage other Israeli wineries to make more premium roses. They did and others did follow with notable results.
2013 Castel "C" Blanc du Castel (14% alc.) 94 points NIS 149
Oaked in Burgundy barrels 12 months (1/3 new barrels, 1/3 one year old and 1/3 two years old) which went through both a secondary malolactic fermentation and sur less aging contributing to a fuller body rounder Chardonnay that with the Chardonnays of the Yarden label have become the standard bearer for oaked, "malo" Chardonnays.
Yellow delicious apples, brown pears, lemon custard, vanilla, butter milk and caramel notes combine in an oh so pleasant way.
After two challenging vintages in 2009 and 2011, when sulfate aromas were evident in the wines when first released, the Chardonnay has been consistent in the last two releases (2012 and 2013) and Ilana asserts that the 09 and 11 are fine now after aging yet their regular customers do expect a Chardonnay ready to drink after release and they've made efforts to see that those notes of sulfite don't reappear in future vintages and from my tastings they seem to back delivering a Chardonnay their loyal customers expect and that defies the modest expectations newcomers may have for an Israeli Chardonnay.
2012 Castel Petit Castel (14.5%) 94 points NIS 124
Dark Cherry, black cassis, sweet tobacco, mint, cocoa, eucalyptus in a easily accessible blend of all five Bordeaux red grapes (Cab, Merlot, Petit Verdot which are typically in every vintage joined by Cabernet Franc and Malbec which sometimes are left out of the Gran Vin) aged in used Bordeaux barrels for 16 months that were first used for Gran Vin. This wine is the backbone of the winery accounting for about 60% of Castel's production and is often touted as a great value for money wine. This wine is of short supply with the 2013 slated for a March 2015 release.
2012 Castel Grand Vin (15%) 95 points NIS 216
Aged in all new oak barrels for 22 months from Bordeaux and a selection of their best barrels of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Petit Verdot. The wine still has a bit of a green nose as for it's still young for its intent to be aged for 5,10, 15 years or more though ten years might be a sweet spot. To drink it now, decanting is strongly recommended and it took me some special slurping and swirling to get it open up but luckily I was tasting from a bottle opened earlier that day which mimicked a proper decanting of at least a half an hour or hour at this stage to enjoy it in a shadow of its potential.
Darker, deeper and denser than the Petit Castel there are sure to be some who prefer the more approachable Petit but the Gran Vin will engage certain connoisseurs that the Petit may not.
Black raspberry, graphite, violets, black plums, mint, cigar box, cedar, darkest chocolate are delivered in structured tannins and a developing texture which promises the silky elegance of a well aged and expertly crafted red, noticeable acidity suggests this wine's affinity to match many dishes and to stay vibrant as it ages. The 2013 is expected to be released in October 2015
As my notes suggest, I look forward to witness how these wines age and what Castel has to offer each vintage as one of my reliable benchmarks to gauge other Israeli wines against. The current vintages are exceptional even by their own lofty and well recognized high standards.