I have always been interested in developing Israeli Carignan. When I worked for Carmel Winery it was a policy, but even though there is a lot of Carignan in the country, there are not so many varietal Carignans made here. Nevertheless, it remains even today the second most planted grape variety in Israel. We are obviously drinking far more Carignan than we are aware of!
Over the years I have written about Carignan in Israel, but my interest received an infusion after meeting Momo Shmilovich at his Neve Yarak Winery. He has taken over the mantle of Carignan warrior in Israel and organizes a Carignan Day, which encourages visitors, hosts tastings and lectures all on the subject of this far from noble variety, which has a long association with volume rather than quality.
There is no grape variety which tells the story of Israeli wine quite like Carignan. It is part of the modern history of Israeli wine. It has been here from the beginning, from even before Baron Edmond de Rothschild’s involvement.
The variety made Aliyah in the 1870’s, when the Mikveh Israel Agricultural School imported cuttings from Europe. Previously wineries had used indigenous Holy Land varieties grown by Arab farmers in Bethlehem and Hebron. The school was based on French investment and management, so France was the obvious place to turn to. This was the first time French varieties arrived in Israel. Owing to the similarities of climate between the South of France and Palestine, they brought Mediterranean varieties, including Carignan.
When the farming villages of Rishon Le Zion and Zichron Ya’acov planted their first experimental vineyards in 1882-3, Carignan was one of the varieties. Only then, it was pronounced and written Corignan by the local growers. This incorrect local interpretation lasted for generations, and even today some growers pronounce the word this way.
In 1887 Baron Rothschild arrived in Israel for the first time and insisted in bringing Bordeaux varieties, in particular Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Malbec. This was not surprising because he was the owner of Chateau Lafite Rothschild in Bordeaux. However, his dreams to make great Israeli wine from Cabernet Sauvignon did not come to fruition for 100 years. In the meantime, disease, a lack of cooperation by the farmers and the fact that there was no market for quality wines, proved decisive. The Bordeaux varieties were grubbed up. Despite this, time proved Rothschild and his agronomists correct. Considering the climate, they were correct in concentrating on Mediterranean varieties. Many of the Mediterranean varieties they grew then, are returning now. By the same token, when the Israel quality wine revolution took place, it did so on the back of the Bordeaux varieties.
After the experimentations of the late 19th century, the wine industry came to be dominated by two varieties in particular. Alicante was in those days more heavily planted than Carignan. This was known as Alicante Grenache. The more known Alicante Bouschet was also grown but in far smaller quantities. I have no way of knowing whether the variety was in fact Grenache, but the Alicante and Carignan dominated a local market based on inexpensive wines and sweet sacramental wines.
Following the founding of the State of Israel, the focus turned full gear on Carignan. Why did this particular variety become so popular? The reason had nothing to do with quality. Carignan grew well in the hot humid coastal plains of Israel. Then the vineyards were in the valleys surrounding the southern part of Mount Carmel and in the Judean Plain and foothills. It produced excellent yields. So, the growers were happy, being payed on quantity rather than quality. Furthermore, the variety was very versatile. It produced table wine, kiddush wine and grape juice to the standards then required.
There were attempts to improve the humble Carignan over the years. Firstly, Ruby Cabernet (a cross between Cabernet Sauvignon x Carignan) and later, Argaman (Souzao x Carignan) were created in California and Israel respectively. Neither budged Carignan from its perch. In the 1970’s, Carignan reached a peak comprising no less than 55% of the varieties grown in Israel.
At the same time, Cabernet Sauvignon was making its impressive comeback. The Carmel Cabernet Sauvignon Special Reserve 1976 and Yarden Cabernet Sauvignons from 1983 onwards hailed the return of the king of grapes and the start of the quality wine revolution here.
In the 1990’s there was still comparatively little Cabernet Sauvignon, but wineries realized it was a marketing asset. Then far more wines were labelled Cabernet than there was fruit, but there was no lack of Carignan. I remember tasting a Cabernet Sauvignon with Daniel Rogov, doyen of wine critics (ex Jerusalem Post), and he commented with typically wry humor “that is the best Carignan I have ever tasted!”
In 1999 Margalit Winery the county’s first quality boutique winery, made the first quality wine from the Carignan grape variety. Dr Yair Margalit was also the first to recognize the potential of Petite Sirah. Unfortunately, the source of the fruit disappeared, so it was a one-time effort. However, it was a statement. A quality winery could make a fine wine from Carignan grapes.
Many vineyards of Carignan were grubbed up, not only in Israel but also in the South of France. By the 2000’s, Cabernet Sauvignon overtook Carignan to become the largest planted variety in Israel. Around this time, I brought Brian Jordan to Israel a couple of times. He was a British wine writer with knowledge and interest in the Israel market. He gave a talk about the direction of Israeli wine. One of his many messages was: “Learn to love Carignan. It is inexpensive and you have plenty of it. You have older vines and it is something more unique to Israel.” It was a call to be different.
Fast forward to 2015, and there were by then a number of Carignan specialists. I was privileged to be present at a tasting hosted by the Master of Wine, Elizabeth Gabbay. She gave a presentation about Carignan and hosted a tasting of Israeli Carignans against international Carignans. It was a seminal moment because it showed Israeli Carignans were a subject of interest.
There are a few Carignan heroes who raised the profile of the grape variety. The most significant pioneer of quality Carignan was Assaf Paz of Vitkin Winery. Bordeaux trained, he visited Priorat in Spain and was entranced by the wines made from Carignan he saw there. Working also for Carmel at Zichron Ya’acov Winery, he was able to have access to many Carignan vineyards in the Mount Carmel region. He had the ambition, curiosity and vision to look beyond the rundown, unkept, haphazard vineyards before him. He looked at these high yield vineyards producing fruit for grape juice and kiddush wine, and thought ‘what if I drastically reduce yields with the intention of making a high quality wine?’ And he did, with great success as the Vitkin Carignan, first made in 2002 and Carmel Appellation Carignan 2004 showed. He is the father figure of quality Carignan in Israel and his excellent Vitkin Carignan is still the benchmark. It is important for kosher wine mavens to know, that the Vitkin Carignan 2015 is the first one that is kosher.
Somek Winery in Zichron Ya’acov is another Carignan specialist. Founded in 2003, this small boutique winery is owned by Barak Dahan, a grower with vineyards in the Hanadiv Valley, south of Zichron Ya’acov. For five generations his family have been growing Carignan, but he is the first of the family to produce a quality Carignan wine at his small winery he runs with his wife Hila. Barak is a hands-on grower with experience handed down over generations, whilst Hila studied winemaking in Australia. Their Carignan is an individual expression, not always the cleanest, but brimming with character and terroir. This wine growing family changed with the times from mass to quality, echoing Israeli wine as a whole.
Arguably the Carignan that reached the furthest in terms of recognition is the Recanati Wild Carignan. This resulted from an amazing story. Ido Lewinsohn, then a Recanati winemaker, saw a run down, half dead vineyard that looked doomed in the Judean Foothills in 2008. Being another young, creative winemaker with an imagination, he pricked up his ears and asked for the opportunity to make wine from it. Approval was given, the vineyard was saved and Recanati made a full bodied, ripe fruit, oaky Carignan with earthy flavors. One of the characterful bush vines, almost on the ground, with flailing arms in all directions like an octopus, became immortalized on the label. The Carignan fits in with the winery’s stated marketing policy of focusing on Mediterranean wines and they have had a fair amount of success with it internationally.
One of my favorite Carignans is produced by Jezreel Valley Winery. The winery was founded in 2012 by entrepreneur Jacob Ner-David and Yehuda Nahar. They make arguably the best Argaman in Israel and their Carignan has deep red fruit aromas, is quite oaky, full of flavor, complex, with a nice acidity resulting in a refreshing finish. The fruit comes from Shefaya, east of Zichron Ya’acov from a 45 year old vineyard. American born, Californian trained Ari Erle is the talented winemaker. Yehuda Nahar described to me the feeling of responsibility “As Israeli cuisine and chefs become known around the world, it is important that Israeli wine assumes an Israeli rather than merely international expression.” I have to say I was not certain about the winery in its early days, but I get the feeling their wine is improving every vintage and the winery is progressing with giant strides.
The best thing about the Vortman Winery is the breathtaking view from the tasting room in the family home in Haifa, but that is not to denigrate the wine, which is not far behind. Vortman is one of Israel’s most promising wineries. The owner winemaker grower is Hai Vortman. He makes great white wines, but his Vortman Carignan 2015 is an unsung hero. Elegant with enchanting aromas, layers of complexity, hints of Mediterranean herbs and a satisfying lengthy finish. The wine also comes from a Shefaya vineyard.
Which brings me to my visit to Neve Yarak. This is a moshav near the southern reaches of the Sharon Plain. The moshav is an oasis of agriculture, with ….and there is a pattern here…run down, old vines. Momo Shmilovitch is a third generation farmer-resident of Neve Yarak. He remembers the strong wine made by his grandfather and grew up helping his father in the fields. Momo worked in industrial design but the wine bug grabbed him. He worked a few harvests at Margalit Winery. When he was offered the opportunity to save a vineyard planted in 1981, that was due to be grubbed up, and he dived in. He has two old vine Carignan vineyards. The vines are kept well ventilated by strong winds that channel towards the moshav from the sea. One of the vineyards has old vines all gently leaning one way as if in mid sway, rather like old men with sticks. Nearly forty years of standing in the winds does that to you. I am not aware of other vineyards in the Sharon Plain.
Momo is a serial tinkerer. To satisfy his curiosity and instinct to play and not be confined by norms, he is not beyond making his small production, garagiste wine in six different ways. Why? Because he can. He then follows the development of his Carignan, with different nuances so small as to be unimportant to the consumer. For him, it a reason for being. Don’t say it too loud in this article but his Petite Sirah, (which he calls Durif), is even better than his Carignan, but the Carignan comes from his own vineyards! The Neve Yarak Carignan 2016 has an attractive blueberry aroma, with a hint of minty eucalyptus. It has a nice complexity but does not shout too loudly. Everything is in proportion.
Momo Shmilovich adopted Carignan, and Neve Yarak Carignan adopted him. His Carignan Day will be held at Neve Yarak on 30th May. It will be of interest to wine lovers, connoisseurs and Carignan fanatics. After over 140 years here, the Carignan has almost earned the status of being an honorary Israeli. It certainly contributes to make the local wine scene more unique and interesting.
Adam Montefiore has advanced Israeli wine for over thirty years and is referred to as the ambassador of Israeli wines. He is the wine writer for the Jerusalem Post. www.adammontefiore.com