Castel: My Annual Visit (Apr 2010)

By: Daniel Rogov more »

?By: Daniel Rogov

Monday of this week had me in the Upper Galilee; Tuesday and Wednesday had me devoting two days to the Golan Heights. Today (Thursday, 29 Apr 2010), as if to demonstrate that there is no rest for the weary or the wicked, it was off to Castel in the Jerusalem Hills there for advance tasting, re-tastings and a fascinating set of barrel tastings. If the truth be told, my complaints remain minimal for Castel remains one of the consistently best wineries in the country, often offering wines that are not only excellent but that can call forth both aesthetic and intellectual interest.

Starting as a micro-winery, the Domaine du Castel grew gradually and now produces approximately 100,000 bottles annually. Since the release of a mere 600 bottles of his first wine in 1992, owner-winemaker Eli Ben Zaken—who now works with his sons Ariel and Eytan—has consistently made some of the very best wines in the country. The fully modern and attractive winery, with its exquisitely designed barrel room holding more than 500 barriques, is located on Moshav Ramat Raziel in the Jerusalem Mountains. The winery relies entirely on grapes grown in the area, mostly in its own vineyards, some in vineyards under its full supervision. Grape varieties include Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Petit Verdot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec and Chardonnay.

Until the 2009 vintage the winery produced only three wines annually. The flagship wine, Grand Vin Castel, is a superb Bordeaux-style blend; the fine second label, Petit Castel, an often no-less exciting wine is one meant for somewhat earlier drinking; and the “C” Blanc du Castel has often been one of the most exciting Chardonnay wines produced in Israel. With the 2009 vintage the winery is also presenting its Rosé du Castel. The Castel wines have all been kosher since 2003.

My tasting notes follow. My thanks to Eli Ben Zaken for his courtesies and an excellent tasting as well as for his good company.


Castel, Rose du Castel, 2009: When I drink a rosé wine and it makes me smile I know the winemaker has succeeded. This is Castel’s first rosé and indeed it made me smile. Made by the saignée method (i.e. making a wine from red grapes and allowing the free-run juice to run off with minimal skin contact), showing a lively color somewhere between neon orange and mandarin orange. Made entirely from Merlot grapes, medium-bodied and boasting a hefty 14% alcohol content but don’t let that upset you for this is a wine with fine balance between alcohol, acidity and fruits. On the nose and palate strawberries, blueberries, cranberries and light hints of Oriental spices and even a gentle dollop of tannins to add to one’s pleasure. Wonderfully fruity and complex. Produced in a limited quantity, schedule to be released quite soon at NIS 80 per bottle. Drink now or in the next year or so. Score 90. K (Tasted twice 29 Apr 2010)

Castel, Chardonnay “C”, Blanc du Castel, 2009 (Barrel Tasting): Plump, ripe and seductive with citrus, pear, and apricot fruits with a light smoky note that linger nicely through the long finish. Medium- to full-bodied, mouth-filling and with appealing mineral and spicy oak notes that rise on the finish. Drink from release-2015. Tentative Score 91-93. K (Tasted 29 Apr 2010)

Castel, Chardonnay “C”, Blanc du Castel, 2008: Light bright gold in color, full-bodied but so well balanced that it seems to float on the palate. On first attack apricot, fig and melon fruits, those followed by notes of blood oranges and green apples all with a finely tuned mineral outlay. Long, complex and elegant. Drink now-2014, perhaps longer. Score 93. K (Re-tasted 29 Apr 2010)

Castel, Grand Vin, 2009 (Barrel Tasting): A tentative blend, with more Cabernet Sauvignon and a bit less Cabernet Franc and Malbec than sometimes found in this flagship wine. Dark ruby towards garnet, full-bodied, with creamy mocha tinted oak, and still firm tannins. On first attack notes of curing tobacco and minerals, those yielding comfortably to blackcurrant, blackberry and purple plums. Rich and complex, a long elegant and well focused wine. Best starting in 2012 or 2013. Tentative Score 91-93. K (Tasted 29 Apr 2010)

Castel, Grand Vin, 2008 (Barrel Tasting): A blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Petit Verdot, Cabernet Franc and Malbec (60%, 20%,10%, 6% and 4% respectively. Deeply aromatic, full-bodied and with fine concentration and opening to show true elegance with layer after layer of complexity and depth. Near sweet tannins that caress gently come together with lightly spicy cedar wood to highlight aromas and flavors of blackcurrants, blackberries and fresh Mediterranean herbs and, on the super-long finish a tantalizing note of bakers’ chocolate. As I wrote at an earlier tasting, perhaps Castel’s best to date. Best starting in 2012 or 2013. Tentative Score 93-95. K (Re-tasted 29 Apr 2010)

Grand Vin Castel, 2007: The traditional Castel Grand Vin blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, that flushed out with Merlot, Petit Verdot, Cabernet Franc and Malbec. Full bodied, dark and well extracted, firm on opening but yielding comfortably in the glass to reveal gently caressing tannins, notes of spicy oak and generous blackcurrant, blackberry and blueberry fruits, those supported by notes of mocha, orange peel and black olives. On the super-long finish a tempting note of licorice. Long, generous and coherent. Developing beautifully. Drink now-2015. Score 93. K

From here it was on to a fascinating tasting of 12 barrel samplings, each a Cabernet Sauvignon from the 2009 vintage and each from the vineyards at Tzuba, half from a vineyard on one side of the road, half on the other, those paired by developing in matching French barriques of six different styles. Without going into intimate detail, some showing gentle sweet wood, others with spicier oak or cedar notes; some developing firmly tannic, some taking the most caressing tannic notes from the oak; some spicy, some leading to the smoky, some showing softer and some showing more firm. Interestingly, I selected two sets of oak as having the impact that I thought suited the developing wines. Eli Ben Zaken promises a continued tasting during my 2011 visit and after initial blends have been made.

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