Domaine du Castel: Judean Hills
wine pixies

Domaine du Castel: Judean Hills

Situated at an altitude of 2400 feet in the Judean Hills due west of Jerusalem, Domaine du Castel is one of those boutique, family-run, labor-of-love wineries we so much love to love. The multicultural influences of this winery are clear. Founder Eli Ben Zaken was born in Alexandria Egypt, educated in England, and ran a successful Italian restaurant in Jerusalem and a poultry farm before deciding to make wine in the Judean Hills as a hobby. The winery is named after a nearby crusader castle and the use of the French language in its title is not coincidental: Bordeaux and Burgundy are the models for these select wines. The labels refer to the Judean Hills as Haute Judée and also proudly proclaim that the wine is Mis en Bouteille au Domaine. Despite the connection between wine and ancient Israel, the modern Israeli quality wine industry is brand new, Israel has no indigenous wine grapes, and its winemakers absolutely need to carve out clear positioning for their offerings. I feel you could do worse than show a little francophilia, as long as the wines themselves do justice to the French models, as is certainly the case here.

Ben Zaken is lucky to have his two sons Eytan and Ariel (who did two years of wine-reconnaissance in Burgundy) to complete the formidable family team. Though the family's background is a secular one, they've managed to get kosher certification for their wines; fining with animal products is one of those kosher issues, and these wines are neither fined nor filtered. All (by “all” I refer to only three) see carefully used French oak.

The 2007 'C' Blanc du Castel is $45-$50 and 100% Chardonnay, barrel fermented then aged sur lie for 12 months in French oak, one-third new. This wine is medium gold in color with a nose of white flowers, grapefruit, lime, toast and fresh cream. On the palate the wine is buttery with green apple, lime, pastry crust and that lovely field of white flowers. This Chardonnay is mouth-involving, with a strong mid-palate, full body and excellent extraction. The appropriately long finish effectively melds fruit, floral and toasty oak. A good acidic tang performs on cue throughout the process.

The 2006 Petit Castel is $45-$50 and is a blend of 50% Cabernet Sauvignon, 45% Merlot and 5% Petite Verdot, aged 16 months in French oak the winery has previously used new for their Castel Grand Vin. The wine is a clear medium ruby in color. The nose is a delight of blackberry, blueberry, red plum and a touch of pepper. The palate mirrors these notes with just a little bit of cedar and some nutmeg. The wine is medium to full-bodied with smooth, well-balanced tannins and a nice sweet ripeness on a lengthy finish.

The 2006 Domaine du Castel Grand Vin, $75-$80, is aged 24 months in new French oak produced by the Seguin Moreau cooperage in Cognac and is comprised of 70% Cabernet Sauvignon, 25% Merlot, and 5% Petit Verdot, vinified separately. The color is an inky deep ruby with deep purple rim. The nose is delightful: cocoa, mocha, nutmeg and pepper with highly concentrated blackberry, black plum and cassis. The palate mirrors the black fruit but also gives tobacco barn and black licorice flavors with some really concentrated vanilla. The finish is toasty and yet fruity. The brilliant, firm tannins here are the kind I crave in the tanno-phobic world in which I am forced to live. This wine has the extraction, the acidity, and especially the tannin to age half a decade or more, a process which ought to modify the palpable oak the wine exhibits in the here-and-now.


Verdict: French style that works


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food writer Elliot Essman James Beard Foundation Journalism Award
James Beard Award Nominee Elliot Essman

food writer Elliot Essman James Beard Foundation Journalism Award


Domaine du Castel's vineyards in Israel's Judean Hills.

Domaine du Castel's vineyards in Israel's Judean Hills.


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