Yarden/Golan Heights Winery
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Yarden/Golan Heights Winery

The Golan Heights in extreme northeast Israel is an area more associated with political and military events than with wine. Captured by Israel during the Six Day War of June 1967 and successfully defended by Israel during the Yom Kippur War of 1973, the area was formally annexed by Israel only in 1981, to much international disagreement. No one, however, disagrees with the notion that the Golan Heights is a promising fine wine region. Elevation, ranging from 1300 to nearly 4000 feet is the key, but volcanic, basalt soil with excellent drainage also plays a role. We must add a significant human factor to the equation; it is one thing settling a disputed region and growing annual crops, another matter entirely to put in the dedication necessary for the long-term propagation of the grapevine.

The Golan Heights winery markets brands under the Golan, Yarden and Gamla labels and is parent company to Galilee's Galil Mountain Winery. Golan sources its grapes from sixteen vineyards on the heights plus a single vineyard in nearby Upper Galilee. The winery itself is jointly owned by four kibbutzim (collectives) and four moshavim (cooperatives). Napa native Victor Schoenfeld is chief winemaker. I tasted an array of six wines sold in the USA through the winery's Yarden affiliate, all 100% varietal.

The 2007 Yarden Chardonnay Odem is from the cool climate organic Odem vineyard in the northern Golan just south of Mount Hermon. Odem sits on well-drained volcanic soil at 3900 feet. The wine is fermented in French oak barrels and aged on its lees for seven months. The $18-$20 wine is light straw in color with a distinctively tropical nose: banana and pineapple with floral accompaniments. The dry wine brings more citrus to the palate, particularly a piercingly fresh grapefruit, couched in vanilla and oak. As one would guess from the cool-climate particulars, the acidity is impressive. The wine has a fresh, stony finish.

The 2004 Yarden Merlot, $22-$24, is the product of five vineyards in the central and northern parts of the Golan Heights and is aged in French oak, 40% new, for fourteen months. A medium-hued ruby, the nose brings black raspberry, black cherry and red plum jam, the palate adding sour cherry and black plum, mountain herb, cocoa, mocha, cedar and nutmeg. At 15% alcohol, this Merlot weighs in on the full-bodied side, with fine-grained yet forceful drying tannins on the excellent finish. This wine can be cellared to be sure, and is certainly the match for some substantial meat protein or nearly any ambitiously flavored dish.

The 2003 Yarden Syrah, $21-$23, is the product of three vineyards: Ortal in the north and Yonatan and Tel Phares in central Golan. The wine is aged eighteen months in French oak barrels. The result is a mainstream, northern Rhône style Syrah, absolutely Old World, and a candidate for the next Judgment of Paris if we can get the French and the Californians to admit the existence of competition. The dry wine is a deep garnet with aromas of brambly blackberry, plum jam, vanilla, clove, nutmeg, cinnamon and some pepper. The palate brings in more a note of chocolate, adding smoked meat, mushroom, and mountain herb. The tannins are supremely soft. The finish is long and varied, with herbal, floral, oak, berry and plum.

The 2004 Yarden Cabernet Sauvignon, $28-$30, spends 18 months in French oak. The nose impressed me above all with rose and violet, following with blackberry and spicy oak. The wine is dry on the palate, acidity slightly more forward than tannin. Blackberry, cassis and black cherry lead with some baking spice, vanilla, and floral elements bringing up the rear. The long finish shows sustained fruit, and even some nuances of concentrated very ripe candied fruit. I put this wine in the New World camp and I want to enjoy it in the here and now.

The 2004 Yarden Cabernet Sauvignon El Rom, $75, spends eighteen months in French oak, two-thirds new. The El Rom vineyard in north Golan sits at 3600 feet, seemingly too cool for the ripening needs of the Cabernet grape, but the daytime sun up there gives the grapes the sustenance they need, and the wine, at 15% alcohol, works. This wine is nearly opaque. The nose and palate are classic Cabernet—cassis and blackberry, with rich herb, chocolate, baking spice and oak. The full-bodied wine is dry, with firm tannins, impressive fruit extraction, and real structure from the first attack through to the kind of long, flavorful finish you associate with a big wine.

The 2005 Yarden HeightsWine is a product of that most enigmatic of all white varietals, Gewurztraminer. This $26-$28 confection is sweet, the product of cool climate vineyards in the northern Golan. Selected whole clusters are brought to the winery where they are frozen to 10 degrees Fahrenheit and kept in a gelid state for a month. The analogue, of course, is German Eiswein or Canadian Ice Wine. A gentle pressing yields extremely sweet juice which then undergoes a fermentation lasting several months. The result is 11.5% alcohol with super high acidity levels that need the sweetness to balance. The wine is a light straw, with a nose of white flowers and peachy spice and palate notes of pear, mango, apricot, sweet almond and melon. Both nose and palate exhibit that distinct Gewurztraminer spiciness often likened to litchi nuts. Because of the acidity levels, the wine tastes, and finishes, a lot less sweet than it really is.

Verdict: A strong and varied set of wine offerings.

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Golan Heights is one of the world's promising new high altitude vineyard regions.

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

food writer Elliot Essman James Beard Foundation Journalism Award

Yarden's Odem Vineyards, Golan Heights.

Yarden's Odem Vineyards, Golan Heights.

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