Monday 29 July 2019

We couldn't be happier

Seen on the Clipstone Restaurant winelist, Clipstone St, London;

6th down, Neronet from Moravia, Czech Republic, We admire this variety a lot. Finding it on a restaurant winelist shows imagination and flair. How often can you say that?

 "Spontaneously fermented, it was matured in oak barrel for 12 months, un-fined and un-filtered. Rich, fruity and satisfying Neronet’s purity come through in the glass with a simple honest and pleasing palate."                                
                                                                                                                                Queens Park Wines.  

Neronet is a crossing of Blauer Portugueiser, St.Laurent and Alibernet.

We haven't actually tasted Korab's Neronet but we hope to soon.

Meanwhile, a reminder of what turned us on to this excellent variety in the first place, Zurek's delicious Neronet (see our post of March 25th, 2016). Don't be put off by the label!

Thursday 25 July 2019

A recent snapshot of Israeli wine

The wine scene in Israel has changed enormously over the last decade. Quality has risen to make international recognition a given. New wineries have appreared regularly. As we have mentioned in this blog, newly re-dicovered native grape varieties are being used for wine production and the results are very encouraging.

There are sadly still many hurdles to clear. First of all we would suggest is the limited choice of grape varieties permitted. You can't just plant Rossese because you would like to. Each and every grape variety has to be cleared by the University of California at Davis. If this is for safety reasons, it has not stopped leaf roll virus taking a hold.

Apart from the native varieties such as Hamdani, Jandali and Baladi, the grapes currently grown in Israel include*

Chenin Blanc
Emerald Riesling
Grenache Blanc
Muscat d'Alexandrie
Muscat Canelli
Sauvignon Blanc
Ugni Blanc

Cabernet Franc
Cabernet Sauvignon
Pinot Noir
Petit Verdot
Petite Sirah
Ruby Cabernet

In practice, most wines are made of different permutations of the Bordeaux and Rhone blends. Very good wines result to be sure but it's all a bit timid and unexciting.

The next hurdle is the fact that no one is allowed to own land in Israel. All vineyard land has to be leased from the state. There is of course no subsidy for vine-growing. A new winemaker writes;

Traditionally, winemakers worked in the winery and the vinegrowers were members of cooperatives that owned the winery.  This was a recipe for poor wine.  Starting 30 years ago, farmers became farmers and wineries had contracts for acerage...better.  Boutique wineries bought grapes and started the drive for quality.  Then the Golan Heights really led the way for big wineries to manage their vineyards and boutique wineries started to grow their own grapes.  

Growing Vines is now going towards more ground cover, more bio-diversity, new growing regions,  and generally better practices, but these changes are very slow. 

In 'The Wine Route of Israel' (2006) 75 wineries were listed. Now there are said to be more than 350  but between them Barkan, Carmel and Golan Heights are responsible for 80% of the production.

Among the other 20% smaller and boutique wineries, a list of prominent ones might be as follows (taken from the Institute of Masters of Wine tour of Israel schedule in April 2018);

Bar'on Vineyard (Yarden)
Bin Nun
Chateau Golan
Clos de Gat
Domaine de Castel
Ella Valley
Golan heights (Yarden)
Sea Horse

To these we noticed quite prominent representation in shops and on winelists of

Five Stones
Garage de Papa

We also couldn't help but remark on the almost total absence of natural wines and wines made with qvevri or amphorae.

Our vigneron friend said: I don't know of any natural wine makers and I'm not a fan myself.  The organic and bio dynamic scene is tiny, but there is increasing consciousness of sustainability.  

There is at least two exceptions. An impressive person Lina Slutzkin went to Georgia, bought qvevri and now makes wine in them at her Kadma winery. Grapes used include Chenin Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Sangiovese and Syrah.

And Feldstein makes an almost natural wine - minimum intervention in any case: unfiltered to be sure. As well as Cabernet Sauvignon, Feldstein works with Argaman, Cabernet Franc, Carignan, Dabouki, Grenache, Merlot, Mourvedre, Roussanne, Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon and Syrah.

If we're not mistaken, the retail sector seems to have improved over the last 10 years.

We visited and bought wine at Avi Ben in Jerusalem and Derech Hayain in Tel-Aviv where customer service was excellent.

Leave plenty of time to browse the James Richardson Duty Free wine shop at TLV.
Equally good was the Duty Free wine shop at Ben Gurion Airport.

Assaf's Chenin Blanc turned out to be particularly good.

We couldn't resist this Segal Argaman - a 'straight' version - not fermented over Merlot skins. This may have been made by Avi Feldstein who was Segal's winemaker before setting up on his own.

Recanati's Bittuni and Marawi were also to be found. Good.

Tishbi's Carignan looked interesting a a relatively modest 13%.

and in an effort to find something modest and uncomplicated, this Merlot from Chateau de Galilee (13%).

In restaurants we tended to choose Pelter's refreshing Sauvignon Blanc by the glass. Also by the glass, some of the less refreshing aforesaid Bordeaux or Rhone blends just for information. They were drinkable enough but a bit on the California fruit-bomb side.

One standout was Amphorae's Grenache Blanc. Really good and interesting even if not made in amphorae.

*Grape varities which might be worth considering for certification in Israel;

Gros Manseng
Gruener Veltliner
Krasnostop Zolotovskiy
Nero D'Avola
Nero di Troia
Nerello Cappuccio
Nerello Mascalese
Petit Manseng
Pinot Meunier
Touriga Nacional

Indiginous grapes. A USP for Israel?

 One of Cremisan Cellars' vineyards with Beit Jala in the background.

Unique Selling Proposition, USP. Definition: The factor or consideration presented by a seller as the reason that one product or service is different from and better than that of the competition.

Especially in the world of wine, everyone needs their USP.

Here are some of them

Argentina - Malbec
Australia - Shiraz
Canada - Icewine
Chile - Carmenere
France - Champagne, Bordeaux, Burgundy and friends.
Georgia - Qvevri wine
Germany - Riesling
Hungary - Tokaji
Italy - Barolo, Chianti and friends
Japan - Koshu
New Zealand - Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir
South Africa - Pinotage
Spain -Tempranillo
USA/California- Zinfandel

We could go on.

Then there are countries such as Greece, Portugal and Switzerland which have many native varieties with strong personalities to which people may be well disposed having discovered them on holiday. That in itself is a kind of USP. The country is the brand and the wines are unique.

And then there are countries with more recent traditions based on the international grape varieties: Algeria, China, Israel, Lebanon, Mexico, Morocco,  Peru, Tunisia, Uruguay. What would the USP be in these cases?

One way to go it seems to us is to discover a native grape and make that into a speciality. It has already happened in what is known as 'The Holy Land' meaning mainly but not exclusively the West Bank, Israel and southern Lebanon.

The Cremisan Cellars Winery was founded in 1885 in the West Bank and have been producing red and white wine, fortified wine and spirits since then.

A most interesting recent book 'Tasting the Past' by Kevin Begos goes into the subject extensively.

Riccardo Cotarella, right.
No one knows any more exactly what the original Cremisan wines consisted of but today, the Italian consultant and oenologist Riccardo Cotarella has steered them towards  local grape varieties including


Some say Hamdani and Marawi are one and the same but Galet gives them separate entries.

Most of these varieties are native to the area around Cremisan which is just over the border from Jerusalem, near the town of Beit Jala.

Dabouki is found throughout the Middle East as well as in France in the Gers department where it is known as Malaga Blanc. It is authorised also in Spain and Portugal. Many of these grapes were considered dessert grapes which is not surprising as all grapes since the 7th century would have had to be for eating as wine was forbidden.

Apart from a passing reference to Dabouki, none of them appears in 'Wine Grapes' and Baladi and Bittuni are even missing from Galet. He lists various white Baladis but the only possible red version, Baladi Haffe is dismissed as 'Mauvais cepage syrien...qui n'est bon ni pour la table, ni pour la cuve' without specifying if it is red or white. Curious.

Now, not only does Cremisan make a feature of these grapes ('What did Jesus drink?') but Israeli winemakers are beginning to use them too - whether grown in the West Bank or the state of Israel.

The good news is that these wines are really excellent. They have reached winelists in New York (Dizengoff) and London (Ottolenghi restaurants).

On a recent trip to Israel, we decided to visit Cremisan and seek out bottles with these native varieties. To get to the Cremisan monastery and winery entailed in our case finding a Palestinian taxi in West Jerusalem with the appropriate ability to cross over and return.

This was not too difficult. We were certainly lucky in having Hamid as our driver. He called Cremisan to tell them we were on our way (we had previously made an appointment). That conversation was not straightforward as Cremisan asked if we could delay our arrival as they had a lot of visitors but Hamid was firm, telling them we had already started.

We had been told the winery practically straddled the border but that was not quite so; more like a good 10 minute drive after entering the West Bank. That was surprisingly easy. There were just a couple of young soldiers who gave a desultory glance inside the car practically without us having to stop. It was the same on the way back although Hamid said sometimes it could take longer.

Entering Cremisan was more tricky. For whatever reason they seemed in no hurry to open the gates and when we were allowed through they said we would have to wait to be shown around the cellars because it was lunchtime.

We were ushered into the shop before the tour for a somewhat hard sell but they were pushing against an open door;

We bought their Baladi (red), Rosso Vecchio (a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot) and Dabouki (white) having already bought the white Hamdani/Jandali blend in London from Ottolenghi.

Cremisan have various other wines including their Star of Bethlehem entry-level wines of various blends (the red for example is Cabernet Sauvignon/Syrah and Baladi), Dessert Wine (Malvasia) and some fortified wines including a 'Marsala' and spirits. They work with all sorts of other grapes including

Emerald Riesling


Left alone while everyone went off to eat lunch, we conducted our own tour of the cellars via an open door in the side of the building.

The cellars are really big and impressive.

every now and again a reminder we were in a Christian establishment.
 Back in Jerusalem we visited one of the recommended wine shops - Avi Ben.

Here we discovered that the Israeli winery Recanati had already got on the bandwagon with a Bittuni (red) and a Marawi white. Ido Lewinsohn is the imaginative winemaker at Recanati.

Another winery taking an interest in these local grape varieties is Jezreel who make a Dabuki Pet Nat. 

Elyashiv Drori, grape archaeologist of Ariel University and partner at Gva'ot winery
Others include Gva'ot and Feldstein.
Gva'ot's Hamdani/Jamdali blend.
Gva'ot has the eminent Dr. Elyashiv (Shivi) Drori on board, We read about Shivi Drori in the pages of 'Tasting the past' mentioned above and immediately wanted to meet him. This was not to be on this occasion but we eventually reached him by email and he kindly sent us his paper entitled 'Collection and characterization of grapevine genetic resources (Vitis vinifera) in the Holy Land, towards the renewal of ancient winemaking practices.' This is a fascinating, highly scientific and academic piece of work in which we learn of scores of native grape varieties that have been collected in Israel and the West Bank over a number of years. Microvinifications have been made and there has been quite a lot of press coverage already in Israel and abroad. No doubt there will be more wines featurng this USP in due course.

Avi Feldstein

Avi Feldstein is a very interesting person. Without realising it we had come into his orbit previously with Segal's Argaman. This was a wine made by Feldstein when working as winemaker at Segal. He decided to give the unloved Israeli crossing of Souzão and Carignan another chance by planting it at the high altitude Dovev vineyard and fermenting it over Merlot skins.

This has produced a very interesting wine indeed, one of the best in Israel. Argaman might be added to Israeli wine's USP after all.

Feldstein's Dabouki
Now Feldstein has his own operation buying in grapes from Upper Galilee. As well as Dabouki, he works with Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc, Grenache, Mourvedre and Sirah.

We would like to wish everyone involved in the rehabilitation of these native grape varieties well, Israeli, Palestinian, Christian. May this cross-border and ecumenical collaboration prosper.


'Rediscovering forgotten grapes.' Elizabeth Gabay MW (blog).
'Wine talk. Feldstein Unfiltered' Adam Montefiore, Jerusalem Post
 'Grape Expectations' Adam Montefiore, Israel Wine Experience
'Holy Land Varieties' Adam Montefiore,
'Israel's Grape Varieties' Adam Montefiore,
'Ancient Grapes are the future of Israeli Wine' Peter Weltman, Food and Wine
'Grapes from Zion. Biblical Prophesy and quality wine in the West Bank.' Ian McGonigle, The Times of Israel.
'What Israel must do to become a wine Superpower.' Hadar Kane, Haaretz.

Saturday 20 July 2019

Orto and other Venice vineyards.

The vineyard of Mazzorbo where Dorona is planted.
Venice has at least three vineyards, possibly more as we shall see. There is the one at Mazzorbo where they have opened a Michelin starred restaurant called Venissa and revived the grape called Dorona. Next the monastery vineyard at San Francesco della Vigna in Castello and now the Orto estate on the island of Sant'Erasmo, some way off from the islands of Murano and Vignole. Vignole must have had vineyards in the past. It was known also as the Isola delle sette vigne but nothing remains of these.

We have covered Dorona/Mazzorbo in this blog although we have still not tasted Dorona. At E.90 for 50cl it seemed an unneccesary extravagance especially as there were those who muttered that Dorona was just some kind of Garganega. D'Agata says 'In fact Dorona is distinct from Garganega though closely related to it.'

In addition we had seen this bottle in supermarkets in Venice and wrongly thought this must also be Dorona because it claimed to be the wine of the Doges as did Dorona.

In fact it comes from another island, Sant'Erasmo which served as the market garden of Venice in former times. Sant Erasmo is accessible by vaporetto so off we went to check out the wine called Orto.

Having made an appointment we got there early to have a look around and entered a different world. Flat, sparsely inhabited with only one hotel, Sant'Erasmo still has a few cultivated fields growing we knew not what but the general impression was one of remoteness although you could see the spires of Venice from there.

Mercifully near the vaporetto stop was the estate of Orto.

Michel Thoulouze, owner and founder of Orto.
A Frenchman called Michel Thoulouze bought the property and planted the vineyard relatively recently. He tells the story as follows on the website;

In the 16th Century the island was covered in vineyards. Michel Thoulouze and his family decided to relaunch wine production on the island using the traditional methods of the local farmers and the expertise of Lydia and Claude Bourguignon ('Doctors of the Earth' [Agronomists?]) and Alain Graillot whose Crozes Hermitage wines have a worldwide reputation. The resulting wine, ORTO, has all the character of this special island and it is the only wine cultivated within the territorial boundaries of Venice.

Pamela of Orto

We were received by an extremely knowledgeable and kind person called Pamela.

Tasting room and shop
Pamela told the story of how the winery had been set up where none existed before and why the grape varieties Malvasia d'Istria and Vementino had been selected.

Modern air-conditioned chaix

Malvasia Istriana vines
The island is divided in two by the main road. One side is exposed to the sea with more salt in the soil. This was judged to be appropriate for the cultivation of Vermentino which traditionally is grown on the coast of Liguria or in Sardegna. On the other side, the soils are good for growing Malvasia Istriana, a more common variety in the Veneto and of course, Istria. D'Agata's 'Native Wine Grapes of Italy' is generally a pleasure to read but the entry on Malvasia Istriana gets rather technical for non-scientists and so we were not able to follow it so easily. It discusses this Malvasia in the context of other Malvasias and states that the wines are either aromatic or non-aromatic, never both. It is a hardy grape and has good resistance to many diseases apart from Oidium.

Pamela told us there is no use of chemicals or artificial fertilisers in the vineyard and agricultural machinery is not used as it may compact the soil - something she was very keen not to do. She related how breezes from the Adriatic kept the vineyards free from diseases. The vines have been planted ungrafted. This is considered to give a better taste.

We had let slip we did a bit of vine-growing ourselves in the UK and Pamela was full of valuable suggestions. These included watering new vines every day! We had watered our 550 new vines only once since planting and indeed when we got back, about 15% had been lost. She also mentioned that the vines should be planted on a Berm. At first we were surprised she knew this term but it is the same in Italian and English.

Our berms in England (Thames Valley).
By a fluke we have indeed made some berms after grubbing up our old vines and so we seemed to have got this right.

We had read that there were other varieties planted at Orto in addition to Malvasia Istriana and Vermentino but Pamela flatly ruled this out. Strange because in their own website is written that the vineyard has

'an assembly of antique Italian grape varieties with a dominance of the Istrien Malvoisie.'

Also curious is the mention of other grapes in Andy Paynter's review in Chambers St. Wines newsletter (our underlinings);

The 2014 Sant’Erasmo Bianco is a striking wine grown on the island of San Erasmo within the lagoon of Venice.  Premised on Malvasia Istriana but comprised of a number of other local cultivars all planted on its own root stock, the wine is deeply colored in the glass, with a nose reminiscent of ripe golden apples and honeysuckle undercut by a salty tone. The palate is bold, with an initial attack of juicy orchard fruit and rich texture, followed by a honeyed note giving way to a long savory finish. More than anything else, the Orto shows a stern backbone of minerality bracing its mellow acidity and weight on the palate.

Despite claims to being the only vineyard within the territorial boundaries of Venice, we knew otherwise and indeed were all the more determined to visit the third vineyard, this one very much inside Venice.

San Francesco in Vigna with vineyard top left.
The church and monastery of San Francesco in Vigna is an extensive complex. A large vineyard belonging to the Ziani family already existed here in the 13th century but the land was left to the church on the death of Marco Ziani and the church was built on and around the vineyard. 

The vineyard at San Francesco della vigna
The modern vineyard dates from 2012 when abandoned vines were cleared and new ones planted on 800 square metres of ground. These were primarily Teroldego with Refosco dal Peduncolo Rosso and a small amount of Merlot. 

These choices may appear random but the advisors including Gianmarco Vinco and Carlo Santi considered them suitable for the soil and believed in their resistant qualities. 

The first vintage (250 bottles) 'Harmonia Mundi' was made in 2015

Manuel with some wine he kindly let us have delivered to his shop.
Our friend Manuel Casagrande at Al Canton del Vin, our favourite Vino Sfuso shop in Venice told us the way to visit the vineyard at San Francesco della Vigna was to ask for 'Antonio'. We hung about what looked like the entrance to the monastery for a while until a brother came out. He explained that he was in a hurry otherwise he would have shown us the vineyard himself but suggested we returned later.

Cloister of San Francesco in Vigna.
This we did and in the absence of anyone to be seen we walked around a cloister until we came to a door. There was a bell with an entryphone so we rang it. A voice presently answered and we explained what we wanted. The voice asked it we didn't mean Padre Antoine. We agreed this might be the person we needed, so after another rather longer wait, the first cleric we has bumped into earlier (the one in a hurry) came out. Clearly he was Padre Antoine. This time he didn't offer to show us the vineyard but explained that we needed Fratello Antonio. Another long wait. In the end a disembodied voice told us to come back another day because Fratello Antonio had 'gone out in the boat.' We thought this worthy of 'Father Ted' until we remembered we were in Venice after all.

The Giardino mistico (with vines) of the Carmelitani Scalzi, Venice.
By the way, we have also read that vineyards may exist at other churches in Venice including San Michele in Isola (church of Venice's main cemetary), the Monastero Suore Clarisse on Giudecca and the Carmelitane Scalze in Cannaregio. 

Seen on Sant'Erasmo.