Master of Wine Sandy Block is used to ambitious travel itineraries. So when the offer came to taste wine in Israel, he was undaunted by a schedule that covered four viticultural regions in just over a week.
"I was curious about the Israeli wine industry," says the vice president of beverage operations at Legal Sea Foods. His lifelong fascination with history, and an interest in places making inroads into export markets, drew him there. These modern-day bottles, he explains, represent an ancient wine tradition reaching back at least 2,500 years. Yet they remain "virtually invisible" here. That's beginning to change as Israel's producers seek to raise their visibility.
This past spring, at the invitation of Yehuda Yaakov, consul general of Israel to New England, Block undertook a trip to the Golan Heights, Upper and Lower Galilee, the Judean Hills, and the Negev Desert. "I developed a sense of the regionality of these wines," he says. "I was really surprised by the quality." When he returned, he promptly put several of his discoveries on Legal Sea Foods' wine lists.
The diversity and quality he encountered challenge a prevailing misconception. Most consumers, he explains, equate Israeli wine with kosher wine, which they immediately associate with sweet pours. While most wines crafted by Israeli wineries are kosher, that is the only thing these dry pours share with Concord grape-based Manischewitz.
Another obstacle is an underlying assumption that Israel's climate is too hot to make quality wine. Block himself wondered about this, but recalls that the same was said about South America 20 years ago, before countries like Argentina proved the naysayers wrong. Israel shares something else with Argentine winegrowing. "There's brilliant sunshine during the day, but the cold nights slow down the ripening process," he says. Israeli winegrowers also adapt to the terrain by growing grapes at higher elevations and planting on cooler north-facing slopes. Add to the mix next-generation vintners who have traveled and trained throughout the wine world, and the industry seems poised for a breakthrough.
As is often the case with an up-and-coming category, there is just a slim selection available on shop shelves. Fortunately, numbers are growing. Four examples — two from Yarden, a brand of Golan Heights Winery, and two more from Galil Mountain (a joint venture headed by Golan Heights Winery) — make for delicious exploration.
Yarden Merlot, Galilee 2011 Exuberantly ripe red plum, oak spice, and fine-grained tannins make this pour appetizing with grilled, well-marbled meat. It benefits from decanting . 14.5 percent alcohol by volume (ABV). Around $18. At Gary's Liquors, Chestnut Hill, 617-323-1122; Martignetti Liquors, Brighton, 617-782-3700.
Galil Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon, Upper Galilee 2014 Cassis, blackberry, and perfumed floral aromas greet the nose, leading to a palate of ripe black fruit, pleasing acidity, and generous tannins. Terrific with leg of lamb. 14.5 percent ABV. Around $22. Marty's Fine Wines. Newton, 617-332-1230; Vinodivino, Brookline, 617-879-9400.
Yarden Chardonnay, Galilee 2014 Yellow apple, Bartlett pear, and just-ripe stone fruit express themselves in this barrel-fermented white, softened by partial malolactic fermentation. Oak and butter notes are deftly handled to accent rather than overpower. 13.9 percent ABV. Around $23. Serve with a puff pastry tart layered with butternut squash and feta. At Upper Falls Liquors, Newton, 617-969-9200; Gary's Liquors.
Galil Mountain Pinot Noir, Yiron Vineyard, Upper Galilee, 2013 On the nose, attractive notes of white pepper, violets, and red fruit compote, with cherry and beet greens in a bright-and-lithe palate. A natural with crispy chicken legs with carrots, prunes, and ginger. 13.5 percent ABV. Around $23. At Marty's Fine Wines; Coolidge Corner Wine & Spirits, Brookline, 617-566-2800.