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Israeli Wine Grapes: Chardonnay
Chardonnay, the noble white grape from Burgundy and Champagne, has planted its roots as the source of many of Israel's premium kosher white wines. As a grape better suited to cooler climates, it's easy to be skeptical about Chardonnay doing well in the Eastern Mediterranean's Israel which borders the southern limit on how far south one could conceivably grow quality wine grapes in the Northern Hemisphere. In Israel's Upper Galilee, Golan Heights and Judaen Hills, higher altitudes can make up for warmer latitudes and many wineries have committed their best vineyards in their coolest locales to making well appreciated Chardonnay.
Almost every large Israeli winery makes a Chardonnay. Carmel, Barkan, the Golan Heights Winery, Binyamina, Tishbi, Tavor, Dalton, Teperberg, Recanati and the Galil Mountain all make at least one Chardonnay if not multiple Chardonnays in different series. One obvious reason for making Chardonnay is that there seems to be unwavering demand for the grape's wine around the world. Even more than wine drinkers craving the red Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay has more than its share of loyal fans. Many winemakers also embrace Chardonnay as being a pliable grape in the winery which they can impart their signature.
In Israel, white wines tend to be ventures of larger wineries. Even though white wines tend to sell for less than reds, many wine makers will tell you that making a quality white wine can be far more challenging. Having worked at a couple of wineries myself, I like to call white wines "little princesses". At their best, they're enchanting but they also tend to show every flaw. Red wines due to their deep color or being more opaque can hide a lot of flaws but white wines without particular care can show floating proteins or acid crystals that would make the wine visually flawed even if neither of these factors affected the taste or aroma of a wine.
White wines can also require particular dedicated tanks that are cumbersome for a smaller winery by either taking up space or tying up additional capital. Of course, one advantage of white wines is typically they have a quicker turn around than reds with little or no oak aging added. Even if ages in oak for a few or several months it's far shorter than the year or two of oak and bottle aging most quality red wines receive.
With that being said, let's look at a few different examples of Israeli kosher Chardonnays.
Yarden, Castel and Recanati all make Chardonnay but from different wine regions inside Israel.
Yarden is the premium label of the Golan Heights Winery (Israel's 3rd largest winery) located in Katzrin in the Golan Heights. The Golan Heights Winery might produce more quality white wine in Israel than any other winery even though it's far smaller than Carmel and Barkan. On the average it's vineyards are more northern and higher elevated so white grapes that tend to develop more complex flavors and natural acidity in cooler climes do far better than in southern lower elevated vineyards. Golan's senior winemaker Victor Schoenfeld has established himself longer than any other Israeli winemaker as a craftsman of Israeli white wines and his Katzrin Chardonnay is far often more than not rated as one of the best Israeli white wines every year if not one of the best kosher whites wines in the world.
The prestigious Castel Winery, under Eli Ben Zaken, has also created and produced a consistently well received Chardonnay. Even if a casual drinker couldn't notice a difference in styles, one can easily notice a difference in the wineries. Where the Golan Heights Winery makes 5 million bottles a year under dozens of labels, the Castel Winery makes 120,000 bottles (or 10,000 cases) of wine under only 3 labels ( a fourth label is possible as they made a rose in 2009 that might be added to the regular mix). Of these few wines, Castel only makes one white, it's Chardonnay "C". It too, like the Katzrin, is consistently ranked as one of Israel's best white wines year after year. Unlike Katzrin, "C"'s grapes come from the more southern Judean Hills on the outskirts of Jerusalem. As anyone who has driven up to Jerusalem can testify, there's shortage of altitude for vineyards in this area and it has become a source for other cool climate grapes for other winemakers ranging from such fans of frost as Riesling, Gewurztraminer and Pinot Noir.
The Recanati Winery, under the guidance of senior winemaker Gil Shatzberg,are also making some quality Chardonnay although their grapes are coming from the northern Galilee. Recanati is a midsize commercial winery making about 800,000-900,000 bottles a year (depending on the yields and quality of any harvest). Recanati's other winemaker, Ido Lewinsohn, who was working under Recanati's previous winemaker, Lewis Pasco, in 2008 when Gil took over also makes a Chardonnay at his family winery. As one of the best winemaking duos in Israel, Recanati has taken the bold step to be one of the few Chardonnay producers in Israel not to present Chardonnay as a single varietal wine as it's flagship white wine. That honor goes to their Special Reserve White, an unusual blend of Chardonnay, Viognier and Sauvignon Blanc. Previously under Pasco, Recanati's first winemaker, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc (Israel's second most popular premium white varietal) Reserve wine held equal billing. This doesn't preclude Recanati from making a Special Reserve Chardonnay in the future and I think Gil and Ido would say that the exact make-up of the wine isn't set in stone and will decide on what their grapes offer in any given year.