Big Israeli wineries are continuing to make waves in how to compete for a larger share of the lucrative restaurant market. Middle tier and higher end restaurants are shy about featuring wines on their wine list that their diners are familiar with from supermarket shelves if the proprietors want to brand themselves as a unique experience delivering gourmets dishes that can pair with fine wines. It’s not to say you can’t find values at lower prices but that’s not the waters restaurateurs want to swim in.

Case in point, Israel’s largest winery, Carmel Winery just launched a new Vineyard series. It effectively divides it’s former regional Appellation series into two series) with the more expensive and considered better wines into wines you’ll now only see on restaurant wine lists or at better wine shops and the remaining wines will remain in the Appellation series and that series will be the highest series in their value wines (4 series) that are more common in markets and less expensive restaurants and the Vineyard will be the lowest of their premium wines (2-3 series depending how you count them).

Not to be outdone, the Tabor Winery (now Israel’s fifth largest winery and growing fast doubling production in just the last few years) has better restaurants making the same demands to offer more exclusive wines and they’ve just introduced a new series of five wines that are aimed at frequenters of Israel’s best trendy eateries.

I was honored to be invited to attend the launching at the Gastropub in Tel Aviv (58 Yehuda Halevi). It’s a trendy spot I first encountered a couple years back attending a birthday party for winemaker Ido Lewinsohn (Recanati & Lewinsohn wineries) who by the way will be the subject for my next ESRA article in April’s issue. Food is amazing and I like the vibe and I look forward going back to write a review of the menu sooner rather than later.

Back to the five new Tabor wines.

Most of the whole winery staff seemed on hand to schmooze and booze with some local food and wine writers, sommeliers and invited friends and love ones. It was a casual and fun soiree that I wish more wineries would host. It can be tiresome listening to winemakers and owners talk at us instead of with us and I have no interest in writing what everyone else is writing anyhow. Thankfully my limited Hebrew is an asset in this regard and necessitates me talking one on one with winemakers and staff. Also something I think uniquely Israeli, some local writers seem entitled to steal the limelight from their hosts and lecture them on what they are doing wrong for a few minutes in front of other writers and this kind of forum saves me from the temptation of bouncing a shoe off their head ( and maintaining that kind of restraint isn’t easy with free-flowing wine…if it was whiskey or beer and I understood their pretentious comments in Hebrew better it might have happened by now). Ignorance can be bliss (sometimes) so let’s move on.

Anyways, back again to the wines. This was an article about Tabor’s new wines (wasn’t it) key up Alice’s Restaurant now to play in the background.

Five new wines, one white, one red. Pithy names, all the red’s blends. New World style wines (that’s the attempt) easy drinking and easy branding.

The scores are tentative based on the setting and possibility to taste the wines in a more serene and ideal setting but are an indicator of initial impressions and a moment in time (for the taster and the wines as all scores are).

The 2012 Tabor “Tlalem” (Morning Dew) Chardonnay, K, 89 points, 95 NIS is intended to be “fresh, clear and cool”. Oaked four months in French oak, 13.9% alcohol with 100% malolactic secondary fermentation and aged sur lees. I found the fruit apparent with pear, guava, melon and gentle acidity and a nice body aided by the oak, the sur lees and secondary fermentation that seem to have contributed to a nicely balanced Chardonnay. Score wise this wine might have suffered most from the setting since a good dry white can be more nuanced and harder to grab your senses in a saturated stimulating environment. Also being served from ice buckets than can be TOO cold and could use 10-20 minutes to open up and the staff kept taking my glass every time I turned around. (best intentions I understand).

The 2010 Tabor “Keshet” (Rainbow) Red Blend,K, 93 points, NIS 95  is about 50% Cabernet Franc and 50% Cabernet Sauvignon. 14.4% alcohol is relatively restrained for an Israeli red and typical of this series (for the reds) and in 2010 challenging in hottest vintage on record. Intended to be “elegant, subtle and multi-layered”.  Rich and fruit forward, sweet cherries, violets, red cassis, black raspberry shebert, sweet tobacco and cocoa. Very balanced and hope this is a benchmark and not an exception for future vintages. As much as I like some single varietal Israeli Cab Franc often as a major blending component as here it seemingly shines (also check out Bravdo’s Coupage). At that moment, the most accessible of the wines of the evening and it seemed to be not only my favorite but a consensus favorite of most of the experienced insiders I talked to.

The 2010 Tabor “Ra’am” (Thunder),K, 88 points, is a 50/50 “Aussie style” Shiraz/ Cab blend with intentions of being “rich and powerful yet with a softer finish”.  Darker, deeper and more austere than the other wines with notes of cassis, blackberries, blueberries with leather and spice and a gentle acidic yet smooth finish that says its food friendly yet not as expressive as I might hope for what’s being called a New World wine. I hope to taste this one day decanted for 1/2 an hour, an hour, a few and overnight to see its true potential (what I ideally do with reds given the opportunity).

The 2010 Tabor ” Sufa” (Storm), K, 90 points, NIS 95 is Petite Sirah/ Cabernet Sauvignon 50/50 blend with intentions of being “rough, meaty and gripping”. Powerful but very drinkable with blackberries,currants, firm, rich tannins, cocoa, smokey and vanilla. Comes across as a red whiskey drinkers might embrace.

The 2010 Tabor “Lehava” (Flame), K, 85 points, NIS 95, is a 50/50 Petit Verdot/ Merlot blend with intentions of being “hot, succulent and juicy”.  I first tried a similar blend like this from Katlav that thrilled me. This one less so at first and others seemed to agree. A different setting, better decanting or just more aging might reveal hidden charms and I hope a less challenging vintage of 2011, 2012 shows improvements (is there a barrel tasting in my future?). Musty, earthy,surpressed fruits not the New World wine I was expecting. Maybe TCA had its way with it in retrospect. I need a bottle to taste with staff and I hope its better in second sitting. Was reading TCA article recently that talked about how it can not only cause unfavorable flavors but can mask favorable flavors. Was that bottle affected?

Special Thanks to native English speaker David Montefiore from Tabor for his insights before the gathering got too crazy with guests.

And thanks again to the entire Tabor staff for their hospitality and charming company including winemaker Arieh Nesher and viticulturist Michal Ackerman (who’ve I’ve previously interviewed for ESRA) and to the charming bar and kitchen staff of the Gastropub who I hope to see again sooner rather than later.

And for the record, there’s quite a few charming and talented food and wine writers in Israel too I count as my friends (let it not be unsaid by me) just in case my previous comments implied otherwise.

David Rhodes can be reached at israeliwineguy@gmail.com 052-552-3969 (in Israel) 972-52-552-3969 (from overseas)