With the Gregorian year of 2014 officially in the bag, it is time for my annual rating of the best wines I tasted in 2014.  In keeping with “Yossie’s Corkboard” tradition, in addition to the “best” wines of 2014, I have also included a list of the most interesting and exciting wines I tasted this year – many of which give more pleasure than some of their “near-perfect” brethren who are included in the more prestigious list.  It is interesting to see that there are more white wines in this year’s lists than I have ever listed before, indicative of both the increasing popularity of white winesand the phenomenal vintage year that 2013 represented for Israeli white wines.  The “Exciting/Interesting” list is also an indicator of the many new and exciting varietals with which (mostly) Israeli winemakers are experimenting to make success.  When you taste an incredibly large number of different wines every year, a different varietal or flavor profile certainly helps the wine to stand out among the hundreds or thousands of wines that pass through one’s spittoon every year.

While obviously not news to any reader of Yossie’s Wine Recommendations, after tasting over 1200 different wines this year (slightly less than in 2013), I can safely say that the world of Israeli and kosher wine continues to improve and there are great things ahead for the industry.  The kosher wine consumer continues to develop and evolve and is learning to appreciate good wine for what it is (a topic that will be discussed in my coming newsletter summarizing the important wine trends of 2014).  Similarly to last year, there were fewer wines this year that were worthy of being included than I remember in the past. The lack of top notch wines may be partially due to the recent mediocre at best vintages in question, but is nonetheless certainly something to pay attention to in the hope that it isn’t a harbinger of poor things to come.   Despite there being fewer options for the list of “Best of”, there were a lot of great candidates for the exciting/interesting list, continuing the exciting trend of wineries and winemakers continuing to explore and push the envelope with new trends (while solidifying the new varietals most appropriate for Israel’s unique terroir).  Another factor making compiling these lists slightly more difficult is my abhorrence and compete disinterest in scoring wines (to the constant chagrin and complaint of many wineries and retailers).  If I scored wines, compiling this list would entail simply cutting and pasting my tasting notes from the ten highest scoring wines in the past year.

As would behoove any lawyer worth his salt, a few qualifiers to my lists.  First, the list doesn’t include older vintages of wines I recently tasted including magnificent wines that are now in their prime like the Binyamina Old Vine Cabernet Sauvignon from 2007 or the Château Smith Haut Lafitte, 2000.  With over 20 Rosh Chodesh Clubs under my belt (besides “franchises” in LA, Westchester and Israel), including even a few of the unbelievable aged wines we have experienced would wreak havoc with the list (although some sneak on by virtue of their sheer awesomeness, like the 2005 Valendraud).  Despite my best intentions, with a day job limits the amount of time I have to dedicate to wine and the size of my wallet puts a damper on the number of wines I get to taste each year, I didn’t have the opportunity to taste each and every one of the approximately 2,200 kosher wines released this year and I am sure I missed 1-2 worthy additions to this list.  The list includes only wines I tasted for the first time this year and excludes barrel tastings of not yet final wines (like the unbelievable Flam Noble 2011 or the coming Gvaot Masada 2012 Pinot Noir), advance tastings of wines not yet released (like the 2010 Domaine Netofa Late Bottled Vintage Port and the Montefiore, Kerem Moshe, 2012), non-commercial wines (like the 2009 and 2011 Napa Valley Reserve) and newly released wines I haven’t had a chance to taste but expect them to rock (like the 2011 Yarden Cabernet Sauvignon from the Golan Heights Winery’s Elrom vineyard which I barrel tasted two years ago and was just released).  Additionally and reflecting the international nature of this newsletter’s readership, a number of these wines may not be available in either the United States or Israel, as the top tier wines of many wineries are usually made in smaller than usual quantities and sell out fast or are not exported out of their country of production due to extremely limited quantities and high demand for near cult-like wines).  As a result of these exclusions and simply a lot of great wines, there are plenty of terrific and/or interesting wines (like the 2013 Shiloh Rosé, Bat Shlomo’s 2013 Sauvignon Blanc (their 2012 Betty’s Cuvee was recently awarded 90 points from the Wine Enthusiast) or the 2012 Single Vineyard from Jezreel Valley) that are not included on this list.

Below is my list – I’d love to hear from you on your best and favorite wines of 2014.

Best Wines of 2014 (in alphabetical Order)

Carmel, Kayoumi Vineyard, Riesling 2013: This is certainly among Carmel’s top wines and given the prestigious portfolio in which it keeps coming that is certainly high praise for this gorgeous and elegant wine. While the wine is eminently drinkable now and a clear participant in Israel’s magnificent 2013 vintage for whites, it will be even better in six months. In a slight deviation from prior vintages, this year’s version is completely dry (although the rich abundant of fruit does give off a slightly sweet perception on first note), providing kosher Riesling lovers with a “real” Israeli Riesling for the first time. A subtle nose that opens with time to reveal notes of blooming flowers, lemons, some pears, minerals and leads into a medium bodied rich palate loaded with plenty more citrus, more flinty minerals, resin and a nice lingering and slightly spicy finish. A refreshingly “retro” 12.5% AbV rounds out this delight that delivers in every way imaginable.

Château de Valandraud, Saint-Émilion, 2005:  While 2005 was supposed to be one of Bordeaux’s best vintages ever and up there with the mythical 47, 61 and 82 vintages, none of the kosher versions I had previously tasted were so substantially better than other vintages to support that claim. That is, until I had the opportunity a few months ago to taste the 2005 vintage of St. Émilion cult winery – Château de Valandraud which made a number of kosher “runs” for both their flagship wines and their “second” wine – Virginie de Valandraud.  While I have been supremely underwhelmed by all the prior vintages of this wine I tasted (the disappointment likely heightened by the surrounding hype), this wine was easily one of the bestwines I have ever tasted and, given its insane price tag, I am unlikely to taste it again.  With a nose that presents slightly closed on first note but opens to reveal a gorgeous bouquet of rich blackberry, current, black cherry and currents along with sweet cedar, smoky oak, luscious freshly turned earth, a hint of barnyard and muscular tannins along with freshly cracked black pepper and hint of chocolate.  A full-bodied and supremely elegant palate presents with more of the rich dark fruit, freshly cured tobacco leaf, spicy oak all wrapped around a core of powerful tannins that are nicely integrating and providing great balance with the fruit, wood and earthy mineral undertone.  An exceptionally long finish loaded with more cigar-box tobacco notes, rich chocolate and minerals leaves you with the rare feeling of wishing you hadn’t invited friends over to share the bottle.  Drink now and through 2020, maybe longer.

Château Moulin Riche, Saint-Julien 2011:  Despite being under the same ownership as the Chateau Léoville-Poyferré reviewed above, it is a stand-alone vineyard and not the “second” wine of Léoville (which does have such a “second” wine – Pavillon de Léoville Poyferré).  A classic Bordeaux blend of Cabernet Sauvignon (57%), Merlot (33%) and Petit Verdot (10%), this is a powerhouse of elegance, sexiness and complexity wrapped in one.  A subtly aromatic nose is redolent with freshly crushed and mostly black forest fruit, a whiff of barnyard funk that tantalizes, plenty of warm spices, slightly toasty oak and a hint of saddle leather.  A highly extracted and full-bodied palate has plenty of rich fruit to go along with a tinge of tangy raspberries, earthy minerals, olives, lead pencil, a hint of anise and a chocolaty overlay that tantalizes while remaining quietly in the background.  Robust tannins need plenty of time to settle down but the structure of the wine is delightful and bodes well for the future development of this wine. Stock up and enjoy over the next decade.

Covenant, Cabernet Sauvignon, 2012:  Such much has been said and written by me about Covenant over the years that it seems almost passé to write about the great stuff they continue to make, while innovating and creating new wines all the time including the delightful Pinot Noir in their “landsman” wine club.  With their inaugural 2003 Covenant Cabernet Sauvignon seared in my brain forever, I was delighted beyond words to taste the 2012 vintage which is likely the best yet to come from the talented hands of Jeff and Jonathan (though early, as the 2003 was recently very much enjoyed) and that is saying a lot from Covenant.  A rich and near-sweet nose of ripe blackberries, currants, cherries, cassis, sweet cedar, slightly toasty oak, delightfully austere minerals lead into a round and mouth-filling full-bodied palate that is simply delicious.  More rich fruit, subtle oak, rich dark chocolate, freshly roasted espresso, a hint of vanilla, rich cigar and some well-worn leather notes combine to give this wine a welcome veneer of sophistication that belies its powerful interior.  Backstopped by nicely integrated yet oh-so-powerful tannins and nice acid, this wine will continue to develop and give pleasure for years to come.  If you were ever going to load up on any vintage of Covenant, this would certainly be the one I would recommend (not that any past vintages have been slouches).  Delicious right now, but opening it would literally be criminal as the right has so much more to offer given a little more time (12-18 months for starters) before enjoying through 2020 at least.

Domaine Roses Camille, Pomerol 2005:  I have mentioned this wine in the past and included it on my Pesach Wine Buying Guide earlier this year, but given the absolute greatness of this wine (likely the best kosher Merlot I have ever tasted) I thought it deserved some real recognition (it will also be on my Best Of” newsletter showcasing the best wines I tasted in 2014 – I tasted the 2006 vintage last year).  While not in the league of the real DRC (as some folks have unfortunately taken to referring to this wine), it remains a really special wine (with a price tag to boot) and worth splurging on as a special treat.  Basically all merlot with a drop of Cabernet Franc thrown in for special effects, the wine has a lovely and scintillating nose with plenty of raspberries, currents, red plums, hints of cherries, freshly turned earth with a hint of bell pepper, tobacco leaf and wild mushrooms with that barnyard funk so characteristic of so many great (and less than great) French wines.  A full bodied palate with plenty of the same along with rich dark chocolate, earthy minerals, slightly burnt espresso, a nice hint of spiciness and a touch of saddle leather, showcases the impeccable balance between wood, fruit and tannin while retaining a supreme elegance that requires patience for the wine to reward you, but is a truly worthy endeavor to do so with a long and lingering finish with plenty more fruit, minty chocolate and a touch of barnyard-laced oak that provides some extra character. Concentrated, elegant, powerful and sexy, the wine needs time to open and should continue to improve through 2020 and should continue to cellar for at least five years after that.  Give this special wine the time it deserves and it will change the way you think of Merlot forever.

Flam, Noble, 2010:  just officially released, the wine is ever better than when I first tasted (and wrote about) it over 18 months ago. The wine is a blend of 85% Cabernet Sauvignon and 5% each of Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and Merlot.  Golan meticulously selected the absolute best grapes for each varietal from among Flam’s best plots.  Each of the components spent a year aging separately in new oak before being blended together and then spending an additional year in oak at which point the wine is bottled and spent another two years aging comfortably in the bottle in Flam’s cellar before release. Reflective of the Flam’s winemaking philosophy, the wine is loaded with rich and extracted flavors while retaining elegance and poise, coupled with power and substantial aging ability.  Besides the obvious youth of the wine and its obvious elegance, it is a bigger and more powerful wine than the 201 Cabernet Sauvignon I loved so much (the best grape of which represent 85% of this wine) is spectacular while retaining the Flam’s stamp of subdued elegance and highly controlled oak and fruit (more Tuscany than California).  With an initially closed nose, the wines opens reveal crushed red and black berries, rich cassis, black plums, blackberries and some blueberries, all in nice harmony with slightly spicy oak, roasted herbs, tobacco and a pleasing hint of fine dark chocolate.  The full-bodied palate is rich, deep and satisfying with layers of flavors, spices, mineral and velvety yet powerful tannins; seemingly changing every minute the wine spent in my glass.  A long and lingering finish with more fruit, dark chocolate, a hint of mint and cedar rounded out a wine that is likely going to be on Israel’s top ten list for many years.

Gvaot, Masada, 2011:  One of the recurring trends of these annual newsletters is that there are perennial performers that have worthy wines every year and usually more than one.  Gvaot is easily one of these with their Masada, Gofna Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir and others all vying for precious shelf space on these pages. Gvaot’s flagship wine for 2011 is a blend of 50% Cabernet Sauvignon, 30% Merlot and 20% Petit Verdot which spent approximately 22 months in mostly new French Oak and was built for the ages and if you are opening it now, give it some serious decanting time to open up.  Once it does open up you are rewarded with a nose and palate redolent of slightly smoky oak, plenty of rich black fruit including plums, cassis and blackberries with lovely hints of freshly cured tobacco leaf, mocha, anise and slate minerals along with some eucalyptus and warm Mediterranean herbs.  A full-bodied wine with plenty of powerful elegance and an unrestrained joyfulness to it that brought a smile to my face.

Psagot, Single Vineyard, Cabernet Sauvignon, 2010:  Commencing with its inaugural launch in 2007, the Single Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon has really earned its place as the best wine in Psagot’s formidable portfolio (not an easy task with the usually formidable Edom standing in its way year after year).  A rich, dense and sophisticated wine that continues to reveal multiple layers of complexity, aromas and flavors with every passing minute.  If there were ever a wine to pour into a glass or decanter and sample every half an hour over the course of a day, this would be it.  The wine opens with a densely rich nose of (controlled) ripe, mostly black, fruit including currents, plums, blackberries and cassis accompanied by dark chocolate, mocha, cedar, mineral and slightly smoky oak, most of which follows though onto the full-bodied palate where its all backed by near-sweet tannins that still need some time to integrate while providing a solid backbone for the wines awesome structure and balance.  Drink now through 2019.

Shirah, Syrah, White Hawk Vineyard, 2012:  The Weiss brothers certainly hit it out of the park with this rich, ripe and delicious Syrah which manages to be juicy and powerful while remaining controlled at the same time. A rich and ripe nose of mostly black fruit with a tinge of red creeping in after a bit of air, along with freshly paved asphalt, black pepper, spicy oak, plenty of freshly blooming flowers, a hint of chocolate and slightly toasty oak with much of the same on the viscous palate that delights.  Another wine with years of improvement and aging ahead of it, give it at least an hour if not more of aging time before even trying it out.  Powerful, elegant and beautiful, the only thing preventing me from stocking up on this wine is its high price tag, the Achilles Heel of many boutique wineries with bills to pay.  That said, don’t let the price tag prevent you from at least tasting this amazing wine – it’s worth it.

Tzora, Shoresh, White, 2013:  Having rapidly ascended into the every upper echelons of Israel’s top wineries, this jewel of a producer continues to march to its own beat, producing a highly curated selection of impeccable and exciting wines. The winery’s focus on its vineyards, along with the talented Eran Pick (soon to be Israel’s first Master of Wine).  100% Sauvignon Blanc from the acclaimed Shoresh vineyard, the wine spent seven months in oak and is one of the best Israeli white wines for the 2013 vintage which, given the abnormally high quality of white wines in this vintage is certainly saying a lot.  A highly approachable and enjoyable wine with loads of acidity and complexity, plenty of delightful tropical fruit including pineapple and lychee with some lip-smacking citrus added to the mix including grapefruit and lime.  With the characteristic cut grass and plenty of flinty minerals along with a subtle hint of toasty oak that lends some amazing “oomph” to the wine, it manages to enjoy an aura of austere regalness while remaining approachable.  A wine I love and one you should race out to acquire. This is what a white wine is meant to be – period.

Most Interesting / Exciting Wines of 2014 (in alphabetical Order)

Ben Haim, Vin Hors Series, Mythos, 2005:  From a winery considered by many to be dead in the water one of the most surprising awards last year was this wine. Not only did a wine relatively few had ever heard of win the Best Wine in Israel forTerraVino 2012, it certainly doesn’t taste like a ten year old wine (which raised more than a few eyebrows among the Israeli wine cognoscenti).  It was mainly this characteristic that landed it a spot on the “Interesting” side of this list.  Self-imported from Israel and tasted a few months ago, the wine is well made and on-par with some of the better wines from the winery from back in the day.  A blend of Petite Sirah, Merlot and Cabernet Franc which spent 18 months in French oak, the wine has a ripe and aromatic nose of mostly black forest fruit together with cigar box, sweet cedar, baker’s chocolate, a hint of green, asphalt and graphite with much of the same on the medium bodied palate with nicely integrated tannins, a herbal streak of green and plenty of toasty oak that is in balance with the fruit but just barely.

Pavillon de Léoville Poyferré, St.-Julien, 2012:  Despite my comments about regarding the basic non-superiority of the 2005 Bordeaux wines, the 2005 Léoville was one of the better options produced that year and a delightful wine in its own right (it simply wasn’t substantially better than all prior vintages).  I just tasted this wine a few weeks ago and found it to be like “the good old days” when top-drawer French wines were being produced and imported to the US. With literally 100s of French kosher wines available (although the majority don’t leave France and more are available in Israel than the US), it can sometimes be hard to separate the wheat form the proverbial chaff.  In any event, this wine is as “wheaty” as one will find and worth stocking up on as it will develop into something even more beautiful than it already is.  Wine derived from the fruit of the younger vines of it’s big brother – Leoville-Poyferre’s and mirroring the style of its big brother, the wine presents as a lovely earthy nose redolent of wild fungi, a hint of barnyard and sweet wood to go along with the cassis, black currants, anise and toasty oak leads into a full bodied palate with already integrating tannins, showcasing more spicy oak, earthy minerals, black crushed fruit, roasted espresso, a touch of lead pencil and a lingering finish that bodes well for this wine’s future.  While amazingly approachable now, opening a bottle at this stage of its development would be akin to oenophilic infanticide and I’d hold off at least 18-24 months before enjoying the wine through 2025 (or so).

Dalton, D, Pinot Gris, 2013:  With Na’ama continuously showing her winemaking ability and creativity, Dalton recently released one of Israel’s only [quality kosher]Pinot Gris (commonly known as Pinot Grigio, even though, technically speaking, Pinot Grigio refers to the Italian clone only).  Dalton’s inaugural limited run of 6,000 bottles was from their Misgav vineyard in the Upper Galil.  The wine opens with a pleasing tropical nose of mango, pineapple, white peach and limes and continues to delight on its medium bodied palate with more tropical fruit, pears, plenty of citrus, grassy notes accompanied by some steely minerals, spices and rounded out with a pleasing bitterness on the finish.  Abundant (and I mean abundant) acidity keeps the wine crazy lively and a great match to the vast majority of foods you would think to throw at it.  Good QPR and 13% AbV makes this another quality summer wine to stock up on.

Dalton, Reserve, Viognier 2013:  Dalton’s stock continues to rise as it maintains the quality of its existing portfolio and focuses on the things it does well while continuing to innovate and create delightful (and dependable) surprises.  As many of you know, the 2009 version of this wine was a longstanding favorite of mine, a fact I trumpeted early and often.  When the much-awaited 2012 was released, it was to some general disappointed as the extra oak and slightly disjointed feeling that came with it was off-putting to many.  While I enjoyed the 2012 and have found that it smoothed out and settled down with time, this version was much better and my deemed worthy successor to the 2009 version, providing further tangible proof to the awesomeness of the 2013 vintage for white wines (it may even surpass it as the complexity and potential for further evolution is definitely there).  The wine spent four months in oak giving it a slightly buttery feel and (ever so-slightly) tempering the natural voluptuousness of the varietal.  The wine starts with a beautiful nose of stone fruits, with a nice overlay of flowers and a tantalizing hint of honeysuckle that develops in the glass, yielding additional notes as it warms and opens up.  Almost full bodied, the wine has plenty of heft with plenty of peaches, apricots, notes of tropical fruit and citrus, balanced by dollops of acidity and tempered by some pleasing spiciness and flinty minerals.  A quality wine hampered only by the slightly high (at least) 14.5% AbV which didn’t bother me in the slightest, but some will find overbearing.

Elvi, Herenza, Rioja Reserva, 2009:  The technical difference between a Tempranillo Crianza Rioja and a Reserva is merely one additional year of aging (from two to three) with at least two of them in oak (as opposed to one for the Crianza) but after comparing Elvi’s Herenza Rioja in its two formats, there is a lot more going on that simply one more year prior to release. While the other Rioja wines on the market (the ever-present Ramon Cardova and the Elvi, among others) are simple and every day drinking wines (with the Elvi far superior than the Ramon Cardova), the Reserva is a wine to be contended with.  Rich and extracted and loaded with rich and mostly red forest fruit with hints of black cherries and plums added to the mix in addition to notes of sweet wood, anise, graphite and very earthy minerals.  A bold tannic structure keeps everything in place and requires some serious aerating before enjoying (or waiting another 9-12 months before enjoying).

Recanati, Mediterranean Reserve, Marselan, 2012:  A cross between Cabernet Sauvignon and Grenache, Marselan is another Rhône Valley varietal thought to be particularly well suited to Israel’s unique climate with Recanati being among the pioneers in trying to produce it as a stand-along varietal.  As with most wines coming from the House of Leon it is a supremely worthy effort.  Loaded with deep and rich red and black fruit and a slightly bitter streak of freshly roasted Mediterranean herbs, the nose is highly aromatic with notes of lavender and sweet wood accompanying the fruit which all leads onto a medium to full bodied pallet with robust tannins that need some time to settle down but are showing impeccable balance that I foresee great things in store for this wine. While the rich fruit provides one with the ability to enjoy this wine right now, I’d wait at least another six months (if not more) to allow the tannins to settle a bit more before enjoying through 2018.

Shirah, Vintage Whites, 2013:  One thing you can say about the Weiss brothers is that they are never boring.  Constantly evolving with crazy labels, eccentric blends, quality winemaking and delightful human beings to boot – I am rooting for these guys even when some of the wines don’t quite make the cut.  Departing from the highly successful blend of Viognier and Roussanne that comprised the equally delicious 2012 vintage, this wine is a blend of Viognier (70%) and the Grenache Blanc (30%) of Hajdu fame.  The rich nose loaded with tropical notes of pineapple, white peach, melon, heather and earthy minerals is one that I could lose myself in forever.  The nose evolved as the wine opened and warmed up a bit in my glass revealing new aromas with every passing minute.  A medium bodied palate is loaded with mouth-watering acidity that bucks up the rich fruit, honeydew, citrus and warm spices, allowing the wine to present in a clear manner despite the many notes seemingly pulling it in many directions (similarly to their delightful red coalition).  Somehow it works and works well.

Trio, Spirit of Alona, Carignan, 2012:  Another great wines from the hands of the talented Yotam Sharon, formerly of Barkan and now fully independent at Trio (besides consulting to many other wineries around Israel). An amazing 100% Carignan made from Old Vines (28 years) planted near Zichron Ya’akov.  Slightly similar in its “wild” profile to the incredible version from Recanati (albeit without the restrained elegance and sophistication), the wine is a delight. Layers of complexity and robust flavor reveal subtle black fruits, spicy oak, bramble, slate minerals and cedar.  Worth seeking out and adding to the growing portfolio of quality Carignan out of Israel that is showing the world what the grape can do under the “right” circumstances.

Tulip, Black Tulip, 2011:  While I believe New York’s current release is still the inaugural kosher 2010, the 2011 is a superior vintage that is worth waiting for (or picking up in Israel).  As with the 2010 vintage, the wine is full bodied, and a big, bold and deep Bordeaux-blend of primarily Cabernet Sauvignon, with Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot rounding out the blend.  With plenty of ripe tart cherries and other red fruit on both the nose and palate, backed up by crushed black forest fruit, freshly paved asphalt, toasty oak, freshly cracked black pepper, rich baking chocolate and roasted herbs, all leading into a long and warming finish; the wine is still finding its way.  With great balance and a powerful yet elegant tannic structure, I’d give this wine 8-10 months before opening, after which is will likely cellar comfortably through 2020, maybe longer.

Vignobles David, Les Masques, Châteauneuf-du-Pape 2012:  A relative newcomer to the kosher wine scene, Vignobles has taken it by a storm, by providing well made (and more importantly very well-priced) Côtes du Rhône wines in both a standard and reserve version, including some mevushal options for the 2012 vintage. Despite deviating from the “well-priced” moniker, this wine is well worthy of your attention and dollars as t represents one of the only kosher Châteauneuf-du-Pape wines available and certainly the one I have enjoyed the most.  A blend of the Rhône Valley’s three main varietals – Grenache (85%), Mourvèdre (10%) and Syrah (5%), the wine spent approximately 16 months in French oak.  The wine has loads of juicy red fruit, tangy raspberries and currents along with earthy minerals, wild mushrooms, a hint of green and warm spices on both the nose and medium bodied palate along with mouth-drying tannins, great acid and plenty of smoky oak and cigar-box notes.  Another wine that isn’t ready for prime time but is worth taking the plunge on despite its high price tag.  Give it another 12 months before opening and enjoying (in any event, this one needs some serious air to enjoy to its fullest).