By Jim Boyce | What’s more intense: Israel embassy security in Beijing or Recanati Petite Sirah Reserve 2014? Definitely the security, although that youthful wine has some pretty frisky oak.
Anyway, the first Israeli master classes in Beijing were recently held and students faced an intriguing lineup. Over the past few decades, Israeli’s wine scene has shifted from a few companies making sweet wine to 350-plus wineries, mostly boutique, with a growing focus on quality. Four companies make 70 percent of the wine but these smaller operations have also gained attention from Wine Advocate, Wine Spectator, Jancis Robinson, Andrew Jefford and others.
The classes were led by Tal Gal-Cohen, a writer and consultant appointed as a wine ambassador by Israel’s Foreign Ministry, and Ma Huiqin, a China Agricultural University professor and wine marketing expert who studied at Hebrew University of Jerusalem twenty years ago and makes regular trips to Israel.
I helped organize the guest list, with a focus on wine distributors, consultants, journalists and bar / shop owners. While I was confident people would enjoy the wines, a pre-tasting two days earlier reinforced that view, if only because of the range of grapes. Israel’s top grapes are Cabernet Sauvignon, Carignan, Merlot and Syrah but the Beijing event also included Gewurztraminer, Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, Chardonnay, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, Viognier, Petite Sirah, Malbec and Marselan. And Mawari, a grape popular 2,000 years ago and resurrected via DNA technology after old roots were found in a vineyard.
My favorite wine was Tulip Reserve Syrah 2005, which includes a bit of Petite Verdot. It had freshness, complexity and lots of blackberry and blackcurrant flavors, with spice at the finish. It’s a wine that could appeal to casual imbibers and aficionados alike.
The Recanati Marawi was exciting, partly due to that 2,000-year old history. This one is fermented and aged on lees in barrel, and that influence comes through in terms of buttery, smoky and meaty aromas. Ma Huiqin said it smelled like the liquid left behind from cooked rice (mi tang). I wonder what it would be like with less oak.
I found the Teperberg Inspire Devotage Malbec (60 percent)-Marselan (40 percent) 2014 to be a juicy drop bursting with berry flavor. The Teperberg Cabernet Franc—one of my favorite grapes— lived up to its billing of “subtly sweet fruit” and had nice texture.
Several people said they liked Carmel Riesling 2014 (nice acidity and minerality), Teperberg Essene Chardonnay 2014 (too buttery for me) and Recanati Reseve Wild Carginan 2014 (made from “bush wines” in a vineyard free from irrigation, it had fresh vanilla, dark fruit and eucalyptus characteristics, but seemed a bit disjointed).
Again, it was fun to try such an intriguing grape range, especially given that producers in China have a nearly singular devotion to Cabernet. Most of the wines, particularly the reds, had good fruit, though the wine-makers seem to be firm believers in laying on oak.
We ultimately tasted 12 wines, most kosher, from four operations: Carmel, started in 1882 by Chateau Lafite owner Baron Edmond de Rothschild, it is one of the four key producers; Teperberg (known originally as Efrat), which dates to 1870 and is another top four producer; Tulip, started in 2003, in a community full of people with special needs, whom it employs; and Recanati, founded in 2000, with a focus on Mediterranean varieties and the resurrected Marawi grape. Hopefully some of them are soon available in China—one reason for the tasting was to expose these wines to potential distributors, restaurants buyers and other decision makers.