“Special wines come from special places. We strive to make distinctive wines that reflect our unique region. No other spot on the planet combines our high altitude, specific latitude, advantageous topography and beautiful volcanic soils. Our wines also reflect the women and men that grow and make our wines, and their desire to make great wines that express this exceptional place where we live and work.” – Victor Schoenfeld, Head Winemaker
Israel may not be the first country that comes to mind when thinking about wines, but Israeli wines can be found easily in the United States. Yarden is a label that is highly regarded for producing quality wines, from high altitudes with volcanic soils . Golan Heights Winery is leading the path in creating a fine wine culture in Israel and abroad. The prized wines of Golan Heights Winery are produced under their premium label, Yarden.
I had the opportunity to take part in an a Purim celebration with an extensive tasting of Yarden Wines with Yair Shapira, CEO of Golan Heights Winery and head winemaker Victor Schoenfeld. It was an enlightening deep dive into the history, culture, terroir, and wines of the beautiful Golan Heights.
Golan Heights Winery
Golan Heights Winery first planted their vineyards in 1976 and the winery was established in 1983. In 1984 they released their first wine, the 1983 Yarden Sauvignon Blanc. Since then, the award-winning wines of Yarden have helped put Israel on the wine map.
The winery seeks to produce wines that best convey the terroir of the Golan Heights. The wines are shaped by their soils, topography, and climate. They are expressive of the volcanic soils that are so distinct to the region.
Encompassing 1500 acres, they have 28 vineyards with 430 blocks. With 20 grape varietals, each block is grown individually, harvest and stored separately, until the final blend is determined. The vineyards are on a volcanic plateau that rise 1200 to 4000 feet above sea level; an ideal cool climate with snowy winters and cool dry summers. The wines justly reflect the Mediterranean climate and soils.
Victor Schoenfeld is the chief winemaker. He started with Golan Heights Winery in 1991. He has been credited for leading Israel’s wine revolution. Victor is a California native with a degree in enology from University of California Davis, he spent time at Chateau St. Jean in Sonoma and Robert Mondavi in Napa. Before joining Golan Heights Winery he worked at the prestigious Champagne house Jacquesson & Fils.
Under Victor’s helm, Golan Height Winery became the first and largest grower of organic wine grapes. They utilize organic compost, use wind turbines for electricity and have a wastewater purification facility. Golan Heights Winery is the first international winery to be certified by Lodi Rules.
Victor has greatly shaped the wine industry for Israel. Having joined the winery from the early stages, he has played an integral role in research and development. Great strides have been made in understanding the land, soils, and climate. Investments in research and development have helped catapult Yarden wines to the international scene. Today the wines are available in 30 countries.
Israel is a small country, yet it has great diversity in landscape and soils. Victor says, “it is jarring to see the breadth and scope of the country”. Though Israel is a small country, there are big changes in climate, topography and geography even within short distances. Israel is positioned on the eastern Mediterranean and is at the intersection of Europe, Asia and Africa. There are huge geological forces at play in the region, pulling in different directions, thus the vast and sudden changes in temperature, elevation and soils.
The Golan Heights wine region is in the northern part of Israel, on the 33º parallel(similar to San Diego). When you drink these wines, it is hard to believe the vines are cultivated so far south. These are not warm climate wines though, the key to the quality of the wines is the elevation. The higher quality wines are made from vineyards 1200 feet in elevation or higher. Many of the vineyards in the Golan Heights are grown on a beautiful volcanic plateau and continue to rise from a height of 1200 feet to 4000 feet in elevation.
The soils are volcanic. Golan Heights is a plateau which butts up against the mountain. The mountain soil is limestone and is estimated to be 270 million years old. Golan Heights is 1 to 3 million years old. The mountain was there long before the volcanic activity formed in the Golan Heights. The southern plateau of the Golan Heights is the oldest and it is Basalt soils. Basalt soils have a lot of stone and are heavy, thus they can hold plenty of water and are well-drained. This enables deep rooting and lets the vines be more independent, allowing for minimal intervention.
Yarden Katzrin Blanc de Blancs late Disgorged 2007 ($105.99) – The celebrations kicked off with a small production sparkling wine made in the traditional method, from 100% Chardonnay. The grapes are from the 2007 vintage, then bottled in early 2008 and started disgorging in 2019. There is a nice creaminess on the palate with freshness and bright acidity.
Yarden Gewürztraminer 2017 ($22.99) – Gewürztraminer is not a varietal that you typically think of when you think Israeli varietals, making this a very special wine. The wine has classic notes of lychee, spice, tropical fruits and florals. The wine is well-balanced and has nice complexity, length and texture.
Yarden Chardonnay Odem Organic Vineyard 2016 ($22.99) – This is an excellent Chardonnay. The fruit and oak are very well-balanced. There are notes of sourdough, ripe pear, and tropical fruit. An elegant Chardonnay that is flavorful, but not too heavy.
Yarden Katzrin Chardonnay 2017 ($38.99) – This is an high quality Chardonnay. It is more concentrated than the Odem. The wine is a blend of their finest vineyards. A rich, full-bodied wine with nice acidity and length.
Yarden Merlot 2014 ($30.99) – Merlot in the Golan Heights does extremely well. The wine is very dark in color and aromatically very distinct. Victor explains that orange peel is very prominent in Merlot from the Golan Heights. This full-bodied wine has great textures and flavors.
Yarden Merlot Odem Organic Vineyard 2014 ($105.99)– The Odem Merlot is very dark and a bit more tannic than the previous Merlot. It is earthy and more aromatic. I was blown away with the wine and its concentrated flavors and complex tannic structure.
Yarden Cabernet Sauvignon 2015 ($35.99) – This is the one of Yarden’s iconic and signature Israeli wine. It is complex and intense. It has a full body with freshness, even after four years.
Yarden Cabernet Sauvignon Bar’on Vineyard 2014 ($105.99) – Nice black cherries and a smokey, flinty nose. There is ripe fruit and freshness. A deep and intense wine with notes of black fruit, spice and cocoa.
Yarden Katzrin 2011 ($212.99) -This is a Bordeaux blend of 92% Cabernet Sauvignon and 8% Merlot. Victor explains that the orange blossom notes from the Merlot break the monolithic varietal of the Cabernet Sauvignon. It is big, complex and intense wine. One of my favorite wines from the tasting.
Yarden T² 2011 ($22.50) – The backbone of this wine is made with Portuguese varietals, Touriga Nacional blended with Tinta Cão. The Touriga Nacional gives the wine body and structure. The Tinta Cão gives it minty, floral, and spicy notes. T² is a fortified wine that pairs perfectly with cheese.