The biggest (best quality) / small (produces limited amounts of three wines) winery in Israel is, without a doubt, Domaine du Castel. It is a gem that can be found, not as many wineries of this country, which are located in industrial zones, but tucked into a quiet, residential. rural community. To find it one must drive on narrow, winding country roads through idyllic forests. And let me tell you, it is worth the trip.
But first, a bit of the history of the winery. Its founder, Eli Ben Zaken, who was born in Egypt and sent by his family to Great Britain for his education, came to Israel as a volunteer in the 1967 Six Days War. Between his British education and coming to Israel, he traveled through Switzerland and Italy where he was exposed to fine food and wines. His love of food and an absence of quality restaurants in Israel, stimulated him to open a gourmet Italian restaurant in Jerusalem. To complement the servings, he sought equally high quality wine, but could not find them in Israel. He started growing grapes and experimenting with making wine, having no background or training in viticulture or oenology. The first vines of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot were planted in 1988 and the first harvest was in 1992 with a production of 600 bottles of a Bordeaux-style blend called the Grand Vin. The results were quite amazing and recognition first came from Serena Sutcliffe, an acclaimed specialist of wine in England and head of Sotheby’s Wine Department in London. In 1995, a friend brought her a bottle from this first vintage. She tasted the wine and declared it “absolutely terrific. It is quite unlike other Israeli wines…This wine is a real tour de force, brilliantly made and very ‘classic.’” These comments convinced Ben Zaken to pursue what he had started and the production has now grown to 100,000 bottles per year. His vineyard was in the “backyard” of Jerusalem in the Judean Hills where no other wineries were located despite wines having been made there 3,000 years earlier. He found that the Castel Crusader fortress was nearby and named his wine after this chateau. The emblem of the winery incorporates a depiction of the chateau, the Lion of Judea, and three stars of David for his three children.
We visited on a beautiful sunny day in early December and were greeted by Ruth Amir, the Customer Relations Manager. She described the history of the winery and gave us a feel for the spiritual energy that flows there. The Ben Zaken family and Ruth’s colleagues are connected to the earth and the forested countryside. The flavors of the wines reflect the people and the place. She asked the masgiach in residence of Castel, whose wines have been certified Kosher since 2003,
to guide us through the fermentation room and down into the Chardonay cask cellar
and further down into the beautifully designed red wine cellar where the French oak barrels reside. It has been said that this is the most beautiful cask cellar of all the wineries of Israel. On the way we were able to view Eli Ben Zaken’s personal wine storage room and see a bottle of the Castel Grand Vin from the first production in 1992.
We then adjourned to the tastefully decorated wine tasting room for a treat of Barkanit cheeses paired with the wines.
Castle Winery produces their “C” Blanc du Chateau, a varietal of 100% Chardonay, which, after four days of fermentation in stainless steel vats is put into oak casks, one-third new and two-thirds old, for the remainder of the 12 month fermentation and aging period. This white wine is produced in a style similar to that used in Bourgogne, where the grapes are crushed but not de-stemmed and pressed slowly and gently. In grapes, tannins can be found in the stems and seeds as well as in the skins. This white wine gets its tannins from the stems and seeds and can therefore, age well in the bottle, improving with time in your wine cellar. When we tasted it we were treated to a balanced mix of oak and fruit. I look forward to a tasting of this wine at home.
The other two wines are blends of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot plus small amounts of Petit Verdot, Cabernet Franc, and Malbec, depending on the year. The Grand Vin was awarded the highest accolades by wine conneseiurs including Robert Parker who gave the 2004 vintage a grade of 92. It contains approximately 70% Cabernet Sauvignon and 30% Merlot. It is aged 24 months in 100% new French oak barrels made exclusively by Seguin Moreau of Cognac, the leading French cooperage. It is bold and velvety, with flavors of the forest. Its high tannin level demands a number of years of aging in the wine cellar before it is opened and tasted. The cost is 216 shekels, which makes it one of the highest priced wines in Israel. It you want the highest quality at any price, this should make its way into your wine collection. If you want a good quality wine for a reasonable price, you should look elsewhere.
Perhaps the place for that high quality wine at a reasonable price is the Petit Vin du Castel, a 50-50 mix of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. It is aged 16 months in oak casks previously used for the Grand Vin and is a pleasant and flavorful wine with a fine finish. It is a fine wine with high tannin levels and rich flavors of nuts and berries. This wine costs only 116 shekels and I agree with Robert Parker’s statement in his Wine Buyer’s Guide No 7 from 2008 that this is near the quality of the Grand Vin and should be tasted without long years of aging in the wine cellar. For more details about Castel Winey’s winemaking process, see the their web site.
We had a wonderful day at the winery in Ramat Raziel and give many thanks to Ruth, our gracious hostess. After the visit, we bid Castel Winery adieu, looking forward to an opportunity to return in the near future.