A Visit To Or Haganuz Winery

Esoteric Judaism has made its way into the world of wine in Israel. The mystical Kabbalah had its origins in the 11th and 12th centuries and, in more modern times, has become centered in the hill town of Tsfat (alternatively spelled Tzfat, Safed, and Tsefat)  overlooking The Kinneret or Sea of Galilee. And out of this, the community known as Or Haganuz was established in 1989 by Rav Mordecai Sheinberger. Rav means Rabbi , and is also a term of great respect such as “Doctor” or “Professor” might connote.  This man was the student of Rav Ashlag of Tsefat, who was a student of Rav ARI, Isaac ben Solomon Luria Ashkenazi, otherwise known as Isaac Luria. He is the father of contemporary Kabbalah. The name of the community and of the winery means “Secret Light,” which Kabbalah is also known as.

There they tell of a legend about the origin of grapes for wine. This is not what you read in Wikipedia and may or may not be true, but it makes for a nice story about wine grapes’ origin. As you might know, wine is held in holy esteem by Jews. It plays a key role in all celebrations from the ritual surgery performed on a male infant on the eighth day of his life and through the passage to manhood at age 13. It continues to play that role at weddings, and onward, including the weekly welcoming of every Sabbath and its closure at the end this holy day, not to mention every holiday. At each of these times a special blessing is said prior to the drinking of the wine. This dates back to biblical times some 4,000 years ago. So it must be that grapes were grown here in the land of Israel from antiquity and perhaps were spread to Europe by the Romans and Greeks who came here to conquer the Middle East. At Or Haganuz they believe that a grape vine planted in a terroir unfamiliar to the plant will be rejected. And this, they say, is the reason that each and every one of the many grape varieties is able to thrive here in Israel. They all came from here originally.

Another mystical “fable” is of the origin of the name of the grape variety, Chardonnay. Some say that this name is a transliteration of the original Hebrew name consisting of two words, Char-Adonnay.  It is written in Hebrew  שער אדוני (Gate of God), which is spoken, “Shaar Adonai.”  Put them together and you have Chardonnay.

Naftali, Nurit, and israelwinetaster (Dan) outside the winery

According to Giovani, who introduced us to the winery and the wines, the community is dedicated to study and work — study of the Torah and especially work to produce wine and bread. It is believed that these two foods can provide one’s body with all the sustenance that it needed to live. The prayer before doing/eating anything is a Jew’s means of connecting with The Almighty, and recognizing the specialness of Her/His nature. The blessing that is said before eating grapes is, like that before eating any fruit, and it thanks God for bringing forth fruit from the tree. But because there is special quality of this fermented drink that is made from grapes, before drinking wine, there is a special prayer which thanks God specifically for bringing forth the wine, the fruit of the vine. This is, likewise, true for wheat versus bread, when we thank God for bringing forth bread from the earth as a special prayer as opposed to a general prayer for other foods. These two wine and bread, therefore, hold a special place in the daily life of Jews everywhere.

The Or Haganuz Winery produces a number of wines of different styles with names that have been changing making it difficult to describe their series and types. One unique wine that Nurit absolutely loves, is what they call Nitzan, a mixture of 80% Cabernet Sauvignon and 20% Pomegranate juice. She says that the port-style wine made from Pomegranates by Rimon Winery that I love so much is too sweet for her and that the Nitzan’s lack of being overly sweet is appealing to her. For my part, it is neither a Cabernet Sauvignon nor a Pomegranate wine. Unlike the port-style wines, it is only 13% alcohol. It sells for 70 shekels (about $17) at the winery.

Their other unusual wine is a sweet wine called Har Sinai. It is frequently used for sacramental purposes and is a favorite of the ultra-orthodox “black hat” Haredi Jews as it carries the Badatz HaEda HaChareidit Kashrut certification, recognized by most as the strictest of all. Har Sinai is produced with an ancient technology using modern equipment. The wine is a blend of 80% Cabernet Sauvignon and 20% Merlot ripened grapes, separated and frozen for 3 days, then heated on an open olive wood fire. After a short fermentation the wine is transferred to wooden oak barrels which are put outside in the open air for a year. It has an aroma of raisins, cherries, plums, coffee grains, toasted oak wood and bitter sweet chocolate, is full bodied, with a soft, long, and pleasant finish. Its alcohol content is quite high at 15.5% and costs 100 shekels (about $25) at the winery.

There are a number of other wines, both blends and varietals, but none of which have received accolades by wine tasters, including israelwinetaster. Rogov had written about his tasting, and more recently, the wines have been discussed on the WineLovers Discussion Group. The importer of Or Haganuz wines in the United States has descriptions of a number of them on their web site.

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Visit to Pelter Winery

Pelter Winery, located on the Golan Heights, was founded in 2002 by Tal Pelter after studying viticulture and enology in Australia. He cultivates a number of varieties of grape including Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Shiraz, Petit Verdot, Grenache, Tempranillo, Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc, Gewurztraminer and Chardonnay. In the beginning he produced about 4,000 bottles and has continued increasing output to 85,000 bottles annually. The winery’s three cornerstones are vitality, quality and family.

Three of us drove up to the Golan and found Kibbutz Ein Zivan easily enough. This location is the present home of the winery, though not an economic part of the kibbutz. Once through the main entrance gate and after turning right, according to the instructions on the Pelter Winery web site, we lost our way. Actually we drove right by the winery, not realizing that the industrial looking building was the place we were trying to find. We continued on, and on, and on. We had obviously lost our way, so we finally called them on the phone. They said they were in the “hangar which was really easy to find.” If you know what you are looking for this is true. Once there, we were greeted by Tal and who graciously gave us a tour of the facility, explaining their production techniques.

Tal with Naftali & Michal in barrel room

Primary fermentation in steel vats

Then we sat down and were served two cheeses made by Tal’s wife.

Tasting area inside winer

They were light and tasty and went well, especially with the white wines including Chardonay,  and our favorite, the Gevurtaztraminer. All of these are fermented in stainless steel vats and then directly put into bottles.

The reds we tasted were Shiraz, Trio, Cabernet-Shiraz blend, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Petit Verdot. I look forward to the release of the new, unusually named “I”, flagship wine of the winery, a Bordeaux blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot in approximately equal parts. We also did not taste their sparkling Blanc de Blancs so I must return to the winery soon.

The Cabernet Sauvignon is aged in French oak barrels for 20 months and was especially good. I agree with the description of the wine on their website, “rich in herbal, mint and eucalyptus flavors laced with chocolate and a rich, lingering finish.” Price 140 shekels/bottle ($40).

The Cabernet Franc, aged in oak for 14 months, “reflects optimal extraction of the unique spice and blackberry flavors of this grape variety.” Price 160 shekels/bottle ($45).

For me the winner was the varietal Petit Verdot which is usually blended in small quantities with Cabernet Sauvignon and other varieties to give the final wine an herbal flavor. Here at Pelter, they bottle it as a varietal. This wine has an extremely big body and a tartness. It is full of aromas of the fields with a complex taste of strong fruits and nuts with a long finish. It is rich in tannins and could be aged for a number of years in the proper conditions, the late Daniel Rogov gave this wine a  score of 93 in his annual visit with tasting notes. This is a very unique and special wine. Price 160 shekels/bottle ($45).

I will return to these wines again when we drink them at home at dinnertime. I can then concentrate on them one at a time allowing me to share with you a more detailed description of how these wines titillate my senses without being confused by tasting other wines. Nurit, who was not able to join us in our visit to the winery can also contribute her outstanding ability to transform tastes and aromas into words.

Meet Nurit