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Travels in the Negev Desert - Visiting 7 Boutique Wineries

by Daniel Rogov » Sat Mar 06, 2010 2:22 pm

On Wednesday, 3 March, I made my way on the 6 a.m. train to Beer Sheva, there to be picked up to make the rounds of seven Negev wineries. Before getting into the wines, let me comment that although demanding and even exhausting, the trip was a treat in every way. During the course of the day I saw literally tens of thousands of wild red tulips that grow in the dessert. More than that, after a particularly wet winter, literally dozens of varieties of wild flowers in full bloom. And then, of course, the hoopoe birds, ravens, hawks, cranes, wild geese, not to mention a few camels, a great many sheep, and perhaps best of all, the gazelles, deer, porcupines, ground hogs and both wild and domesticated dogs and cats that are to be seen everywhere. Towards sunset I found myself at Mitzpe Ramon, watching the sun set over the crater. Truly, Mitzpe Ramon is one of the most exquisitely beautiful places on the planet.

To wine – the Negev wineries are largely small – several located on Kibbutzim, some on Moshavim and others on the individual ranches that have been established. My thanks to Zvi Remak, the winemaker at Sde Boker and to Danny Almog also of the Sde Boker kibbutz who accompanied me on various parts of my wanderings. My equal thanks to the winemakers who greeted me warmly at each of my tasting visits.

Best
Rogov


Rota Winery


Founded by Erez Rota on the Negev Heights, this artisanal winery released its first wines in 2002. The winery and its beautifully planted and tended vineyards are set on an isolated farm, surrounded by magnificent desert mountains. Grapes under cultivation, those raised organically include Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Shiraz and Muscat of Alexandria. In addition, the winery also receives grapes from the Ella Valley. First releases in 2002 were of 1,000 bottles. Current production is about 10,000 bottles annually.

Rota, Cabernet Sauvignon-Merlot, Ya'el, 2008: A blend of equal parts of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Dark garnet with a hint of adobe brick in color, with soft, gently gripping tannins and hints of vanilla from the oak in which it aged for eight months, opens to show cassis and blackberries, those on a lightly spicy background. Drink now-2012. Score 86. (Tasted 3 Mar 2010)

Rota, Cabernet Sauvignon, Adi, 2008: Oak-aged for 12 months, medium- to full-bodied, with somewhat chunky country-style tannins. Opens with a light medicinal aroma but that blows off quickly to reveal a good array of currant, blackberry and purple plum fruits, those on a background of spices and green olives. Garnet in color but despite its youth showing a hint of browning. Drink now. Score 85. (Tasted 3 Mar 2010)

Rota, Shiraz, 2009 (Barrel Tasting): Dark ruby towards royal purple in color, medium- to full-bodied, a generously aromatic wine opening to show fine plum, wild berry and cassis notes, those on a background that hints of saddle leather and roasted herbs. Soft tannins rise comfortably on the finish. Drink from release. Tentative Score 85-87. (Tasted 3 Mar 2010)

Rota, Cabernet Sauvignon, 2009 (Barrel Tasting): Medium-dark garnet in color, medium- to full-bodied, with fine balance between spicy wood, alcohol, soft tannins and fruit. On the nose and palate clean black and red berries, currants and spices. Gentle but with good concentration. Best from 2011. Tentative Score 86-88. (Tasted 3 Mar 2010)

Rota, Merlot, 2009 (Barrel Tasting): Ruby towards garnet, with cherries and red berries on the nose, those making way for notes of cranberries and blueberries. Soft tannins, medium-bodied and notably easy to drink. Drink from release. Tentative Score 86-87. (Tasted 3 Mar 2010)

Shdema Winery

Set on Kibbutz Revivim in the Negev Dessert, this small winery released its first wines from the 2004 vintage. Relying on Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Shiraz and Petit Verdot grapes, nearly all of which are purchased from other wineries, the winery is currently producing about 3,500 bottles annually.

Shdema, Shiraz, 2006: Oak aged for 28 months, showing super-dark garnet and full bodied, with generous wood, sharp, almost biting tannins and an unwanted bitter note that tend to hide the black fruits that try hard to make themselves felt. Drink up. Score 72. (Tasted 3 Mar 2010)

Shdema, Merlot, 2006: Garnet, going to brown, medium- to full-bodied, with a whopping 16% alcohol and coarse tannins that give the wine the kind of power that makes you uncomfortably catch your breath. A few black fruits here but overall showing alcoholic and far too earthy-barnyard notes. Score 65. (Re-tasted 3 Mar 2010)

Shdema, Shiraz-Cabernet Franc, 2007: Medium- to full-bodied, with soft tannins, a deep garnet blend of 2/3 Shiraz and 1/3 Cabernet Franc. Opens with raspberries and red plums, those yielding to notes of cassis and spices. Without complexities but an acceptable entry-level wine. Drink now. Score 84. (Tasted 3 Mar 2010)

Shdema, Merlot, 2007: Dark garnet, medium- to full-bodied with a fruit-rich nose. Oak aged for 18 months and with a generous 15% alcohol content, showing appealing black fruits but those marred somewhat by high alcohol and glycerin content. Drink now. Score 79. (Tasted 3 Mar 2010)
Shdema, Petit Verdot, 2006: Full-bodied, with soft tannins, dark garnet towards royal purple in color, showing a generous 15% alcohol content and equally generous wood, those thankfully making room for currant, cassis and blueberry fruits. Marred by alcoholic heat that rises on the finish. Drink now. Score 79. (Tasted 3 Mar 2010)

Shdema, Carignan, 2007 : Dark garnet, full-bodied, with near-sweet tannins, reflecting its development with oak chips with a sweet cedar note. Opens to show ripe berry and plum fruits, those spoiled somewhat by a medicinal, near-iodine note that rises as the wine sits in the glass. Drink up. Score 74. (Tasted 3 Mar 2010)


Kadesh Barnea Winery


This Negev Desert winery was established in 1999 by Alon Tzadok on Moshav Kadesh Barnea and has its own vineyards near the ruins of the Byzantine city of Nitzana, just north of the Egyptian border. Releases to date have included only Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot-based wines, but the winery is now developing further vineyards containing Petit Verdot, Shiraz, Cabernet Franc, Mourvedre, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay grapes. Initial production was about 5,000 bottles and current annual production is of between 50,000-60,000 bottles annually. New equipment has been introduced to the winery and Tzadok's son and daughter-in-law, Yogev and Eden, both of whom studied winemaking in Florence, Italy returned to Israel in 2009 and are now fully in charge of the winemaking process. The wines have been kosher since the 2002 vintage.

The winery is one of the first in the country to be conducting experiments with making wines from vines irrigated by the brackish water that underlies much of the Negev desert, though these have not yet resulted in any releases. Wines are produced in two series, Alon, which is considered the premium wine, and Gilad The winery also produces a series under the label of "Shemesh", those wines meant largely for export.

Kadesh Barnea, Cabernet Sauvignon, Alon, 2009 (Barrel Tasting): Destined for oak-aging for a total of 14-18 months,already showing dark garnet with a nose of dark fruits and chocolate. Medium- to full-bodied, with soft tannins integrating nicely, already showing appealing currant and raspberry fruits on a lightly spicy background. Round and long. Tentative Score 87-89. K (Tasted 3 Mar 2010)

Kadesh Barnea, Merlot, Alon, 2009 (Barrel Tasting): Developing in American oak, showing medium- to full-bodied, with a gentle wood influence and soft tannins integrating nicely. Happily, the 2009 wines show a far lower alcohol level than in the past, this allowing blackberry and currant fruits to show nicely, those on a background of roasted herbs. Fine promise. Tentative Score 87-89. K (Tasted 3 Mar 2010)

Kadesh Barnea, Cabernet Sauvignon, Alon, 2008 (Barrel Tasting): Full-bodied, dark garnet in color, showing firm tannins, abundant smoky oak and a generous 15% alcohol content. Blackberry and raspberry fruits do make themselves felt but the high alcohol level leave one with a somewhat stinging sensation on the palate. Drink from release. Tentative Score 82-84. K (Tasted 3 Mar 2010)

Kadesh Barnea, Merlot, Gilad, 2008: Ruby towards garnet in color, medium-bodied, with soft tannins and showing good plum and blackberry fruits. Soft and round on first sip but shows its high alcohol content and leaves a somewhat hot sensation on the palate. Drink now. Score 83. K (Tasted 3 Mar 2010)

Kadesh Barnea, Cabernet Sauvignon, Gilad, 2008: Medium- to full-bodied, garnet towards royal purple in color, with soft tannins integrating nicely. On the nose and palate black and red berries along with hints of Mediterranean herbs. An easy to drink quaffer. Drink now. Score 85. K (Tasted 3 Mar 2010)


Chavat Nachal Boker (The Nachal Boker Ranch)

A primitive but charming ranch boasting four rooms for tourists and a restaurant featuring vegetarian home-cooking that hosts the guests of those rooms as well as groups that come to visit by bus. Not so much a winery as a place that has wines made for their use by Rota and Barkan.

Nachal Boker, Cabernet Sauvignon-Merlot, 2007: Made for the ranch by the Rota Winery, a medium-bodied, softly tannic wine with hints of spicy oak. Opens in the glass to show appealing currants and black and red berries, those on a lightly peppery background. An appealing quaffer. Drink now. Score 85. (Tasted 3 Mar 2010)

Nachal Boker, Cabernet Sauvignon-Merlot, Cramim de Negev, 2007: Made as a private label wine for the ranch by Barkan, a blend of 85% Cabernet Sauvignon and 15% Merlot. Medium-bodied, soft and round, with a generous berry and black cherry personality a simple little quaffer showing a hint of sweetness that some may like and others may not. Drink up. Score 84. (Tasted 3 Mar 2010)


Sde Boker Winery

Located on Kibbutz Sde Boker in the heart of the Negev Desert, this small winery was founded in 1998 by former Californian Zvi Remak who studied winemaking at California’s Napa Valley College. Relying on Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Malbec, Carignan and Zinfandel grapes grown in the desert, current production is about 6,000 bottles annually. The winery has recently opened a new and very attractive visitor's center.

Sde Boker, Merlot, 2005: Made entirely from Merlot grapes, oak aged for 24 months in 30% new oak, showing ruby towards garnet, with soft, gently mouth-coating tannins and a spicy wood influence. On the nose and palate blackberries, black cherries and plums, those supported by hints of roasted herbs and earthy minerals. Drink now. Score 86. (Re-tasted 3 Mar 2010)

Sde Boker, Cabernet Sauvignon, 2005: My earlier tasting note (about 1 month ago) holds firmly. Dark garnet toward inky purple, medium- to full-bodied, with soft tannins integrating nicely and showing generous but not imposing spicy cedarwood. Look for aromas and flavors of black fruits, Oriental spices and green olives, all lingering nicely. Drink now. Score 87. (Re-tasted 3 Mar 2010)

Sde Boker, Cabernet Sauvignon-Merlot, 2006: Deep garnet-red, medium- to full-bodied, with spicy aromas and flavors of black currants, black and red cherries, Mediterranean herbs and pepper. Well balanced, witrh softly caressing tannins and good focus, with tangy red fruits and smoky oak on the finish. Drink now. Score 88. (Re-tasted 3 Mar 2010)

Sde Boker, Cabernet Sauvignon-Merlot, 2007: An oak-aged blend of equal parts of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Dark garnet towards royal purple, full-bodied, with soft tannins that grip gently and showing fine balance between wood, acidity and fruits. On first attack red plums and spices, those parting to make way for clean notes of cassis and blackberries and, on the long finish, the tannins rising together with the fruits a note of roasted herbs. The best to date from the winery. Drink now-2013. Score 90. (Tasted 3 Mar 2010)

Sde Boker, Malbec, 2008 (Advance Tasting): Developed in barriques for 12 months, medium- to full-bodied, with firm tannins and appealing Malbec spices and smokiness to highlight raspberry and blackberry fruits. Alight medicinal note on opening but that passes as the wine opens in the glass. Drink from release. Score 85. (Tasted 3 Mar 2010)

Sde Boker, Zinfandel, 2008 (Barrel Tasting): Showing true Zinfandel traits but neither a California Zinfandel nor an Italian Primitivo, this is a wine that reflects its desert heritage nicely. Notes of briar and tumbleweed (call that garrigue if you like, but tumbleweed is as close as I can get in words), opening to show wild berries, crushed black pepper, dried cherries and licorice notes. Medium- to full-bodied with somewhat chunky tannins that in this case succeed in giving the wine an appealing rustic character. Well done. Drink from release-2012, perhaps a bit longer. Score 88. (Tasted 3 Mar 2010)

Sde Boker, Zin-Zin, n.v.: A super-dark garnet dessert wine made from late-harvested Zinfandel grapes. Developed in well-used oak for 48 months, a deeply aromatic wine that opens with notes of iodine and seawater on the nose, those yielding to blackberries, raspberries and brambles as well as an appealing note of sweet toasted oak. On the finish notes of dark chocolate and black cherries. Sweet but not cloying. Don't drink this one with food but sip it on its own as dessert. Score 88. (Tasted 3 Mar 2010)


Carmey Avdat Winery

Founded by Eyal Izrael, this small winery is based on a private farm on the heights of the Negev Desert not far from Kibbutz Sde Boker. The winery’s vineyards of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot grapes are planted in a wadi and rely on water from 1,500-year-old water terraces built by the Nabbateans. The winery’s first releases were 4,500 bottles from the 2005 vintage, which rose to about 8,000 bottles from the 2008 and 2009 vintages.

Carmey Avdat, Rose, 2008: Made entirely from Cabernet Sauvignon grapes, allowed 24 hour skin contact and then cold fermented. Dark pink towards garnet, medium-bodied with red fruits and, because of the long skin contact, soft tannins, somewhere between a rose and a very light red wine. Nice raspberry and red currant fruits but lacking acidity and a bit on the clumsy side, failing to refresh. Drink now. Score 82. (Tasted 3 Mar 2010)

Carmey Avdat, Cabernet Sauvignon, Someq, 2008: Unoaked, showing deep ruby in color, a light- to medium-bodied wine with clean cherry, raspberry and red currant fruits. Nothing complex here but a refreshing and charming quaffer. Drink now. Score 85. (Tasted 3 Mar 2010)

Carmey Avdat, Cabernet Sauvignon, 2007: My most recent tasting note holds firmly. Dark garnet, medium-bodied, with softly caressing tannins and notes of spicy wood in good balance with currant, berry and cherry fruits, those on a light earthy background. Drink now. Score 85. (Re-tasted 3 Mar 2010)

Carmey Avdat, Merlot, 2007: With its once heavy wood influence now subsided and the tannins integrating nicely, showing better than at advance tastings. Dark ruby towards garnet, medium- to full-bodied with good concentration and extraction, opens to show appealing blackberry, black cherry, purple plums and chocolate, all lingering nicely on the palate. Drink now. Score 86. (Re-tasted 3 Mar 2010)

Carmey Avdat, Kedem, 2006: A blend of 60% Merlot and 40% Cabernet Sauvignon, oak aged for 12 months in American oak. Full-bodied, with gently gripping tannins and just the right hand with spicy oak, opens to reveal generous blackberry, black currant and blueberry fruits along with a hint of vanilla, those leading to a long fruity finish. Drink now. Score 87. (Tasted 3 Mar 2010)

Carmey Avdat, Cabernet Sauvignon, 2006: Deep garnet toward royal purple, medium- to full-bodied, with soft tannins and a gentle wood influence. On the nose and palate berries, black cherries and currants, those with light vanilla and earthy-herbal overlays. Round and generous. Drink now. Score 85. (Re-tasted 3 Mar 2010)

Carmey Avdat, Merlot, 2006: Dark ruby towards royal purple, medium- to full-bodied, with still gripping tannins and generous wood influences but those in good balance with fruits and acidity. On the nose and palate berries, cherries, cassis and appealing chocolate and peppery overlays that linger nicely. Drink now. Score 86. (Re-tasted 3 Mar 2010)

Carmey Avdat, Merlot, 2005: Holding even better than predicted at earlier tastings. Showing ruby-towards garnet with just the first hint of clearing at the rim but fully maintaining its freshness. Soft, gently caressing tannins, a light note of oak in the background and, on the nose and palate berry and black cherry fruits on a light herbal background. Drink now. Score 87. (Re-tasted 3 Mar 2010)

Rajum Winery

Located on the Tzsel HaMidbar Ranch at Mitzpe Ramon, which by any standards is one of the most exquisitely beautiful places on the planet, this small winery was founded in 2008 by Ziv Spector and Ilan Tifti. A new endeavor producing some 3000-3500 bottles annually from Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Shiraz and Pinot Noir grapes sourced from various Negev vineyards.

Rajum, Cabernet Sauvigjgnon, Arod, 2008: Oak aged for 12 months, opens with a somewhat medicinal aroma but that blows off quickly enough in the glass to reveal a medium- to full bodied wine, garnet in color with blackcurrant and blackberry fruits on a background that hints of sea salt and earthy minerals. Drink now. Score 84. (Tasted 3 Mar 2010)

Rajum, Merlot, Ardon, 2008: Dark garnet, medium-bodied, with chunky tannins that give the wine a rustic note. Developed in oak for 8 months, shows a somewhat bitter note that tends to hide the black fruits that struggle to make themselves felt. Drink now. Score 80. (Tasted 3 Mar 2010)
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Michael J

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Re: Travels in the Negev Desert - Visiting 7 Boutique Wineries

by Michael J » Sat Mar 06, 2010 4:30 pm

After conducting such a varied tasting of wines of the Negev, would you say that there are any characteristics common throughout these wines? Anything distinctly Negev?
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Daniel Rogov

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Re: Travels in the Negev Desert - Visiting 7 Boutique Wineries

by Daniel Rogov » Sat Mar 06, 2010 4:39 pm

Michael, Hi....

Two major things come to mind:

(a) Because of rapid ripening in the desert, until recently a far too high alcohol content in many of these wines. That, thankfully, is being reduced in the name of elegance.

(b) Perhaps not in direct relationship to the terroir (but then again, perhaps yes) but in many of the Negev wines a note of garrigue (I have referred to that specifically as tumbleweed in several of my notes) as well as hints of sea water or salty minerals. That is not, by the way, to be taken as a negative. Something akin perhaps to adding a pinch of salt to a sweet cake or fruit-based dessert to highlight the sweetness and the natural flavors of the ingredients.

(c) Zvi Remak, truly the father of the Negev wineries, planted his first vines I believe in 1997 and others much later than that. It is a well known axiom that many vines will give their best grapes only if they have to "suffer". These vines are still young and my guess is that after they suffer for another 5 - 10 years (and in suffering their roots will sink very deep indeed) we will see remarkable improvement in the quality of the Negev grapes and wines.

Best
Rogov

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