Yesterday afternoon (Sunday, 14 March), together with a group of journalists I made my way to the Makura Ranch on the western slopes of Mount Carmel there to visit and make a tasting at Amphorae winery.
Set in the green and luxuriant mouth of a long-dormant volcano on the western slopes of Mount Carmel, the winery was founded in 2000, and with Gil Shatzberg as winemaker quickly emerged as one of the most promising and interesting wineries in the country. Under Shatzberg's leadership the winery released wines in four series, the top of the line Amphorae Reserve, the regular Amphorae releases, the wines in the Rhyton series and those labeled Med.Red or Med.Blend. The first three series are age-worthy, and the Med.Red and Med.Blend wines were meant for youthful consumption. In early 2008, the talented Shatzberg left Amphorae and took on the role of senior winemaker at the Recanati winery. Despite that, the wines released in what one might think of as "the Shatzberg era" will continue to be noted in my book so long as they are still drinking well and quite a few of them continue to drink very well indeed.
All of which is only the beginning of the story of the current status of Amphorae for which, with apologies, the story is fairly convoluted.
For several months after Shatzberg left, Amphorae was run largely by his assistant winemaker and was then purchased by a group led by David Bar-Ilan of the Keshet winery. Bar-Ilan, who was in the process of establishing a winery in Migdal HaEmek and was working with Arkadi Papikian as a consultant, sold nearly all of the equipment in the existing Amphorae winery, installed his own equipment and undertook major renovations (e.g. expanding the barrel cellars and raising the roof over the room holding the stainless steel fermentation tanks). As to the equipment, there is what one can only think of as a phenomenal assortment of stainless steel tanks, all thoroughly modern but so broad in design that at least I wonder just why so many different styles are required.
Nor is that the end of the story, for not too long after that the winery changed hands again and was taken over by major investor Vladimir Dubov. Papikian became the senior winemaker and a partner in the winery. Also taken in as a partner was Guy Rilov who controls the land on the Makura Ranch. Rilov is also involved in the raising of fruits and vegetables on the ranch, those holding to the strictest standards of organic farming. As to the intricacies of just which of the partners has what percentage of what and as to whom may or may not be silent partners in all of this – these details are not known nor are they of interest to me. What is of interest to me are the wines.
Related to all of this is that starting with the 2009 vintage, world-renowned French winemaker-consultant Michel Rolland will be giving input to the winery. For those not fully in the know, Rolland owns (to the best of my count) six wineries in Bordeaux. He also has joint ventures in South Africa, Spain and Argentina. Perhaps even more significant - he consults to more than two hundred wineries in thirteen different countries.
Among Amphorae's now stated goals is the production of wines of extraordinary quality that will compete with the best of the world. The choice of Rolland as a consultant is an interesting one, for he is known not only as a good friend of critic Robert Parker but as a winemaker whose wines are often high in alcohol, loaded with wood and very fruit forward. At times he is also a proponent of the somewhat controversial use of micro-oxidation, a process that can make wines softer, rounder and more easily approachable at an early age despite their intensity.
The three wines now being released are from the 2006 vintages and are in a new series entitled Unica, that label being used to represent the flagship wines of the winery. Although these wines were made by David Bar-Ilan during his days at Keshet (a winery that never released a wine to the market), they carry the Amphorae label. As well as I can understand, the word unica derives from Spanish and can be taken to mean either "unique" or "extraordinary".
Because these wines were made before the current winemaker had full control, I think it important to realize that these releases and even the 2008 barrel samples that I tasted may not accurately predict the future direction of the winery. That future will be determined only starting with the 2009 vintage with the winemaker and his French consultant finally fully in charge. Current and near-future releases are estimated at between 50,000-60,000 bottles annually. The 2006 wines reviewed were tasted both at the event and then this morning blind in my own tasting room. What I cannot do is predict drinking windows for these wines, that because of the lack of track record and what I find a rather heavy handed use of wood and alcohol. I will return to each of these wines a year from now.
My thanks for their courtesies during my visit to Arkadi Papikian, Guy Rilov and the staff of the winery that was at hand.
The 2006 Releases
Amphorae, Cabernet Sauvignon, Unica, 2006: Made entirely from Cabernet Sauvignon grapes from the Psagot and Manara vineyards and aged for 28 months in French wood barrels of 300 and 500 liters. Full-bodied, deeply extracted and with firm tannins that seem not to want to settle down. Showing dark garnet, showing blackberries and spicy oak on the nose, and on the palate generous ripe blackcurrants and blackberries, the fruits coming under the influence of a perhaps too heavy hand with the oak and an alcohol content of 15.3% that leaves a too hot note on the finish. Not an elegant wine but one that will appeal to those who like their wines muscular and intense. NIS 325. Score 86. (Tasted twice with consistent notes 14 and 15 Mar 2010)
Amphorae, Syrah- Merlot-Cabernet Sauvignon, Unica, 2006: A blend of 45% Syrah, 35% Merlot and 20% Cabernet Sauvignon, developed for 28 months in 300 and 500 liter French oak, the grapes from Kfar Yuval. Dark ruby towards garnet, opens with a medicinal hit on the nose, that passing fairly quickly unlike the almost searing tannins and generous wood that linger and tend to dominate the black fruits and saddle leather that are here. A true blockbuster. NIS 275. Score 85. (Tasted twice with consistent notes 14 and 15 Mar 2010)
Amphorae, Merlot-Barbera, Unica, 2006: Dark garnet, remarkably full-bodied and tannic considering the blend 83% Merlot and 17% Barbera). A wine that seems to have gone wrong somewhere along the way, showing abundance of too-gripping tannins, alcoholic heat, sweet cedar, sawdust and herbal notes all of which tend to hide the fruits that struggle to make themselves felt. NIS 275. Score 85. (Tasted twice with consistent notes 14 and 15 Mar 2010)
The 2008 Barrel Tastings
Amphorae, Cabernet Sauvignon, Unica, 2008 (Barrel Tasting): Dark garnet, full-bodied, with generous sweet and spicy wood and firm, near biting tannins, opening slowly to reveal traditional Cabernet blackberry and blackcurrant fruits, those complemented by notes of cigar tobacco. Muscular and with a note of alcoholic heat on the finish. Drink from release. Tentative Score 85-87 (Tasted 14 Mar 2010)
Amphorae, Syrah-Merlot-Cabernet Sauvignon, Unica, 2008 (Barrel Tasting): Abundant spicy wood, firm tannins and alcohol that adds a simultaneously hot and sweet note. Showing appealing red fruits and spices but the elements not yet integrated. Perhaps better with time. Drink from release. Tentative Score 84-86. Tasted 14 Mar 2010)
Amphorae, Merlot-Barbera, Unica, 2008 (Barrel Tasting): Deep, dark and concentrated with generous fruits and spicy wood on the nose. Opens to reveal an appealing flavor array of raspberries, cassis and sweet cedar, those with hints of ginger and cigar tobacco. Drink from release. Tentative Score 85-87. (Tasted 14 Mar 2010)