Friday, 1 January 2016

Stern Winery - boutique wine that rocks and rolls

Though Israel's modern wine industry is rather young, recent decades since the fall of the monopoly have marked tremendous progress. These days the number of boutique wineries is estimated to be at least 250.

The wines are or varying quality and I have heard criticism about how amateurs, having made their fortunes in other endeavours just decide to turn their hobby into a career with no formal qualifications or the extensive experience courtesy of being born into a wine-making family that's been mastering their craft for generations. 

I, on the other hand, have found it remarkably joyous to encounter people like that: people whose creative craziness and courage to pursue their passion could serve as an inspiration to many of us. The wine-makers I met in Latvia are great examples of these (A guy dreaming of his own Pinot Noir? Just click hereLeprachaun turning birch sap to sparkling wine? Just see here)

Those who can, do, those who can't teach. You live, you learn. No-one is born a master. Clichés, maybe, but with some serious truth to them. Passion and dedication alone don't automatically translate into great results (or wine...) , but sometimes that does happen. 

One of the Israeli wineries one of my minions (yes! I have my very own minions!) highly recommended I visit was Stern Winery, where I was eventually fortunate enough to secure a visit on my way from Akko to Nazareth.

Located in the middle of Galilee wine country, at Kibbutz Tuval less than a 10-minute-drive from Carmiel, Stern was only founded a little more than a decade a go, but has managed to amass an impressive haul of Israeli and international awards. 

The man behind the wines is Johnny Stern, whose passion for his wines is every bit as giant as his stature (quite literally - the man's about 8 feet tall!)

Raised in Brazil and of Austrian-Polish descent, Johnny looks more like a rugby player. His rock star-like charisma is definitely not dimmed by the ring tone his mobile phone steadily breaks into: Rolling Stone's "Can't get no satisfaction". 

Love of good wine is something that both Johnny and his business partner Roni Landau share. They both made careers in chemical industry, but wine-making is actually something Johnny's been dabbling in for decades - with uncompromising attention to detail, Roni later confesses. 

Johnny hand-picks the right yeast for each variety (currently they use 8 different yeasts, compared to 2-3 that average boutique wineries use ) as well as the oak used for aging the wine (both French and American barrels are employed). All the reds (apart from Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve) spend 13 months in oak. 

Ronny is the more quiet one of the two with a teddy bear-like charm, but together they make a team whose stories about their travels (like their epic visit to Château Margaux) has the audience in stitches. 

Reds constitute the majority of the production here, too, for a number of reasons. The grape varieties used are Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Petit Verdot, Cabernet Franc and Merlot, though the latter is only used in blends. "We did have a go with 100% Merlot once" Johnny admits laughing. "Didn't like it."

White grapes are harder to find and there isn't much demand for them among the Israeli public, Johnny explains. The only white in their portfolio is Sauvignon Blanc, rather a recent addition and only launched in 2012. It is a nice wine: the bouquet has lovely freshness combined with a whiff of petroley notes reminiscent of New World Rieslings. Overall a very balanced specimen. 

The winery is very much a family business and the children and their friends are drafted in the harvest. 

And when ever a particularly excellent blend has been created, they've been named after the owners' children and grandchildren (why couldn't I have been born into a wine-making family? Why?

Rotem is a classic Bordeaux blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot (50%-36%-8%-6% in 2012 bottle I sampled ) and it's also one of the most award-winning wines of the winery.

Notes of ripe dark berries, but owing to its tannins with rather a dry finish. According to my notes I liked this one, too. To the point I've  emphatically underlined the verb "liked". 

Peleg 2011 (40% Syrah, 35% Cabernet Sauvignon, 25% Merlot) had warmth and hints of liquorice. Rather tight tannins but again, a balanced wine.

Syrah's (87% Syrah, 13% Cabernet Sauvignon) bouquet was full of seductively soft notes of ripe berries, but tannins were harder I'd expected, accompanied by gentle pepperiness and cooling mintiness. 

At this point of the journey (and an excellent day) there was no point even dreaming of making it out of the country with just my carry on luggage, so I cave and brought back these favourites of mine. 

Petit Verdot 2013

I can't say I have had much experience in 100% Petit Verdots. This is coincidentally Johnny's own personal favourite and also in the top 2 of our tasting party. The dark colour borders on black, the earthy bouquet is followed by freshness with notes eucalyptus producing a light and pleasant wine not heavy on tannins. 

Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve 2012

This is hands down the most prestigious wine of the winery with the most accolades and the overall favourite of our group as well. 15 months in French oak has produced an earthy wine with notes of dark berries, which, after breathing for a while, bursts with spiciness, herbs and eucalyptus. A very fine, well-balanced wine. 

Cabernet Franc 2013

One of the greatest discoveries of the weeks I spent in Israel this time was Cabernet Franc. It was my favourite already at Tishbi, but this, awarded as the best in the country, really did it for me. Stern is actually the first winery in the country to make 100% Cabernet Franc. 

There's pleasant, lingonberry-like tartness on the nose followed by pepper and even leathery earthiness. I immediately thought of pairing it with dishes with (roasted) peppers, but Johnny actually hinted it would make a good pairing with shellfish dishes with coriander. 

Matching food with good wines is Johnny's passion, too and the winery regularly hosts dinners, where he himself in charge of cooking. I unfortunately had to pass on the next one as I had to return to Finland. Now, looking back into the dark, cold night I can't come up with a single reason for that. 

Towards the highly entertaining tasting I witnessed one of the most comic discussions of my entire trip. As we were talking, comparing notes and recounting our personal favourites, one of the members in the party, a religious Jew, pointed out how Stern's wines don't have a kosher certificate. "So, unfortunaly I can't drink", he explained to the rest of the group. "You know, for religious reasons".

Two Turkish members of the group nodded understandingly. "Neither can we", they chimed in. "For religious reasons." Then they smiled cheerfully and poured themselves another glass of Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve. Priceless. 

The grapes used come from 6 carefully chosen vinyards in Upper Galilee and Golan heights, featuring basalt, terra rossa and limestone soil.

Annual production is 25 000 bottles, but the small scale of this whole operation really sinks in in the backroom of the winery where, so to speak, all the magic happens. None of it goes to export - all the wine is sold either on the premises, in boutiques and in top notch restaurants around the country. 

If you can't get here yourself, at least Wine Bar 107 in Haifa carries a good selection of Stern's wines. 

Quality comes with a price tag though - prices at boutique wineries routinely start at $30 a bottle. But if I had to choose between 3 Gato Negros and one of these babies...I know which one would get my vote...and money.

As usual, my minions were right - definitely worth a visit - day here was one of the absolute highlights of my trip!




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