Tzora Winery: Wines that Blend, Not Bludgeon
Given the excellence of the Tzora Winery and it’s evolution of the last few years, it’s a crying shame that the last time I profiled the winery was back in 2009 – a calamity I am remedying today with this post as substantial and significant changes have occurred in the last three years at Tzora. The majority of them are extremely positive and Tzora is a kosher winery that everyone wine aficionado should be familiar with.
Tzora was founded in 1993 and is located on Kibbutz Tzora in the Judean Hills, producing approximately 80,000 bottles a year with an expectation to grow to around 100,000 over the next three years as many of its new vineyards come online. After years of multiple and confusing labels, the winery has consolidated into four series of wines, each named for the land from which it was produced (more on that below). The winery’s flagship wine – Misty Hills – is a Bordeaux-like blend, produced only in better vintage years from the best grapes the winery’s Shoresh vineyard has to offer. The Shoresh and Neve Ilan wines are single vineyard wines, with Shoresh being the higher-end of the two. The Judean Hills wine rounds out the portfolio and is meant for early drinking. The Judean Hills wine is a blend of grapes selected from among the winery’s diverse vineyards (the winery only utilizes between 35-50% of its grapes every year on its approximately 350 dunam, selecting the absolute best and selling the rest of its recognized high-quality grapes to other wineries). The winery also produces an exceptional dessert wine “Or”, made in the “Icewine style“.
Another welcome development for Tzora has been their retention of a new importer – Michael Skurnik Wines (previously, importation into the United States was handled by Richard Shaffer of Israeli Wine Direct) and, while Richard did a great job for years, availability was spotty. Skurnik is a renowned and world-class importer, with an insanely carefully curated selection of smaller
estate wineries into which Tzora fits perfectly. While current availability is still limited and Tzora only exports approximately 8% of their production to the US, hopefully we will see more of their wines on our shores on a more consistent basis.
Ronnie James was a near mythological figure within the Israeli wine industry who was considered the father of the terroir movement, focusing on terroir – the importance of the land, soil and micro-climate where the grapes are grown to the finished product, long before it became fashionable in Israel and spent years analyzing and determining the different effect varied plots of land had the different varietals. Originally from Egypt where his British-born parents settled, Ronnie’s family moved to Israel and he eventually settled in Kibbutz Tzora where he was in charge of the kibbutz’s many vineyards, whose grapes were sold to other Israeli wineries, primarily Carmel. After delighting in the wines produced from his grapes, Ronnie was determined to produce wine on his own and convinced the kibbutz to allow him to start a winery at a time when there were only a few wineries in Israel (including Carmel, Golan Heights Winery and two of the first boutique wineries which started up around the same time – Margalit and Castel). Ronnie passed away in 2008 and the winery team today consists of Winemaker Eran Pick, CEO Uri Ran, Vineyard Manager Dor James (Ronnie’s son) and most recently Jean-Claude Berrout, the former winemaker of the mythical Château Pétrus, who has been a consultant for the winery for the last two years (more on that below).
With the exception of Dor who has been working with the winery for years (who returned from a potential career in the life sciences as to the winery in full capacity when his father got ill), the entire team is relatively knew, with the knowledgeable and infectiously enthusiastically Eran being the one with the longest tenure. Educated at UC Davis in California (after spending a few years in New York taking wine courses), with stints in Napa Valley, Bordeaux and Australia; Eran was recruited by Ronnie with the assistance of Recanati’s Gil Shatsberg. Eran abandoned a gig in Napa to come work for Ronnie after falling in love with Ronnie, the winery and the potential he recognized there. The duo had two harvests together before Eran took over full time after Ronnie’s passing. While his education is from the dominantly New-World UC Davis, Eran is really an updated Old World winemaker and it shows in his wines which are, in a word – exceptional. After a hi-tech career and a brief stint as an importer of Bordeaux wines, the über-professional Uri was recruited in 2008 to take over as CEO and he tends to be involved in the winemaking process as well. After 44 harvests at Pétrus, Jean-Claude remains a consultant to the varied Mouix family wineries (owners of Château Pétrus), and consults to wineries in California liked the famed Dominus Estate winery and also has a couple wineries of his own. After being “recruited” by Eran, he consults to Eran in connection with the harvesting, blending and other winemaking aspects. While the Tzora team was pretty unstoppable before Jean-Claude’s arrival, they are now a winemaking powerhouse, producing incredible wines, well-worthy of your attention.
Together with the management overhaul, the winery’s new owner – Nathan (“Natan”) Hevrony – provided a substantial capital infusion, allowing the winery to overhaul it’s operations, acquire and plant new vineyards and make long-term plans for the future, which include relocating the winery to a brand new facility in Shoresh, where the majority of the winery’s vineyards will be for years to come. Recent years have seen the winery move away from its famous “Givat HaChalukim” vineyard (from which the last vintage was in 2008) to focusing on its Neve Ilan and Shoresh vineyards, with the higher-quality and elevated Shoresh vineyards expected to provide the bulk of Tzora’s wines in the future. The winery has recently planted substantial plantings (nearly 85 dunam) of more Rhone grapes that are most suited for Israel’s Mediterranean climate including Syrah, Mourvedre, Petite Verdot and Sauvignon Blanc in the Shoresh vineyards, and expects the majority of its future wines to come from Shoresh.
The winery’s wine making philosophy is clear – to extract the best wine possible from the grape grown in the most appropriate terroir (i.e. follow the land’s lead). The winery invests a ton of time, effort and experimentation in determining the most appropriate plot (or sub-plot) of land for any particular grape and then goes about making the best wine they can from the resulting harvest. This triangular partnership between the land, the vine and the winemaker is so central to the winery’s existence; it is encapsulated on their recently redesigned labels which show Ronnie tending to a vine growing out of a patch of earth. With nearly every spontaneous wine purchase being driven by the label in recent years, having a eye-catching label with clean lines in of immense importance and Tzora has it. Another clear implementation of the winery’s philosophy is the labeling of the wines by the vineyard or origin of the wine (i.e. Shoresh, Judean Hills, etc.) as opposed to the more traditional Israeli and New World method of using the varietal (i.e. Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, etc.). Even the winery’s flagship “Misty Hills” is an allusion to the unique terroir from which it was derived which contains large shifts between hot and cold weather and a substantial amount of morning fog. While Eran, Uri and Dor passionately believe in this philosophy, recent vintages have shown that Eran has taken the wines to a whole new level of elegance and sophistication managing to combine New-World rich fruit (without having too much ripeness or oak) with the subdued elegance, terroir-driven mentality of France, whose wines have characteristic minerality, good acidity (from relatively early picking) and near-perfect balance.
While the 2008 and 2009 vintages show marked improvement, clearly showing Eran’s talent and evolution as a winemaker, the biggest change is experienced with the 2010 harvest, the first in which Jean-Claude played a part. To date, I have only tasted the two white wines from this harvest which are noted below and they are both incredible wine I wish I could sip all summer long (despite their new partnership with Skurnik, availability in the United States is still limited so get as much as you can). Two additional 2010 wines (Red Shoresh and Judean Hills), together with the 2009 Misty Hills, the 2011 Neve Ilan Blanc and the 2011, were scheduled for release on May 25th and I have a few of each winging their way to me from Israel. Based on the 2008 vintage, I recommend you buy every bottle of the 2011 “Or” you can lay your hands on.
In my opinion, Tzora is well on its way to becoming one of Israel’s best wineries and I highly recommend tracking down some bottles and finding out for yourself. While it isn’t searching for a Mediterranean persona per se, Tzora easily takes its place as an Israeli winery representing the new and exciting direction of the Israeli wine industry, joining Carmel, Recanati and others on this great journey. So, grab a glass and hop on!
Tzora, Neve Ilan, Blanc, 2010: This 100% Chardonnay wine is medium bodied with a near translucently pale gold color. Plenty of tart green apple, fresh tropical fruit and steely minerality coexist nicely on the aromatic nose and palate, with a hint of toasty oak from the 9 months the wine spent Sur-Lie in a combination of 70% new and old French oak and 30% stainless steel tanks, with nicely balancing acidity keeping the fruit and wood in perfect balance. The wine didn’t go through malolactic fermentation allowing it to retain most of its natural refreshing acidity. A really refreshing wine I intend to enjoy all summer long and recommend you do the same. Drink now or over the next 9-12 months.
Tzora, Shoresh, Blanc, 2010: Utilizing the amazing Gewürztraminer grapes from the Shoresh vineyard used in 2008 for the incredible “Or” dessert wine reviewed below, this tantalizing dry wine is made from 85% Gewürztraminer and 15% Chardonnay and was not aged in oak at all. A huge bouquet of honey and heather, accompanied by tropical fruit including peaches and mango. The Chardonnay that brings a mineral bent to the wine, together with good acidity that keeps the characteristically-true lychee notes nicely in check and a pleasing round mouthfeel with 14% alcohol. Much of the same fruit and minerals on the medium-bodied yielded another near-perfect wine, perfect for the warmer months ahead and a[nother] clear testament to Eran’s talent and adherence to the mantra of terroir. Drink now through 2013.
Tzora, Judean Hills, 2009: A blend of 72% Cabernet Sauvignon, 18% Merlot and 10% Syrah from the Neve Ilan and Shoresh vineyards which was aged in French oak for 12 months; this medium to full-bodied wine has plenty of black fruit and herbal notes on its rich nose, in addition to the characteristically Tzora earthy minerality, combined with some smoky oak leading into a mouth coating palate of ripe black fruit back by a bold tannic structure, together with some light green notes and bakers chocolate. A nice long finish laden with more fruit and some oak tinged with coffee and chocolate rounds out this wine. While drinking nicely now, another few months would make it better, after which it should cellar nicely through 2014, maybe longer.
Tzora, Shoresh, Red, 2009: A full bodied blend of 46% Syrah, 35% Cabernet Sauvignon and 19% Merlot aged in French oak for 16 months. If you want hands-on (or “mouth-on”) proof for Tzora’s philosophy that the land is the dominant factor in the wine, try comparatively tasting the Shoresh wine from the 2008 and 2009 vintage side by side. Despite being comprised of a different blend than the 2008 vintage (which was 90% Cabernet Sauvignon and 10% Syrah), these are clearly the “same” wine (not necessarily the same taste, but the two wines share many of the same style and taste characteristics). Plenty of rich black fruit on the nose and palate including currents, blackberries and cherries with a smoky overlay of subtle oak, a good spike of minerals and some green herbal notes. Nice spicy notes and a lingering finish round out this wine that is drinking nicely now and should cellar through 2016.
Tzora, Or, 2008: The 2006 Or was Eran’s first wine that was all “his” and the 2008 is a limited edition wine (1625 bottles) that is only sold at the winery and was made in the “Icewine style” (for more of the process and other awesome Israeli dessert wines, please see this post). Made from 100% Gewurztraminer grapes from the Shoresh vineyard and with a surprisingly low 13% alcohol level, this medium bodied wine is loaded with rich notes of tropical fruit including pineapples, mango and guava with a nice note of pear, together with honey and heather, some lychee notes and a pleasing, characteristically-true, spiciness. The wine has enough acidity to keep the sweetness in check and light mineral undertones that add some additional complexity to this deliciously sweet treat. While the wine will continue to improve through 2018, it’s pretty hard to resist opening and enjoying right now [Shmittah].
Tzora, Misty Hills, 2007: I have not written about this winery in over two years and it’s long overdue for some serious exposure on these pages. This will be rectified in a few weeks with a Tzora newsletter as I had the great opportunity to spend some quality time with Uri (managing Partner) and Eran (wine maker) on my recent trip and, in addition to tasting a nice selection of their wines, got some nice details on the wines and winery to be shared soon. The highly qualified flagship wine, a rich and full bodied blend of Cabernet Sauvignon (70%) and Syrah (30%) that really gets the juices flowing on any self-respecting wine lover. A ripe and juicy nose of rich red fruit that turns to back after a bit starts with raspberries, gooseberries and currants together with cherries and plums and then brings forth rich blackberries and black currents tinged with earthy minerals, warm spices that follow through onto a layered and loaded palate of more rich fruit, warm spices and a bit of good dark chocolate. Despite the relatively high 15% alcohol, there is no heat to be found and the once muscular tannins have integrated nicely providing a solid backbone to the inviting medley of fruit, spice and oak. Drinking perfectly right now the wine will likely last through 2015 or so.