Golan Heights - the French-style Israeli winery which is hitting the heights
English wine lovers will have to go the extra mile to taste Chateau Golan’s excellent products
Chateau Golan is one of Israel’s top wineries, but also one of the country’s best-kept secrets. It is just down the road from the huge Golan Heights Winery, where Israel’s premium wine industry was born. But apart from the fabulous fertile soil of the Golan and the fact both make wonderful wines, they are as different as chalk and cheese.
While its famous neighbour was born in the 1980s and developed a functional, hi-tech industrial site, Chateau Golan is a relative newcomer ,housed in a building created unashamedly in the style of a typical French winery. There are pillars, panelling and beautiful gardens punctuated with neo-classical stone benches.
Is the styling a ploy to get the punters in? Perhaps, as winery visits and events are at the heart of Chateau Golan’s marketing. Other than this, the winery does little to court publicity or to market its wines. It sells direct rather than working with distributors, and chooses not to enter its wines into competitions which could win it international trophies.
“Our reputation has spread through word of mouth,” explains co-founder Shuki Shai, a London-based businessman who has invested heavily in Chateau Golan. “We may not work the way others do, but we sell out of most of our production.” Favourable endorsements by the late great wine critic, Daniel Rogov, who made a point of visiting the winery annually to taste the latest vintages, have not hurt.
Although Brits can buy Chateau Golan directly from the winery and get the wine delivered to their door, they will have to go to Israel if they want to taste it first. The wine is listed by many of the country’s top restaurants — I last tasted it at legendary fish restaurant Mul Yam in Tel Aviv’s port, and it can also be found in wine shops.
Or you could arrange to visit the winery. One Israeli wine blogger had to dodge a helicopter bearing Russian guests on her last visit, but it was serene and peaceful when I went myself, with just the birdsong and flowers for company on a walk around the vineyards with winemaker Uri Hetz.
Hetz, who arrived at Chateau Golan in 2001, two years after it was established, became a partner in the operation three years later. A graduate of Oregon University in fermentation science, he continued his training at the respected Joseph Phelps winery in California’s Napa Valley and is a respecter of European wine-making traditions.
He has been responsible for planting many different grape varieties, as the company takes research and development very seriously. “We want to see what grows well here, although it takes four years of maturing to find out. We get rid of what doesn’t work,” says Shai, who believes that although most wineries in the world find it hard to make money, with its small £1 million turnover, Chateau Golan is one of Israel’s most profitable.
Bottles range from around £14.40 to nearly £90 at the cellar door, with cabernet sauvignon, merlot, syrah, sauvignon blanc single varieties and a few signature blends currently available.
Shai recommends his Geshem range of limited edition blends as an introduction to the winery’s offerings. “They are made from six distinctly Mediterranean varieties — grenache, mourvedre, syrah, roussanne, grenache blanc and viognier,” he explains.
The elegant white and rosé are young wines from the 2011 vintage, while the 2009 red — two-thirds grenache and one-third mourvedre — is aged for a year in French oak before being bottled. According to Rogov, it will continue to improve with age.
Although the winery seems skewed towards reds, with its Eliad blend and its cabernet, syrah and merlot Royal Reserves winning acclaim, Hetz is more likely to press his sauvignon blanc first on visitors to the winery: “If the Syrians attacked tomorrow, I would run out carrying a bottle in each hand — it’s my absolute favourite,” he laughs as we sip this beautiful fresh, elegant white wine.
Hetz has a rather charming take on the winery’s decision not to opt for the kosher certifications many Israeli wineries seek in order to appeal to the world’s Orthodox Jewish market and gain listings in Israel’s big hotels:
“For me, making wine is like creating a salad. If I can’t chop up my own cucumber, then half the fun is gone.”
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