When we first arrive at Domaine du Castel, I wonder if we’d come to a winery or a construction site. Turns out it’s both.
Nosing our rental car down the dirt driveway – past piles of building wood, siding layers and debris – we come to a paved parking lot in the center of several clean modern buildings and I realize we are not lost. This is the new home of Domaine du Castel.
We could not have found the winery without our new favorite app, Waze, which guided us through a labyrinth of over passes and underpasses around Highway 1 which leads from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
We’re here to meet with Talya Kessler, Director of Marketing, who gives us the lay of the land here in the Judean Hills.
Standing on a terrace between the office building and the visitors center, overlooking a verdant ravine, she points out that on the hill to the northeast is the Ma’ale Hahamisha kibbutz and nearby is an Arab village, Abu Ghosh. (Less than a kilometer from there lies the border of the West Bank.) To the south, is Telse Stone, a high-rise residential complex for Ultra-Orthodox Jews.
Next door on the south side of the winery, sits a TV Station. On the winery’s north side is Yad Hashmona, a community founded by Finnish Christians in 1971 to make amends for eight Jewish Fins turned over to the Gestapo by the Finnish government, all but one of whom died in the Holocaust.
Talk about a multi-culti neighborhood.
As one of the oldest wineries of Israel’s modern winemaking era, we learn how Domaine du Castel was originally established a few kilometers south of here, but the winery grew out of that converted chicken coop.
“This facility is not yet open to the public,” Talya says. “So you are some of our first visitors.”
For once, I was ahead of the game!
History of Domaine du Castel
Domaine du Castel was founded by Eli Ben Zaken and his wife Monique, Italians who moved to Israel soon after the Six Day War in 1967. They opened an Italian restaurant, Momma Mia’s in Jerusalem, where they poured imported wine. But they always wanted to sell local Israeli wine.
So, in 1988 they planted grapes on their Judean Hills homestead and crushed their first harvest of cabernet and merlot in 1992 in the stable next to the chicken coop. The winery is named for a nearby crusaders fortress, or “castle.” And with typical Israeli chutzpa, Ben Zaken called the wine “Grand Vin” and translated “Judean Hills” into “Haute-Judée.
A chance delivery of his 1992 Grand Vin to Serena Sutcliffe MW, Head of Sotheby’s Wine Department in London, and her response provided all the encouragement Ben Zaken needed to surge ahead.
“This wine is a real tour de force, brilliantly made and very “classic…I hope others take the hint and learn how to do it,” Sutcliffe wrote in 1995.
Now, their three grown children are involved in the winery and they’ve moved to this fresh new facility. Still, Talya says they plan to maintain their 300,000 bottle production level.
Keeping it kosher
Domaine du Castel is a kosher winery, which means the wine is made according to strict religious and dietary laws by Sabbath-observant Jews. So going on a cellar tour means touching nothing, not one little tank. To enter the winery, Talya had to have an observant cellar hand come and unlock the giant double doors for us.
Did Talya know how klutzy my husband is? Would he ruin a vintage just by rubbing against a tank? Would the god squad would be summoned to bring the equipment back to its former state of grace?
Actually, it’s nothing like that, Tayla assures us. Should we come into contact with a barrel of wine, “the barrel might be considered “non kosher,” not to be mixed with the Kosher batches. But, there is still a degree of discretion that the chief Rabbi should apply.”
Good to know, but I still warn Bill about getting too close to anything.
The inside of this “factory” is like a wine cathedral. Instead of organ pipes stood tall stainless steel tanks reaching heavenward toward the peaked ceiling. Inlaid in the walls at both ends of the ceiling is stained glass coats of arms depicting the wineries logo with three stars: the crusader’s Castel, the lion symbolizing the Hebrew tribe of Judah, and the stars representing the Ben Zaken’s children who will inherit the winery.
One interesting piece of equipment Talya shows us is an Optical Sorter to separate good grapes from bad. The winemaker programs the grape’s criteria into the computer, right down to the exact size, weight, sugar, defects, and color of the berries. As they roll by on a conveyer belt under a video camera, a burst of air pressure shoots the unwanted fruit through a trap.
I had to restrain myself from stroking its burnished side.
The winery also has at least three different-sized stainless steel tanks to allow for separate fermentations of different plots of grapes. They stack small tanks above the larger ones to use for experimental vintages.
Then, Talya takes us down to the barrel room below the winery.
Again, in a room as yet unseen by the outside world, I feel we are like Raiders of the Lost Ark. The cave is two levels high and from the overlooking mezzanine, it appears the size of an Olympic swimming pool. And, it’s not even full!
At the back of the cellar stands a corner of rectangular cement tanks. These are used for their red wines Talya explains. Cement is an ancient technology being made new with the au currant use of egg-shaped concrete tanks.
Cement allows the wine to breathe during aging without absorbing the woody flavors of a barrel. Also, cement remains completely stationary, which allows the wine to age more gracefully. Unlike a lot of wine drinkers anyway.
Back in the well-appointed visitors center, we sit down in plump leather chairs where Talya has set out the wines with a selection of cheeses and crackers.
We start with the La Vie Blanc du Castel, a lovely blend of sauvignon blanc, chardonnay and gewürztraminer, cold fermented in all stainless steel. This was their first vintage and released only the week before.
“It’s a big thing for us,” she said. “After 24 years, making four types of wines, this is the 5th.” Although “Le Vie” means “The Life” in French, it’s used as “The Lion” in Hebrew. So, a play on words that connects with their theme.
What a big nose of sunny tropical fruit and lemons in that blend! Bright pineapple and mango on the palate with a twist of acidity and surprisingly complexity, finishing long with notes of orange and lemon. At 89 schekels ($33 CN) I decide to take home some of this.
The Rosé du Castel 2015 is ready, but it hasn’t been bottled yet. So Talya asks a cellar hand to pull a glass from the tank for us.
It’s a blend of merlot, malbec, and cab franc with an intriguing salmon color. The nose is a little shy, but hinted of watermelon. Flavors of fresh pink grapefruit and strawberries burst from the soft mouth, and it finishs clean and long with notes of strawberry and roses. A gorgeous summertime wine.
The chardonnay is called “C” Blanc du Castel. The 2014 Talya pours is the last of the vintage with the 2015 to be released in July. She tells us it was aged in an combination of 1 and 2 year-old oak barrels, starting with 4 months of battanage (stirring the dead yeast cells or lees) for more creaminess. It gets malo-lactic treatment (injected with lactic acid for softness) in barrel and 12 months sur lee (where it sits on the dead yeast cells). After that, it’s blended with the other barrel.
C starts with big aromatics of nuts and oak that continues on the creamy rich mouth, combining with round pear, apple and caramel flavors, all well balanced with the oak. The finish is long and leesy with more toasty apple notes. Really elegant.
With exports to North America, France, England, Italy and Asia, their main selling point is certainly the kosher aspect, Talya admits.
“But we’re looking for it to be everywhere for its high quality, not just for kosher. Eli is a passionate Zionist, and to him making good wine is one of the best way to introduce Israel to the rest of the world.”
Getting a 94 score from critic Robert Parker for Grand Vin was a real high point for them.
We move on to the Petit Castel 2014, a classic Bordeaux blend of cabernet sauvignon, merlot, petite verdot, cab franc and malbec. This was the first wine to go through the cement tank process. Two months in cement and 14 months in oak.
Its nose shouts cedar and blackberries ahead of the palate, which unfolds with deeply concentrated blackberry and black cherry, spice and a hint of graphite followed by a nip of acidity. The finish is long and dry and black feeling. At 123 shekels ($43), I could go for this wine.
Petit Castel is the wine Domaine du Castel is best known for. It gets more positioning in restaurants, and is featured on El Al flights and I can see why. It’s a superbly balanced, drink young kind of red wine. A crowd pleaser.
And it paired well with the camembert cheese we’d been offered.
Finally, the Grand Vin, the wine that started it all. This wine has a similar blend as the Petit, but is made with the best grapes from the best plots. It’s aged in only new barrels for 20 months.
The 2012 Grand Vin has a big nose of ripe fruit, cedar and peppers. In the soft mouth it’s a fruit bowl of dense black, red and purple fruits, with notes of pepper, all very well balanced and integrated with the oak. The body is chewy and the tannins supple, and the finish goes on forever with pepper and blackberries. Super decadent. At 214 shekles ($85 CN) I wished I had the budget for it.
We are so blown away by the quality of the wine and those delicious cheeses that it isn’t until we say our good-byes and stumble to our rental car that I realize, hey I forgot to buy some wine!
I hustle back into the reception of the office building and ask the receptionist for a bottle each of the La Vie Blanc du Castel and the Petit Castel.
Here’s how new this winery is: to get the wines she has to walk across the courtyard to the bottling room and bring them back for me.
I’m sure that by the time the summer season is open, the visitors center will be well stocked and ready for sales.
After that, we drive off to our next appointment, to the South and deeper in the hills, to Seahorse winery. But that’s a story for another post.