I’m standing in the middle of what looks like a stone baby pool and staring down into what might be a toddler’s hot tub, also made of stone. The rim is uneven and broken in some places and the tub contains a layer of soil.
But this is no water park I’m snapping pictures of. It’s a 3000 year-old wine press once operated by the Canaanites of Biblical times.
This ancient wine press is located on the grounds of the modern Clos de Gat winery, in the Ayalon Valley in Israel’s premier wine making region, the Judean Hills.
Clos de Gat is a combination of French and Hebrew and translates to “en-clos-ure of winepress.”
We’re escorted to this spot behind the winery, close to the winemaker’s house, by office manager Limor Amoyal who says that people don’t usually come to see the press because of the barking dogs we’re hearing.
Indeed, when we arrived and were seeking a way into the winery, hidden from view by verdant shrubs and cactus, the first response we got was from these loudmouth canines who turn out to be puppy dogs when we meet them at the wine press.
It feels bizarre to stand on such an ancient wine artifact, like I’m damaging something valuable.
Just the week before I was admonished by a tour guide for standing on a wall in the mountaintop fortress of Masada. And here, we’re tromping on an even older antiquity as if it’s just a patio from the last century.
History runs deep in this country, even though it’s only about the size of New Jersey.
Above us hangs grapes on long arbors and we’re surrounded by thick stands of bougainvillea. Staring at the press under the warm March sun, I’m trying to imagine this stone pool being super clean and shiny, and loaded with wine grapes with a half dozen feet stomping lively to squeeze out the juice that runs into the stone cistern. Then, presumably that juice gets transferred to ceramic amphora for fermentation.
My husband, daughter, Limor and I return to the winery. Along the way we pass a vineyard just breaking out in blooms and a muster of peacock lunching on a watermelon. The air is warm and mild and the fragrance of orange blossom wafts on the breeze.
From this elevation we can see down the fertile Ayalon Valley and make out Tel Aviv in the distance. Across the front vineyard, a watchtower peaks out from behind trees, a relic from when the 1947 United Nations Partition Plan made this area a no-mans land. Limor tells us that one of the winery buildings was used as a headquarters by Yitzhak Rabin in 1948.
Since our visit was planned yet somewhat spontaneous, Limor does her best to accommodate us while the hospitality manager holds another tasting on the winery’s airy patio.
She seats us at a nearby table and pours us the Clos de Gat 2013 Chardonnay. I’m struck by its dark yellow color. The nose is honeyed and slightly minerally, likely due the amount of limestone in the local soil. Round warm flavors of apple pie, pear and honeysuckle dominate the palate and the finish is long and fruity. Impressive.
Limor continues to bring out bottles for us to taste. She brings an unlabeled bottle of the 2013 Sycra Chardonnay. Sycra, which means “dark” in Aramaic, is their top-end line of wines, made only when highest quality grapes are in their peak form.
This chardonnay – pulled from the barrel – is dark gold and vividly so. Big aromas include a note of petrol and hint of oxide. The fruit is cooked apple and marzipan on a rich, full body. Still a little muddled, I’m thinking it needs time.
Then she pours us the 2006 Muscat, a rare, fortified wine that’s “really special that we don’t usually open because it’s really expensive.” Today, a bottle of it happens to be open. Limor points out that wine critic Robert Parker gave this wine 93 points in 2010.
A darker shade of gold, the muscat has a whiff of petrol on the nose, as well as dried apricots. It has the nectar-like taste of ice wine, only dry, with more apricot and cooked fruit on a soft, round body. The finish is so long and persistent, I don’t want to pour it out.
At that point, the other tasters leave the winery and the girl who was tasting with them comes over to us. Limor introduces Noam Steinhart and tells her we’re from California.
“San Francisco area. Sonoma.”
“Where?” She asks with a curious tone. “Where in Sonoma?”
At which point I say, “Are you from Santa Rosa?”
“I lived in Rohnert Park!” she answers. “I went to SSU!” (Sonoma State University).
Suddenly, it’s old home day as we swap stories about Sonoma County.
Noam was born and raised in Israel, but she moved with her parents to Palo Alto where they worked in high tech. She graduated from SSU’s wine marketing program in 2012, having worked in the Wine Shop in the city of Sonoma. She came to work hereas the hospitality manager only two months before.
She pours the Clos de Gat flagship wine, the 2010 Ayalon Valley, modeled on a classic Bordeaux-style blend. It’s 63% cabernet sauvignon, 30% merlot, and 7% petit verdot that spent 20-22 months in barrel. The color is dark with rusty edges and the nose is big and assertive with sweet oak and raisin. Flavors of dried black fruit dominate a big chewy mouthfeel that has good acidity. The finish is rich and long and mouth warming. I gotta get me some of this.
She explained more about the winery’s history. It’s part owned by Eyal Rotem, a former businessman who studied winemaking in Australia and planted his first block of vineyards in 1998. And, the winery is celebrating its anniversary on April 15th.
We move on to the Har’el series, named for Kibbutz Harel, the winery’s partner. The Har’el 2011 Cabernet Sauvignon smells big and Bordeaux-like with black pepper and earth notes. On the palate I detected a hint of wet basement – which for me screams Bordeaux – as well as black fruit and flowers on a full body with medium tannins, finishing long and black.
Noam tells us that in the Judean Valley the terroir flips the characteristics of the cab and merlot. Cabernet is typically lighter, subtle, and more structured, while the merlot tends to be more masculine.
The Har’el 2012 Merlot is a lighter red color, almost clear. The nose is pretty and floral showing red and black fruit. The palate tastes strong, fruity and earthy and is super well-balanced and integrated. The finish is long, red and earthy. Again, must get some.
We learn that Rotem practices his craft at its most natural level, using only grapes grown on the 200-acre estate, using the natural yeast found on the grapes, and letting the wines develop without manipulation, but with a healthy dose of barrel aging. The production is 7,500 cases, considered in Israel to be “medium boutique,” and will grow no larger unless they acquire more land.
Just when I think we’re done tasting, Noam pours the Har’el 2012 Syrah. It’s a clear red color with a big plummy nose. But it’s inky and mouth coating! Inky, stemmy, and earthy with a note of anise on a full body. Yet, it’s incredibly accessible and drinkable for an old world-style wine.
Then, Noam explains the meaning of the crest on each label.
Each crest includes a clos – or wall – and on the Ayalon Valley blend the fox represents the settlers of the Judean Hills.
The merlot shows a billy goat because it’s a stubborn grape and hard to grow.
Syrah has a donkey because, she says, “it’s resilient enough to mess up and still be good.” Forgiving, in other words.
Cabernet has a roster representing its tempramentality, and being the first to ripen you have to wake early to harvest it.
Just then, we hear the sound of a two-stroke engine and across the vineyard we see a man ride past on a sidecar motorcycle, heading toward the winemaker’s house.
“Oh, yeah, that’s Eyal,” Noam says, referring to the winemaker, Eyal Rotem. So that’s how he gets around, I think.
One Clos de Gat wine that surprises me is the 2015 Chanson Blanc. Chanson means “song” in French and is used for the name of their entry-level white and red blends. The Chanson Blanc mixes semillon, viognier and chardonnay and sees no oak.
Typically, I veer from chardonnay blends, but this one impresses me. The nose is tutti-fruity and the palate is light and delicate with astonishing complexity of citric, apple, and Juicy Fruit flavors, finishing with candied tropical fruit. I can see it with sushi and hard cheese and it joins my to-buy list.
I can’t believe our luck when Noam sets down two bottle of their upper-end Sycra wines, the ones they only make in superior vintages. She says this year will not produce a Sycra due to the sandstorms that damaged the vines, and I feel especially honored.
The Sycra 2011 Syrah is a light red color with a nose of woody plum and black fruit. Soft in the mouth, it has medium tannins and is well integrated with great balance. The finish is long and minerally. Like the other syrah, it’s approachable and food friendly. Excellent!
In response to my comment about all the bottle in front of me, Noam tells us why we’re tasting so much. Kim Marcus of Wine Spectator had paid a visit this morning and prompted them to open everything. So we were lucky to be tasting in his wake.
The Sycra 2009 Merlot features aromas and flavors of candied red fruit. The palate is elegant and pretty, and has hints of violets and easy tannins with a rush of acidity on the finish.
Into the Clos de Gat winery
After that amazing smorgasbord of delicious wines, Noam takes us on a tour of the winery.
Inside the cool space we pass a mural with the best use of old corks I’ve ever seen.
What’s unique about Clos de Gat winery is how they ferment their wine in open vats that were converted from dairy equipment. Punch down is performed by hand the dangerous way, standing on a board across the top. No additives are added. They use a filter to weed out the stems and seeds, but the wines themselves are unfiltered.
As if they could not get more French in style, we learn that everything is imported from France: the bottles, the corks and the barrels. Not the labels however.
She shows us the library side of the cellar where the old bottles are being stored until after their April 15th anniversary party.
Clos de Gat winery also imports and sells French Bordeaux wines. In one corner are cases of Chateau Chasse-Spleen, Chs Camens, Angludet, and Cantemerle, as well as Chevalier de Lascombes. Oh, how I wish I could take some of those home.
Bidding goodbye to our lovely host, I’m struck by how far this property has come in the winemaking scheme of things.
In ancient times, wines made here were probably harsh, super-tannic, and overly fruity, made to drink young. Nowadays, the current winemaker produces wines of great power and balance using modern methods, but he still retains the minimal interference techniques of traditional Bordelaise before him, and (probably) the ancient Canaanites 3,000 years ago.
I felt like a wino Doctor Who, straddling time from one vinicultural era to another.
So long and happy anniversary, Clos de Gat winery!