Last fall, archaeologists unearthed a 75,000-square-foot winery estimated to be 1,500 years old in the city of Yavne in central Israel. It was an incredible find. The ancient wine capital once employed thousands and shipped throughout the Mediterranean. In Israel, history is a vibrant force. The modern roots of winemaking, however, are more New World than Old World. In 1948, when the state of Israel was founded, there were only 14 commercial wineries. There are 300 wineries today and most have come of age over the past 30 years. For many, the winery that started the new wave of winemaking is Golan Heights, located in the northeast corner of Israel, and the winemaker behind the modern era is American-born Victor Schoenfeld.
Schoenfeld has been the head winemaker at Golan Heights Winery since 1992. He oversees everything from vineyard to cellar, including 1,500 acres of the winery’s own vineyards and distinct labels: Mount Hermon, Gilgal, Golan and, most famously, Yarden. Schoenfeld received an enology degree from the University of California, Davis and has always been drawn to the convergence of science, technology and nature. He worked for Robert Mondavi and Château St. Jean in the United States and Jacquesson & Fils in Champagne, France, before making the move to Israel. “I had spent time in Israel before, including a gap year after high school and a year I took off to manage a vineyard in Israel. Golan Heights Winery started in 1983, and as there were no Israelis at that time with enology degrees, they brought in winemakers from California,” he shares. Schoenfeld was aware of the winery’s quality reputation when he took the job but “never dreamed there was so much potential.”
Thirty years later, Schoenfeld and his team are still on a journey to uncover the potential of Golan Heights. The region sits on a volcanic plateau that reaches east from the Sea of Galilee to snow-covered Mount Hermon on the Syrian border. While many Israeli winemakers contend with desert-like conditions, Schoenfeld has more options to the north. “The Golan Heights soils are all volcanic, relatively heavy and deep, which means they have high water-holding capacity and allow for very deep rooting. We have a classic Mediterranean climate, with the cooling effect of high elevations.” From Schoenfeld’s standpoint, “the Golan Heights is a wine paradise.”
Working with a range of elevation, from 1,200 to 4,000 feet, Schoenfeld is able to experiment with many varieties. He won early acclaim with classic French grapes, including Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah and Chardonnay. The 2004 Yarden Cabernet Sauvignon was the first Israeli wine selected for the “Wine Spectator Top 100,” and in 2012, Golan Heights Winery was named New World Winery of the Year by Wine Enthusiast. Celebrated U.S. winemaker Zelma Long has worked with Schoenfeld since 2002 to analyze Golan Heights’ vineyard blocks, culminating in multiple releases of Yarden Rom, a high-end blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah sourced from select sites. Schoenfeld describes Rom 2014 as “a mix of ripe cherry, blackberry and plum fruit characters, backed by an intriguing fusion of earth, smoke, aniseed, tobacco, sage and black tea notes,” all with a “lingering and attractive finish.” The layers of complexity are impressive and reveal much about how Schoenfeld goes about his business: one vineyard block at a time, seeking answers at every turn.
Three decades is a short span in wine history but quite a milestone professionally. In his years at Golan Heights, Schoenfeld has introduced many new plantings, as well as worldly wine styles that expand Israel’s horizons. The elegant Yarden Blanc de Blancs is a bright bubbly made in the methods he learned in Champagne, revealing delicate aromas of lemon, minerality, apple and a touch of toasted bread. The first Port-style wine made from Portuguese varieties in Israel, Yarden T2, combines the Touriga Nacional and Tinta Cao varieties in a ripe, red blend fortified to 18% alcohol with a long, sweet finish. In the end, every new release reveals more about the potential of Golan Heights and what the future can bring. *
YARDEN CABERNET SAUVIGNON 2018
A PERENNIAL FAVORITE; 100% CABERNET SAUVIGNON
WITH FLAVORS OF CHERRIES, BLACKBERRY AND PLUM, AND
LAYERS OF CHOCOLATE, TOBACCO AND SPICE. FLAVORFUL AND
CONCENTRATED. DRINK NOW OR CELLAR FOR 10 TO15 YEARS.
YARDEN CHARDONNAY 2019
100% CHARDONNAY SHOWS OFF THE COOL CONDITIONS IN
GOLAN HEIGHTS. ELEGANT AND FULL-BODIED, WITH NOTES OF
PEAR, LEMON, FLOWERS AND A TOUCH OF FRENCH OAK.
MOUNT HERMON INDIGO 2020
AN ENTRY-LEVEL BLEND OF CABERNET SAUVIGNON AND SYRAH
THAT COMBINE IN A BEAUTIFUL INDIGO HUE. CHERRY AND
BLUEBERRY FRUIT AROMAS WITH HINTS OF SPICE AND SMOKE.
Helen Gregory is the founder and president of Gregory + Vine. She has worked in strategic brand management and communications for beverage industry leaders such as Moët Hennessy USA, Rémy Cointreau and STOLI, and has led award-winning hospitality, beverage and lifestyle campaigns for prestige clients from the European Union to Argentina, Australia, Chile, Israel, South Africa and across the United States.