Recently in Tel Aviv, I hosted a blind tasting at the Israeli Wine and Spirit Institute (IWSI) showcasing 10 Syrahs from Israel, France and California. The tasters included a cross-section of wine professionals and wine aficionados who were probably more interested in the likes of the 2016 Domaine Clape and 2016 Alain Graillot than anything else. These top Syrahs from France’s Rhone Valley were meant to be benchmark points of reference.
I also included Israeli Syrahs in the mix, including Flam 2016, Clos de Gat 2014 and my own Covenant Israel 2016. From California, we tasted Ramey Cellars Rogers Creek Syrah 2016 and Covenant Landsman Syrah 2017—both from the Sonoma Coast.
All the wines showed well. The French wines were complex but a bit tight and higher in acidity, with sharp-edged tannins. California and Israel, by contrast, resembled each other more in style. They were full-bodied, with lush flavors, and softer texture.
The goal here was to demonstrate that Israeli and California wines can successfully compete with the likes of heavy hitters like Clape and Graillot. To my taste, this blind tasting—one of many that I have organized—showed they can. End of story. Differences in style far outweighed differences in quality.
In the end, the majority of the tasters preferred the Ramey and Covenant wines. Perhaps they were more accessible in their youth than the more tightly wound French wines. Personally, I was spellbound by the Graillot—a masterpiece! But even with decanting, the Clape was not meant for early consumption.
We didn’t rate the wines using any scientific measurements. Preferences were expressed with a show of hands. My take-away is the same as it has always been: The French have been making wine for a long time, and as a result, they understand their terroir and how best to harness it. We so-called New World winemakers are still in discovery mode—even in Israel, where winemaking began millennia ago. By and large, we are only first and second generation winemakers who are still newcomers to the land where we make wine.
I look to the French for inspiration. But I follow winemaking practices that derive from both French and American perspectives. In Israel, I would wager that the best winemakers have a similar approach, depending on where they have the most experience and/or mentors.
Despite the public’s increased accessibility to international wines, I still get a lot of push-back from Francophiles who love to diss wines that they consider “too ripe” or “too high in alcohol.” These folks simply need to broaden their horizons and find excitement in the many styles of wine made worldwide. They should also note that the “best” vintages in France often resemble California—with warm, sunny skies and higher alcohols in the wines.
When I wrote for Wine Spectator, some two decades ago, I did a study in Burgundy that examined what Burgundians drank. The answer wasn’t surprising. They drank almost exclusively Burgundy! OK, I can think of a lot worse things to drink on a regular basis. But the Burgundian collectors I interviewed suffered from the kind of wine myopia that hinders a full appreciation of fine wine. I was sorry for them.
For those of you who think you know what’s “best” in any category of wine, try to remember that any varietal—such as Syrah—is hardly a category. It is simply a grape that behaves differently in various places and in the hands of myriad winemakers. When you open your mouth (to taste wine) try to keep an open mind. There are many “best” wines. They’re just “best” in different ways.
Winemaker Jeff Morgan is a co-owner of Covenant Winery, in California and Israel. He’s also the author of nine books on food and wine and a former wine journalist