Psagot, Judea and Samaria (Israel)

Psagot, Judea and Samaria (Israel)

View from the winery

Psagot is located in Judea and Samaria, just about 4 kilometers from Ramallah as the crow flies, in a territory considered internationally as beyond the legal borders of the country but that is dear for many Israelis as Judea & Samaria is the historic homeland of the jewish people with 3000 years of continuous 1binyamina_signpresence in the area. For some reason by the way, the name Judea and Samaria is ignored by the media which prefer to use the word "territories" or the term "West Bank" [of the Jordan river] which was concocted by the occupying Jordanians in the 1950s' with the aim of denying any Jewish historical link to the region and eventually annex the "Eastern Bank". The location of the winery may look like a hindering factor for the marketing and sales of the wines, especially given the hostile stance of the EU on the matter of everything "West Bank" but the result of this hostility was increasing sales both in Israel and in other countries not sharing this anti-Israel obsession.

The winery facility which overlooks the surrounding hills is located near a gas station and if you want to visit by your own all you need is catch the bus 143 in Jerusalem at the Gesher Hameitarim/Herzl Blvd bus stop (6 minutes on foot from the Jerusalem Central Bus Station) and go out 13 stops later at the Kokhav Ya'akov gas station (bus stop #4216), see directions for the trip, it's easy, the only difficulty is find the departing bus stop for the 143, in short when you walk out the main entrance of the Central Bus Station, you go right and then left at the 1st major intersection, the bus stop will be at the left side. The trip by itself is an interesting experience as you cross checkpoints and see both sides of a conflict-stricken region.

The old cave at Psagot

Naama and Yaakov Berg began to plant parcels around Psagot (the settlement 10 minutes from this winery) in 1998, beginning with Cabernet Sauvignon and selling the grapes to an established winery and in 2002/2003 they decided to make wine themselves, after yakoov who had been driving to deliver the grapes was so upset of the 1psagot_2nd_temple_coinlittle care they gave over there to their carefullly-farmed fruit. 1psagot_bottles_replica_coinAlongside they kept planting more parcels and varieties along the years and for their first own vintage they made 3000 bottles, growing the volume year after year.

At one point he discovered there was a little cave underground, so knowing caves could be useful to age wine he dug it out and it turned out this cave dated from the 2nd temple and waés used for winemaking as they found an antique wine press there as well a period coins, one of which being reproduced on each bottle. I wished I could have seen this cave but it was some distance away and coulmdn't find someone to drive me there, I got the picture from the winemaker. In this region that can be hot the cave keeps cool year around and they use it for the élevage barrels. It has to be said that in the Antiquity the wines of this region were really the reference in terms of quality, the regions now known as France and Italy couldn't compete with the quality of the wines made around Jerusalem.

Pickers on Psagot

Winemaker Ya'cov Oryah says that they made their first 3000 bottle with an élevage time in that cave and turned out to be very good, and along the years as the surface grew and the volume of wine grew they kept working with the same family mentality, and today with 400 000 bottles a year they manage to work along the same simple process. They never planned to make this volume, it just grew up little by little and as a matter of fact they never had a winemaker all these years, the grapes in this area he says are so strong and impressive that whatever you did, in the cave the wine would turn beautiful. When they reached the volume of 2410 000 bottles they thought they had still to hire a winemaker to be in charge.

Ya'acov says he's the first winemaker to work here but he came in 2014 after 11 years of production in the winery. One of the changes he brought here was to introduce whites as until then Psagot had only produced reds. He added Chardonnay, Viognier, Rosé and someday a sparkling on which they're working right now (it's a traditional method and the wine is now on its lees, sur lattes).

Winemaker Ya'acov Oryah in the vat room

Ya'acov says that this facility was planned for 120 000 bottles and they make 3 times that volume today, so firstly they've set up vats outside then in a near future they'll build another facility atop the hill facing this one, one kilometer from here, moving all the production over there in a year or two. Right now the large tanks outside make a good job, they're double-walled insulated vats where temperature control can ensure a safe fermentation like if it was taking place inside the warehouse.

Barrel room

The facility has room for the élevage in barrels and Ya'acoc is presently switching from 225-liter barrels to 300-liter ones, he says the positive sides are many, like you can store more wine in the same room (33 % more) and the wood imprint is less 1psagot_barrel_markheavy with a lower ratio of wood/wine which is better. Plus the overall cost is lower (barrels are an expensive commodity). They source the barrels mainly from the Mercurey cooperage in Burgundy and lately he began to work with Hungarian oak as well (European Coopers). I hear that Hungarian barrels are getting increased attention from wineries which like to diversify and source from different cooperages. You can learn a lot in this insightful article about tyhe properties of Hungarian oak compared to the French ones (I learned there are a dozen cooperages in Hungary).

Worker with a filtration device

They have also lots pf room outside near the insulated tanks. Ya'acov says that they process the excess wine themselves, meaning they don't have a range of "cheap" wines in the winery, they use only the most suitable juice and so have to dispose of what they don't want. For that purpose they distill any wine that is not fit and they make brandy with it. Remind that in France the wineries are obliged to give their must and residues to the state that will have it distilled to make a profit (and nobody revolts against what amounts to extortion...), here at leat they work for themselves. The stills (here in the background) look very nice, make me think to the ones of El Namroud, the Arak distillery founded in northern Israel by former southern-Lebanese militiamen which I visited a few years ago here (their arazk is considered one of the best of the region).

More barrels

As we go inside again we pass another barrel room (lined with Mercurey barrels it seems), I ask Ya'acov about their being used for the vinification or only the élevage, he says the élevage, at least for the reds because the whites partly continue their fermentation in the barrels, depends of the white, the Chardonnay ferments for 50 %in the barrels, the Viognier 10 %. You feel that the facility obviously reached its capacity limit and it will be certainly more at ease in its next location on the other side of the valley. I think they could store many more barrels in this room if not using this shelf system (which we see rarely in France but more in America) but i guess it's convenient to access quickly to a given barrel.


At one point we a couple of odd fermenters in the vatroom, these are Flexcubes, an Australian invention where they kind of created a plastic fabric that breaths like wood for the oxigen exchange and all you have to do is hand oak staves inside to help give it a wood imprint along the oxigenation. tHe good side is that they're reusable for at least 20 years when you have to change a barrel every 5 years. Plus they're no more expensive than a barrel, and without the risk of spoilage (the security reason why many wineries get rid of their barrels after a while). Plus you don't have to top them up, you just have to check a bit at the beginning because they tend to expand a bit but then after a while no "angel share" to compensate (along several years especially if your cellar is dry this can amount to large volumes)... And when you order such a tank you can ask for a low_breathing or high-breathing type depending of the oxigenation you like.

Planting new vines (pic courtesy of Hayovel)

I ask how they pick the grapes, machines or by hand, he says it's all by hand (except last year in Kida for the Petite syrah) although it's a problel to find manpower in the area. He says one day they might have to give up the hand picking but until now they could do it, employing some local workers and oddly it's also largely thanks to American volunteers who come from the bible belt regions of the United States to pick and follow a prophecy that Jews will come back and plant vineyards in the hills of Samaria. Most come through Hayovel, a non-profit group that brings Christian volunteers who want to help Jewish farmers in Israel, they camp here during their stay during a few weeks. This make me think to Wwoof which connects organic farmers to domestic or foreign volunteers who want to experience a few weeks of work in organic farms (that's certainly the best way to live a different experience while travelling, plus you have a place to stay and to eat and meet interesting people). Otherwise when the vineyards are located near a setlement they can find day laborers there too.

Ya'acov pouring his Viognier

We then proceed to the tasting room for a tasting of a few wines with also another writer who also joined, Chaim Helfgott who has written extensively on Israeli wineries. The winery can receive large groups for tasting visits and the visitor center is roomy, this helps these wineries deep in Judea & Samaria to remain connected with their public, that can be either religiously observant people or not religious, but secular like for example many of the immigrants originating from Russian and the former USSR. As a matter of fact this winery is kosher although the winemaker doesn't seem to be observant, which mùeans there's a kashrut supervisor who is the one allowed to touch and handle the wine, barrels and tools. This looks weird for many wine peop)le not used to these issues but in practice it works pretty well, the winemaker just has to be sure tyhat the religious staff will be at hand in case he needs a barrel sample.

Viognier and Chardonnay

So we begin with the whites which Ya'acov Oryah introduced in this winery when he landed here a few years ago. One of the reasons they didn't make wine here is the region is hot. Ya'acov says that the terroir over here is hot, and it's hot after sunset also. He found a way to get around this issue which tends to make grapes lack acidity which in return aren't suited for a balanced wine, it makes wines heavy, flabby.
__ Psagot Viognier 2017. Grapes come from Moshav Mata in the Judean Mountains at a 1psagot_corker600m altitude. They will keep making this cuvée and have been making it since 2014. 14 000 1psagot_label_drawingbottles batch. 10 % in oak (new oak) the rest in stainless steel. In order to counter the lack of acidity under this hot climate Ya'acov has 70 to 80 % of the grapes picked early with high acidity (and potential 11 %) at a pre-phenolic maturity and the 20 % rest picked very late at a potential (for this Viognier) at 15,5 %. The two seperate picking bring all which is needed, with the first picking load he gets, high acid, low alcohol & minerality and with the second he getsthe flavors and the richness. For the first load he just crushes, using whole bunches and for the late harvest either he just crushes or he macerates a few hours up to a day like for this Viognier. This way he gets an elegant wine with the characteristics of the varietal and with a mere 12,5 % alcohol which is pretty good for this climate, and this, without resorting to re-acidification. The time between the 1st and the 2nd picking goes from 2 weeks to a month, depends.
The wine is pretty easy to drink with good freshness and acidity. and apricot aromas. Ya'acov says that instead of doing the separate pickings he could reacidify, it's legal, but it's never the same in the wine, plus this way he gets a much lower alcohol, 12,5 % is really a summer wine, something you can drink easily, he doesn't want to drink a summer wine that would make 14 % alcohol. Actually the winery used to make Viognier in the past but they discontinued the production because they thought the region wasn't fit for white wines and he restarted the cuvée when he came working here.
__ Psagot Chardonnay 2017. Grapes come from 3 vineyards, the ones of Moshav Mata in the Judean Mountains, Kida (both 30 minutes from here) and Psagot. Smooth creamy mouth, harmonious wood for me. Vinification in barrel, 50 % barrels (new oak), juice on the lees for 4 months. Then racking together the stainless-steel and the oak, then spit again between the oak and the tanks (2 months & 2 months). This process certyainly helped for the smooth integration of this new oak into the wine. 12,2 % alcohol in reality, Ya'acov says, (12,5 % on the bottle), very moderate indeed. 68 Shekels at the winery (16 €).

A Rosé from Judea & Samaria

__ Psagot Rosé 2017, made with Merlot, Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc, grapes sourced in the Ofra and Shiloh settlements ans Moshav Mata, plus another location I didn't understand the name. This is a direct press with early picking. Full mouth, generous & fruity, 1yaacov_oryah_rosesvividness down the throat. They started this cuvée in 2014 (they skipped 2015). Ya'acov says this rosé is better with food because of its intensity, with chicken salad for example. Got nice pink grapefruit flavors. Here the alcohol is also very moderate art 12,5 ?, Ya'acov says he doesn't do saignée, he does a direct press with early picking. He says he doesn't use any saignée, he says, he can't stand it, the only time he uses saignée is for his private production, for his orange wine [I tasted his orange wine a few days later in Tel Aviv, it's just terrific, made from Semillon]. 68 Shekels at the winery (16 €).

I like this rosé very much as is, and the other guest also finds it so well balanced, but in his eyes it's better to eat with it. Now, Ya'acov has quite some experience in rosé wines, he does some consulting for other wineries (80 % of his time being centered on Psagot) and you can see on the left the range of rosés he vinified. This visit is about Psagot but when he showed me this picture of his other rosés I asked him to send it to me for illustration (my apology to the Psagot owners for this digression....).

Malbec 2017

__ Malbec 2017, with a nice label celebrating the 70 years of Israel. Ya'acov says this Malbec was initially intended for Edom, a Bordeaux blend, but he liked it so much by itself that he made this single-varietal cuvée. We taste first a bottle that has been opened two days before and another opened right now. Vinification in stainless steel with élevage 100 % in oak.
Very nice nose. The temperature of the wine is a bit too warm but very enjoyable wine still, it's very smooth, refined and feminine. He says ideally it's better to keep the wine 2-3 years from now before drinking it. The one opened right now is less harmonious, means it's better to open a few hours before drinking. Speaking of sulfites he says he checks the level and adds if needed, at several stages.

Cabernet Franc 2017

__ Cabernet Franc 2017, no label, spent 4 months in oak (5-year-old barrels). Nice luminous color, it was filtered but roughly, just to take out the big stuff. Ya'acov says the fermentation temperature was kept at 24-26 C (75,2-78,8 F) because he doesn't need more extraction or intensity, as in this region the grapes have everything without effort in that regard. He was inspired by the Loire Cabernet Franc for this wine, annd he's very happy with it, although people usuially don't like the green side of Cab Franc. This is their first cuvée for this wine, they just got the parcels located at Yitzhav, one hour north from here, it's a 5-hectare vineyard of which half is planted with 10-year-old Cabernet Franc. I like the wine even though it's certainly still young (althought no tannin harshness), but come back in two years to open this 2017 it should be great. He says what he likes in Cabernet Franc it's the body, you can make very nice wines with it without being big wines, they're reserved, they're lean, you can drink it. For the picking (it's one hour away) they pick at night and carry the grapes in the early morning. They're not really looking for more parcels but they got this opportunity and took the whole surface.

Not on the market yet, by the way, will be at the end of the month. They made 5000 bottles of this. 110 Shekels (26 €).

Cabernet Sauvignon & Merlot

Here we're more with wines that are understood by the public, he's very happy with his first Cab Franc and with the Malbec too but that's not the mainstreammarket, the public has to learn to like these types of wines, while with Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon they're more on familiar ground. Now the big challenge he says is to find the balance between ripeness (which will bring high 1psagot_kashrut_supervisorlevels of alcohol) and elegance, because he doesn't want to go up to 15 % alcohol and the truth is, they can do that balance in their region. Alcohol is not a simple numer like 14 or 15, you can have wines at 12 % that feel high alcohol and some at 16 % don't, and the secret is in the other components that hold the whole thing together.

__ Cabernet Sauvignon 2016. Darker color, ink notes on the nose. Super nice mouth, refined tannins, fresh enough for a Cabernet Sauvignon, doesn't hint at its 14,5 % alcohol. And these smooth, chalky tannins, makes almost a milky mouth feel, delicious. I hear the grapes grow on limestone soil at higher altitude with cooler nights. this is the 3rd Cabernet Sauvignon they make, the yields are low at about 900 kg to one ton per dunam (hectare). 100 Shekels (23,5 €).
__ Merlot 2016, 15,5 % on the label, and this one feels more like what the label says, in the mouth, it's a bigger wine. Ya'acov says he doesn't reacidify the wines and it finishes its malolactic at something like 3.5pH, there's such an intense acidity that it balances the richness of the wine, making it drinkable, and that comes from the soil to begin with, the limestone. And that's why he thinks that here in Shomron (Samaria) and the Jerusalem mountains is the greatest growing region in Israel, the best terroir, and it's not appreciated because people in the area are afraid to put the name on their labels [for the reasons you know]. Up north in Israel (upper Galilee & Golan) you have the same temperature but the soil is granite, which yields very fruity wines but without the kick of the limestone which preserves acidity with minerality and brings elegance.

Edom & Peak, the blends

__ Edom 2016, Bordeaux blend. The varieties are vinified separatekly and then blended. 12 months in oak. 15,5 %, quite powerful, need to eat with certainly, but good acidity yet, I feel. 45 % Cabernet Sauvignon, 40 % Merlot and 15 % Petit Verdot. Elegance brought by the Cabernet Sauvignon and richness by the Merlot. 12months of élevage but needs time, he says. 120 Shekels (28 €).
__ Peak 2016, Rhone blend. Syrah (from Psagot and another location), Petite Syrah (From Kida), Mourvèdre (from Mata). Edom existed from the start of the winery but it was at the top back then, and when he arrived here Ya'acov introduced a new blend with this Rhone wine. He made it in 2014 and 2016, this is the 2nd vintage and he says compared to the first this 2016 is more elegant, he admits the 2014 was to ripe.
I like the nose here (after all these wines I'm still swallowing...). Inky notes. 150 Shekels (35 €).

The Cuvée 7 2015(on right)

__ Psagot 7 2015. In 2015 no other cuvée made (except an Edom 2015 on left), it's a religious rule, like you have to leave the vineyard quiet for a year every 7 years. So as a result in 2015 they make a single cuvée with all the varieties together, and thanks to the religious edict they get a great complexity.... A special blend made for the year you lay your field to rest (my understanding of it), it has 4 varieties. no oak for this cuvée
You can find this wine only in Israel, they don't export it because the religious people in America for example don't buy this cuvée (and 70 % of their production is usually sold there) : it's considered holy and you can only drink it in the Holy Land, as a result it's quite cheap and a bargain at 60 Sheckels (14 €).
__ Edom 2015, this is the same wine but with oak, and they put some of the Cuvée 7 into barrels just for the sake of saving the barrels because a barrel can get spoiled if it remains empty for a year. They sell it at the regular price (120 Shekels).

Jerusalem street contrast
Girl comming back from the beach in Tel Aviv

Inspiring Israel’s fine wine renaissance : Psagot
Psagot tours & tastings
Article dealing on the issue of Judea and Samaria & West Bank
Insightful piece by Mort A. Klein about the contested status of Judea and Samaria, palestine, Jerusalem, with a provocative edge but lots of historic data and facts.
Read this interesting piece on Tablet dealing with the recent events at the Gaza border.

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