Yesterday morning ( Tuesday, 14 June) found me in Yahud, a small municipality north-east of TelAviv, there at the winery of Orna Chillag. Tucked away in the industrial area of this small metropolitan community, there is an escapable charm to Chillag's "garden", that featuring a patch of vines, but those are almost entirely for decoration because this is hardly wine country. In addition to those vines there are also some plantings in wooden and clay vessels and, truth be told, sitting at a table outside the entrance to the winery and sipping coffee made in a macchinetta and munching on cheese and cold meats after our tasting one might even think they were in the countryside. More important to the purpose of my visit, Chillag continues makes some very good wines indeed and comfortably earns her four stars in my Israeli wine book. .
After studying oenology in Piacenza, Italy, and working at the Antinori wineries in Tuscany, Chillag released her first wines in Israel in 1998. Now located in a new facility in the industrial area of the town of Yahud, on the central plain, the winery relies on Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon grapes from the Upper Galilee and the Judean Mountains and recently planted its own Syrah, Petit Verdot and Petite Sirah. Production has grown from 4,000 bottles in 2002 to current releases of about 20,000 bottles annually. Until 2005 the winery released wines in two series, Primo Riserva and Giovane. More recently the wines have been appearing in Primo, Solo and Vivo series, the first two meant for cellaring and the second released early and meant for drinking in their youth.
As to direction, Chillag's wines continue to be dark and deeply extracted while happily mainting a sense of elegance and avoiding becoming blockbusters. Truth be told, I am pleased to note that as she garners increasing experience, she has lowered the amount of oak to which her wines have been exposed. From 2002-2004 for example, many of the wines were oak-aged for 24 months, and from 2005 and on those wines are seeing only 12-18 months in oak. Following are my tasting notes from today's visit.
My thanks to Orna and to Yoram Chillag for a fine tasting and for their courtesies during my visit.
Chillag, Syrah, Primo, 2009 (Barrel Tasting): Super dark garnet, remarkably concentrated, intense and dense but already showing fine balance and structure that bode well for the future. Full-bodied, with ample but gently gripping tannins, opens to reveal a generous array of plums, blackberries and leathery notes, all with an overlay of Mediterranean herbs. Best from 2012. Tentative Score 89-91. (Tasted 15 Jun 2010)
Chillag, Carignan, Primo, 2009 (Barrel Tasting): Still in embryonic form but already showing dark royal purple in color and with fine concentration. Made from old-vine grapes (25 years), medium- to full-bodied, with soft tannins parting comfortably to reveal notes of spicy oak, blackberries and citrus peel, all on a tantalizing background of mesquite. Possibly to be released as a varietal wine, possible to be used as a blending agent. Best from 2012. Tentative Score 90-92. (Tasted 15 Jun 2010)
Chillag, Cabernet Sauvignon, Primo, 2009 (Barrel Tasting): Even at this early stage showing fine concentration and balance. Medium- to full-bodied (leaning towards the full), opens with red plums and raspberries, those going on to blackcurrant and blackberries, those on a background of cigar tobacco. On the long finish notes of bittersweet chocolate, and licorice. Best from 2013. Tentative Score 89-91. (Tasted 15 Jun 2010)
Chillag, Cabernet Sauvignon, Late Harvest, 2009 (Barrel Tasting): Fascinating! Made by blending together Cabernet Sauvignon harvested in the usual manner with 25% of late harvest Cabernet and 25% of grapes that were allowed to dry before being vinified. Relying in part on winemaking practices in Valpolicella and in Tuscany, but a distinctly Mediterranean wine. Richly aromatic, showing raisins, earth, black olives and dried herbs on the nose, deeply tannic and with flavors of chocolate running through, opens to reveal spicy red and black fruits. Long, round, mouth-filling and irresistible even now. Drink from release. Tentative Score 90-92. (Tasted 15 Jun 2010)
Chillag, Cabernet Sauvignon, Primo, 2008 (Barrel Tasting): Impenetrably deep garnet in color, full-bodied and with still gripping tannins just starting to integrate. On first attack red plums and notes of red licorice, those going on to reveal blackberries, currant and fresh earthy-herbal notes. Best from 2012. Tentative Score 91-93. (Tasted 15 Jun 2010)
Chillag, Merlot, Vivo, Judean Mountains, 2006: Showing greater complexity than at an earlier tasting. Super-dark garnet in color, reflecting its 12 months in new and one-year-old French barriques with gently spicy cedar notes and opening to reveal purple plums, wild berries and notes of spices on the moderately long finish. Mouth-filling and generous. Drink now-2012. Score 89. (Re-tasted 15 Jun 2010)
Chillage, Blend, Vivo, Judean Mountains, 2006: A garnet towards royals purple, medium- to full-bodied blend of 55% Cabernet Sauvignon and 22.5% each of Merlot and Syrah. Oak-aged for 12 months, opens to reveal purple plums, raspberries and notes of milk chocolate and espresso coffee. Drink now-2012. Score 89. (Re-tasted 15 Jun 2010)
Chillag, Merlot, Solo, 2006: Oak-aged in French barriques for 18 months and blended with 10% Cabernet Sauvignon. Medium- to full-bodied, with gently gripping tannins, opens with a floral and licorice nose, goes on to reveal generous black and red fruits, all complemented nicely by notes of spicy wood. Lingers nicely on the palate. Drink now-2013. Score 89. (Tasted 15 Jun 2010)
Chillag, Cabernet Sauvignon, Solo, 2006: Reflecting its 18 months in French barriques with notes of oriental spices and sweet cedar wood, opens to reveal generous currant, blackberry and herbal notes. Mouth-filling and generous. Drink now-2013. Score 89. (Tasted 15 Jun 2010)
Chillag, Cabernet Sauvignon, Primo, 2004: Impenetrably dark garnet, picking up a note of adobe brick in its color as perhaps the first signs of maturity. Opens quietly but then blossoms in the glass to reveal a full-bodied blend of 90% Cabernet Sauvignon and 10% Merlot, those with smoky cedar wood on the nose, soft tannins and an appealing array of currants, blackberries and raspberries. From mid-palate on notes of bittersweet chocolate and on the long finish an appealing note of licorice. Maturing but still drinking very nicely indeed. Drink now-2012. Score 91. (Re-tasted 15 Jun 2010)
Chillag, Cabernet Sauvignon, Primo, Castellana, 2002: Now showing dark garnet, with not even a hint of clearing and still fresh and young, a wine that seems to have escaped the "2002 curse". Full-bodied, with its once firm tannins and spicy oak now integrated nicely, a blend of 70% Cabernet Sauvignon and 30% Merlot. A distinctly Old-World wine, with tempting currant, wild berry and anise coming together as a thoroughly coherent whole. Drink now-2012. Score 90. (Re-tasted 15 Jun 2010)
Chillag, Petite Sirah, 2006: An earlier and recent tasting note holds firmly. From a vineyard in the Jerusalem Mountains at 750 meters above sea level, Petite Sirah as Petite Sirah should be. Oak-aged for 24 months, almost impenetrably dark garnet in color, dense and concentrated, opening with lavender and peppery notes, those yielding to chocolate and licorice and only then black cherry, blackberry, cassis and plum flavors. In the background look for tobacco and toasty oak and, on the long, chewy finish a note of espresso coffee. Unfiltered, so do not be surprised if you find a bit of sediment here, that doing no harm whatever to this muscular but oh-so-enchanting wine. Drink now-2016. Score 92. (Re-tasted 15 Jun 2010)
Chillag, Rose, 2009: A limited edition wine, made as much to please the winemaker's husband as anything else. Made entirely from Cabernet Sauvignon grapes, with skin contact of under 5 minutes (not a typographical error), salmon pink towards orange in color, with a whopping 15% alcohol. Completely dry but so alcoholic and fruity that you might swear that the wine was off-dry. Not so much a lively rose as it is a contemplative one, showing near tannic peach and wild berry fruits. Fun and indeed at that level of alcohol goes down smoothly enough that you may well get tipsy before realizing how much you have consumed. Drink now. Score 87. (Tasted 15 Jun 2010)