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The wines of Domaine du Castel, Judean Hills, Israel

UK agent: La Maison du Vin Ltd (tel: 020 8950 6307; info@maisonduvin.net)

It’s a rather unusual story. With an Italian mother and an Egyptian father Eli Ben-Zaken was educated in England. He moved to Israel and worked as a chicken farmer. Later, he opened a restaurant in Jerusalem, before deciding to establish a vineyard in 1988. The first vintage was made in 1992, in one of the chicken sheds, and consisted of just two barrels. Eli now has a respectable 13 hectares in Raimat Raxiel (Judean Hills), with an annual production of 8000 cases, and is assisted by his son Ariel and son-in-law Arnon Geva. The vineyards consist of 40% Cabernet Sauvignon, 29% Merlot, 25% Chardonnay and 6% Petit Verdot, although some Viognier and Sauvignon Blanc have been planted in new vineyards. Vines are dense planted and cropped at low yields. The wines I sampled were deeply impressive, in a distinctly old world vein. It would be fascinating to put the two reds into a blind Bordeaux tasting.

A note on prices. When I tasted these samples I had no idea of their price. I’d have guessed they’d have been around £10 a bottle (and £15 for the Grand Vin), which would have made them very good value. When I found out they were approximately twice this price, I was a little surprised. Certainly, the reds in particular are probably worth these prices, but as newcomers to the UK market they are competing with the very best from the leading classic regions, and that’s tough competition. This doesn’t take anything away from Eli’s impressive achievements in forging some world class wines here, though.

Domaine du Castel ‘Petit Castel’ 1999, Judean Hills
60% Merlot, 40% Cabernet Sauvignon, aged in French oak barriques. Classy nose of berry and blackcurrant fruit with notes of dark chocolate and spice, together with a sweet creamy edge. The palate shows a lovely balance of savoury, spicy-edged berry fruit with well judged tannin and acidity. Quite classically Bordeaux-styled drinking well now. Very stylish. Very good/excellent (c. £20)

Domaine du Castel 1998, Judean Hills
The fact that ‘mise en bouteille au domaine’ is emblazoned on the cork hints strongly at the ambitions of this wine. The nose shows tight herb-tinged fruit with a spicy edge, with Bordeaux-like smoky, leafy complexity. The palate is firm and tannic, with dense, spicy blackcurrant fruit. Very savoury with good acidity. This claret-like wine needs some time to show its best. Very good/excellent  (c. £28)

Domaine du Castel ‘C’ 1999, Judean Hills 
100% Chardonnay from vineyards at an altitude of 2400 feet, fermented in French oak barrels (two-thirds new), aged sur lie with battonage for 12 months. Yellow–gold colour. Intense nose of savoury butterscotch with toasty oak notes and nutty, lemony fruit. Quite old world in style, with some lifted acidity. The palate shows savoury, toasty fruit: quite rich and classically styled, but a tiny bit disjointed with the acidity verging on the volatile. Attractive, but unusual. Very good+ (c. £20)

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December 2002