I know Ya'acov Oryah tangentially. I'd seen him in tastings in Tel Aviv. You can't miss an Orthodox Jew tasting Burgundies or German Rieslings. And you can't miss his aura of calm and intellectual curiosity. I guess one aspect of quiet charisma is when you want to taste a guy's wines because you just gotta know what he'll bring to the table. So I'd tasted a couple of the wines he made in his previous winery, Asif (although not in a tasting where I thought note based on vague recollections notes would do them justice - I do that sometimes, but not with wines I feel deserve a longer date), and was just dying to get my nose and palate into his new project, the Midbar Winery.
I favor a "save the best to last" approach when exploring a new producer, but I wound up starting with a winner.
The classic white Bordeaux formula is divvied up here 70% in favor of the Semillon. This is such a precocious wine, painted in miniature strokes of aromas and flavors. There are flowers and wet rocks, and the fruit ranges from lime and mandarin oranges to mango. Lovely acidity that serves as a solid backbone and maintains harmony. A bitter finish reminiscent of peels. I think this could use a couple of years to flesh out - it certainly grew and changed a lot during the two hours Efrat and I gouged away at it. (Aug. 23, 2012)
100 NIS. Thumbs up. This works both as a Graves hommage and in its own right.
White, 44, 2010
Let me sum up Ya'acov's goal with this Gewurztraminer/Sauvignon Blanc/Chardonnay/Viognier/Semillon blend, as described in the winery's site: gain the intoxicating aromas of Gewurtz and fix its typical deficits on the palate by using the other varieties in the blend. And it works, for the most parts. The Gewurtz and Viognier battle it out on the nose, while the other three grapes, which are the more neutral aromatically, serve to tame them, so you get a somewhat less vocal version of the first's spicy lychee and rose petals, and of the second's luscious honey and flowers, and finally the Sauvignon Blanc lends its own hints of gooseberry and grass. On the palate, you get an echo of these two's hedonistic leanings, while the rest of the cast serves to fill in any holes and to lend structure where the two prima donnas prefer to coast. The label says this is off-dry, but it isn't any more off-dry than a Gruner Veltliner, the way it plays out on my palate, and that has to do with the great acidity once again, as well as with the tasty saline finish. Detailed analysis aside, I like this approach at utilizing Gewurztraminer and this is a very attractive package. (Aug. 24, 2012)
110 NIS. I can't make up my mind about the price. Objectively, it's on the high side, but when I consider how rare and hard it is to find a Gewurtz-based wine that makes good conversation before putting out...
Unoaked Chardonnay, 2010
This is the one wine in the line-up that I was the least looking forward to tasting. I mean - Chardonnay again? Personally, local versions of unoaked Chardonnay had left me unimpressed. Not that oak in itself is a virtue, but it seems like the grape needs whatever oxidative effects the porous barrels can impart. Finally, I was wary of the 14% ABV this weighs in at. Anyway, given that Chardonnay is a chameleon of a grape (one of its virtues, actually, one that allows it to mirror the lands that it grows in), this doesn't feel especially typical or impressive. It reminds me not a little of Sauvignon Blanc, on the nose, and because of its relatively high alcohol content, it tastes a bit like Viognier, what with its bitter finish. Stylistically, it is akin to the former two wines, but it doesn't work nearly as well as they did. The nose shows fairly complex, mineral-led aromas, but the palate is guilty of very high alcohol defect: a sweet attack and a bitter finish, both overwhelming what acidity is present. (Aug. 25, 2012)
85 NIS. I'm sticking with the Tzora, Neve Ilan at this price.
With the Chardonnay out of the way, I got back on track with Midbar's more interesting offerings and what I feel are Oryah's special pride and joy.
Chenin Blanc, 2010
I don't know where Israel's produce of Chenin Blanc used to go into, but the wine that put the grape on the map a few years ago was Sea Horse's James, which I used to drink by the glass at Beta Cafe and never wrote a note down for. I did find it intense and a bit rough, a la Savennieres, that I remember. Then Gaby Sadan made a bottling at Shvo last year, which was a very strange and unrelenting creature - and not all easy to digest, in any sense of the word. This, in contrast, starts out very reserved, almost austere, with a lightly pungent overlay of minerals that makes me expect a sharper bite on the palate than I actually get. As it opens, the volume increases without being gaudy, showing apples and summer fruits, an earthy overlay and a saline finish, and all in all, it shares the same DNA with the Semillon/Sauvignon and the 44 - whether that DNA is terroir or winemaker, I've yet to determine; but as all three are gentle yet confident creatures, balancing the sun-drenched sweetness of their ripe fruit with a firm, savory backbone, it's not really a critical issue. (Aug. 27, 2012)
Sold out, since it was a very limited production. I suppose it would cost 100-120 NIS.
This low alcohol (11%), lightly colored wine is referred to on the winery's site as special early harvest - only in Israel would that be a point of distinction. It has such a fragrant nose of green apples and chalk and talc, with a an aromatic breed that is almost Riesling-like, yet that restraint comes alongside a vital intensity. The palate echoes that, with purity and understated depth. I've only had maybe one or two pure Semillon, so it's not that easy for me to place this wine, but I found it totally captivating, and its aromas and flavors don't so much change with air as modulate their pitch and volume. This is one of the best whites in Israel, a noble wine that presented myriad facets in its evening date with me and the missus. Ya'acov plans to release this in 2014 and, while I can see the point, the suspense is going to kill me. (Aug. 30, 2012)
No price yet. Hopefully, it, too, will be 100-120 NIS.
Orange, 44, 2010
This is very much an oddball, which is what orange wines are all about, employing red wine making on white grapes. Even were this a conventional white, the blend of Chenin Blanc (52%), Chardonnay (24%) and Viognier (24%) would be unusual. This smells and tastes like lightly oxidized rose, with notes of rocks, apples, carmelized nuts, Mediterranean spices, and the palate is surprisingly fresh despite the oxidation, with a lovely saline finish, and a firm, if subtle presence of fruit. This is a very complex, very interesting, very challenging wine - so challenging that I can sense words haltering and stalling in a way they didn't in the notes above. (Sept. 5, 2012)
At their best, Ya'acov Oryah's wines have a wonderful purity, a velvet fist in an iron glove style. I spent about a week with them, and became a fan - that's it, I confess, pure fanboy. I adore them and in an ideal world, people would drink loads of them on their patio and watch the sunset, and leave a glass to contemplate after dinner. But, I'm worried their potential audience has been ruined for life by oaky fruit bombs.