Off a main narrow road in Zichron Ya’acov, in a rather obscure location, you can find Somek. I wasn’t familiar with the winery or wine until a friend arranged a visit. On a whim, I had a chance to visit this small boutique winery, taste their wine and spend an afternoon with their vigneron.
Perched atop the south end of the Carmel Mountain range in Israel, overlooking the Mediterranean sea, Zichron is an alluring place to visit. A beautiful and unpretentious spot for a stroll, the downtown cobblestone streets are aligned with bistros, cafés and other eateries along with various shops and small boutiques where you can find hand-made crafts. Interspersed amongst homes and shops are a couple of museums, converted old buildings that share the history behind the place. The original agricultural based moshav was established in 1882 and called Zamirin. A year following, the Baron Edmond de Rothschild, taking interest in its success and supporting the early pioneers, became a patron. He changed the name of Zamirin to Zichron Ya’akov in memory of his father, Baron James de Rothschild of the world renowned winery Château Lafite. Playing a pivotal philanthropic role not only in the establishment of Zichron and other towns in Israel, the Baron also takes credit for bringing vines to Zichron and planting roots for a future wine industry as a way for the pioneers to support themselves. Winemaking in Israel, an ancient craft, dates back to biblical times. The pioneers of Zichron harnessed their passion to return to the land of their forefathers, and took on the challenge to bring back this ancient tradition. They cultivated the early vines from France, and along with the Baron, established one of Israel’s first wineries and bottling centers (another winery was founded slightly prior but around the same time by the Baron in Rishon LeZion).
Barak Dahan’s great-great-grandfather was one of the original families from Romania who helped establish Zichron. Barak’s family continued farming for generations, living and growing wine grapes near the area. Barak, a fifth generation farmer, in 2002 along with his wife Hila, who holds a Masters in Viticulture and Oenology from the University of Adelaide, Australia, decided to try their hand at crafting wine. They established Somek in Barak’s grandfather’s home and converted the old place into an operational winery.
Barak greeted us that sunny afternoon to share his personal history, and his experience with growing grapes to creating and bottling wine. He took us through the process, from vine to bottle, explaining in-depth each stage of winemaking. Recreating and describing each task, we toured Somek (which means “blush” in Hebrew), the indoor oak barrel room and ventured to the small office where Barak himself puts labels on the bottles, then gets the bottles ready for market. Continuing to grow grapes for the large wineries in the region, Barak and Hila dedicate a portion of their land to harvest their own grapes and create wine that first and foremost pleases their palate. A small boutique establishment, Somek produces roughly 10,000 bottles a year. The wine is crafted using traditional machinery though the end result is different than wine being bottled en masse by the more established wineries. The grapes are crushed in a manually operated old crusher and then moved in small buckets to French oak barrels for fermentation. This technique, and lack of filtering, is an effort to extract as much color from the grapes and preserve as much of the essence of the grapes as possible.
Somek’s Chardonnay for example is much deeper, almost golden in color, rich in fruit. Barak notes this might not win him points with old-school wine reviewers, but he jokes if the wine doesn’t win rave reviews, at least he and his family will have plenty of delicious wine to enjoy. Somek may be producing relatively small quantities, but a few top chefs and restaurants in Israel are already recognizing the high quality of Somek’s wine, giving it praise and are adding Somek to their wine list. Israel’s modern day boutique wine industry may be relatively young, but wineries such as Somek are producing results that are starting to impress wine connoisseurs and are garnering more attention.
After the detailed tour, and a chance to ask questions, we had a chance to taste Somek’s wine, starting with the Chardonnay. Rich and golden in color, with a lightly floral nose of honey and citrus blossoms, medium-bodied and lightly oaked, the wine was creamy with a mix of stone fruit and an almost spring-almond nutty taste. It was distinctly different than the Chardonnay’s I was more familiar with from California; this Chardonnay was well enjoyed.
After the Chardonnay we tasted the 2008 Adom (adom translates to red in Hebrew), comprised of 40% Syrah, 40% Carignan, 10% Malbec and 10% Mourvèdre. The Adom models a Côtes du Rhône or Rhone style wine. After fermentation, the wine was aged in French oak barrels for 24 months. Deep red in color with a nose of berries, and dark sweet cherries, medium-bodied and balanced tannins.
Onto the 2006 Bikat HaNadiv (this literally translates to “the generous valley”, the name of the valley pays homage to the late Baron Rothschild). Bikat HaNadiv is a Bordeaux style blend comprised of 50% Cabernet Sauvignon, 35% Merlot, 10% Cabernet Franc and 5% Petit Verdot. The grapes for this wine are picked and crushed the same day, then aged in French oak for 24 months. A floral nose of dark stone fruits, plums, and cocoa, the wine is also dark in color with a long finish.
It was the 2006 Carignan that I was most intrigued by, having not been familiar with this grape varietal or having tasted Carignan in pure form. Coming from old vines, the grapes are handpicked in the early hours of the morning and crushed the same day. After fermentation, the wine is oaked in French barrels for 24 months. The Carignan is not filtered, and after bottling, the wine continues to age for another two years before going to the market. On the nose, plums, blackberries, and currants along with dark fruits a just a hint of orange zest on the palate. Medium bodied, a nice balance of soft tannins, fruit and acidity and a long finish.
Limited on space, I brought back only one bottle of the Carignan to California, though my local friends bought several bottles of Somek wine to enjoy in their home in Zichron. I look forward to going back to the winery to enjoy more wine, meet Barak again and maybe even be lucky enough to visit the vineyards next time. For now, my bottle of Carignan and pictures remind me of a wonderful afternoon spent with friends. It was a terrific opportunity to hear first hand the effort that goes into making quality wine, spend time with a winemaker and visit a boutique winery that I hope will grow for many more wine enthusiasts to enjoy.
Discover more about Zichron Ya’acov, the Baron Edmond de Rothschild, visit Somek and learn more about the Carignan grape via these links:
Go Israel and Discover Zichron Ya’aacov
Zichron Ya’acov Home of Wine and Spies
Zichron Ya’acov – Home of Israeli Wine
Ramat Hanadiv Memorial Gardens
Jancis Robinson on Carignan
Israel Adventure: Somek Winery
Israel Wine Tour: Why We Love Taking Our Guests to Somek Winery
For more wines in Israel visit: Award Winning Wine in the Judean Hills: Flam Winery