The Other Side of the Cork: Psâgot Winery – History Makes History Again
Yael E. Geller, MPH
Psâgot winery is certainly a household name for anyone who drinks kosher wine. There is a remarkable range of wines in the portfolio that appeal to every palate and price point. The winery, which lays outside Ramallah and North of Jerusalem, produces more than 350,000 bottles of wine annually, achieving tremendous growth regardless of calls to boycott the winery courtesy of the BDS movement. Recently, the prestigious Decanter Magazine rated Psâgot Peak 2016 with a gold medal and 91 points!
If that doesn’t speak for the success of the winery, surely a visit to the winery to pop a few bottles with CEO Yaakov Berg and head winemaker and master of his trade Ya’acov Oryah, will convince any non-believer. There are some very exciting things in the works for experienced and novice wine lovers alike at Psâgot. Let’s get a bit of a background on the winery before we dive in for some insider info on the forthcoming projects in the works at Psâgot.
Psâgot winery was founded by Na’ama and Yaakov Berg in the village of Psâgot, right outside the perimeter of Jerusalem in 2003. The Bergs had been growing and selling grapes in this region since 1998, and eventually decided the next step was for them to build their own winery. If you look closely at the bottles of wines produced by Psâgot, you will notice a very unique coin or symbol of a coin on the label. This ancient-looking coin certainly gives Psâgot a lot of curb appeal, but the story that accompanies the coin is remarkable in and of itself.
When the Bergs started construction for their new winery, the excavation of the land set aside to house the winery revealed a very unique asset. Under the winery was a cave with a wine press, which was estimated to be around 2500 years old! This confirmed that this exact spot had been used for winemaking and grape growing for many generations.
While exploring the cave during the early years of the winery, Yaakov discovered an ancient coin. The coin was dated back to 73–66 BC a time period referred to as “the Great Revolt.” The coin was inscribed with the words “For Freedom of Zion” and adorned with a vine leaf, while the reverse reads “Year Two,” alongside an image of a container known as an amphora, which was used for wine storage in ancient times. This symbol was as important as it was during the times of the revolt as it is right now in modern times, since many boycott and rally against the very existence of Israel. A replica or image of the coin that was found in the cave embellishes all of the bottles produced at Psâgot. The winery has grown by leaps and bounds since the cave and coin discovery and has since moved its operation to a more expansive campus in Kochav Yaakov, just south of the original winery.
Ya’acov Oryah, head winemaker at Psâgot, has his own history in the winemaking world. He joined Psâgot full time as head winemaker extraordinaire in 2014. (I have to brag that I’ve known about Ya’acov almost my entire life having known his uncles and cousins and crossing paths many years before he made his mark on the Israeli wine world.) Ya’acov has had many small-scale productions in the past; Psâgot is his first “orchestra,” as he refers to it, and it is completely different than playing small-scale “jazz gigs” as he used to. Working as head winemaker for a winery of Psâgot’s magnitude is a completely different ballgame. Yaacov is extremely critical of his work, and yet he continues to hit home run after home run producing more impressive wines with each passing vintage.
The white wine program at Psâgot continues to expand. White wine is a must for Ya’acov Oryah, as well as his specialty. We have had the honor to taste a new exciting wine, a bone dry Gewürztraminer. This type of grape is not so common in Israel and certainly not in a dry form. It is usually semi dry, but this wine is absolutely magnificent in its floral dryness it offered. Dare I say it’s the most enjoyable Gewürztraminer I can remember?
Many people frown and cringe at white wine lovers. Rejoice, please! White wine is fun, sophisticated, and macho. In some cases, a white wine can age for years and develop into a completely different wine with some patience. If you intend to have some fun, you should absolutely pop a white at your Shabbos table this week, or better yet, tonight for dinner. It is highly recommended by Ya’acov Oryah to give extra thought to the food pairings with white wines. They are perfect to accompany some fish and chips with a fresh salsa verde on top. They pair beautifully with veal Milanese or even some lemony grilled chicken.
Yaacov’s approach is as simple as he explains, “This is not a beverage to consume alongside your meal, but a drink that should be in a dialog with the dish. If you do so, you will see how the versatility of white wine styles, which pair with many more dishes than reds, can give us a new kind of enjoyment of wine altogether.”
If you are ready to have fun, then white wines are cut out for the task. They can be lean or heavy, from bone dry through all the levels of sweetness. They can be oaked and un-oaked, still or sparkling, and in all styles loaded (or restrained) with minerality, atop fruitiness or spiciness. This incredible spectrum of styles give us many options to have some serious fun in the kitchen as well as at the table.
Psâgot’s vineyards are located in the Binyamin region. I shared some interest in the concept of terroir, also known as the makeup of the soil or land and climate that the vineyards are planted on. Terroir can give a lot of character to different grapes, but if not treated and cared for properly the terroir can be expressed in a negative light, highlighting the wrong characteristics of grape varietals. Some philosophies were shared with me about how Psâgot approaches the terroir. It is considered an “ingredient” in wine that cannot be replaced. It is absolutely important, however it cannot be labeled good or bad as it is the only key to a wine’s uniqueness. When terroir is not utilized it is considered useless, you have to know how to work with it to allow its expression in the wine. If you succeed, your wine will have an un-copyable advantage. The same is true for a warm Mediterranean climate. It is not good or bad, it is what you learn how to work with it and what to do with it.
We can look forward to several new projects and wine varieties in the near future from Psâgot. After many years of focusing on red wines, Psâgot offered two white wine varietals, Chardonnay and Viognier. The newly added 2018 Gewürztraminer was noted previously, and in 2019 Psâgot will start to yield fruit from a newly planted Sauvignon Blanc vineyard, a very exciting endeavor in the hands of Ya’acov Oryah. Something very unique to an Israeli winery was started in 2014, a traditional method sparkling wine program. There is a new Pinot Noir vineyard which will start to yield fruit in 2019 designated for the sparkling wine program. I had the pleasure to visit Psâgot back in 2016 and was able to taste a very early sample of the divine sparkler. Every time I recall that trip my mouth waters for the lovely bubbly mouthfeel of this wine. It was nowhere near ready at the time, so we look forward to its release in the next few years. Some other interesting wines which should be on everyone’s radar are the Cabernet Franc, as well as the new Malbec. The style has recently gotten a slight upgrade to a more fresh style for people to enjoy on any night of the week.
Psâgot’s wines are versatile and a beautiful expression of what Israeli wineries can accomplish with the care and expertise of a brilliant team, terroir, and good fruits. They are achieving the full expression of what the great land of Israel has to offer. Psâgot winery has everything it needs to produce wines that are beloved by all kosher consumer, from the expertise of Yaakov Berg, a state-of-the-art beautiful facility with a visitor center, and Ya’acov Oryah’s creativity and love for a great wine experiment. I’ll drink to that any day! L’chaim!
The visitor center is located in Kochav Yaakov, about 15 minutes from Jerusalem. You can reach the winery by phone at 052-771-0220 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. The winery is a beautiful location to host your smachot like a wedding, bar/bat mitzvah, or siyum.