The Other Side of the Cork: Psâgot Winery – History Makes History Again
Psâgot winery is certainly a household name for anyone who drinks kosher wine. Their portfolio contains a remarkable range of wines that appeal to every palate and price point.
The winery, which lies 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 the 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 its forthcoming projects in the works.
Yaakov Berg, CEO
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 an image or symbol of a very unique 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 2,500 years old! The discovery confirmed that this exact spot had been used for winemaking and grape growing for many generations.
Second Temple Era wine cellar in use today by Psagot winery.
While exploring the cave during the early years of the winery, Yaakov discovered an ancient coin. The coin was dated back to 73–66 BCE, 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 back face reads “Year Two,” alongside an image of a container known as an amphora, which was used for wine storage in ancient times.
This symbol is as important right now in modern times as it was during the times of the revolt, as many organizations 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 operations 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 Oryah almost my entire life, having known his uncles and cousins and crossed paths many years before he made his mark on the Israeli wine world.
Though Oryah had run many small-scale productions in the past, Psâgot is his first “orchestra,” as he refers to it, and it is a completely different ballgame. Oryah is extremely critical of his own work, and yet he continues to hit home run after home run, producing more impressive wines with each passing vintage.
Gabriel Geller and Psagot's Winemaker Ya’acov Oryah at KFWE Los Angeles
The white wine program at Psâgot continues to expand. White wine is a must for Oryah, as well as his specialty. We have had the honor of tasting 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 the floral dryness it offers. Dare I say it was 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 Shabbat table this week, or, better yet, tonight for dinner.
Oryah highly recommends giving extra thought to your food pairings with white wines. They are perfect to accompany some fish and chips with a fresh salsa verde on top, and they pair beautifully with veal Milanese or even some lemony grilled chicken.
Oryah’s approach to pairing whites is 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 with your drinks, then white wines are cut out for the task. They can be lean or heavy and range from bone-dry through all the levels of sweetness. They can be oaked or 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. The concept of terroir (the makeup of the soil or land and climate that the vineyards are planted on) is a critical one in wine production. 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.
The philosophy at Psâgot is that terroir is an irreplaceable “ingredient” in a wine. It is of the utmost importance, though 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; a winemaker has to know how to work with it to allow its expression in the wine. If successful, the wine will have an unmatched advantage. The same is true for a warm Mediterranean climate: it is not good or bad, rather, what matters is how you learn how to work with it.
We can look forward to several new projects and wine varieties from Psâgot in the near future. After many years of focusing on red wines, Psâgot began offering two white wine varietals, Chardonnay and Viognier. Now we can also enjoy the newly added 2018 Gewürztraminer noted previously, and in 2019, Psâgot will start to yield fruit from a newly planted Sauvignon Blanc vineyard, a very exciting endeavor being overseen by Ya’acov Oryah.
Something very unique to an Israeli winery was started in 2014, a traditional sparkling wine program. A new Pinot Noir vineyard designated for the sparkling wine program will start to yield fruit in 2019. 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. It has recently gotten a slight upgrade to a fresher style for people to enjoy on any night of the week.
Psâgot’s wines are versatile and a beautiful expression of what Israeli wine 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 consumers, from the expertise of Yaakov Berg, a beautiful state-of-the-art facility with a visitors’ center, and Ya’acov Oryah’s creativity and love for a great wine experiment. I’ll drink to that any day! L’chaim!
The Psâgot visitors’ center is located in Kochav Yaakov, about 15 minutes from Jerusalem. You can reach the winery by phone at 052-771-0220 or email: [email protected] The winery is a beautiful location to host Smachot like a wedding, Bar/Bat Mitzvah, or Siyum.