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Originally published Sunday, January 20, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Taste

From Israel comes a deliciously different wine for dessert

I have to tell you, I'm not big on fruit wines. I mean, it's fine with me if your grandmother "puts up" dandelion or thimbleberry or some other oddball...

I have to tell you, I'm not big on fruit wines. I mean, it's fine with me if your grandmother "puts up" dandelion or thimbleberry or some other oddball fermented beverage that falls under the general rubric of wine. But it's not really wine, is it?

Real wine, I have long believed, must come from grapes, specifically European (vinifera) cultivars. Made from anything else, it may occasionally be perfectly pleasant. But will it achieve the complexity of fine wine? Not likely.

Allow me to eat those words, while introducing you to the pleasures of — ahem — pomegranate wine.

Rimon winery, in Israel's Upper Galilee, has just released a truly excellent dessert wine, made from pomegranates. Not, the owners are quick to point out, like the many other pomegranate alcoholic-beverage products on the market. Rimon's wines (which are kosher-certified, by the way) are produced by crushing the fruit, fermenting it in stainless steel, and then, believe it or not, aging the wine in French oak barrels.

The first question that pops into the brain of a wine geek when hearing this has to be, "How many bags of sugar did they have to add to the vat to get this stuff percolating?" The answer, says Rimon, is none. Instead, the winery owners, Gaby and Avi Nachmias, have developed a new variety of pomegranate, a "super fruit" that they claim is "sweeter, deeper in color and richer in vitamins and antioxidants than other varieties."

Apart from the special fruit, special equipment is required to press the seeds. A major cause of bitter tannins in grape-based wines is rough handling of the fruit. If the grape seeds are crushed or over-manipulated, they can impart some pretty green flavors to the finished wine.

Granted, my experience with pomegranate wines is, well, zilch, but I did find an unusual scent and flavor of chalk or charcoal underlying the pure fruit of the Rimon. It requires a palate adjustment, and some may find it off-putting, though I did not. Is this from the pomegranate seeds — far more numerous than those found in grapes? It's hard to tell, but despite that, this wine seems to have been very carefully managed, and its slightly bitter flavors add texture and depth to the finish.

Rimon's "Black Label" Pomegranate Dessert Wine is packaged in a tall, slender, 500 ml bottle, much like the fancy ice wines from the Okanagan in Canada. It carries a suggested retail price of $38, and is listed at 15 percent alcohol, as it is lightly fortified with pomegranate brandy (to stop fermentation). I do not have the data on the residual sugar, but there is no question that it strolls down the tart and sappy side of the flavor street, with plenty of lip-smacking acid rather than any unctuous sweetness.

I think it qualifies as dessert wine nonetheless, given its exceptional concentration of pure fruit flavor. This is one wine whose flavors can truly be summed up in a single word, and it starts with 'P,' ends with 'E' and smells like pie. I suggest you pair it with a berry pie or tart, or with a bar of pure chocolate, one with a high percentage of cacao, such as Valrhona's vintage-dated Ampamakia from Madagascar.

Rimon also produces pomegranate wines in both dry and fortified styles. The winery was recently awarded the top prize in the "Best New Wine, Beer or Spirit" category at the KosherFest 2007 New Product Competition, the largest kosher food-and-beverage-industry event in the country. For more specifics, visit www.rimonwines.com.

If you want to play it safe, you may wish to pair your Rimon with a more traditional dessert wine. Chateau Ste. Michelle has recently released a pair of late-harvest wines, one from Riesling and another from Chenin Blanc, along with a rare Chenin Blanc ice wine.

All three are packaged in 375 ml bottles and come from the 2006 vintage. My favorite by far is the 'Ethos' Late Harvest White Riesling ($40). This decadently ripe style of Riesling rockets the residual sugar all the way up to 23 percent, keeping the alcohol down at 8 percent. Most important, the balance is impeccable.

In Washington, most late-harvest wines retain their natural acids, providing a buoyant underpinning to what might otherwise become cloying or sugary. This supremely rich and concentrated wine mixes flavors of peach, apricot, banana, mango, papaya and melon in wild profusion. But wait, there's more! Beyond the fruit there is butter and butterscotch, trailing into sweet tea and honey. Apart from Ste. Michelle's much more expensive Single Berry Select Trockenbeerenauslese, this has to be the best dessert wine made in Washington.

Paul Gregutt writes the Wednesday wine column for The Seattle Times and covers Northwest wine for the Wine Enthusiast magazine. Write to him at wine@paulgregutt.com. Benjamin Benschneider is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff photographer.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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