When Passover begins at sundown on the 29th of March, I'll remember my mother, Ruth, who liked to tell a story about my first taste of wine. I was 5 years old, and we were sitting through hours of stories, prayers and songs before the almost opulent Passover Seder meal. Children asked the Four Questions (in Hebrew, even though nobody at our table understood the language), which boiled down to: "Why is this night different from every other night?" Well, one of the big differences was that I got to have wine with my matzo as everyone sang in honor of Elijah, the messenger of the Messiah.
According to my mother, when I tasted a few drops of the too-sweet, too-alcoholic, food-hostile, bad-boogey, Concord grape Manischewitz, I recoiled and asked, "Don't we have anything better than this?" Mom almost cried with laughter as she comically lamented, "Even at 5 years old, you were a wine snob, Stevie!"
The image of kosher wines, until recently, has been very close to the wine I rejected in my youth. The traditional, virtually undrinkable jug of Mogen David or Manischewitz will always be available for those who want it, but I am happy to report that kosher wines do not have to be the product of God in His or Her wrathful phase; I no longer feel as though I am atoning for serious sins when I taste them.
The best "new" kosher wines are great wines that just happen to be kosher, and producers from the United States, Italy, Spain, France, Australia, Chile and, of course, Israel allow wine lovers of all religious persuasions -- including those who worship only Bacchus -- to enjoy without suffering, without guilt (a big step forward for anyone who was raised in a traditional Jewish home, where guilt is a dish best served either hot or cold, but repeatedly).
So what makes a wine kosher? Most Conservative and Reform Jews believe that all wines -- like all fruits -- are kosher inherently. But this interpretation flies in the face of Orthodox Jewish law and custom, which includes the following rules:
- As with all kosher food products, the wine must be made under the general supervision of a rabbi who must be licensed to perform such duties.
- All equipment must be used to produce only kosher wines. If a wine is certified as "kosher for Passover," equipment and machinery must undergo a special cleaning procedure and can be used only for that purpose.
- Any yeasts, filtering agents, or clarifying agents must be certified as kosher. Since no milk or gelatin can be used for clarification, the overwhelming majority of kosher wines are clarified with Bentonite clay or Diatomaceous earth (and are therefore vegan-friendly).
- No artificial coloring or preservatives can be used.
- Unless the wine has gone through a pasteurization process known as "Mevushal," only Sabbath-observant Jews can be involved in the growing of the grapes, the winemaking process, the service of the wine, and the consumption of the wine, although in practice many don't observe this rule.
"Mevushal," which in Hebrew means "boiled," is actually a flash heating and cooling process that is perhaps as much ritual as it is science, and harkens back to the origins of Judaism itself. The most revered rabbis insisted that all wine must be boiled so that the wines would not taste good enough to enjoy for pleasure; just barely good enough to drink to observe the sacraments of faith (again with the guilt!).
Happily, today, the process calls for the juice or wine to be heated to 185ºF for just a few moments, and then cooled very quickly. According to the University of California at Davis, Mevushal wines do not even come close to the time and temperature threshold at which a wine drinker can perceive any difference in color, nose or taste of the wine.
Good kosher wines, both Mevushal and non-Mevushal, are increasingly available to the general public in wine shops and restaurants and via the Internet. These wines are worth tasting by all those who enjoy good wine, and also make a thoughtful gift if you're having dinner at the home of a friend who "keeps kosher."
Some of the exciting kosher wines that I've tasted recently include (unless indicated otherwise, all wines are Mevushal and Kosher for Passover):
Four Gates Winery: Santa Cruz Mountains Chardonnay 2007 and Santa Cruz Mountains Pinot Noir 2000 (Non-Mevushal)
Benyamin Cantz produces certified organic, estate-bottled wines produced from dry-farmed vineyards on a south-facing slope of the Santa Cruz Mountains. At a total production of 3,600 bottles (300 cases), Four Gates is the smallest kosher winery and the only certified organic kosher winery in the United States. Both the Chardonnay (about $25) and the Pinot Noir ($25, not currently available) are two of the purest, most balanced, terroir-driven wines I have tasted from California in quite some time. Four Gates also produces estate-bottled organic Cabernet Franc ($36) and Merlot ($28), true artisan wines made by a dedicated mensch. Best wines and best values of my entire kosher tasting. To find out more about Four Gates, or to purchase wines, do yourself a mitzvah and go to: www.fourgateswine.com.
Baron Herzog Zinfandel "Old Vines" Lodi 2007, and Herzog Cabernet Sauvignon Special Reserve, Napa Valley 2006 (Non-Meshuval)
Herzog is the major California line produced by the Royal Wine Co., the world's largest producer of kosher wines. Over the years, Herzog wines have shown an impressive improvement in both grape sourcing and winemaking. Today, some of the wines are among the best available from California. The Zinfandel ($13) and the Cabernet Sauvignon ($38) really are extraordinary. The Zinfandel is sourced from 70-year-old vines grown in the Richard Watts vineyard, is minimally filtered, and is a testament to the flavors derived from an older single vineyard and good winemaking: blackberries and pepper, coupled with some gentle oak overtones; an incredible value. Winemaker Joe Hurliman has treated the Cabernet Sauvignon with great care: It sees 20 months in French oak help to round the structural edge of the wine, which is redolent with the flavors of blackberries and cassis.
Note: Israel produces both kosher and non-kosher wines; check the label if you are looking for kosher wines only.
Binyamina Chardonnay Upper Galilee 2008 and Carmel Vineyard Selected Emerald Riesling/Chenin Blanc Shomron 2007
Both Binyamina and Carmel are part of the Royal Wine Company. I really enjoyed the blend of 60 percent Emerald Riesling and 40 percent Chenin Blanc (about $12); a fruity off-dry sipper, great for spicy foods, lighter fish dishes, and salads. The Chardonnay (about $17) is well-made with luscious fruit and toasty oak, but as I have found in so many Israeli wines, lacking a sense of place. Drip irrigation was invented in Israel, and is essential to grape growing in the desert. However, the roots of the watered vines do not go deep in the soils for water and nutrients, and the resulting flavors in the grapes and finished wines lack complexity, the sign of a truly great wine.
I also tasted good non-Mevushal 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon ($17) and 2008 Merlot ($15) from Israel, made by Galil from fruit grown in the highly regarded cool climate region of Upper Galilee.
Several Champagne producers, including Perrier-Jouët and Nicolas Feuillatte produce kosher versions of their wines, as do about 20 Bordeaux châteaux (including Giscours, Leoville-Poyferre, and Fonbadet). Fortant de France makes kosher versions of their vin de pays varietals. Roberto Cohen is a major kosher négociant in Burgundy, producing everything from Beaujolais to Chablis to Grand Cru Burgundy (Clos de Vougeot 2000: $324; Charmes-Chambertin 2000: $295). Kosher wines are available from Alsace (look for Abarbanel), the Loire and the Rhone, as well.
In Spain, Tio Pepe, the Sherry that even rival Sherry producers bring as a gift, makes a lovely kosher Fino Sherry ($13). I very much enjoyed a lively 2006 Rioja Cosecha from Ramon Cardova ($12), made from 100 percent Tempranillo grapes picked from old vines in Haro. Tierra Salvaje, which extends its reach to kosher wines made in Chile and Argentina as well, produces a kosher Brut Reserva Cava ($16).
Italy, too, produces some good kosher wines, with Bartenura importing wines from Piemonte and Veneto. Rashi makes a good Barolo (the 2004 is about $50), while Borgo focuses on the province of Puglia in the South.
Alfasi is the major kosher producer here, with Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Malbec/Syrah bottlings all selling for under $10. The wines are well made and true to their varietal types; good values.
Estate-bottled kosher wines are made by Beckett's Flat in the Margaret River region. Shiraz (about $25); Chardonnay ($30); Sauvignon Blanc/Semillon ($25). Teal Lake is the kosher category leader here with solid wines at about $10-$15 from the South Eastern Australia mega-appellation. I enjoyed the Teal Lake Shiraz quite a bit.
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Kosher wines are a fast-growing segment in the wine industry, and I have just scratched the surface here. Retailers and restaurateurs are bound to have some of the wines, and try kosherwine.com for a good selection and machers.com for a basic introduction to kosher wines in general.
The evolution of quality kosher wine has been exciting to watch and to taste. The wines have certainly come a long way since I was 5 years old, tasting wine for the first time at the family Seder table. However, this sea change in quality leaves the same burning question I asked my mother 50 years ago: "Does Elijah drink only Manischewitz?"