By Charles B. Rubinstein
“It is better to hide ignorance,
but it is hard to do this
when we relax over wine.”
Heraclitus, On the Universe
By now I had expected that most wine lovers would have some familiarity with modern-day kosher wines. That belief was shattered a few weeks ago at a Passover Seder in our home, in which our guests evidenced surprise at the quality of the wines I served. Up until 25 or so years ago kosher wines, particularly in the United States, were made from the Concord grape, and the wines were red, viscous and cloying sweet. With that in mind, perhaps it’s not surprising that the prophet Elijah didn’t show up at those past Seders to drink the wine that was traditionally set out for him. Fortunately, there’s no law that says that kosher wines have to be sweet or that they have to be made from Concord grapes as they were back then.
Kosher wines have come a long way in the last few decades. They are wines to be enjoyed all year round, not just by Jews. To paraphrase the old advertisement for Levy’s Jewish Rye Bread “You don’t have to be Jewish to love kosher wine.” The best of them today belong in the company of the fine wines of the world to be enjoyed by wine lovers everywhere. They come in all styles, made from all the noble grapes and from many of the world’s fine wine regions. Wines I served at the Seder were a case in point. Included were: 2008 Goose Bay Sauvignon Blanc, Marlborough, New Zealand; 2007 Golan Heights Winery Yarden Cabernet Sauvignon, Galilee, Israel; 2008 Barons Edmund et Benjamin de Rothschild, Haut-Médoc, Bordeaux, France. Because the guests at the Seder were surprised by the quality of the wines they questioned whether the wines were kosher. They were indeed. I highly recommend each of the three wines.
The literal meaning of kosher is suitable or fit. What makes a wine kosher is not what Tevye, in Fiddler on the Roof, called tradition. Any grapes can be used. Grapes are inherently kosher. In Israel the laws pertaining to kosher wines extend to the vineyard. Elsewhere they do not. In Israel no wine may be produced from a vine until its fourth year. The vineyard must be left fallow every seventh year, and the same restriction applies in the fiftieth or jubilee year. Only vines may be grown in the vineyards, and one percent of the wine produced must be discarded as a remembrance of the 10 percent tithe paid to the Temple in Jerusalem in ancient times.
Winery operation to produce a kosher wine is the same worldwide. Everything is based on two rules: (1) the wine can’t contain or come in contact with anything that is not allowed in Jewish dietary laws; (2) only Sabbath-observing Jews can come in contact with the wine or the equipment during the winemaking process. The difficulty is in the details. The yeast must be kosher, and many common filtering and fining materials can’t be used such as gelatin, which is an animal product, casein, which is a milk product, and isinglass, which is made from a sturgeon. A fish must have scales to be kosher and a sturgeon has scales only when young. Everything in the winery must be cleaned in a prescribed manner, no soap made from animal products can be used and the barrels must only be used for making kosher wines. To be kosher for Passover the equipment must be cleaned again, and the wine cannot come in contact with any food product that cannot be eaten at Passover.
There is one additional restriction if the wine is to be opened and served from bottle by a non-Jew. The wine must by mevushal, which means cooked in Hebrew. The process involves flash pasteurizing the mixture of grape juice and skins that come from the press. Carried out properly there is no harm done, and there can even be some benefits. Indeed, the highly regarded non-kosher Rhône producer, Château Beaucastel, uses flash pasteurization.
Consumers looking for a kosher wine have to know how to recognize one. In our country a circle with an inscribed “U” or a circle with an inscribed “K” is usually on the back label. A “P” next to the seal indicates that it’s kosher for Passover. Mevushal is usually spelled out, but sometimes it’s in Hebrew. Now that you know what makes a wine kosher and how to identify one, this is a good time to buy a few and try them.
If you have questions or comments about wine write to me at The Two River Times™ or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Pick of the kosher wines
2010 Teperberg Meritage, Judean Hills, Israel ($20)
NV Laurent-Perrier Brut L-P, Champagne ($40)
2004 Château Labegorce, Margaux ($50)
2010 Recanati Chardonnay, Upper Galilee, Israel ($12)
2009 Goose Bay Pinot Noir, East Coast, New Zealand ($20)
2009 Recanati Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve, Galilee, Israel ($20)