Hold onto your matzoh balls, here come the kosher wines. Traditionally, these religiously important wines have not exactly screamed quality; instead they were thick, syrup-sweet tongue-attackers. But, there’s good news for the approaching holiday. In the last 15 or 20 years, kosher wines have improved dramatically and arrived at a new level of everyday people-pleasing quality.
American kosher wines are rooted in upstate New York, home to the indigenous Concord grape. Early settlers and Jewish immigrants set up shop fermenting these wild grapes — the same used by Dr. Thomas Welch in his famous juice. A distant cousin of the esteemed European vitis vinifera grape family (Cabernet, Chardonnay, Merlot, etc.), the Concord is brutally acidic (like sucking on a key lime) and forms the base for the granddaddy of kosher wine, Manischewitz. To overcome the high acid to make a palatable product, the winemaker has to add loads of sugar. So historically, American kosher wine has been synonymous with a diabetic’s nightmare.
But with the kosher wine movement in California towards vitis vinifera grapes, wineries like Baron Herzog, Gan Eden and Weinstock are challenging their sugary stigma. In addition, improvements in shipping technology have introduced high octane Merlots and Cabernets from Israel, France, Chile and Australia. But with all that, worldwide sales still hover at only a million cases per year, mostly sold around Passover. To move the needle, kosher wine producers are expanding varietal choices and delivering better quality wine that — gasp! — even non-Jews would deign to consume.
What makes wine kosher? Contrary to some beliefs, kosher wines are born the same way as other wines, only with a few stringent rules. According to Peter Stern — Director of Winemaking at Royal Wines, America’s leading kosher wine producer — there are two rules when making wines kosher: 1) Animal-derived material, such as gelatin, is forbidden in the winemaking process. One exception is using egg whites (from eggs containing no blood) in the “fining” or “clarifying” stage, a voluntary step that removes sediment left over from fermentation. 2) From beginning to end, all equipment must be kosher; for example, the fermentation tanks must be “koshered” (sanitized with a special hot water spray process) and Orthodox Jewish workers must handle all winemaking duties. This rule continues all the way through the bottling stage, until after the cork and seal are in place.
Wines have deep significance in the Jewish high holy days. During elaborate dinners, participants consume wine not only to celebrate, but for religious reasons. Great to have an excuse, right? With better wines to choose from, holiday diners can now kick up their heels and escape to dry wines, but it’s high time non-Jews venture out and explore the kosher plains. Besides, kosher Zin pairs just as well with gefelte fish as with spicy grilled chicken breast. Shalom.
Some recommended Kosher wines:
Baron Herzog Zinfandel (California)
Golan Hieghts “Yarden” Cabernet Sauvignon (Israel)
Golan Heights “Yarden” Chardonnay(Israel)
Alfasi Valle de Maule Cabernet Sauvignon (Chile)
Barkan Chardonnay (Israel)
Covenant “Red C” Cabernet Sauvignon (California)
Weinstock Chardonnay (California)
Baron Herzog Chenin Blanc (California)