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Kosher Wines Are Not Just For Passover
Kosher wine has, due mostly to its own producers' lack of modern techniques, gotten a "bad rap" for many years. This is particularly true for wines made in, or consumed primarily by, citizens of the United States. Fortunately, vintners have to a great degree caught up with new world wine production philosophies, and are making some wines that pair well with food of all types.
A largely abridged study of history (interspersed with religious practices) explains to some degree why Kosher wines were for so long not competitive to well made products. At the dawn of Judaism, the high priests needed to be certain that wine used for ritual was not enjoyed by Jew or Gentile for "fun." That necessity led to the early boiling of wine, which made it undesirable for enjoyment, yet left it at least drinkable for sacramental purposes. In this country, early Jewish immigrants, needing to produce their own wine in order to make it Kosher, sought out local grapes that were available to them. Typically, only Concord table grapes could be obtained. Though delicious to munch on, Concords turn into very acidic wines that require lots (and lots) of added sugar to make them drinkable. Even at their best, these sweet Kosher wines are, for the modern palate, almost unbearably sweet. Manischewitz though (hail to the past) seems to always find a place on most holiday tables (including ours), and some family members seem to prefer it (besides, would Elijah be found sipping any other brand?). Just as importantly for the Seder table, one could hardly make a decent Charoset without this sweet tradition.
Our own tastes lean toward drier wines, even with traditional Jewish foods. Fortunately, to turn a phrase, one can drink a Kosher wine and enjoy it too. What actually makes a wine "Kosher"? It may not be as you have long surmised.
The simple definition of what makes any food Kosher is that
it is prepared in accordance with Jewish dietary laws. It is not so easy a term
to define as it relates to wine, however. Many Reformed and Conservative interpretations
hold that any wine, just as any fruit, is Kosher in and of itself. However, Orthodox
interpretations inject numerous requirements into the production of a Kosher wine.
Most commentators agree these can be "boiled down" (pun time again)
to include the following:
1. Equipment and machinery used to make the wine is used exclusively for producing Kosher products;
2. Only Sabbath observant Jews can handle the wine from grape crushing to consumption, unless the wine is "Mevushal" (pasteurized), and, if it is, then non observant Jews and Gentiles can be involved with production and service;
3. Only certified Kosher products (yeast, filtering agents, etc.) can be used;
4. No foreign substance, such as milk or gelatin, can be used for clarification (Kosher winemakers use a clay substance called Bentonite to pull suspended particles to the bottom); and
5. No artificial coloring or preservatives can be used.
Importantly for this discussion, while Kosher refers to wines made as above, it is not representative of a distinctive style. Also, the process has no effect on taste. Thus, since there are no prohibitions on styles, varietals, or places of grape origin, almost any wine can qualify as Kosher if made according to the prescribed requirements. This explains why nearly every winemaking country has wineries producing Kosher wines.
What about wines that are "Mevushal?" Does that mean they were boiled to meet pasteurization requirements? Not under modern technology. Technically, in Mevushal wines the crushed juice is flash pasteurized before fermentation for white and blush wines, and just after alcoholic fermentation for reds. Today, flash pasteurization is a sophisticated process where wine is heated to 185 F. for just a few moments, and then cooled "in a flash." The University of California at Davis (the leading wine university in this country) has calculated the time/temperature threshold at which a sensory difference can be perceived, and has concluded that it is not possible to consistently taste the difference between Mevushal and non-Mevushal wine. Modern wineries flash pasteurize at about 1/10 the threshold factor, that is to say, totally undetectable to almost any palate. We have recently tasted a number of wines made with and without the Mevushal process, and we cannot identify which were put through the process, and which were not. So don't let that classification keep you from considering a particular bottle.
In our tasting, we were pleasantly surprised at both the taste and value of the following Kosher wines. Certainly there were none that we would term "undrinkable" (and we are quite picky!), and most went well (and all better) with food.
2000 Beckett's Flat Sauvignon Blanc/Semillon Margaret River W. Australia ($22
- no nose, but grows on you) /// 2001 Recanati Chardonnay Galilee ($15 - our #1
choice of Chards - Napa style, drinks like a more expensive wine) /// 2000 Hagafen
Chardonnay Napa ($18 - good food wine, lighter body, nicely balanced) /// 1999
Weinstock Chardonnay CA ($13 - nice nose, acidic, OK with food) /// 2001 Baron
Herzog Chardonnay CA ($13 - 2nd best for sipping, vanilla nose, acid balance)
/// 2002 Tierra Salvaje Chardonnay Maule Valley, Chile ($9 - big buttery mouth,
lots (and lots) of oak) /// 2002 Barentura Moscato d'Asti Italy ($11 - light,
spritzy and slightly sweet; great aperitif or dessert wine).
Red wines: 2000 Hagafen Pinot Noir CA ($21 - elegant with lovely berry fruit) /// 200l Teal Lake Pinot Noir SE Aus ($16 - strawberries & cherries, good value) /// 2000 Recanati Merlot Galilee ($15 - big nose, full mouth with smoke and earth) /// 2001 Tierra Salvaje Tempranillo Vecla Spain ($9 - light with cola tones, lacks structure and finish) /// 2000 Bartentura Chianti Tuscany, Italy ($11 - light body, flat finish) /// 2001 Yarmen Mt. Hermon Red blend ($11 - Cab/Merlot/Cab Franc with good nose & big fruity mouth) /// 2000 Weinstock Cabernet Sauvignon CA ($13 - earthy, gamey - red meat wine) /// 2000 Recanati Cabernet Reserve ($20 - single vineyard, big fruit, long yummy finish) /// 2001 Tierra Salvaje Malbec Mendoza Argentina ($9 - full mouth, long finish, great value) /// 2000 Baron Herzog Red Zinfandel Lodi CA ($13 - light body, but nice spicy, berry fruitiness).
Wine writers and educators Monty and Sara Preiser divide their time between Palm Beach County, Florida and the Napa Valley in California. They publish the world's most comprehensive guide to Napa Valley wineries and restaurants titled, appropriately, The Preiser Key to Napa Valley.