A look at making kosher wines
November 24, 2008 · Updated 6:51 PM
By Dee Hitch
A few years ago, ``kosher'' wine meant that syrupy sweet stuff. Later when I realized that there were varietal kosher wines like chardonnay and cabernet, I mentally filed them into a category that I could ignore. Now I am enlightened! But before sharing notes of good, locally available kosher wines, I need to describe three special terms that you can find on the back labels of those wines: kosher; mevushal; and ``kosher for Passover.''
Kosher wine must be made in accordance with Jewish dietary laws, but does not represent a style of winemaking and has no effect on its taste. Because any grapes can be used, more than 400 kosher wines are available from around the world, including many from Argentina, Australia, New York, California, France, Israel, and Italy.
To be kosher, several special rules must be followed during its production. Equipment used during the process must be used exclusively for producing the wine, only certified kosher products may be used in processing, and stringent filtration procedures must be followed. Also, from grape crushing to the sealing of the bottle, only Sabbath-observant Jews (those who observe kosher dietary laws) may physically handle the grapes, production equipment, and wine. Entrance to the wine production area for anyone else is forbidden.
Mevushal (the Hebrew word for cooked or boiled) is actually a classification of kosher wine. But why boil wine? The practice apparently evolved from an ancient pagan belief that boiled wine was unfit for pagan ceremonies. Jews would therefore boil the wine they produced for their own ceremonies to keep it from being used in the ceremonies of ``idol worshippers.'' Now isn't this a great wine trivia question?
Thankfully modern techniques have done away with haphazard boiling. The modern procedure of making wine is flash pasteurization. The must -- which is simply the crushed grapes or grape juice ready for fermentation -- is quickly heated and then rapidly cooled. The rest of the fermentation and winemaking process then progresses as it would for non-kosher wine.
Fortunately, the process does not seem to alter the wine's quality. You can taste the wines and decide for yourself, but a study at the University of California at Davis concluded that it's impossible to taste the difference between identical wines that differ only because of the added pasteurization process
Why boil wine today? Non-mevushal wine loses its kosherness when opened and poured by a non-Jew. The pasteurized wine retains its kosher status, even if it is touched by non-Jewish hands. Mevushal wines are especially handy for events where the catering staff may not be Jewish.
The final classification that normally is displayed on the label of a kosher wine is ``Wine for Passover.'' The qualification for this category effectively prevents the addition of certain sweetening agents that are normally used in concord-based wines including standard Manischewitz wines. For that reason, Manischewitz produces a special wine for Passover that simply uses acceptable sweetening agents. The labels on the wine bottle need to be carefully inspected to differentiate these two because there is a small designation on the front label; otherwise they appear identical. Fortunately, other than concord grape wines, most mevushal wines are also Passover wines because they do not require the addition of sweetening agents. Speaking about Manischewitz, why is this viewed by so many as the traditional kosher wine in the United States? History tells the story.
The concord grape was the only variety that was available for Jewish immigrants arriving in the New York area. It is an acidic table grape that is normally balanced with sugar and is used for Manischewitz and other similar wines. As time passed, the sweetened concord wine became such a tradition that important wine educators defined sweet red table wines that have a concord aroma as a ``kosher-type'' wine.
Are there available, quality kosher wines produced from varietals like cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay? Fortunately, the answer is yes, but usually only a small selection is stocked by retailers. I hosted a tasting of some kosher wines and found most were quite good. Join me and enjoy kosher wines as an everyday choice.
Dee Hitch can be reached at email@example.com
Sidebar: Wines Tasted
All the wines I describe are Mevushal, Kosher for Passover and are available locally. The kosher classification information is found on the wines' back label.
Bartenura moscato d'Asti 2003 Italy ($12)
A delightful Italian fruity white wine made from the Moscato grape. It is fun to drink because it is spritzy, and has the flavors of peach and apricot. Good by itself, it would be nice with chicken dishes and desserts. Better yet, it is very low in alcohol (5% vs 13% for most wines) which is wonderful because several glasses can be sipped without much concern about drinking too much. This wine's award of 90 points by the Wine Enthusiast is well deserved, and it should be a wine that everyone should have on hand. This was our favorite wine of the tasting.
Baron Herzog zinfandel 2002 Lodi Calif. ($11)
This was our favorite red wine of the tasting because it nicely presented the spicy aromas and layers of berry that are characteristic of above average zins. It has the nice acidity that is important when paired with full-flavored dishes. After our tasting, we enjoyed it with smoked salmon and grilled marinated tri-tip beef. We will be serving it again.
Teal Lake shiraz 2003 Australia ($11)
This is a light to medium bodied Shiraz that has spicy cherry flavors and a soft finish. It would nicely accompany brisket, turkey, veal and chicken.
Baron Herzog chardonnay 2003 Central Coast Calif. ($11)
Our favorite chardonnay, this wine was fresh and clean with aromas of apple and light oak. It had a long finish and was a good example of a central coast chardonnay.
Baron Herzog cabernet sauvignon 2002 Calif ($11)
This is a medium bodied cabernet with aromas of blackberry and a touch of oak with a pleasant finish. Pair it with beef.
Recanati is a relatively new winery in Israel which has received good reviews.
Recanati cabernet sauvignon Galilee 2002 Israel ($14)
This was our favorite of the Recanati wines because of its complexity, and interesting hints of spices.
Recanati merlot Galilee 2002 Israel ($14)
Soft, pleasant, round merlot but not a match for Washington merlots.
Recanati chardonnay Galilee 2002 Israel ($14)
Barrel fermented and aged on the lees.