Buying and Enjoying Kosher Wine
I clearly remember the exact moment in my life in which I realized that I needed a working knowledge of kosher wines. I sat across from my husband at our dining room table, bleary-eyed from sleep deprivation and somewhat shaky with exhaustion. We were checking off items on a rather long and daunting list, and we were finally nearing completion of this somewhat tiresome task, both of us eagerly anticipating some much needed sleep and relaxation. “Did you pick up the challah?” my husband inquired anxiously. I nodded my assent. “And the wine?” Our eyes met over the downy head of our tenuously sleeping seven-day-old son. In keeping with Jewish tradition, we had scheduled our son’s Brit milah for the following morning. And I had not only forgotten to buy the wine, but had not the slightest idea how to select a wine for such an occasion.
After our panicked midnight trip to a local grocery store to buy the sole remaining (and rather dusty) bottle of Manischewitz wine, we returned home and celebrated the bris without further incident, but I was left with a nearly full bottle of thick, cloyingly sweet kosher wine which sat in our refrigerator nearly until the day our son started first grade. Perhaps more importantly, I was left with an unresolved question: Were there kosher wines available that would satisfy the edicts of Jewish Holy Law while simultaneously satisfying the discriminating palate of a true wine lover? I was certain there must be, and I set out to do some research. Perhaps this information can save you from a similar moment of brief anxiety, or alternatively, guide you in your choice of an excellent kosher champagne for your wedding ceremony or a well-balanced kosher Passover wine.
What Makes Wine Kosher?
Wine has historically been of paramount significance in the Jewish faith. Almost all Jewish holidays, most notably Passover, involve the Kiddush (blessing) which is ceremonially performed over the wine or grape juice, recalling the goodness of the Creator. At marriages and circumcisions, the blessing is specific to the wine: “Blessed are You, Lord, our God, King of the Universe, who creates the fruit of the vine.”
Kosher wine is manufactured in the same manner as other table wines, but with an extra set of rules in place to ensure it is consistent with kashrut, or Jewish dietary law. The restrictions on making kosher wine largely address the process of wine-making and the handling of the wine, since very few of the ingredients traditionally used in wine-making are themselves proscribed by Jewish law. Kosher wines must be made under the strict supervision of a rabbi, with an observant Jew involved in the complete vinification process from harvest to bottling. The wine must be made on equipment that the rabbi has deemed suitable for manufacturing kosher wine. Any ingredients used in the wine-making process must, of course, be kosher, which excludes the use of gelatins and casein (a milk protein sometimes used to help clarify wine). Kosher for Passover wines must be free of any ingredients that derive from grain-based products, not a problem for most fine wine, but a necessity for some of the sweetened Concord grape-based varieties that have been traditionally synonymous with kosher wine in the United States. Consequently, wines that are sometimes sweetened with corn syrup (such as that famous Manischewitz) must be produced especially for Passover without such additives, certified, and clearly labeled, “kosher for Passover”.
Mevushal and Non-Mevushal Wines: An Important Distinction
There are two types of kosher wine, mevushal and non-mevushal, and the distinction is critical to those who practice the Jewish faith. Non-mevushal wine can only be handled, touched, and consumed by Sabbath-observant Jews, or it loses its kosher designation, and is considered to be unfit for sacramental use. Mevushal wine is heated to a certain temperature, and thereby maintains its kosher identity even when handled by and served to non-Jews. As such, mevushal wines are the logical choice of kosher restaurants and caterers. Today, mevushal wine is flash pasteurized before aging, a process which very briefly exposes the wine to heat, alleged to have only a very subtle, if not imperceptible, effect on the flavor and character of the wine. Some wine-makers, however, shun the pasteurization process, insisting that it does subtly impact a wine's flavor; these makers must designate their products as non-mevushal. Luckily, the large majority of kosher wines manufactured today are mevushal, and most kosher wines clearly indicate on the back label whether the wine is mevushal or non-mevushal. Clearly, unless you are attending a gathering exclusively in the company of other observant Jews, it is most practical and convenient to opt for a mevushal wine if the kosher designation is important to you or your guests.
Great Books about Kosher Wine and Food
Some Recommended Wines:
Yarden Gewurztraminer 2007: On the sweet side, but refreshing and spicy.
Covenant Cabernet Sauvignon 2008: Definitely a big-ticket wine, but worth the investment. This, like all of the Covenant wines, is a non-mevushal wine. Red C, Covenant’s second tier label, also delivers great quality at a slightly lower price.
Goose Bay Pinot Noir 2006: The more recent vintages of this wine are tasty as well, but the 2006 vintage has superior flavor for only a dollar or two more. This is a New Zealand wine with pronounced cherry overtones.
Herzog Chenin Blanc 2008: What this very inexpensive wine lacks in complexity, it makes up for in drinkability. Have a glass or two of this semi-dry California wine. Mevushal.
Bartenura Prosecco Brut: This delicious, lightly sparkling, food-friendly Italian wine is a refreshing substitute for champagne, and at a fraction of the price. This is my personal favorite in the bunch, perfect for a celebration or for a summer night on the patio. Bartenura also makes a very passable Pinot Noir, for those occasions when a red wine is more appropriate.
Where Can I Buy Quality Kosher Wines?
Most of the significant wine-producing regions in the world now craft high-quality, nuanced kosher wines. Europe and Israel have always utilized classic grape varieties in the manufacture of kosher wines; many American vineyards have taken their lead, and superb kosher wine is easier than ever to procure. However, with the expansion of quality kosher wine-making comes a greater challenge in narrowing your choice of wine. If you can’t afford a Baron Rothschild (perhaps the most famous kosher wine, and rightly so) for your next gathering, be assured that there are many other delectable choices, and many places to buy kosher wine online, which is very convenient unless you are planning a Brit milah at midnight.
Several online wine merchants offer kosher wines in all price ranges, as well as recipes, suggested wine and food pairings, kosher wine gift baskets, and very tempting bargain basement sections. Also available is a kosher wine club which offers two bottles of carefully selected wine per month, a great way to explore the world of kosher wines. Another site offers sampler packs, which are multi-bottle packs of selected wines which make ideal gifts for the kosher wine enthusiast. Also available are in-depth articles on a variety of wine-related topics, and detailed tasting notes written by qualified experts.
For More Information About Kosher Wines:
- The Kosher Wine Review
The kosher wine review website features many detailed reviews of kosher wines as well as information about kosher wine-making for novices and industry professionals alike. This site features many wines from lesser known regions. A great resource!
A Kosher Wine Tasting
The Happy Ending
As you can probably tell, after my momentous late-night Manischewitz run, I did my homework and luckily, I did learn quite a bit about kosher wine. Fortunately, three years later, we were blessed with another son. And I can assure you that at my younger son’s Brit milah, the wine was superior, worthy of being our son’s first worldly taste of the fruit of the vine. We easily finished the bottle with the meal afterwards. May you enjoy the same pleasures. Mazel tov!