Hold onto your matzoh balls; kosher wines are getting better. 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 Rosh Hashanah holidays. In the last 20 or so years, new kosher producers have bested the granddaddy of kosher wine, Manischewitz, by expanding varietal choices and delivering goods even non-Jews should deign to consume.
American kosher wines are rooted in upstate New York, home to the indigenous Concord grape. Early 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 vinafera grape family (cabernet, chardonnay, merlot, etc.), the Concord is brutally acidic (like sucking on a key lime), and forms the base for traditional kosher wines. To overcome the high acid and make a palatable product, the winemaker has to add loads of sugar. So historically, American kosher juice has been a diabetic's nightmare.
But with California wineries like Baron Herzog, Gan Eden and Weinstock using vitis vinafera grapes, the challenge to kosher's sugary stigma has begun. In addition, improvements in shipping technology have introduced praiseworthy, high-octane chardonnays and cabernets from Israel, France, Chile and Australia.
What makes wine kosher?
Contrary to some beliefs, kosher wines are created the same way as other wines, only with a few stringent regulations. According to the folks 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 the use of 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 through the bottling stage, until the cork and seal are in place.
Kosher wine: a celebratory rite
Wines have deep significance in Jewish high holy days. During Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year in early October, wines are poured during the celebration dinners. Spring's Seder meal to celebrate Passover highlights wine in the festivities. At this elaborate dinner, participants consume four samples of kosher wine at appropriate times during the dinner to represent the four stages of the Israelites' exodus from Egypt: freedom, deliverance, redemption and release. Both red and white wines can be used, but red is preferred because it represents the blood spilled in Egypt.
With better wines to choose from, kosher 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 Cab pairs just as well with gefilte fish as with grilled chicken breast. Shalom.
Golan Heights 2003 Cabernet Sauvignon Galilee (Israel) With aromas of sweet cherries and ripe raspberries floating up your nose, this masculine, earthy red follows through in the mouth with bright, cheery berries. Easily worthy of non-kosher consumption. Sweetness = 1. $13. *** 1/2
Baron Herzog 2003 Chenin Blanc California Clean, citrusy and refreshing, this slightly sweet Chenin can chill out any spicy dish. This white goes down easy, especially on the wallet. Sw = 3. $8 *** 1/2
Carmel 2003 Private Selection Chardonnay/Sauvignon Blanc (Israel) A fantastic wine for anytime, not just kosher occasions. It shows off the best of both grapes in the blend: delicious, tart grapefruit with a hefty dose of rich, creamy butter on the tongue and finish. Sw = 2. $17. ****