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Not just for seder anymore

Kosher wines begin ascent to the quality realm

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Hold onto your matzoh balls; it's kosher-wine season. For years, these religiously important wines did not exactly scream quality; instead, they were thick, syrupy sweet and dessertlike. But there's good news for the approaching Jewish high holies. In the last 20 or so years, new kosher producers have emerged to take on the granddaddy of kosher wine, Manischewitz, by expanding varietal choices and delivering juice even the nonreligious might deign to consume.

American kosher wines are rooted in upstate New York, home to our 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 vinifera 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 create a palatable product, the winemaker has to add loads of sugar, cooking up a drink not particularly enjoyable outside of kosher occasions.

But things are looking up. Domestic and Israeli wineries such as Baron Herzog, Golan Heights and Barkan produce wine from vitis vinifera grapes, and dry kosher wine has begun its ascent into the quality realm. Israel even boasts more than 175 wineries, a figure that has risen dramatically in the past 10 years.

What makes wine kosher?

Contrary to some beliefs, kosher wines are created the same way as all others, only with a few stringent rules. According to the folks at Royal Wines, America's leading kosher wine producer, there are two rules when making kosher wines: 1) Animal-derived material, such as gelatin, is forbidden in the wine-making 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 wine-making 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 celebratory dinners. And spring's Passover seder meal also highlights wine in the festivities. But with better wines to choose from, kosher diners can now kick up their heels and explore the dry side, and perhaps it's time non-Jews venture out and explore the kosher plains. Besides, kosher cab pairs just as well with gefilte fish as with pot roast. Shalom.

Recommended Kosher Wines

Baron Herzog 2003 Cabernet Sauvignon (California) Aromas of bittersweet chocolate and sweet cherries carry into the sip. Follows with smoky plum and an earthy mushroom aftertaste. Good, strong acidity makes it great for pairing with food. Sw = 1. $13. ****

Note: The Herzog chardonnay, both the French and American, sucked.

Golan Heights Winery Yarden 2002 Syrah Galilee (Israel) Ripe cherry with sweet vanilla and blackberry start it, and prunes and strong brewed tea head in afterward. Excellent food wine with anything hearty. Sw = 1. $20. ****

Golan Heights Winery Yarden 2004 Chardonnay Galilee (Israel) Oaky, buttery and slightly lemony. Ripe, sweet fruit like pears and nectarine round it out. Made from organic grapes. Sw = 2. $15. ***

Barkan 2003 Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve Galilee (Israel) In this lighter wine, dark berry fruit and earthy espresso mix to form an acceptable cabernet. A bit overpriced, but the easy tannins and balanced acidity make it a crowd pleaser. Sw = 1. $20. ** 1/2

Note: Many of these wines are available online at kosherwine.com.

Sweetness (Sw) rating is out of 10, 10 being pure sugar. Star (*) rating is out of 5, 5 being wine nirvana.

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