Today is the third day of Passover, the eight-day Jewish festival that marks the Hebrews' exodus from Egypt and a time when observant and non-observant Jews require kosher wines for special symbolic meals and ritual sanctification. Although much of the world's supply of such wines is consumed during the holiday, a new generation of on-the-go American Jewish consumers is enjoying them year-round.
Focus on such wines is no longer limited to religious kashrut standards, but rather the usual consumer questions concerning vintage, varietal character and style. Responsive kosher vintners are producing a broad variety of high-styled quality wines that even non-Jews are drinking with interest and pleasure. For me, the true test is whether kosher wines can survive blind taste testings alongside world-class counterparts. More and more they are able to do just that.
Market Growing Fast
Actually, there is no religious reason why kosher wines cannot be as good as any others. Vintners in wine-growing regions like California, France, Italy and Israel employ refined, modern techniques and grapes from time-tested areas like Napa Valley, Sonoma, Bordeaux, Champagne, Piedmonte and the Golan. The market is growing so fast that in a few years the sugary, traditional Concord grape types may become extinct, and kosher wine fanciers may turn to cellaring for maturing like any other fine wine.
A prime example of the new attitude is the ready availability of kosher French Champagne. Imported by the Kedem Royal Wine Co. and carrying an orthodox "OU" on its label is Champagne, Brut, Cuvee, Albert Bokobsa, Comte de Crissier. This is a clean, nicely styled, well-balanced brut from Epernay. Priced at $25, it is obviously a wine for all seasons. Better yet at $37 is Cuvee, du Centennaire Bokobsa, Blanc de Blanc, Brut, 1981 a first-class Epernay Champagne made entirely from Chardonnay grapes.
Another French sparkler is Domaine L'Epinay, a lovely Vouvray from the Loire. From Chenin Blanc grapes, this wine, at $8.98, can compete with the best of Loire sparklers in a light, sweet style made in Champagne's methode Champenoise process.
Claret lovers will not be disappointed in Chateau Laporte Bayard, St. Emilion, 1984, a pleasant, silky, light-structured wine designed for today's drinking at $10 and Baron Jaquab de Herzog, Bordeaux Superieur, 1982, which at $9.50 is a better buy because of vintage superiority, excellent fruit, lean texture and riper flavors.
Other French offerings are Gewurztraminer, 1984, Societe Sigolsheim, from Alsace, which shows a finely spiced nose but lacks acidity and crispness, whereas a Beaujolais Villages, 1985, Roye Lantignie, lacks overall style and character and is not recommended at $8.
Outstanding from Italy is Bartenura's Asti Spumante in a delicate yet full-flavored mode at about $10. A bit heavy handed and showing a bit of sweetness is Bartenura Brut, which should do nicely for informal dining.
Not as heavy-handed as in earlier years is Hungary's Cabernet Sauvignon, Egri, 1982, which has been pasteurized to conform to a stricter kosher wine code of yayin mevooshall. This has a sweeter, more traditional style, made on volcanic soil near Matra Mountain at Eger. It is reasonably priced at $5.99.
Israel's Gamla Winery, with the assistance of American wine consultant Peter Stern, offers a clean, California-like Cabernet Blanc, 1986, with a touch of petillance. It is a good buy at $7.49. A full-flavored Sauvignon Blanc, Special Reserve, 1985, at $8.25 is an even better buy. Produced 100% from Sauvignon Blanc grapes in the Golan Heights, the wine shows a pleasant, slightly sweet, full-fruited taste and ranks well with the best Israel has produced to date.
Nicely flavored, in a light aperitif or dessert style, is Muscato de Gamla, Samson, 1986, at $6.50. Serve it chilled to enjoy a lovely union of orange and sweet Muscat tones. Another sweet standout from Israel is Alexandroni, 1985, Eliaz Binyamini, a full-flavored Muscat wine. Also recommended is a Blush Spumante, Kesser, New York, produced from a charmat bulk process with 8.9% alcohol especially fashioned for those with a strong sweet tooth. Not recommended is New York's Johannisberg Riesling, 1985, Baron de Herzog. It offers a decent, sweet, round taste but without delicacy or distinction.
Unquestionably, the lot of the kosher wine drinker is vastly improved. A decade or two ago, more sophisticated wines would not have been made because observant Jews, as a rule, drink only on spiritual and ritual occasions and indeed are more interested in the authenticity of the kosher certification than in the complexities of the vintage. That aspect of Jewish wine consumption may never change except that now more kosher wine users are also insisting on wines of world-class distinction.