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Kosher wine gets a passport

Times Staff Writer

Years ago, a writer brought a French friend to her parents’ Seder. When the Manischewitz was poured, the French girl automatically picked up her glass and swirled it. The writer’s mother cried out in dismay, “Stop! Don’t smell it!”

Many Jews have mixed feelings about the traditional sugary, purple kosher wine. On one hand, it’s familiar and guaranteed kosher for Passover. On the other, everybody’s much more wine-aware these days, and the Concord grape -- actually a different species (Vitis labrusca) than the European wine grape (V. vinifera) -- just doesn’t make decent table wine. The only food it really goes with, as they say, is peanut butter.

So in the last few decades, more and more wineries have been making kosher wine that tastes like table wine. Mostly they’re in Israel and California, but you can find kosher wines from many of the great winemaking regions in the world, and none of them is a sweet Concord. They’re Cabernets and Zinfandels and Chardonnays, Tempranillos and Nebbiolos, and recently quite a few made from Syrah (Shiraz). There are even kosher Champagnes.

Some of these operations are still feeling their way, but the best don’t give you the feeling that you’re settling for something. They make decent wines that would complement a Passover brisket or lamb nicely. (Finding a good match for gefilte fish might be another story.)

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The largest producer and distributor of kosher wine is New Jersey-based Royal Wine Corp., which makes its own wine in California and imports wine from Australia, Italy, France, Chile, Israel and Hungary under various arrangements -- it distributes wine from kosher wineries in Israel and Australia, for instance, and it contracts with wineries in other countries to make a kosher cuvee. This fall it will open its own kosher winery in Oxnard -- it will be the largest new California winery since the boom years of the ‘90s. New York-based Abarbanel Wines imports from France, Italy, Chile, Australia, South Africa and most recently Portugal -- its Terras de Belmonte is the first kosher wine to be made in Portugal in 500 years. Abarbanel is a smaller operation and its wines are somewhat harder to find.

Kosher wineries operate under special restrictions, of course, but there’s nothing in them to harm the quality of wine. Far from it, in fact. The wines have to be clarified with bentonite clay instead of gelatin or the traditional egg white, but many nonkosher winemakers use bentonite. The yeasts have to come from certain lines of recognized purity, the grapes must be from vines at least four years old and everything involved in the winemaking has to be scrupulously clean. All to the good.

Help is hard to find

Most kosher wines are mevushal, meaning the grape juice has been flash-pasteurized. This certainly can’t help the flavor, so a number of wineries now specialize in non-mevushal wine, which is no less kosher than mevushal, except that it ceases to be kosher if anybody but an observant Jew opens the bottle. Obviously, if you’re serving a non-mevushal wine, you should make sure your atheist aunt Eleanor isn’t handed a corkscrew. Even in Israel, most restaurants serve mevushal wine because of a shortage of observant waiters.

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But winemakers have gotten dramatically better at making mevushal wines in recent years. At a tasting at the Los Angeles Times last week, half the wines the tasting panel liked best were mevushal. Of the six wines we liked least, only one was mevushal. The problem that has plagued kosher wineries in the past, and continues to burden some of them -- whether the wines they’re making are mevushal or not -- seems to be the requirement that the people who make the wine, the cellar crew, be strict Sabbath-observant Jews who don’t so much as turn on an electrical appliance between sundown Friday and sundown Saturday. This creates a labor shortage -- most winemaking regions, such as Napa Valley, don’t have a significant Orthodox community. Many of the new breed of kosher winemakers are having to pass through the same learning curve that California winemakers did in the last 50 years, but with a much smaller labor pool to hire from. And the fact is, wine is not chopped liver. Some individuals just have way more of a knack for making it than others.

Looking back on the tasting, we were struck by prevalence of red wines among our choices. Only one of our favorites was a white, and it wasn’t a pure Chardonnay -- not even in this Age of Chardonnay. (There are several kosher Champagnes, though we didn’t try them: Nicolas Feuillatte, Laurent-Perrier and Heidsieck Monopole among them.) What’s going on? Do the winemakers themselves prefer reds? Or are they just reluctant to stray too far down the rainbow from purple?

At any rate, the dominion of Concord is broken. And it’s now safe to smell the wine at a Seder.


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