Drinking Kosher: How Kosher Wine Became the Norm

Those who observe the Jewish holidays with a glass of kosher wine are onto something
Kosher wine is no longer frowned upon at the dinnertable.

As Jews around the world prepare for the new year and the High Holy Days — Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur — there’s one very important part of the table: the wine. And at these special meals, it’s kosher wine that most often accompanies the food. But despite kosher wine’s ancient roots (it traces back all the way to biblical times), some grimace at the thought of drinking a glass. But what if kosher wine was what held the standard for winemakers worldwide?

Kosher winemaking "is nothing new," says Christopher Sawyer, an internationally renowned sommelier and the advisor of wine directory likelii.com. "What’s interesting is that kosher wine is [going], in today’s standards, the same direction organic wine is going: growing organic grapes, adding no manufactured ingredients. It’s what this whole philosophy behind kosher wine has been based on for thousands of years."

What is it that differentiates kosher wine from the non-kosher wine at the dinner table? Contrary to popular belief, says wine tasting director at Wine Enthusiast magazine Lauren Buzzeo, there’s little difference. "The techniques used during production are almost identical; there are just some guidelines to be observed in order to achieve kosher status," she says.

For starters, there’s the matter of ingredients: Kosher wines contain no additives, or anything considered "trayfe" — or unfit, says Lisa Alcalay Klug, author of Cool Jew and her new book, out in October, Hot Mamalah. That includes commercial yeast and animal-based fining agents, such as gelatin, isinglass, or egg whites. However, while all ingredients in kosher wine must be kosher-certified, most wine ingredients are already kosher, says Buzzeo.

And then there’s the matter of the winemakers themselves. Throughout the entire winemaking process, kosher wine can be handled only by Sabbath-observant Jews — from harvesting the grapes through fermentation and bottling. The wine also has to be supervised by a mashgiach, who oversees production. However, there’s one category of kosher wine that can be handled by non-Jews — and it’s the wine that gives all kosher sips a bad rep. "Mevushal" wine, literally meaning "cooked," is wine that’s been boiled or flash-pasteurized. That’s what gives it the often rubbery, raisin-like, stewed fruit flavor that many of us associate with kosher wines — yikes. "Old-fashioned, sweet kosher wine, such as Manischewitz, is boiled or pasteurized, and for this reason, many kosher wines had a bad rap," Klug says. "But in recent years, with the introduction of gourmet kosher wines in the U.S., Israel, and abroad, that step is abandoned or substituted with flash pasteurization," Klug says.

Fortunately, mevushal wines no longer need to be frowned upon: thanks to major technological advances in winemaking, Buzzeo says, the quality of mevushal wine has improved. "In the past, mevushal practices truly did result in boiled wine — hardly conducive to high quality," Buzzeo says. But since the introduction of flash-pasteurization (exposing the wine to temperatures of 71 to 74 degrees Celsius for about 15 to 30 seconds while moving in a continuous flow), she says, kosher wine isn’t as damaged by high temperatures, and can maintain its original color and flavor.

Today’s lineup of kosher wines isn’t limited to Manischewitz; kosher wine today comes from a multitude of wine regions and a variety of grapes. Buzzeo says that some of the best kosher wines are now from Israel — though not every wine from Israel is kosher — California, Spain, Australia, and even Bordeaux. Sawyer says the majority of kosher wine produced is chardonnay, followed by cabernet sauvignons, but kosher wine spans all sorts of varietals and styles, including syrah, merlot, sauvignon blanc, and riesling, just to start.

What makes kosher wine so unique is its purity, Sawyer says — and that’s a good thing. "The way wine was made thousands of years ago — they didn’t have all of these operational things, all these finings," he says. "You’ll find that the best merlots on the marketplace are unfined and unfiltered. This way of winemaking is based in history."

"I think the understanding of what makes a wine kosher has improved, and the reality that there really isn't that great difference in production that people once perceived there to be is starting to set in, but there's still a long way to go," Buzzeo says. "We have to keep educating, and showing people that kosher wine is not just about the concord-based sweet wines we sampled as a child."

"We get these grapes right from God," says winemaker Jeff Morgan of Napa Valley’s Covenant Wines. Covenant is one of the most regarded kosher wineries in Napa, where Morgan and his wine partner Leslie Rudd (owner of Dean and DeLuca) collaborate to make a great-tasting kosher wine. "This is from God’s mouth, to our grapes," says Morgan. "[Israel] was the Napa Valley of the Middle East," he says. "I think we taught the Romans a thing or two about winemaking, and the Greeks, too."
 

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