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.