Over the years, kosher wines have taken a bad rap in the quality department — often with good reason. But that’s old news, and you need to separate modern fact from ancient fiction.
1. Kosher wine has to taste bad.
That depends mainly on who’s buying the wine. There was a time when most kosher wines available in the United States were sweet and tasted like cough syrup, a traditional style still preferred, amazingly, by many people and still widely available. Don’t let these people make the choice! There are some fabulous kosher wines that you wouldn’t know were kosher if you didn’t check the label.
2. Kosher winemaking is very different from non-kosher winemaking.
Yes and no. The techniques of making almost all kosher wines are no different from making any other wine. The thing that makes kosher wine “kosher” is that it has to be made under the direction of a rabbi, some of whom are stricter than others in overseeing — or signing off on — the process. The exception is meshuval wine, which is the only kosher wine that can be served by a Gentile, such as a waiter, to an orthodox Jew. Traditionally, meshuval wine had to be boiled but in recent years, flash pasteurization has taken its place. Does pasteurization affect the wine? If you believe wine is a living organism, you have your answer. But most premium kosher wine is not meshuval.
3. Kosher wine has to be made in Israel.
Not! In fact, until recently, very little wine was made in Israel and even less was exported. During a wine tour of Israeli vineyards a few years ago, several winemakers told me there wasn’t really a culture of drinking alcoholic beverages there. Many people only drink on religious holidays.
“We are the only religion where you have to drink wine,” one guide explained. “So once a year at Purim we all get drunk!”
That said, there are many Israeli wineries that make very good, excellent-value kosher wines.
4. Even if they make good kosher wine, it’s hard to find.
Not true. Almost every wine store, especially those in large cities with larger inventories, has a good selection of kosher wines available year-around. Just ask the wine merchant. There are wines, however, that you can look for if you like to search yourself. From Israel, quality producers include Recanati, Yarden, Flam, Galil Mountain, Barkan, Carmel, Binyamina and Psagot. Baron Herzog is a leading brand from California. Several Bordeaux châteaux produce kosher wines, and the Rothschild family even has a kosher Argentine malbec from Flechas de los Andes. Want kosher bubbly? Try Laurent-Perrier. If in doubt, check the back label: Most have either a “U” inside a circle or an encircled “K.” A “P” means kosher for Passover.
5. Kosher food out-performs kosher wine.
This might have once been the case, but no more. A few years ago, Adam Montefiore, considered to be the dean of Israel’s wine industry, summarized the kosher image problem quite neatly. He told me, “In America, if you put the word ‘kosher’ on sausages, you’ll sell more meat,” he told me. “But it’s not the same with wine.”
That image is fading slowly, but it is fading. Those in the know recognize that not all kosher food is great and that not all kosher wine is bad!