Wine talk: A nice Jewish drink

Kiddush wines, like gefilte fish and chicken soup, linger on as a nostalgic reminder of the homey Jewish world.

Wherever Jews have resided, there has always been home-based wineries making wine for the kiddush sanctification of Shabbat.
Apart from regular wine, either raisin wine or even grape juice is also suitable according to Jewish tradition, being regarded by Halacha with the same reverence as wine.
Jewish agricultural laws regarding vineyards in the Land of Israel go back to biblical times. The kosher wine laws are from talmudic times. However, whereas wine is used in the Jewish faith for every festival or life-cycle event, it was never prescribed what sort of wine should be used.
Maimonides, the first Jewish wine connoisseur, had high standards. He suggested that “wine had to be red, it couldn’t be diluted with water or sweetened with sugar and it couldn’t have any off taste, vinegar, bacteria or oxidation. It should not be mevushal (flash pasteurized) wine. A wine had to be pure and of high quality.” It is certainly not written anywhere that a kiddush wine has to be sweet! So how did kiddush wine become associated with sweet red wine? In Eastern Europe, due to the scarcity of grapes, wine made from raisins was acceptable. These wines were weak and watery, so the added sweetness was necessary to mask the taste and was also most welcome in the cold climate.
In America, Jewish immigrants made wine from a Labrusca grape variety called Concord in New York State. However, the harvest often had to be brought forward to avoid bad weather, the grapes were often unripe and the resulting wines were thin and harsh. Therefore they had to be sweetened to be drinkable.
In Israel in the 19th century, wine was made from food or table grapes grown by Arabs in Bethlehem and Hebron. In those days much of the wine drunk was naturally sweet, with added sugar or fortified with alcohol.
So, sweet wines became the norm.
They were preferred by all the family and even the children could enjoy them. Furthermore, drinking by Jews in context with religious ritual was always in very strict moderation. A bottle was never finished. However, the sweetness acted as a preservative and ensured an opened bottle would last from week to week.
Price was also always an issue. Many Jewish communities were poor. Buying wine was an extravagance. So the chosen wine was often the cheapest, though of course it had to have the right kashrut certificate too. The basic sweet wines were the least expensive available.
So this is how it was. Habit became a tradition. Kiddush wine equaled sweet red wine, particularly in the Ashkenazi world.
However, this was not the case throughout the Jewish world. Sephardim in traditional winemaking countries like Morocco ,for example, and later in France, would make kiddush using dry red table wine. It would be unthinkable for them to use a sweet wine.
Tastes and practices are changing. More and more people are using dry table wines. However kiddush wines remain like an old friend. Like gefilte fish and chicken soup, the kiddush wine will linger on as a nostalgic reminder of the homey Jewish world, particularly when surrounded by family on Friday nights.
Some selections are listed below. I recommend serving all kiddush wines chilled and keeping opened bottles in the fridge.
NIS 15 to NIS 22 For those that buy on price.
Least expensive kiddush wine produced by Hacormim Winery.Sweet and sugary.
Yashan Noshan
This translates as “old and aged.” The largest-selling kiddush wine in Israel. First produced in 1957 at Rishon Lezion Cellars.
Wine with a cooked ripeness and a touch of cinnamon and cloves on the nose. Produced by the Efrat/Teperberg Winery.
Carmel Tirosh
Wine for children. This is a pure grape juice made 100% from wine grapes. It has no added sugar or water. Popular with those looking for a healthier kiddush.
NIS 24 to NIS 30 These wines offer the best quality per price.
King David
Most popular is King David Concorde, which is very sweet and is made in the foxy “Concord style” made famous by Jews in New York State. King David 120 is a less sweet alternative. The new King David Lite is low alcohol, lower in calories with only a slight, delicate sweetness.
Hallel is produced by Arza Winery. There are three wines in the series but best is the semi-sweet wine with the red label. It is produced from Merlot grapes. It is light, almost refreshing and should be served chilled. It is particularly easy to open with its innovative closure.
Young Selected Carignano
Low alcohol, slightly sparkling, semi-sweet and red. A compromise choice if you can’t decide between a kiddush wine, grape juice or table wine. The perfect family wine.
NIS 35 -+ For that special kiddush.
A quality fortified dessert wine and possibly the finest of all kiddush wines. It is rich, sweet and well balanced, with an aroma of plums, nuts and dried fruit.
Adam Montefiore works for Carmel Winery and regularly writes about wine in both Israeli & international publications.