Wine Talk: Kosher kudos

Kosher wine has come a long way toward high quality.

Kosher winery (photo credit: Courtesy)
Kosher winery
(photo credit: Courtesy)
A very depressing article was recently published on the Wine Economist website. The author explained that he had been searching for kosher wines “to find whether kosher wines exist that could replace non-kosher wines in my cellar.” He wrote, “I wanted to determine which kosher wines I could, with a clear conscience, serve to my guests at home.”
The results of his search were not good.
“Brownish sludge” was a description of an expensive Merlot, and a less-expensive Israeli wine was described as “poor-quality vinegar.”
The article presents a view that is, fortunately, not too prevalent but still slightly alarming. So I thought it was timely to outline the quality advance of kosher wines. To many, the word “kosher” sums up images of either Manischewitz, cooked wine or displays of dusty bottles on the bottom shelf near the restrooms in American liquor stores. So it is obviously crucial to understand that kosher table wine is basically made like any other wine.
A kosher wine today is likely to be dry, possibly made from a classic variety like Cabernet Sauvignon, which is grown in the finest vineyards of Bordeaux, California or the Galilee. The technology is advanced, and the equipment state-of-the-art. The winemaker is usually internationally trained, just like his non-kosher winery counterpart. No difference between kosher and non-kosher. A well-made kosher wine is good, and a poorly made kosher wine is bad.
It is not good or bad because it is kosher.
Mark Squires, an expert on Israeli wines, got it right. He wrote in the Wine Advocate and Robert Parker’s Wine Guide, “Today the mainstream (Israeli kosher) wines are more likely to be bottlings of Bordeaux varietals, Chardonnay or Syrah that have typicity and will seem familiar to sophisticated consumers.” He went on to say, “…no one should avoid wines simply because they have kosher certifications. Kosher designation seems irrelevant, as long as the wines are not mevushal.”
Kosher wine has indeed come a long way toward quality, the beginnings of which date back to 1976, when vineyards were first planted on the Golan Heights and the first international style kosher wine was made.
That wine was the legendary Carmel Special Reserve 1976. The winemaker had permission to buy only barrels for brandy, but he craftily put a few barrels aside for his wine. It was the first kosher wine aged in small oak barrels.
After this, initially Ernie Weir’s Hagafen Winery, and then the Golan Heights Winery, fast-forwarded the kosher wine revolution. They were the pioneers. Following this, the heavyweight Royal Wine Corp. weighed in, internationalizing kosher wine production and also producing its first Baron Herzog wines from California.
The balance tipped to dry wines, and there was a quality revolution. Kosher wines were made in most of the major wine-producing countries. Famous wineries, such as Laurent Perrier, Château Léoville-Poyferré, Château Pontet Canet and Château Valandraud, decided to make a kosher cuvée, and Israeli boutique wineries started multiplying like rabbits.
The key turning point in terms of third-party recognition was the 2000s, when kosher wine started getting attention outside the niche.
Those three giants of the wine world, the doyens of wine literature and the ultimate in wine criticism, are Hugh Johnson, Jancis Robinson MW and Robert Parker. Each, at different times, has given a “hechsher” to wines that happen also to be kosher.
Johnson gave four stars to three Israeli wineries in his Pocket Wine Book (Castel, Yatir and Yarden). There are many non-kosher wineries in Israel, but the three best Israeli wineries in this book are those producing wines that are kosher.
Robinson recently referred to her tasting of Covenant wines from California as “maybe the best kosher wine I have ever tasted” and “as delicious by any measure.”
She had previously described the kosher cuvées of famous Bordeaux wineries as “tasting remarkably similar to the non-kosher version.”
Parker’s Wine Advocate’s tasting of Israeli wines in 2007 was a watershed moment.
Yatir Forest received 93 points, which was then a first for a kosher wine. Since then, the Wine Advocate has given more than 60 kosher Israeli wines 90 or more points.
Three Israeli kosher wines have received 93 points (Castel Grand Vin, Yatir Forest and Yarden El Rom Cabernet Sauvignon). True, scores are overrated, but Israel did not have any wines scoring 90 points in the Wine Advocate before then. Not one.
Parker has described the kosher version of Château Valandraud from St. Emilion as “one of the finest kosher wines anyone will ever taste. It reveals much of the same character as its (non-kosher) sibling.”
When the Decanter World Wine Awards granted the International Wine Trophy for Rhone Varietals to Carmel Kayoumi Shiraz, the tasters were blind-tasting wine, not discussing the benefits of kosher.
Anyway, it bested French Syrahs, Australian Shiraz and southern Rhone blends like Chateauneuf du Pape.
The Golan Heights Winery won the trophy for Best Winery in Vin Italy’s competition, and followed it by the award for Best New World Winery granted by the Wine Enthusiast. These awards may have been for a kosher winery competing in a sea of non-kosher wineries, but of course the word “kosher” would not have been mentioned or even considered by the judges.
Recanati, Barkan and many other Israeli wineries have won numerous gold medals in international competitions. Herzog Wine Cellars in California has received high scores, up to 94 points, in the Wine Spectator and Wine Enthusiast. Capcanes from Spain has also had rave reviews.
No doubt that kosher wines have met a glass ceiling, and there is undoubtedly further improvement needed. However, look where kosher wines were 20 years ago and compare where they are today. It is difficult to credit the advances that have been made. I am not saying kosher wines are the best in the world or that any trophy or score should be taken too seriously, but the point I am making is that a kosher wine may be served to the biggest wine mavens without shame or embarrassment.
The image of mevushal wines is more problematic as Mark Squires intimated.
Mevushal means “cooked,” but the idea that wines are boiled is passé. Instead, flash pasteurization is used, and techniques are constantly developing. For instance, certain wineries flash pasteurize the must (juice) instead of the finished wine, which lessens the damage.
However, a little perspective is called for.
Mevushal wines are a niche market within the kosher niche. They are generally required by kosher caterers for Jewish functions because for the Orthodox customer a mevushal wine stays kosher even when opened and poured by a non-Jew.
In America, kosher restaurants have to stock mevushal wines, but in Paris, London and Jerusalem there is more flexibility. The mashgiah can act as the wine waiter, and/or the customer may open his own bottle.
Usually the better-quality wines are not mevushal. However, those that do make mevushal wine make a far better job of it than they used to; and with specialists like Hagafen, many would be hard pressed to find a difference between a mevushal and a non-mevushal wine.
Mevushal is a problematic concept for people to grasp, and I have heard it said that “Jewish wine is cooked wine.” So it is important that consumers understand the differences between a kosher table wine, a mevushal wine and a kiddush wine.
Remember, a kosher wine is not made by a blessing from a rabbi or an abracadabra; it is made like any other wine, and it can be a great wine. A mevushal wine is flash pasteurized, not boiled, and a kiddush wine is a sweet sacramental wine that should never be confused with a kosher table wine.
Never forget:
All mevushal wines are kosher.
All kiddush wines are kosher.
But not all kosher wines are mevushal or kiddush wines!
Adam Montefiore works for Carmel Winery and regularly writes about wine in Israeli and international publications. [email protected]