Wine Talk: A positive trend

As the wine industry blossoms, more and more wineries in Israel are turning kosher.

The kosher wine drinker’s cup overfloweth.More and more of the country’s finest small wineries are becoming kosher. The trend of becoming kosher has spread among boutique wineries. It is not yet an epidemic, but it is an exciting development for kosher wine drinkers.
Not so long ago, three well-known small wineries decided to make the leap. The wineries of Flam, Saslove and Tulip announced that they would be producing kosher wines. This was a surprise because one would have thought that each of them, for its own very different reasons, would be the last winery to go kosher.
However, it has happened, and from the 2010 vintage their wines may for the first time be enjoyed by those who keep kosher! This year, news has followed that Vitkin Winery is joining the bandwagon, and Pelter is also adding a kosher facility to its winery.
It may surprise you, but the majority of wineries in Israel are not kosher. Many of the smaller wineries prefer to remain non-kosher and receive visitors on Saturdays.
For them, it is justified because winemaking is an expensive hobby before it becomes a business, and a large proportion of their sales are made at their cellar door.
(However, it is also true to say that most of the wine produced in Israel is kosher because most of the medium to large wineries produce kosher wine.) It is a brave decision to make a wine that a reasonably large proportion of the Jewish population will not touch. In Israel it is further complicated by the fact that most of the supermarkets and hotels sell only kosher wines. In today’s challenging economy, if you have a captive market, no doubt it makes sense to use it. I suppose when a winery reaches roughly 100,000 bottles production, the potential of that market and the greater opportunity to export win over any doubts, and the wineries eventually become kosher.
These five examples are not wineries that have suddenly seen the light and become religious. They did not make the change for reasons of religious conviction but because of pure economics.
Perhaps different from food, the word “kosher” has a particularly negative association as far as wine is concerned. This is because many assume that a kosher wine equates to kiddush wines such as Manischewitz, Mogen David, Kedem, King David or Palwin.
These are the sweet sacramental wines used in religious ritual. Though they conform to the norm within their category, they are the antithesis of a quality wine.
A kiddush wine generally tastes more like sugared water than a fresh fruity table wine.
And therein lies the problem.
The crux of the matter is this. A kosher wine may be a world-class wine that wins international prizes and high scores from the critics. Whether it is kosher or not is absolutely irrelevant to its quality. There are numerous examples. Whether it is Israeli wines scored by Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate, trophies earned in competitions like Decanter World Wine Awards or the wineries listed in Hugh Johnson’s Pocket Wine Book, it is a fact that many of Israel’s most successful wineries in the court of international opinion are those producing kosher wines.
So the hechsher does not appear to have a negative effect; otherwise, the finest Israeli wines would be always be non-kosher.
Anyway, the word “kosher” is not meantto be a quality designation. There is no guarantee that a wine is good because it is kosher. And, by the same token, it is absurd to think it is automatically inferior because it is kosher. Think of kosher certification more like a quality assurance program, similar to the ISO systems. All raw materials such as yeasts, barrels and fining agents have to be prepared under the strictest quality and hygiene standards. Origin and traceability are key, and there is an exaggerated emphasis on cleanliness.
In preparing kosher food, the emphasis is on the source of the food. However, with kosher winemaking, the emphasis is more on the handler. It is important to stress time and again that kosher winemaking practices are the same as for producing non-kosher wines. The same methods of harvesting, fermentation, maturation and bottling are followed throughout the process. So no one should blame a bad wine on the fact that it is kosher. A badly made wine will be bad, and a well-made wine will be good. Whether it has a kosher stamp on the back label or not does not define its quality.
The kosher wine laws are the oldest wine laws in the world. France may boast about its Appellation Controllée and Cru Classé systems, which have roots that may go back hundreds of years, but the kosher wine laws are measured in thousands. Some of these laws (orla, kilai hakerem) still make sound agricultural sense. Others (like shmita, trumot and ma’asrot) are today regarded as more symbolic. In biblical times, though, they were revolutionary, addressing the profoundest issues of spirituality versus materialism, economic justice and ecological sustainability.
However, it is not written anywhere that you have to drink an inferior product for religious ritual. One of Judaism’s greatest sages, the Rambam, a.k.a. Maimonides, was arguably the first Jewish wine connoisseur.
He was an advocate of quality wines and insisted that sweetened or pasteurized wines should not be used either for kiddush or the four glasses at Passover.
I certainly do not think that we in the Israel wine industry should be ashamed of the word “kosher.” When we market wines, it is true that we focus on the origin (Israeli and Eastern Mediterranean) and talk about quality wines “that just happen also to be kosher.”
Often when giving a tasting, I don’t mention the K word at all unless someone specifically asks about kashrut. However, it doesn’t mean that I am embarrassed about making kosher wine. Far from it! I am proud that we in Israel make kosher wines that win awards all over the world.
I am pleased that we make wines that all the Jewish people can enjoy. Furthermore, I applaud the positive trend of more Israeli wineries becoming kosher.
Sparkling wine is made everywhere, but French champagne is regarded as the best. In the same way, kosher wine has become international. There is virtually no wine-producing country in the world that does not produce kosher wine. However, the finest kosher wines in the world are, in my humble opinion, produced in Israel.
Likewise, in the same way that New Zealand specializes in Sauvignon Blanc and Argentina in Malbec, Israel specializes in kosher wine. The best range, quality and best-value kosher wines are available from Israel.
We should not be ashamed of producing kosher wines or labeling our wines as kosher. However, the confusion with kiddush and kosher wine still exists. We still have a great deal of work to do to ensure not only that brand Israel is a byword for quality wines but also that the kosher description enhances and does not impair the ever-improving image.
Psagot Cabernet Sauvignon 2009
This wine is made 100 percent from Cabernet Sauvignon grapes, grown in the northern Jerusalem Hills at an elevation of 900 meters above sea level. Aged in barrels for 14 months, it is a classic Cabernet with aromas of blackcurrant, plums and cherries but has soft tannins. Psagot is a fast-growing winery founded by Ya’acov Berg in 1998. It already produces more than 100,000 bottles. The visitors’ center is one of the best in the country.Price: NIS 90
Carmel Appellation Gewurztraminer 2012
This wine has a pale straw color. It is intensely aromatic, with tropical fruit and lychees dominant. It is an off dry wine with an elegant sweetness, a certain spiciness and a clean, refreshing finish.
The Gewurztraminer grapes are grown in the Upper Galilee. The wine is perfect with Asian cuisine and popular with those who prefer a semi-dry wine. Carmel Winery’s Appellation wines (Eizorit) all come from different sub regions and may be recognized by the hand-drawn cartoon animals on the label. The Gewurztraminer label is of a desert fox. Carmel is the historic winery of Israel founded in the 19th century by the Rothschild family. Price: NIS 45 – A.M.
Adam S. Montefiore works for Carmel Winery.He regularly writes about wine for Israeli and international publications.[email protected]