• Two Thumbs Way Up
• Aromas of red apple skin, raspberry, cherry and a touch of dark chocolate. Abundant flavors of black cherry, raspberry with notes of cinnamon, toffee and black licorice. It offers pinpoint acidity that brightens the wine’s berry qualities.
• Two Thumbs Up
• Rich aromas of blackberries, blueberries, black cherries and violets. Flavors of blueberry, blackberry and ripe plum mix with a fairly complex blend of smoke, cinnamon, clove and a pleasant aftertaste of cocoa.
You don’t have to unroll too many scrolls of the Torah to find the mention of vineyards, winemaking and wine. After all, the first thing Noah did after his voyage was plant a vineyard. Why? Wine holds a special place in many Jewish life and religious traditions, from the celebratory Purim to the weekly Shabbat dinner, when a prayer is said over wine to sanctify the meal.
But as every mischievous and curious Jewish kid knows, Passover is the big wine night. Everyone gets four servings of wine, including children some of the time. The rub, of course, is that the wine is sickeningly sweet kosher wine (It’s no wonder why Elijah takes such small sips).
Wine’s preeminent position in Judaism has as much to do with geography as it does with God’s law. The land of Abraham and Isaac is a great place for grape growing and it has been long before Jacob dug his well. Barring divine intervention, however, if Moses found the Promised Land in Norway, wine would not, could not, find its place of importance in Jewish rituals. The abundance of winemaking grapes in the eastern Mediterranean made following Kashrut rules possible.
So why aren’t we all enjoying fruits of the vine from Israel, which boasts several ideal grape-growing locations? You’ll have to skip back a couple paragraphs to the “K” word for your reason. In the minds of most wine consumers (including Jewish wine consumers, who, oye vey , should know better), kosher wines conjure up visions of Manischewitz Concord Grape Wine.
Whether it’s kosher, kosher for Passover or the scary mevushal (“boiled”) wine from upstate New York (the current and ancestral home of Manischewitz’ winemaking operations), kosher wine has a bad name among wine consumers. This is a problem for Israeli winemakers.
You might think that all the 250 wineries located in Israel are kosher; you’d be wrong. Merely 30 of the 250 are kosher, which, by the way, does not automatically imply awful, sweet or tasteless wines. In the past decade, Israel’s younger, forward-thinking winemakers have tried to put quality above utilitarian sacramental wine, often forgoing the kosher stamp of approval…even though they could qualify for it.
Israeli winemaking wandered in the desert, if you will, for a long time. Back in the 1960s, you could more or less cast Israeli wines in the kosher-but-characterless pot. The vast majority of the grapes (90 percent) were grown in the desert climates, which produced an abundance of flavorless grapes. Today, less than half of the country’s production comes from the hot, low-lying areas. Over the past 10 years, ambitious winemakers looked up, not to the heavens, but into the mountains of Galilee and the Judean Hills. There they found promising land: well-drained soils and cool nights, perfect for producing wines of character.
Recanati, Yarden and Tulip are a just a few of the quality-first Israeli wines you can find on shelves. These may or may not be kosher, but that’s hardly the point. They are good, solid, enjoyable wines.
Driven by small producers, this “wine fever,” as one Israeli wine writer describes it, has made a huge impact on the big producers. The largest 10 wineries (Carmel, Barkan, Golan, Teperberg, Binyamina, Tishbi, Galil Mountain, Recanati, Dalton and Tabor) control 90 percent of the market—and are the ones you’ll likely see in the U.S. They have bought into the quality movement, too. The key here is that these 10 are all-kosher operations.
Good news for all wine drinkers, but especially for those sitting down for Seder dinner in a couple of weeks. While traditionalists may want to re-create the syrupy sweet Seder dinners of old, the faithful have alternatives.
A word of warning: Before you bypass the inglorious Manischewitz-style wines, please know the new-and-improved wines from Israel have a bit of alcohol, as much as 14.5 percent, in them. This more than two times the amount you’ll find in a bottle of Manischewitz. According to Thomas P. Balázs, a semi-pro Talmudic scholar (also a full-time English professor at the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga and friend of mine), each cup must have at least three ounces of wine in it and each guest must drink at least half of the cup for the blessings to count. In total, this amounts to a generous glass of wine you’d get at a restaurant. But, as Balázs can attest, some people drain all four cups. “I had a friend who thought he was drinking six percent and really got hammered one year because it was full strength, so to speak,” Balázs said.
The Seder dinner has its solemn moments, but it is more of a celebratory affair, commemorating the Hebrews’ escape from slavery. It’s no surprise that a Seder dinner features so much wine, as it is the official festive drink of the past 8,000 years for many peoples. Seder attendees toast God’s redemptive powers and love for his people. It seems more fitting to raise a Seder cup of wine made in the Promised Land that you would rather not put down so fast.
Gil Kulers is a certified wine educator with the Society of Wine Educators. You can reach him at email@example.com.
It’s Not Kosher Until It’s Kosher…Or Is It?
In order for a wine to be kosher, it must be created under a rabbi’s supervision and approval, with only Sabbath-observant Jewish males touching the grapes from crushing to bottling, along with numerous other restrictions.
Kosher for Passover wine has one additional restriction to meet the requirements of the Seder dinner. The yeasts used to ferment the wine must not be grown from any of the five grains prohibited during the Passover festival. They are: barley, oats, rye, spelt and wheat.
Another category of kosher wine is yayin mevushal (cooked or boiled) wine. Wine becomes un-kosher when it is touched by a non-observant Jew or a non-Jewish person, who could believe in idolatry or use the wine for idolatrous use. Heating the wine to at least 180 degrees makes it unfit for idolatrous use and it is declared yayin mevushal. Mevushal wine is often used when non-Jews serve wine to those who keep kosher. Mevushal wine may or may not be kosher for Passover.
(Wines are rated on a scale ranging up from thumbs down, one thumb mostly up, one thumb up, two thumbs up, two thumbs way up and Golden Thumb Award. Prices are suggested retail prices as provided by the winery, one of its agents, a local distributor or retailer.)