By Danielle Frum
Mention the words “kosher wine” to anyone who is not an Orthodox rabbi and almost unfailingly the reaction will be a grimace. This is an outdated view of kosher wine but not a surprising one.
Traditionally, wine was made kosher by boiling it. The rationale for destroying otherwise perfectly drinkable wine was to guarantee that the product had not been polluted by prior use in some idolatrous orgy. This ancient standard has been upheld even into our post-idolatory era of mechanized wine production.
If you sip wine only for religious purposes, you probably don’t much care whether it’s cloyingly sweet, medicinally mechanic, or worthy of a rating by Robert Parker. Over the past few decades, however, there has been a growing demand for better kosher wine from those who do care. This demand has affected rules about what makes a wine kosher (hint: you no longer have to boil it). The result is now a booming international industry producing wines that are not merely drinkable but as sophisticated and tasty as their traif counterparts.
Ground zero for these wines is, of course, in Israel. Vineyards in the Golan and the Judaean hills and elsewhere now produce vintages to compete with Napa. On my first visit to Israel, I was disappointed to be told my hotel only served kosher wine. So I ordered a glass, held my nose and – well, hello, Yarden Chardonnay. Aren’t you delicious!
Over subsequent visits, I began to explore the country’s wine industry. A perennial favorite is the Domaine du Castel winery located in mountains outside of Jerusalem. Castel is said to be the country’s first modern boutique winery, founded in the 1970s – and also considered one of Israel’s finest labels. The winery’s founder, Eli Ben Zaken, explained to me how his wine can be certified kosher, without suffering the boiling process.
Under even the strictest interpretation of religious law, the grapes may be grown and harvested by even the most idolatrous heathens, provided that they come under the supervision of a “Sabbath-observant Jew” from the moment they arrive at the winery. This authority (or these authorities, as wine-making requires more than one person) takes over the handling and processing of the wine until it is bottled. Zaken joked that while he may own the winery, as a non-Shabbt observer he is not allowed near his grapes once they have been received for crushing. However ironic this may be, it’s saved the dinner tables of thousands of observant wine connoisseurs. But maybe the biggest joke is that you will enjoy the wine whether you are kosher or not – and likely mistake it for a 98-point Californian.
In honor of Purim next week, I’ve asked experts to recommend five of their favorite Israeli kosher wines: three red and two white. I’ve included tasting notes from Kosherwine.com. They are not arranged in order of preference – they are all good! What’s more, all of these can be ordered online in the U.S. Tote one along to a party and surprise your friends.
KosherWine.Com says: The Psagot Winery is located in the Judean Hills, just north of Jerusalem and overlooking the Edom mountains to the east. Psagot’s Edom is the winery’s premier red wine, featuring a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon (75%) and Merlot (25%). This full-bodied wine was aged for 14 months in French and American oak barrels, giving it rich and spicy vanilla notes that integrate nicely with the intense flavors of berries, black currants, and oriental spice. Psagot Edom will pair nicely with roasted meats, stews, and robust pasta dishes, or can be enjoyed on its own.
KosherWine.Com says: Yarden Cabernet Sauvignon is made from a number of the finest Cabernet vineyards in the Golan Heights. The wine aged in French oak barrels for 18 months. Yarden Cabernet Sauvignon exhibits ripe red and black fruit characters layered with hints of earth, spices and French oak. Full-bodied and aromatic, this wine is complex and elegant. Though enjoyable upon release, the Yarden Cabernet Sauvignon will improve significantly with a few more years of bottle aging, and will remain in excellent drinking condition for 10-15 years and beyond. The wine goes wonderfully with full-flavored dishes such as an herb-crusted leg of lamb, pan-seared ribeye steaks, or duck braised in Merlot with shiitake mushrooms.
KosherWine.Com says: This dry red wine is the result of the efforts to grow the best grapes and to preserve the purity and softness of the fruit. [Composed of 85% Cabernet Sauvignon, 6% Merlot, 6% Cabernet Franc, 3% Petit Verdot], the grapes are grown in the Upper Galilee where the climate is moderate, and yields are kept low. Aged for 14 months in French oak and then left in the cellar for an additional 10 months.
Danielle says: “This was my go-to choice on wine menus during my recent visit to Israel. Dry but flavorful. Never disappointing.”
KosherWine.Com says: Domaine du Castel is an Estate West of Jerusalem at an altitude of 2400 feet. The vineyards are planted at a density of 6700 vines per hectare and produce very small yields. The grapes were handpicked and the must was barrel fermented and aged 12 months on its lees in French oak.
Danielle adds: “Serve this to Californian Chardonnay or Burgundy lovers and you will knock their socks off. Save the fact it’s kosher to last….”
Danielle says: “No tasting notes from KosherWine.com – but the wine is almost sold out so it’s obviously very popular. More in stock here. I was introduced to Recanati wines by the sommelier of the Mamilla hotel in Jerusalem. Recanati’s grapes come primarily from the Galilee. The 2011 Special Reserve is a blend of 50% Chardonnay, 25% Viognier and 25% Sauvignon Blanc. According to this expert, “the wine was fermented (Sue Lie) and aged in French oak for eight months (followed by seven months of bottle aging prior to release) giving it a bit of spiciness, aging ability, oaky creaminess (from 50% malolactic fermentation), flinty minerals and a nice balance to the rich tropical fruits on both the nose and palate.”