An Introduction to Kosher Wine
"So if you're invited to a Passover Seder this year, remember: think like a rabbi, drink like a sommelier."
Something to consider at this year's Passover Seder: how cool is it that there's a blessing specific to wine? I've never found a blessing for the many other cool things good for consuming at the table—chocolate, bourbon, or how about perfect, lemony hollandaise sauce?
No, when it comes to the Jewish religion, you get two thank-you notes to recite at the table: one for bread, standing in for all things edible, and one for the fruit of the vine.
And nowhere in any Jewish text does it specify that we have to drink Malaga, or any of the other syrupy-sweet offenders many of us remember from childhood family affairs. In recent years, kosher wines grown in France, Italy, Israel, even South Africa, have evolved into excellence. That includes many with the additional hurdle of "kosher for Passover."
So if you're invited to a Passover Seder this year, remember: think like a rabbi, drink like a sommelier.
If you're not familiar with what goes into producing kosher wine, it entails a lengthy list of strict requirements to meet Jewish dietary standards. At its most basic, kosher wine is produced under the supervision of rabbis.
Some of the rules are going to sound a little nutty to those outside the Jewish faith, without the rationale explained in detail: Grapes from new vines may not be used for making wine until after the fourth year. Every seventh year, the fields must be left fallow, and there is a prohibition on growing other fruits and vegetables between the vines. All the equipment, tools, and wine-making storage facilities must be kosher. During the harvest, only Sabbath-observant male Jews are allowed to work on production of the wines. During the production of kosher wine, no animal products may be used. Even the fermentation yeasts must be certified kosher.
There's also the question of mevushal and non-mevushal wines. Mevushal wines are heated to near boiling, which means that non-Jews can handle an open bottle without rendering it unkosher. For this reason, most restaurants and catering halls serve only mevushal kosher wine.
That sound you hear? Traditional winemakers wincing at the prospect of that flash-pasteurization (boiling) process. And that's with good reason: the boiling process can hurt the quality of some wines, and destroys bacteria that contribute to the aging of wine. That means mevushal wines must be drunk young; forget about fine old vintages.
Some wine experts say the process of mevushal doesn't much affect the wine, but I know plenty of folks who disagree. One kosher-keeping oenophile I know copes by bringing her own bottle when dining out.
OK, so you've mastered kosher and mevushal. There's still one more hurdle before you bring wine to the Seder: look for the "P," signifying that the wine is specifically kosher for Passover. This time of year, we always see a flood of stories nodding to kosher wine. It bugs me that only a handful are attentive enough to flag those kosher for Passover too.
The Washington Post offers an excellent article, including several wine picks, all kosher for Passover and ranked "based on a nonsectarian appreciation of their quality." Unfortunately, none reached the "Exceptional" ranking. But all are a damn sight better than that syrupy-sweet swill many of us endured in Passovers past.
Recanati Cabernet Sauvignon 2009, Galilee, Israel, $15
Yarden Syrah 2005, Galilee, Israel, $25
Ranked "Very Good"
Cantina Gabriele Pinot Grigio 2008, Veneto, Italy, $14
Ella Valley Vineyards Ever Red 2005, Ella Valley, Israel, $25
Ella Valley Vineyards Chardonnay 2007, Ella Valley, Israel, $25
Dalton Canaan White 2007, Upper Galilee, Israel, $20
Any other good kosher for Passover wines out there we should be drinking?
About the author: Kara Newman writes about wine & spirits for Wine Enthusiast, Sommelier Journal, and other publications. And yes, she keeps a kosher kitchen. Just ask her mother-in-law.