One of the hottest selling categories at the store right now is Kosher wine. Passover begins this evening and many of our customers are stocking up. I’ve received so many requests lately for kosher wine that I’ve become quite intrigued by the subject and decided to do some personal research¹, as well as a little sampling.
Kosher wine has less to do with the product’s ingredients since alcohol, sugars, acidity, phenols—and of course, grapes—are naturally regarded as kosher items. Instead, it has more to do with the actual winemaking process. Kosher wine can be produced worldwide in any style using any kind of grape. However, to be considered kosher, the wine must be handled solely by Orthodox (or “Sabbath observing”) Jews throughout the entire winemaking process—from grape crush to bottling (though it is permitted for a Non-Orthodox Jewish winemaker to instruct observant Jews in the winery).
In addition, all wine fining agents must be kosher. Forbidden agents include gelatin (an animal derivative), casein (a dairy derivative) and isinglass (from non-kosher fish).
Kosher for Passover
Not all kosher wines can be regarded as “kosher for Passover”. During the entire week of Passover, Jews are prohibited from eating leavened bread, as well as foods made with wheat, barley, rye, spelt or oats that have not otherwise been specially prepared (known as the forbidden grains and collectively referred to as chametz). You may wonder what wine has to do with this, but the key ingredient which makes food rise (or leaven) is yeast—and of course, yeast plays a very important role in the winemaking process.
Therefore, ‘kosher for Passover’ wine must be fermented using yeast that has not come into contact with bread, dough or grain.
To ensure a wine is kosher, it must feature a hechsher (or “seal of approval”) on the label. The most common hechsher symbols I’ve noticed on the kosher wines we carry feature either the capital letter U or letter K within a circle. Both these symbols represent two well-known kosher supervision agencies in the U.S.
- K in a circle: OK Kosher Certification based in Brooklyn, NY
- U in a circle: Orthodox Union based in New York, NY
- P to the right of the circle: stands for ‘Passover’ (and signifies that the wine is ‘kosher for passover’ (though most labels often state that, as well)
- Mevushal: literally translates to ‘boiled ’. A kosher wine that is mevushal has been flash pasteurized, which enables it to maintain its kosher status even when served by a non-Jew (especially important if the wine’s to be served on-premise in restaurants, etc.).
[Not so] sweet reputation
Kosher wine in the U.S. has a reputation for being sticky sweet because it has become synonymous with the widely distributed Manischevitz brand that for the most part produces sweet and syrupy wines made from berries, cherries, and concord grapes. However, in truth, kosher wine became sweet in the U.S. because it was originally produced in the New York area using the Concord grape (the principle variety available in the region).
The Concord grape is a North American grape species that is best used for making grape juice as oppose to wine. Since it is highly acidic, the resulting wine needed to be sweetened to become palatable. Though not a highly-revered beverage, Concord wine still has its following (as Manischevitz can tell you).
However, kosher wine, like all wine, comes in a variety of styles—not just sweet.
Though kosher wine can be produced anywhere in the world, viniculture is far more restrained when produced in Israel in that growers must adhere to the following biblical agricultural laws:
- No wine may be produced from a vine until its fourth year.
- The vineyard, if within the biblical lands, must be left fallow every seven years (though in practice vineyards are symbolically sold to a non-Jew to allow production to continue).
- Only vines may be grown in vineyards: no other fruits or vegetables are allowed.
- There must be a symbolic ceremony in which just over 1% of production is poured away in remembrance of the 10% tithe set aside for Levites and priests in the days of the Jerusalem Temple.
Famous kosher wine producers
At our store we sell kosher wine from Italy, Chile, the U.S., Australia… and of course, Israel. Based on how fast if flies off the shelf, I would say the most popular brand among our customers is Baron Herzog from California. Otherwise, Barkan from Israel is another favored label (see below).
What I also found interesting was to read that some famous Bordeaux producers also make “kosher cuvées” of their namesake wine, including Château Pontet-Canet* (Pauillac), Château Léoville Poyferré (St-Julien), Château Malartic Lagravière (Pessac-Léognan) and Château Valandraud* (St-Émilion—best known as Bordeaux’s original garagiste).
*Though both Pontet-Canet and Valandraud have ceased making kosher wine as of the 2005 vintage.
Barkan ’09 Pinot Noir
All this research got me curious, so I decided to give kosher wine a try. The one I selected was a Barkan 2009 Pinot Noir from Negev, Israel. I was honestly very impressed—especially since it’s selling for just $13.49. What struck me right away was how fresh and light the wine tasted. It also has a real lively cherry flavor, with a slight tartness on the finish. Since this wine is mevushal (meaning it’s been pasteurized) I would say you may notice a slight bit of concentration, but nothing really to upset the balance. Overall, a very good value and something I would buy again.
Now that I’ve familiarized myself with the Kosher certification symbols, my eye is picking up on such symbols located on other food products—like my cup of siggi’s Icelandic style yogurt.
¹I attribute the majority of my research to Jancis Robinson’s highly resourceful Oxford Companion to Wine.