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There are a lot of misconceptions when it comes to kosher wine. But as more and more kosher wines enter the market from regions like Italy, France, California, and, of course, Israel, it’s increasingly important to understand what makes these wines different from others.
In this episode of “Wine 101,” VinePair tastings director Keith Beavers provides an overview of kosher wine and discusses the ancient history behind it. From who can maintain equipment at kosher wineries to the Biblical laws kosher winemakers must follow, Beavers delves into the timeless practices that define a broad category that can be confusing at times.
Tune in to Episode 13 of the bonus season of “Wine 101” to learn more about kosher wine.
OR CHECK OUT THE CONVERSATION HERE
Keith Beavers: I’m Keith Beavers, and of all the punctuations, I think I like the ampersand the most. I mean, the name ampersand. What does the name ampersand even mean? It means ampersand.
What’s going on, wine lovers? Welcome to Episode 13 of VinePair’s “Wine 101” podcast. This is the bonus season. My name is Keith Beavers. I’m the tastings director at VinePair. Hello.
I feel like the category of kosher wine often gets very confusing, and it doesn’t have to be. So let’s understand what kosher wine is. We’ll break it down so you’re not confused.
If you’re a listener of this podcast, one thing might be obvious. We talk about wine, the history of wine, and antiquity. One thing about these times in human history is that water was not always potable, and it was dangerous at times. The one drink that was safe was alcohol — but primarily wine. Wine was not only alcoholic, but it had things like texture and aromas. In ancient times, people were putting in all kinds of flavoring like herbs and honey and watering down their wine before the Greeks and the Romans. Even though it was all happening, wine evokes emotion. It gives you a sense of, “Oh, this is a nice wine.” Throughout human history and wine history, as we move from polytheism to monotheism, wine continues to be a heavy influence on the religions of that time. Not only did the Greeks and the Romans have a god tied to wine, but that god was worshipped through sacrifice and libations, which is wine.
Then you have Catholicism — monotheism — where wine is attributed to life, like blood. It’s not water. Yes, I know that wine looks like blood, but it was also a representation of transformation and also of safety or wellness. The oldest monotheistic religion on the planet, Judaism, took this element of safety to a whole new level, and they integrated it into their daily life and they gave rules to it. They made sure that what they consumed was clean, appropriate, pure, or kosher. They even developed dietary laws to guarantee that what they consumed was kosher. They called these dietary laws kashrut. It’s the oldest monotheistic religion on the planet, and these traditions survive to this day. I find that amazingly fascinating. Now, kosher is for food and for wine. But in the wine category, it’s heavily involved in blessings and throughout the Bible, so it would make sense that wine itself would have its own kosher guidelines.
What’s really interesting is that food in the kosher realm is all about the source, or where did this food come from? That is guided through the kosher laws of kashrut, and then it gets to the plate. But for wine, it’s not about the source so much as it is about the handling of the wine after it leaves the vineyard and gets into the winery. Once the wine is in the winery, it’s made like any other wine, save for one procedure that we’ll talk about in a minute. But to be considered kosher, only a person of Jewish faith may handle the product and touch the winemaking equipment from the time the grapes arrive at the winery. Any of the items or substances that are used in the winemaking process, from yeasts and barrels and fining agents, must be kosher as well. This goes back to the food element of kosher and the source. It’s all about the origin and the transparency through which this item gets to the winery through the kosher laws. What these laws are guaranteeing is the strictest quality and hygiene of these particular items. A fining agent, as you’ll know if you listen to “Wine 101,” is an element that is used to help fine and reduce organic material in wine to make it look a little bit more clear. It’s also called clarifying a wine. Animal-based gelatin is not allowed under kosher law. Also, dairy-derived casein and isinglass from non-kosher fish are also not permitted. Egg whites are sometimes permitted. But very often bentonite is used, which is a type of clay initially found somewhere in the Midwest. When introduced into wine, it can do the work of fining that these other agents can do. I talk about all of these fining agents in Season 1.
If a wine is kosher for Passover, which is a major holiday on the Jewish calendar, this means that the wine and the barrels used in the winemaking process may not or have not come into contact with bread, grain, or any other products specifically related to leavened dough. There’s even a guideline to ensure that, when people who are not practicing the Jewish faith touch a wine that is kosher, that it remains acceptable, pure, and kosher: About 80 percent of the grape juice that is going to be fermented into wine must be flash-pasteurized at about 165 degrees. Then, kosher items can be added to the grape must to continue the fermentation in the winemaking process. This is called mevushal wine, which in Hebrew means “cooked” or “boiled.” According to the religion, in this way, a non-practicing server can hold and serve the wine, and it will remain kosher. So just to be clear, this is specifically for kosher for Passover wine. The majority of kosher wines out there — some of the finest kosher wines out there — are not mevushal.
So that’s basically kosher wine for you guys. There are no rules about varieties or anything like that. It’s just about how it’s handled. And I know I said that there’s not a lot of guidelines for the actual vineyards, but in Israel, that’s different. There are ancient, biblical laws that some Israeli winemakers adhere to.
There are four laws, two of which are mostly symbolic these days in modern times. But you’ll notice, we’re going back to that quality-driven, pure acceptableness. You have orlah, which states that for the first three years the fruit of the vine may not be used for winemaking. And actually, that makes complete sense. People do that to this day. I kind of think that was ahead of its time. Next, there is kilai hakerem, which states that crossbreeding and growing other fruits between the vines are prohibited. Again, it’s something that makes complete sense; those seem pretty practical.
The other two meant something different back in the day than they do today, but they’ve been tweaked for modern times. You have shmita, which is every seventh year, the field should run fallow. That can’t always happen, because businesses want to make money. So in modern times, what that means is that symbolically, the vineyard is sold to somebody not practicing the Jewish faith for the duration of that particular sabbatical year. I don’t believe this transfers control to the other person, but it’s merely symbolic and an honor for the non-practicing person to take ownership for that year. The fourth and last one is terumot and ma’aserot. This is a unique one: “Just over 1 percent of the production is poured away in remembrance of a tithe once paid in the time of the holy temple in Jerusalem.” I’m directly quoting Jancis Robinson here. This is more of a symbolic thing these days, and I’m not really sure how this works. I’m assuming a small percentage will go to some sort of charity. Again, these last two are mostly symbolic. And not everyone that makes kosher wine practices this agricultural, four-rule thing. But in Israel, it tends to be popular.
Last but not least, there are all kinds of wines out there that are kosher. There’s fine wine out there that’s kosher from Bordeaux to California and Napa. It’s not about the source; it’s about the handling. So that’s kosher wine in a nutshell, guys. I hope this cleared some stuff up so that going forward, when you’re at the wine shops and you go to the kosher section, you know what you’re looking at.
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And now, for some totally awesome credits. “Wine 101” was produced, recorded, and edited by yours truly, Keith Beavers, at the VinePair headquarters in New York City. I want to give a big ol’ shout-out to co-founders Adam Teeter and Josh Malin for creating VinePair. Big shout-out to Danielle Grinberg, the art director of VinePair, for creating the most awesome logo for this podcast. Also, Darbi Cicci for the theme song. Listen to this. And I want to thank the entire VinePair staff for helping me learn something new every day. See you next week.
Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity.