There are a number of misperceptions when it comes to kosher wine. Some of these include the belief that all kosher wines are blessed by a rabbi, all are sweet, they appeal only to Jews, and they’re automatically kosher if they come from Israel.
But as it happens, the kosher wine world is ultimately not that different from the regular world of wine.
The modern history of kosher wines in this country really began with the immigration wave from Europe in the latter part of the 1800s, mostly through New York. Vinifera (the genus of noble European varieties) grapes were not available, so instead, concord grapes became the go-to for winemaking. Wines were made to be sweet, which was the custom.
If you ask an older Jew about Schapiro’s Wine, which was founded in 1899 on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, they may mention the tagline: “the wine you can almost cut with a knife.” Manischewitz, perhaps more recognizable, opened about fifty years later in Brooklyn, along with the Royal Wine Corporation (aka Kedem), headquartered in Williamsburg.
Schapiro’s has since closed shop, but Manischewitz is strong, and still makes its wine sweet, though it’s no longer family owned. The Herzog family, which owns Royal, has influenced the kosher wine market internationally. Starting with traditional sweet wine made in New York, they slowly but continuously expanded into dry wines. Over the last 20 years in particular, they have produced, sourced and imported an ever-growing selection of classy wines. Their portfolio of kosher wine is the largest in the world, and ranges from virtually every country and type. To accommodate their growth, they moved their headquarters and warehouse to New Jersey. They maintain a winery in upstate New York for their traditional wines and have another modern facility in Oxnard, California, which produces most international varietals from all over California, under several labels that they own.
Other large conventional importer/distributors have recognized the trend, and are now growing their own portfolios of kosher wines (examples are Allied Importers, Monsieur Touton, and Apollo). Yarden, one of Israel’s largest producers of kosher wine, follows the model that Royal started by making, importing and marketing its own production. Carmel Wines, a cooperative that is the largest and oldest kosher certified Israeli producer, started with cuttings supplied by Baron Edmond de Rothschild in 1882. It is currently handled by Royal, though they used to be their own importer. It is not unusual for producers – kosher or not – to switch importers, whether it is for marketing, distribution or other reasons. In addition to these major players, there are also boutique import companies that mostly deal with Israeli wines, such as Happy Hearts Wine, and The River. The cost to maintain certification has to be included in every bottle sold, so the production must be large enough to make it worthwhile. Even if a non-certified wine doesn’t contain anything non kosher, it still wouldn’t be acceptable to the observant, whether it was from Israel or elsewhere.
To be considered kosher, wines and other foods must adhere to interpretations of biblical rules from rabbinic authorities that have come to be accepted over many centuries. Books have been written on the topic, but in the simplest terms, there are allowed (kosher) and disallowed foods (mostly concerning animals), and a prohibition against mixing dairy and meat. There is also a category of food that is neither dairy nor meat, called parve, which can be consumed with no restrictions.
Since wine serves sacramental as well as enjoyment purposes, there are some kashrut (kosher) practices that are very specific to wine. The accepted basics include the following:
- All rules of kosher observance must be followed, including avoiding contact with non–kosher materials
- Grapes may be picked by anyone, but once they reach the winery, rabbinic supervision and Sabbath observant workers are required
- To ensure the wine is parve, dairy or animal based products such as casein or gelatin for fining must be avoided, even if kosher
- Sealed bottles of wine can be handled by anyone; however if an open bottle is handled, poured or even touched by a non-Jew or non-Sabbath observant Jew, the wine is no longer considered kosher for the very observant
- To allow non-Jews, or even non-observant Jews to handle an open bottle without rendering it non-kosher, the wine may be made “mevushal” by heating it
- In the old days, such wine was actually cooked before bottling, which is what the term “mevushal” actually means
- It has been deemed acceptable by modern sources to make a wine mevushal by flash pasteurization, at various temperatures (between 74C and 90C) depending on the authority looking over the directing winemaker’s (who might not be Jewish) shoulder
- Wines with certification will have the certifying agency listed on the label, as well as if it mevushal
Opinions vary as to whether the modern mevushal process destroys the character of a fine wine. Indeed, most low to moderate priced kosher wines (including the sweet ones) sold in the U.S. market are mevushal, while premium wines, especially those from Israel, are not. So if you have a choice, non-meshuval is the way to go.
Now for the marketplace. We all know the feeling of walking into a wine shop and being hit with a deluge of choices in terms of regions or varietals. Though there may be fewer choices on most stores’ shelves when it comes to kosher wine, it is no less daunting. Add to that the fact that retailers aren’t always as familiar with kosher wines, and the overwhelming feeling gets even worse.
But don’t despair: just like in the non-kosher world, regional and varietal characteristics tend to run true. So everything you already know about California Chardonnay is still valid: new world in style, lots of fruit, perhaps some pineapple and lots of new French and/or American oak. Into White Zin? The kosher versions will be off dry, pink with strawberry notes. That Rioja Crianza will be Tempranillo, at least two years old, with at least 12 months in mostly used oak barrels, just like non kosher versions. Right bank versus left bank Bordeaux will be what you expect, as will New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc compared to one from the Loire.
As with non-kosher wine world, California will have fewer vintage fluctuations, but Burgundy will have more. Some producers have better reputations, and some, though good, are pricey. Below is a list of distinctive, generally available wines that can hold their own with any non kosher one. Though most retailers that don’t specialize in kosher wines may not sell these, Skyview Wines in Riverdale is among the largest kosher wine purveyors in the U.S. (and they deliver!). There is enough variety on this list to make for an interesting evening or two of tasting for a group. Vintages have been left out because these wines have had reliable regional and producer track records.