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High-End...and Kosher!
By Howard Goldberg
Mar 21, 2006
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Like their Egyptian ancestors who reached freedom through the Red Sea's parted waters, American Jews found liberation from Manischewitz, this time near Mount Hermon, north of Mount Sinai.  The saga began 30 years ago when Israelis planted grapevines on the Golan Heights.

The vines went into the high-altitude plateaus and hills cooled by snow-capped Hermon in 1976.  Syria lost the Golan in the Six-Day War in 1967.  Israel strengthened its grip there in the Yom Kippur War in 1973.  And in 1984, a year after the Golan Heights Winery's founding, its 1983 Yarden Sauvignon Blanc reached American Jews, shocking them.  It was white, light, dry and kosher.

The Eternal Verity in the United States (but not in Europe) that kosher wine had to be red, heavy, sweet and made from Finger Lakes Concord grapes was splintered--just as Commandments 11-15 were when Mel Brooks, playing Moses in "History of the World: Part I," dropped one of three tablets.

In today's ever-expanding kosher wine appellations, no monolithic styles are engraved in stone--as demonstrated by a new brand, Goose Bay's savory 2005 Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand (imported by the Royal Wine Corporation).  Yesterday, an $18 Marlborough white exuding prototypical grassiness could not be easily found at American seders. 

A widespread misconception is that wine turns kosher, hocus-pocus, by being blessed.  No way.  It is kosher (Hebrew translation: pure, fit, proper) if it results from strict rabbinic production criteria that render it suitable for religious Orthodox Jews' use.

This Passover (for the Orthodox, Wednesday evening, April 12, through April 20), the modern wines in the four ritually drunk glasses will have diverse sources.  Offerings from Skyview Wine, in the Riverdale section of the Bronx in New York, and from Hungarian Kosher Foods, in Skokie, Ill., a Chicago suburb (perhaps the country's largest kosher-wine retailers) resemble the index of a paperback wine book.

"Over 450 kosher wines to choose from!" declares www.skyviewwine.com, which enumerates their sources: California, New York, Argentina, Australia, Chile, France (including Alsace), Hungary, Israel, Italy, Portugal, South Africa and Spain.  Regional breakdowns reveal a multiplicity of styles, quality and possible terroirs.

"Terroir" and "kosher" could not occupy the same sentence when the choices for sabbath and holiday celebrants consisted of variations on such Kedem-brand themes as Cream Red Concord, Cream Niagara and Blush Chablis, produced in the Hudson River Valley from upstate New York's labrusca grapes. 

Not that the Kedem-Manischewitz-Mogen David axis is déclassé.  No snobbish thinking, please.  For neophytes, acceptance of the simple, homey virtues of Concord's Day-Glo flavor appeal and swooningly velvety texture is Chapter One of a wine education.

Slip-skin Concord, plucked in high September from an intoxicatingly aromatic arbor in my grandfather's backyard in Long Branch, N.J., was the first grape I tasted.  It yielded the first red wine I drank.  It lubricated guests at my bar mitzvah reception in Newark.  The syrupy Extra Heavy Malaga, linking Friday night suppers and decades of Passovers, became a lifelong madeleine.

Manischewitz, a multimillion-dollar product line made at Widmer's Wine Cellars in Naples, N.Y., in the Finger Lakes region, still sells more than a million cases a year.  The brand is overseen by the Centerra Wine Company (formerly Canandaigua Wine Company), which is owned by Constellation Wines, the world's biggest wine business.

Similarly, Kedem, a haimish (homey) old brand, marches on, also a favorite among traditionalists.  Family-run Royal Wine, which owns it and moved in 2001 from the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn to Bayonne, N.J., virtually dominates America's market for premium kosher wine with an impressive portfolio of first-rate, upscale domestic and foreign viniferas at various price levels.

Kosher wine is central to the sabbath and holidays.  It is sipped when the sabbath starts (kiddush) and ends (havdalah), accompanied by a prayer: "Blessed art Thou, Lord, our God, King of the Universe, who creates the fruit of the vine."

For wine to be certified kosher by rabbinic authorities, the winemakers must be Orthodox sabbath-observant Jews.  Jewish winemakers who do not meet this requirement (non-Jews too) may direct cellar operations, but only the religious can perform hands-on work involving grapes, equipment and the technical winemaking processes.

All cellar equipment must be rendered wholly sanitary, free of foreign objects (think steaming torrents of boiling water).  This hygienic condition equates with a universal principle guiding winemaking.

In Israel, but not the diaspora, kosher wine entails Biblical agricultural law.  For example, no wine can come from a vine until its fourth year.  If a vineyard lies in Biblical territory, every seventh year it must lie fallow.  Viticulturists everywhere may find wisdom in such practices.

In winemaking, only fermentation and clarification materials certified as kosher may be used.  For example, according to halacha, or Jewish law, clarification cannot involve isinglass, because it comes from sturgeon, a nonkosher fish, and gelatin and casein, which are, respectively, animal and dairy derivatives.

If a wine is designated kosher for Passover, it cannot have come into contact with grain, dough or bread products.

Some producers flash-pasteurize their wines by instantly heating them to about 176 degrees Fahrenheit and in seconds dropping the temperature to about 60 degrees.  The wine, then termed mevushal, can be opened and served by non-Jews (typically, caterers' and restaurants' waiters) to observant Jews without rendering it nonkosher.

Advanced enology has not resolved the bottom-line question of whether flash pasteurization damages the character, quality and developmental possibilities of wine.  Anecdotal evidence suggests both yes and no, depending on one's stake in the answer.  Still, consider this probable clue to producers' thinking: most top-grade kosher wines are not mevushal.  (Vintners tend to shun the ancient, literal and outdated meaning of mevushal--"boiled"--because of its ruinous connotations.)

Modern producers, especially Israeli and American, straddle two commercial spheres.  Relying mainly on international grapes, most want their wines to compete head-on with all peer brands while being understood as, oh by the way, kosher.

They do not want their Cabernet Sauvignons and Chardonnays ghettoized in bins signposted "kosher." Hence, the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America's trademark "ou" accreditation symbol, the letter o with the letter u inside it, may be barely legible on labels.

An Israeli marketing campaign projected to begin this year may make it harder to escape this niche status.  Israel's wine industry, working with the government, plans to promote Israeli wine generically across America.  A five-year, multimillion-dollar program is to emphasize the quality of table wines at various price levels, and to promote the perception that they are Israeli and eastern Mediterranean and not "the stereotype--Jewish, kosher, sacramental," says Michal Neeman of the Israel Export and International Cooperation Institute's food and beverage division.

In short, the parties want the commercial concept of "Israeli wines" to be as routine as "Austrian wines," "Spanish wines" and "Oregon wines," and they think, as I do, that there are grounds for such shorthand.

Yoav Shoham, an Israeli professor of computer science at Stanford University, has established a Palo Alto, California, company, Tall Tree, which would work with the Israeli institute to expand the importation and distribution of wines from wineries that lack, he said, "adequate representation" in America.

"There is no in-principle reason" why the volume of Israeli wine exports cannot approach New Zealand's $113.24 million to America in 2005, Shoham said.  That is a sizeable ambition: the overall value of Israeli wine exports in 2005 was $13.8 million.

Beginning in the 1990s, Israel experienced a winegrowing boom.  Today, the aggregate number of Israeli producers is vague.  "There are no absolute figures," Neeman said.  "There are 25 wineries harvesting over 50 tons and at least 125 boutiques or home-based wineries.  In all probability, there are more than that."

Perhaps 25 wineries sell bottles in America.  If mainstreamed Israeli labels started generating customers in selected urban centers --- New York, Chicago, Miami, Los Angeles --- and merchants segregated the labels into bins marked "Israeli wines," stereotypical merchandising might prompt them to group "American kosher wines" and "International kosher wines" in adjacent bins.

Under such circumstances, who would win?  It depends on how "win" was defined.  Thus synergized, sales might rise, benefiting all the commercial tiers, but the concept of kosher, felt by some to be atavistic and negative, would be reinforced.

Certainly consumers, with a broadened spectrum of wines to try, would win.  (They will encounter sticker shock on some wines, ostensibly traceable to rabbinic costs.)

A tasting of kosher wines would sensibly begin with an aperitif from the Golan Heights, which Zelma Long, the iconic international winemaker, calls an "agricultural paradise."  However, as you'll see from the reviews below, top kosher wines now come from many other points around the world:

Yarden, Galilee (Israel) Blanc de Blancs Brut 1998 ($20, Yarden Inc.): The upfront fruitiness of this bubbly, made from Golan Heights Chardonnay, joins up with a firm backbone and appetite-whetting acidity.  Its light body, nervosité and delicate brioche flavor pop it into the Gallic orbit.  92

Laurent-Perrier, Champagne (France) Brut NV ($70, Royal Wine Corporation): "This is the same cuvée as the nonkosher, except that a rabbi is brought in for this portion," Royal says.  The bouquet has a peachy note.  It is light, biscuity, redolent of toasted almonds and bracingly acidic.  87

Yatir, Judean Hills (Israel) Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot/Shiraz 2002 ($35, Royal Wine Corporation): Carmel, the resuscitated Israeli giant, owns half of Yatir, a splendid new boutique in the northeastern Negev; growers own the rest.  The grapes come from southern Judean hills' heights.  This light, impeccably balanced, intellectually and esthetically satisfying blend possesses a deeply fruity bouquet and savory nuanced flavors that include anise and vanillan.  A pleasing funkiness comes through.  90

Yarden, Galilee (Israel) Chardonnay "Katzrin" 2002 ($30, Yarden Inc.): Stylish, barrel-fermented and ample; a buttery bouquet; soft and creamy mouth feel; aromas and flavors of apples, pears, spices, toast; long finish.  90

Herzog, Napa Valley (California) Cabernet Sauvignon "Special Reserve" 2000 ($37, Royal Wine Corporation): Dark ruby; an effusively varietal bouquet, awash in cassis, tobacco and earthiness; dusty tannins; mouth-filling but subtle; satisfying.  89

Domaine du Castel, Judean Hills (Israel) "Grand Vin" 2003 ($60, Royal Wine Corporation): A Napa-like fullness dominates this pleasing, complex blend of Cabernet Sauvignon (70%) and Merlot (30%).  The ample bouquet and nuanced, almost confectionery flavors include macerated dark berries, hints of dark chocolate and spearmint notes; dusty tannins follow.  88

Château Pontet-Canet, Pauillac (Bordeaux, France) 2000 ($95, Royal Wine Corporation): This Fifth-Growth is almost like liquid jam, redolent of cassis, raspberries and strawberries; earthy and brawny; so Gallic it almost says "Alors!" You hesitate to put the glass down.  88

Capçanes, Montsant (Spain) "Flor de Primavera" 2003 ($49, Royal Wine Corporation): Barcelona's Jewish community asked Capçanes, a cooperative in Tarragona, to make kosher wine.  After major investment and a cellar overhaul, Capçanes blended Cariñena, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Garnacha grapes to great effect: this no-nonsense red, offering veins of black currant and raspberry, is at once soft, lush, muscular, rustic, earthy and stern.  88

Galil Mountain, Galilee (Israel) "Yiron" 2002 ($25, Yarden Inc.): The Golan Heights Winery owns a dominant share in Galil Mountain, a new winery in the Upper Galilee, a region of outstanding grapes; Kibbutz Yiron owns the rest.  Golan pooh-poohs a popular belief that Galil Mountain would become its fallback if a treaty returned the heights to Syria.  The blend, Cabernet and Merlot, delivers a sultry nose redolent of macerated berries, a plush and meaty texture, and nonstop flavor for hedonists.  87

Château Fonbadet, Pauillac (Bordeaux, France) 2000 ($59, Royal Wine Corporation): A sprinkle of herbs and cigar box tones in this soft, approachable red might quickly lead papa to open a second bottle at the sabbath table.  87

Herzog, California (United States) Cabernet/Zinfandel/Syrah "Special Reserve" 2002 ($37, Royal Wine Corporation): A well blended, almost jammy, extroverted brew with loads of fruit; exudes recognizable varietal characters in the swirl; mellow and agreeable.  86

Château Rollan de By, Médoc (Bordeaux, France) 2001 ($57, Royal Wine Corporation): A recognizably Gallic, dark ruby everyday pour whose bouquet recalls the last roses of summer; the flavor is flecked with tobacco-leaf notes that will turn yesterday's lovers of unfiltered Chesterfields nostalgic.  85

Recanati, Galilee (Israel) Chardonnay 2004 ($16, Palm Bay Imports): A "mostly barrel-fermented and finished" white, says Lewis Pasco, the winemaker, a graduate of the University of California at Davis.  It has a honey-like nose, buttery flavor, light and svelte body, piquant acidity and long aftertaste.  Pasco was a chef; hence, the Chardonnay is patently chicken-friendly.  85

Baron Herzog, Central Coast (California) Cabernet Sauvignon "Jeunesse" 2005 ($14, Royal Wine Corporation): The vintage date seems surprising for a Cabernet Sauvignon, but the light-hearted name tells all.  Fermentation and rearing happened in steel.  The large-scale Baron Herzog Wine Cellars in Oxnard, California, which opened in 2005, suggests that it be drunk within four years.  Four minutes is more like it, because, bouncy, straightforward and somewhat sweet, it is a marginally serious breakaway from Manischewitzism.  84

Carmel, Upper Galilee (Israel) Sha'al Vineyard Late-Harvest Gewürztraminer 2004 ($18, 375 ml, Royal Wine Corporation): This refined, long-lived dessert elixir, densely exuding litchi, honey and citrus-peel flavor, emphasizes restraint and ends startlingly dry on the palate.  95

Howard G. Goldberg writes two Sunday features for The New York Times: Wine Under $20 and Long Island Vines.  He is American auction columnist for Decanter magazine, New York correspondent of decanter.com and a columnist for The Wine News.