Certainly growing up drinking sweet Concord grape Manischewitz every Passover really didn’t do much to foster an appreciation for the finer varietals available. I even have a dirty little secret…I like the stuff. Yeah it’s sticky sweet and cheap, but on Passover it brings back memories of my childhood. Also, if you’ve read my articles you know I use Manischewitz as my main ingredient in Sangria. So it has its uses.
Let’s face it though. You pull out the good crystal, set your finest china and you cook for hours to get the meal perfect, and then you drink some $5 sweet jug wine. Maybe it’s time to “kick it up a notch,” as Emeril Lagasse would say. Today’s contemporary kosher wines can be as good or even…dare I say it?...better than non-kosher varietals. You do have to sift through some iffy wines that are out there, but if you have a wine proprietor you trust they can help steer you to the good stuff. Almost all the main wine producing regions in the world produce kosher wines, but some standouts are from Israel, Spain, France and Italy. And if you’re not sure about Israeli wine, remember they have been producing wine for thousands of years. They know what they are doing.
OK, so kosher wine is good. Now, how do you know if it is truly kosher and what different levels of kosher are there? It can be confusing to understand the aspects of what makes a wine kosher…and why?
Kosher, by definition, means proper or correct. It is simply a way to make food or drink proper for consumption. Koshering wines came about from the Torah teachings that state Jews cannot drink the same wine as idol worshippers. So they created a method of producing wines that made them “proper” for use.
Kosher wines are normally labeled either “Mevushal,” which we’ll explain later, or either “Non-Mevusal” or “Kosher for Passover” on the back label. There are often symbols delineating the wine as kosher on the front label as well.
Making a kosher wine starts from the very beginning of the planting process. In Israel in particular, grapes must be planted in fields where no other fruit or foliage grows along with the vines. No grapes may be used to make wine for the first four seasons, and every 7th year the vines must be left untouched without making wine from the grapes.
During the harvest, only observant male Jews are allowed to work on wine production, and 10% of the final product must be discarded. This is a tradition that dates back to ancient times when 10% of the production was given to the high priest or rabbi.
One interesting thing that does not actually happen is that there are no blessings made over the wine. By simply following the traditional rules of winemaking and having them supervised by a rabbinical council or special certification agency, the wines will be considered kosher.
“Kosher for Passover,” may sound obvious, but what about Mevushal? Because non-Jews or unobservant Jews often handle the wine after bottling (such as a waiter in a restaurant), some wine goes through another step which makes the wine Mevushal, or cooked. This isn’t as bad as it sounds. Years ago before the process was perfected, wine could be damaged by this process. Now with modern flash pasteurization, which instantly brings the wine just below the boiling point and then immediately cooled back off, the wine is barely affected. The process allows the wine to remain kosher even if handled by those popular pagan Roman soldiers working at all the best restaurants these days.
You may be surprised to find out that many renowned non-kosher winemakers throughout the world use a similar pasteurization process, but are very quiet about it due to the negative image it may give. Even famous French estates like Chateau Beaucastel and Louis Latour use flash pasteurization. They claim it helps stabilize the wine and prevents any bacteria growth.
The steps taken by kosher winemakers may sometimes seem strange or archaic, but like so many traditions followed by people of all backgrounds, they endure from generation to generation. They are important not necessarily because of any true physical significance of the actions, but simply because they represent a connection to the past and a dedication to following the written word of a higher power.
Almost every popular style of wine or liquor has a kosher equivalent, so it isn’t necessary to give up any particular favorites this time of year. Even special wines like Sauterne, Moscato and sparkling wine (albeit using Passover-friendly kosher yeast for the fermentation process) are available. And, many hard alcohol spirits are kosher as well, including most single malt scotch and many of the non-flavored vodkas available.
Here’s a suggestion: Try having a kosher wine tasting dinner before Passover with your friends and family as a way to try some of the great wines out there. Then you can narrow down your choices and alleviate some of the stress Seder preparation can foster.
So put out of your head any negative thoughts about the quality of kosher wine and make your Seder meal a true all around gourmet experience. Doesn’t all your hard work deserve it?