Kosher Wines

  • Tuesday 9 June 2009

Kosher wines are playing down their Jewish links to boost their appeal, as they target a wider, international audience.

What do the following wines have in common? Laurent-Perrier brut non-vintage Champagne; Châteaux Clarke, Giscours, Léoville-Poyferré, Pontet-Canet; and St-Emilion garagiste Valandraud. Yes, they’re all pretty good, and yes, they’re all pretty expensive… and they all have kosher versions.

All are made by special crews whose duties begin with delivered grapes and end with bottling. These field and cellar hands, overseen by rabbis, follow production rules that let religious Jews use the wines.

Kosher wines are made across the globe: as well as the more obvious US and Israel, they can be found in Australia, Argentina, Canada, Chile, France, Italy, New Zealand, South Africa, Spain and Portugal. Producers everywhere share the same mantra: theirs is ‘great wine that happens to be kosher’.

Yet an identity crisis besets kosher wine. It stems from the style revolution that Israel generated in 1984 when the Golan Heights Winery’s prototype Yarden Sauvignon Blanc 1983 – a light, dry white – reached the US. Today, dry kosher wine, red or white, is commonplace at Passover seders, sabbath and holiday meals and simchas (the Hebrew for a joyous event, such as a wedding).

Although winemakers follow Orthodox rules (see panel, right) in making high-end and everyday kosher wines that cater primarily to Jewish consumers – especially the modern Orthodox – they are also playing to the non-Jewish trade. And to neutralise the public’s automatic assumption that kosher wines are primarily sacramental niche products, winemakers are miniaturising words and symbols denoting Jewishness on front and back labels and in marketing materials. The Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America’s powerful accreditation symbol, the letter ‘O’ with the letter ‘u’ inside it, may be barely legible.

Some Jewish vintners confide that they don’t want non-Jewish consumers to notice that their wines are kosher. So retailers are encouraged to put kosher Cabernet Sauvignons in a bin of California reds instead of on segregated shelves signposted ‘kosher’. It’s the same with Israeli wines – producers want to promote them as Israeli, but not necessarily kosher.

At the first-ever large-scale New York tasting of Israeli wines, held in February, Yair Shiran of the Israel Economic Mission told me: ‘We want to bring Israeli wines into the mainstream market. We want to promote them as Israeli, as eastern Mediterranean. Some are kosher, but that is not relevant. For Israeli wine to have potential growth, in the long run it has to go beyond the kosher market.’

Israeli first

Many of Israel’s more than 200 wineries want their products approached in the same national, regional, religion-free way that French, German and Italian wines are. Their main overseas markets are the US, the UK, Germany and Italy. Japan is entering their radar. ‘I was in a sushi bar in Tokyo, and two of the 10 wines on the menu were Yarden,’ says Victor Schoenfeld, winemaker at Golan Heights.

Not all Israeli wines are kosher, and this is particularly the case at the rising number of boutique wineries, whose non-religious winemakers, such as Tal Pelter of Pelter Winery, want total control. But most are. To further complicate matters, various Orthodox groupings, ultra- and otherwise, do not consider all kosher wines equally kosher.

Because standard kashruth practices in the vineyard and cellar coincide with universal vineyard and cellar methods, it is relatively easy to produce high-quality competitive kosher wines in idiosyncratic and preferred standardised styles.

Thus, in an increasingly terroir-hungry world, Israeli vintners are positioned to express their region rather than religion: Galilee (including Golan Heights), Shomron, Samson, Judean Hills and the Negev. Adam Montefiore, development director at Carmel, Israel’s oldest and largest kosher producer, says: ‘It is far easier for a winery that observes kashruth to produce kosher wines of real quality than it is for a non-kosher winery to produce the occasional kosher batch of the same quality.’

For kosher wine to be served by non-Jews – restaurants’ and caterers’ waiters – without thereby being rendered non-kosher, the post-harvest grape-must or finished wine is flash-pasteurised to about 80˚C (176˚F) and immediately dropped to about 16˚C (60˚F). The wine is then designated as mevushal, meaning ‘boiled,’ a term winemakers shun because of negative connotations. Generally the finest kosher wines are not mevushal; if a wine is mevushal, its label says so. The process so troubles some producers that some labels declare ‘Not mevushal.’

Such considerations further complicate the kosher wine picture. Abroad, secular Jews may be unaware or uninterested that such wines exist. Why should non-Jews take notice? The answer is that they shouldn’t. But if commentators accept the idea that premium kosher wines now belong to an international peerage, they might objectify them for the world market by avoiding gooey sentimental prose (‘Grandma fed me three drops of sweet Cream Malaga with my gefilte fish’) that ghettoizes their image.

Panel tastings

Wine labels from some of the world's most famous wines