Myths and Facts About Kosher Wine
We’d love to thank Adam Montefiore, an expert on Israeli wine and Kosher wine, for contributing this article all about kosher wine.
What is Kosher wine and does it taste different from regular wine?
Short answer: No. Kosher wines tastes the same!
That said, there are some differences in Kosher wines that would even be of interest to non-Jews, such as those with dietary restrictions. For example, many Kosher wines are vegan. Onward!
What is Kosher Wine?
Consuming kosher foods is essential to all who observe Jewish religious dietary laws (Kashrut). The religious laws are a set of standards for food preparation and winemaking. Just so you know, the term “Kosher” was derived from the Hebrew word for “fit,” meaning fit for consumption.
Did You Know? Kosher wines do not have to be blessed by a Rabbi.
Kosher Wine Quality Yay? or Nay?
The principles of making Kosher wine are the same as for non-Kosher wine. The same Cabernet Sauvignon grapes, whether grown in California, Bordeaux, or Galilee, are grown and harvested in the same way, fermented in the same temperature controlled tanks, aged in the same small oak barrels, and bottled in the same manner. The winemaker will have studied at a place like U.C. Davis, and the winery equipment is the pretty much identical. A Kosher winery is just like any winery producing non-Kosher wines!
“Whether or not a wine is Kosher is irrelevant to quality.”
A Kosher certification does not represent quality. This works both ways. A badly made Kosher wine is a bad wine, but it is not bad because it is Kosher. Likewise Kosher wines score 90+ points from critics at the highest level, and win trophies and gold medals in the major competitions, despite being Kosher. Whether or not a wine is Kosher is irrelevant to quality. Most Kosher wines are quality wines, which just happen also to be Kosher!
Types of Kosher Wine
There are three basic categories of Kosher wine. They are:
Produced in a manner that is approved to be in accordance with Jewish Dietary Laws (Kashrut).
Kosher for Passover
Wine that has not come into contact with bread, grain, or products made with leavened dough (you guessed it, pretty much all wines fit this description!). Most Kosher wines are also “Kosher for Passover.”
Kosher le Mehadrin
Wine for which the rules of Kashrut have been stringently approved.
So, if Kosher wines are equal to non-Kosher wines, why do they sometimes have a bad reputation? It’s quite possible that the concept of Yayin Mevushal (literally “cooked wine”) and sweet sacramental wines have something to do with it.
Manischewitz and other sweet red wines are also Kosher, but these are sacramental wines, or in the Jewish lingo “Kiddush wines.” Often tasting like syrupy sugared water, the importance to the consumer has always tended towards low price and religious certification rather than quality. Fortunately, more and more Jewish families now prefer using dry table wines for festivals and blessings. Don’t confuse Kiddush wines with Kosher table wines!
Kosher caterers and Kosher restaurants in the United States only serve “Mevushal Wine” (pronounced mev’ooshal). This is a Kosher wine that has been flash pasteurized, so it remains Kosher even if a non-observant or non-Jewish waiter serves the wine. A wine that is not Mevushal is no less Kosher than one that is. The techniques of flash pasteurization have improved over the years (see below for news about a new technology!). That said, most of the better quality Kosher wines, are NOT Mevushal.
How is Kosher Wine Made?
Remember when we mentioned that there are some differences as to how Kosher wine is made? It might surprise you to know that Kosher wines are NOT blessed by a Rabbi. To make Kosher wines, there are two basic requirements:
Must Only Be Handled By Jews In The Winery
Only religious Jews may handle the wine and touch the equipment from the time the grapes arrive at the winery. Even a Jewish winemaker who is not orthodox is not allowed to draw samples from the barrels. This may be frustrating for a hands-on winemaker, but Kosher producers are used to it…and it is not a restriction that affects quality.
There Are Stricter Wine Additive Rules
Yeasts, fining, and cleaning materials have to be certified as Kosher and must not be derived from animal by-products. An example, fining agents that are not permitted include gelatin (animal derivative), casein (dairy derivative), and isinglass (because it comes from a non-Kosher fish.) Many Kosher wines are perfectly suitable for vegetarians – and vegans too (if egg white is not used).
In Israel, Kosher Wine Has Even More Conditions
In Israel, Kosher wine producers also must observe agricultural laws in the vineyard that date back to Biblical times. Technically, Israel’s grape growing laws are the oldest wine laws in the world! (Take that Tokaji demarcation of 1757!) Interestingly enough, the practices below are quite similar to high quality viticulture (grape growing) practices used all over the world.
- For the first three years, fruit from the vine may not be used for winemaking, (known as Orlah). Only in the fourth year is the winery permitted to use the grapes for wine.
- Growing other fruits between the vines is prohibited. (Kilai Ha’Kerem.) This was something done in domestic vineyards in Spain and Italy in the past – but the practice has mostly been abandoned due to wine quality issues.
- Every seventh year, the fields are left fallow and allowed to rest. (Shmittah – Sabbatical Year). However, because of economic realities, there are creative ways to cope with this situation, and solutions are agreed on between Rabbis and wineries, which allows for some degree of flexibility.
- Over one percent of the production is poured away in remembrance of the “ten percent tithe” once paid to the Temple in Jerusalem. (Terumot & Ma’aserot).
The concept of giving the land and its workers a sabbatical year (the 7th year) and reserving part of the harvest for those who needed it, was a socially progressive idea in Biblical times. These practices address the profoundest issues of spirituality versus materialism. Today, they are largely symbolic.
Where to Find Kosher Wine
You can find Kosher wines in (almost) every style, from (almost) every grape variety, and from (almost) every wine producing country. Also, at any price point; say, from $5 to $100 a bottle. Kosher wines are found most abundantly in America, Israel, and France. In America, the states with the largest range of Kosher wines include New York, New Jersey, California, Florida, Illinois, and Texas. Most liquor stores in Jewish areas will have an entire wall devoted to Kosher wines.
How to Find Good Kosher Wine
The Kosher wine market is subject to the same trends as the non-Kosher market. Right now there is a Moscato boom, a revived interest in Rosé and sparkling wines, and plenty of dry red wines. Some wineries only make Kosher wines. Other wineries produce regular wines, as well as a Kosher cuvée. Also in the Kosher world, there are many white label wines, where the brand is known, but the source is not.
If you want to find great Kosher wine check out:
- The Wine Talk column of the Jerusalem Post.
- The wine blog by Yossie Horwitz.
- The wine blog by David Raccah.
- The Facebook group called “Kosher Wines: Sharing & Experiences.”
The Future of Kosher Wine
Recently, a state-of-the-art winemaking process called flash détente will likely improve the quality of Mevushal wines. By flash heating grapes prior to fermentation, flash détente is better at preserving the fresh, floral flavors that are lost with flash pasteurization.
In the early 1980s only a few wineries produced Kosher wines and most of it was sweet. Today, the Kosher wine market is vibrant and quality driven, with tasting groups, collectors, and trends, just like in the general market. Kosher wines today look and taste like regular wines. If there is a perceived problem, it is that many onlookers still assume Kosher wine = Manischevitz. This is a really outdated concept. These days, the quality and variety of Kosher wines is greater than it has ever been.