Some cuisines shouldn’t be innovated simply for the extreme guilty and emotional pleasures they bring us. Home-style kosher foods come to mind. Thankfully, though, the culture that brought us matzo ball soup (don’t mess with Grandma’s recipe!), brisket and kugel, has innovated the wines that traditionally accompanied the Passover meal.
We’re talking about what used to be your father’s kosher wine – that sweet, syrupy, grape-y stuff choked down in the name of tradition.
“It’s been a slow road but in the last 10 years the mainstream has realized that kosher wines don’t suck,” says Gary Landsman, head of marketing for Royal Wine Corp., the world’s largest kosher wine producer/distributor/importer. “Every year we see increases in quality.”
Today, kosher wines have advanced not only in taste and complexity but also transcend the usual holidays. Now, people break out the wines all year round, pairing them with international menus. Indeed, why not? Kosher wines come not only from Israel, but also France, Spain, South Africa, Italy and California. In France, you’ll find kosher wines from the most revered regions: Margaux, Pauillac and Sauternes in Bordeaux; and Chablis, Puligny Montrachet and a Meursault from Burgundy; even Chateauneuf de Pâpe and Champagne. Spain has a cult wine – and it’s kosher.
Thanks to the widening spread of interest and the increasing number of young Israeli winemakers educated abroad, kosher wines are now defined like other fine wines of the world: by terroir, style and character.
Udi Kadim, who oversees international marketing for Golan Heights Winery, is one of Israel’s vocal kosher wine champions.
“Our wines should be judged on their own merit, not based on their labeling or on preconceptions,” he said. “Our ongoing experience is that when people, especially skeptics, taste our wines, they are always impressed with their quality.” He adds, “We are constantly working at exposing more non-kosher consumers to our wines specifically, and Israeli wines in general, and we are gaining ground.”
To be called kosher, the wines must be made under rabbinical supervision with kosher ingredients, and handled by Sabbath-observant workers. That’s it. There’s no difference in the wine-making process between kosher and non-kosher, with the exception of “mevushal” wines, which go through an additional pasteurization process, which may be handled by non-Jews and remain kosher.
Though many Israeli enologists are traditionally trained, winemaking here – kosher or not – requires looking to the future, and that means leveraging all resources such as sophisticated weather-monitoring, cloning, and bringing in “Flying Winemakers” to assist in fine-tuning.
And some of the results are in: Yarden Cabernet Sauvignons (Israel) have won global acclaim, including a Gold Medal at the International Wine & Spirits Competition in London. Herzog in California (the second most important market for kosher wines), is consistently included on critics’ “must drink” lists and served in the White House when there’s a reason to.
So, what can you expect?
According to Landsman, “Kosher wines from Israel are now standing along with other prestige regions.” At first the focus was on Bordeaux-style wines, but increasingly Israeli winemakers have focused more on Mediterranean varieties and have embraced other international varieties: Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc and Shiraz. But you’ll also find Pinotage, Carignan, Gewurztraminer, Viognier, Petit Syrah and Sangiovese. So, what you like from another country, you’re likely to find here, too.
Israel’s wine is still a young industry: 300 producers, with the largest 10 producing about 90 percent of the wine (kosher and not). But, says Landsman, smaller producers have really helped propel the revolution – whether they’re bottling 200 cases or 10,000. And, he says, “More of the mainstream population will begin to recognize them as an available option because they’re good quality wines.”
Perhaps the most frequently asked question: Are they New World or Old? Kadim, quoting Yarden’s consulting winemaker: “Somewhere between Old World elegance and New World power.”
Lana Bortolot is a New York City-based writer specializing in wine and travel. She is the East Coast editor for The Tasting Panel magazine, and a contributing writer to Sommelier News. She's a candidate for the WSET Advanced Certificate and plans to pursue the Diploma program, wine-related travel permitting.