Passover, the Jewish holiday that commemorates the Biblical exodus from slavery in Egypt to freedom in what is now Israel, unfolds each spring over a period of eight days. The first two nights are traditionally celebrated with lavish meals known as seders. During these seder dinners, the story of Passover is told, highlighted by a sumptuous array of traditional foods and fine kosher wine.
Fine kosher wine, you ask? Isn’t that an oxymoron? Of course it’s not, despite the reputation we American Jews brought upon ourselves during much of the last century with syrupy sweet wines of questionable quality made from Concord grapes. These so-called "traditional" Jewish wines are hardly traditional when viewed from the full perspective of Jewish history.
Let’s remember that the Jews have been making wine for at least three millennia—probably longer. Throughout much of that time, there is no reason to believe that Jewish wines were not on a qualitative par with the dry wines made by their neighbors in other winemaking cultures such as Greece and Rome and, later on, Europe.
But you need great grapes to make great wine. High-quality wine grapes were not widely available to most American Jews until relatively recently. The Concord grapes Jewish immigrants discovered in New York a century ago just didn’t make the grade. They produced "foxy," slimy, weird-tasting wines that needed to be heavily sweetened just to make them palatable. These are the wines that gave kosher wine a bad name.
Contact information for a selection of kosher wine
· Chateau Léoville-Poyferré
Herzog Wine Cellars
Kiddush Ha Shem
Fortunately, the worldwide renaissance in fine winemaking extends to Jewish winemakers, many of whom are now making kosher wines from high-quality vinifera grapes in both the northern and southern hemispheres. From France, Spain and Italy, to California, Australia and New Zealand, most fine wine regions are hosts to a small number of kosher winemakers. Israel also has a thriving wine industry where many, but not all, wines are kosher.
All wine is essentially Kosher
Contrary to what most people believe, every wine is essentially kosher. However, for a wine to maintain its inherent kosher status, it needs to be handled at all stages of the winemaking process exclusively by Jews who are deemed "sabbath observant" and, by extension, follow the kosher dietary laws. Basically, there need be no other difference between a kosher wine and a non-kosher wine.
Some kosher wines are flash pasteurized, and carry a designation known as mevushal, literally meaning "boiled" in Hebrew. In the past, boiling these wines hardly helped their flavors. But today, mevushal wines are not boiled. Rather, they are flash pasteurized up to a temperature of about 180 degrees. Mevushal wines are no more or less kosher than non-mevushal kosher wines. From a symbolic standpoint, the big difference is that the mevushal wines can be handled and poured by non-observant Jews or non-Jews without affecting their kosher designation. It makes wine service easier for kosher restaurants or catering halls, where the wait staff may not be sabbath-observant or even Jewish.
Opinions vary regarding the qualitative differences between mevushal and non-mevushal wines. The top- scoring kosher wines in this magazine tend to be non-mevushal, but there are also excellent mevushal wines in the marketplace.
In ancient times as well as today, Jews have celebrated the sabbath and other holy days like Passover with kiddush, the blessing over the wine. For such special occasions, the wine should be kosher. Maimonides, the renowned 12th-century Egyptian Jewish sage, wrote that only the best kosher wines should be drunk on holy days. Fortunately, there’s plenty of really good kosher wine out there for us to keep Maimonides’ fine wine covenant.
Four cups of wine
The Passover seder is built around four ceremonial cups of wine that mark key moments in the evening’s festivities. The first glass introduces the seder; a second is drunk after the Passover story is told. A third and fourth cup mark the end of the meal.
In between the second and third ceremonial cups of wine is the main meal. This is a time for enjoying the evening’s wine in a less formalized way—one that highlights fine dining in a more secular manner. Typically, the Passover meal is eaten in courses that lend themselves to different kinds of wine. Here, basic food and wine pairing guidelines can be most helpful: Red wines can be paired with robust food, like red meat; white wines are better served with fish.
My family has always started the seder meal with gefilte fish—a kind of fish dumpling. When I was a young boy, my grandmother used to make gefilte fish from northern pike caught by my grandfather at their home in the north woods of Wisconsin. Grandma’s gefilte fish bore no resemblance to the mealy, bland, jarred gefilte fish that so many Jewish families consume on Passover. Great gefilte fish should be flavorful yet delicate. Traditionally, gefilte fish is made with white-fleshed freshwater fish, but any firm-fleshed fish fillets will work well. A small dab of horseradish will add high notes. For best pairing results, try a white wine with good acidity. A good option is a sleek Chardonnay, such as C Blanc du Castel, from the Judean Hills of Israel, which is made in a distinctly Burgundian style.
Matzoh ball soup is another classic Passover dish. Flat, cracker-like matzoh recalls the Jews’ hurried flight from Egypt, when they had no time to allow their bread to rise before baking it. With this in mind, only the unleavened bread called matzoh can be eaten during the week of Passover. The soup is made with matzoh meal dumplings that float in a rich chicken stock. But there are variations. One year, I surprised my guests with matzoh ball soup made in a classic French-styled fish soup base. Steely Sauvignon Blanc made a fabulous pairing partner.
For the main course, lamb is a natural choice. In the story of Passover, the angel of death passed over the homes of the Jews who marked their doors with the blood of a lamb. Lamb shanks, richly textured and full of earthy flavors, cry out for a full-bodied red. Château Valendraud, in St. Emilion, is the reigning kosher star from France. This Bordeaux blend of Merlot and Cabernet will set you back about $280, if you can even find it. Of course there are plenty of other kosher Cabernet-based wines that cost less.
But you might do well to think about other red wine varieties as well. Herzog Wine Cellars in California makes an excellent Special Reserve Syrah from the Edna Valley (92 points, $30). Another excellent choice is Capçanes Peraj Ha’abib from Priorat, which is made from Grenache and Carignane. It costs about $45 and is probably the best kosher wine coming out of Spain today.
At the end of the meal, look for a late harvest wine that won’t be overwhelmed by dessert. Château Piada ($60) from Sauternes is a very serious, high-quality sweet wine that would do justice to your seder and also pair well with sweets like coconut macaroons. The wine would also stand in nicely for the ritual third or fourth cups of Passover wine. But tradition has it that the four cups need to be red wine. Ultimately, that’s a question for debate that only you and your guests can decide upon.
As you plan your Passover menu and wine list this year, remember that every great meal requires great wine. With so many dishes and flavors at the seder table, try to put as much thought into what you drink as what you eat. If selected carefully, today’s kosher wines will do justice to a deliciously diverse Jewish culinary tradition. And let’s recall Maimonides’ advice that only the best will do!
HOMEMADE GEFILTE FISH
Traditionally made with freshwater fish, gefilte fish can be made with saltwater fish as well. Use the freshest and best meaty fish available. Kosher tradition requires that the fish have scales. To make the stock, ask your fishmonger to reserve bones from the morning’s fillets.
For the stock:
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 onion, coarsely chopped
3 stalks celery, coarsely chopped
1 leek, white part only, cleaned and coarsely chopped
1/2 bulb fennel, coarsely chopped
1 to 2 pounds fish bones
6 to 8 cups water (or enough to cover bones)
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
1 bay leaf
2 to 4 sprigs flat-leaf parsley
For the gefilte fish:
1-1/2 pounds freshwater or salt water white- fleshed fish fillets such as pike, carp or sea bass
1 onion, finely chopped
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper
1/4 cup matzoh meal (salt-free and with no MSG)
1 carrot, peeled and thinly sliced
Horseradish to taste
To make the stock: In a medium sauté pan or skillet, heat the olive oil over medium heat and add the onion, celery, leek and fennel. Cover and cook for about 15 minutes; do not brown.
Meanwhile, cut the bones into 3- to 4-inch pieces, rinse and put in a medium pot. Add the water and bring to a boil. Skim the foam off and discard, then reduce heat to simmer. Add the salt, thyme, bay leaf, parsley and sautéed vegetables. Cover and simmer for 30 to 45 minutes. Strain through a fine-mesh sieve and reserve.
To make the gefilte fish: Grind the fish fillets in a hand grinder or food processor to a texture that resembles raw hamburger. Place the fish in a large mixing bowl. Add the onion, eggs, salt and pepper. Using your hands or a wooden spoon, thoroughly blend the fish mixture. Blend in the matzoh meal to add density. Shape the fish mix into egg-sized dumplings and reserve. (Don’t make the dumplings too big; they will expand as they cook.)
In a large pot, bring the stock to a boil and reduce to simmer. Use a large spoon or ladle to gently lower the dumplings into the stock. Add the sliced carrot and simmer over medium heat until the dumplings are firm, about 1 hour.
Place the gefilte fish in a casserole or high-sided serving plate. Cover with the stock and carrots and let cool to room temperature. Refrigerate for several hours or overnight. Depending upon the natural fat content of the fish used in the stock, the liquid may or may not gel.
Serve 2 fish dumplings per person in a bit of their liquid or jelly, topped with a few carrots, and flanked by a dollop of white or red horseradish. Serve cold.
Makes 10 to 12 gefilte fish dumplings.
LAMB SHANKS IN RED WINE WITH POMEGRANATE AND MINT GREMOLATA
Adapted from The PlumpJack Cookbook: Recipes for Living Well, by Jeff Morgan (Rodale Press, Fall 2006).
This copious, rustic dish is topped with an elegant, fresh mint sauce. The mint is paired with a single tablespoon of intense pomegranate molasses, which can be found on the syrup shelf of many supermarkets. The sauce provides just a hint of herbal sweetness and highlights the lamb’s earthy richness. Ask your butcher to "crack" the lamb shanks, which allows them to cook a little faster than they would otherwise. While the lamb is in the oven, make the gremolata, which requires only a short time to prepare. Use only a dry red wine for cooking the lamb. No sweet, Concord-based wines allowed.
This recipe can be doubled or tripled.
For the lamb shanks:
4 lamb shanks, cracked
Salt and pepper to taste
4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 onion, peeled and coarsely chopped
1 carrot, peeled and coarsely chopped
2 celery ribs, coarsely chopped
10 cloves garlic, peeled and coarsely chopped
2 bay leaves
2 sprigs fresh rosemary
4 to 5 cups dry kosher red wine
For the gremolata:
3/4 cup extra virgin olive oil (or oil to cover)
3 medium to large cloves garlic, peeled
1 tablespoon pomegranate molasses
10 to 12 sprigs fresh mint
4 sprigs flat-leaf parsley
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
To make the lamb shanks: Preheat oven to 375Â°F. Trim excess fat from the lamb shanks and sprinkle them with salt and pepper. In a Dutch oven or large, oven-proof pot, heat 2 tablespoons of the olive oil over high heat. Sear the lamb shanks on both sides, about 2 to 3 minutes. Remove them from the pot and set aside.
Lower heat to medium and add the remaining 2 tablespoons oil. Add the onion, carrot, celery, garlic, bay leaves and rosemary, and sauté, stirring occasionally, until the onion becomes translucent, about 10 minutes. Add 4 cups of red wine, stirring to break up any solids that may have stuck to the bottom of the pot. Raise heat to high and return the shanks to the pot. Add more wine, if necessary, to cover most of the shanks with
liquid. When the wine begins to boil, cover the pot and place it in the oven. Cook until the lamb shanks are very tender, 2 to 2-1/2 hours.
To make the gremolata: In a saucepan, pour enough olive oil over the garlic cloves to fully cover them. Heat over medium heat until the oil begins to bubble. Reduce heat to low and simmer for 30 minutes. Reserve the garlic. (You can save the garlic-infused oil for garnish or cooking; store in a covered container for up to 2 weeks.)
Place the garlic cloves with the pomegranate molasses, mint, parsely and 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil in a blender and pulse to blend well. Reserve at room temperature until ready to use.
To serve: Lay a lamb shank on each plate and top it with a spoonful or two of the gremolata. Spoon pan juices from the cooked lamb onto each plate as well. Serves 4.
Preheat oven to 325Â°F. Using an electric mixer, beat the egg whites with the salt and vanilla until soft peaks form. Slowly add the sugar and continue to mix until the peaks become stiff. Gently fold in the coconut with a rubber spatula.
Grease a cookie sheet with the canola oil. Drop teaspoon-sized dollops of cookie batter onto the cookie sheet. Place the sheet in the oven and bake until the macaroons are golden brown, about 15 to 20 minutes.
Makes 20 to 25 macaroons.
Editor’s Note: Contributing Editor Jeff Morgan is also a Napa Valley winemaker who makes kosher Cabernet Sauvignon under the Covenant and Red Sea labels. To avoid a conflict of interest, the wines featured in the article and photographs do not include Morgan’s wines and were not formally reviewed by him. Kosher wines featured in the Buying Guide on page 100 were reviewed by Wine Enthusiast Tasting Director Joe Czerwinski and West Coast Editor Steve Heimoff.