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Redefining Kosher Wine


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Winemakers the world over are managing to retain the essence of what makes a wine kosher while pushing the quality quotient.


The French may claim bragging rights to wine history, but the Jews were making wine more than 5,000 years ago when the ancient Gauls were drinking nothing but water with their dinner. Indeed, the Jews may have the oldest codified relationship to wine of any people on earth. In Jewish culture and custom, wine holds a very special position.

Yet over the last 2,000 years, Jewish winemakers have struggled to overcome enormous challenges. Much of that time was spent in the Diaspora, a period of exile that frequently brought Jews to lands not blessed with vineyards such as they had previously known. But tradition mandated the drinking of wine, and vintners were forced to do their best with what they had at their disposal.

A case in point: A century ago, Jewish immigrants to America found local Concord grapes to be plentiful. Unfortunately, the wine produced had the so-called "foxy"
character of most wines pressed from native American grapes. Keeping the wines sweet made them more palatable, and this sweet style became synonymous with kosher wine (think Kedem or Manischewitz).

Lately, kosher wines have improved dramatically as winemakers have increasingly used vinifera grapes, including Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay. It is now common to find dry, varietal kosher wines that can measure up to today's secular qualitative standards.
What is it exactly that makes a wine kosher? A kosher wine is one handled only by Sabbath-observant Jews—those individuals who observe kosher dietary laws. In addition, kosher winemakers are forbidden to use any products, such as unauthorized yeasts or animal-based fining agents, that might fall outside the parameters of kosher convention and thus compromise the ritual essence of the wine.

Yet aside from the individuals who are permitted to come in contact with the wine or grape juice, there is no difference between the techniques used to make a kosher wine and a non-kosher wine. That is unless the kosher wine is designated mevushal, perhaps the most misunderstood term in the kosher wine tradition.

Literally speaking, "mevushal" means "boiled." However, mevushal wines are not boiled in the literal sense of the word. They are heated to a temperature that meets the requirements of an overseeing rabbi, which admittedly is pretty high. For example, Abarbanel's 2002 Château de la Salle Beaujolais-Villages states clearly on its back label: "Made mevushal at 90° C." That's 194°F—not too far from water's 212° F boiling point.
What is most important to remember, though, is that mevushal wine is neither more nor less kosher than a non-mevushal wine. The key difference is something difficult to define. It involves kosher wine's spiritual essence.

For Sabbath-observant Jews, kosher wine is holy in nature. But after a kosher wine has been ritually heated to become mevushal, it is less sensitive to ritual proscription. A mevushal wine can be handled (or poured) by a non-kosher Jew or even a non-Jew and still retain its kosher integrity. As a result, mevushal wines are far more practical to serve in kosher dining establishments where non-kosher staff may attend to kosher dinner guests.

By contrast, a non-mevushal—or non-heated—kosher wine remains highly sensitive to religious custom in both the production stage and after bottling. A bottle of non-mevushal wine may not be opened or served to Sabbath-observant Jews by anyone other than equally observant Jewish individuals. To avoid accidents, most kosher restaurants and catering halls simply serve only mevushal wines, which may be why some people think these wines are actually "more" kosher.

However, if there is any discernible problem with mevushal wines, it's that heating a wine to a high temperature does not usually improve its sensory qualities. Under the wrong conditions, heated wines can take on a sweet, maderized taste or even a burned, rubbery edge. That said, mevushal wines are not necessarily bad.

Indeed, many of the scores for this report indicate that mevushal wines can be quite good. That's because modern winemaking techniques have made it possible to quickly flash-pasteurize grape juice and wine with minimal negative effects. In fact, some winemakers—and not just kosher winemakers—believe that heating grape juice prior to fermentation can actually improve a wine's aromatics. It's a technique that has been used at non-kosher wineries such as Robert Mondavi in Napa Valley. In the 1970s and early 1980s, Mondavi consistently used a pasteurizer to heat Riesling and Chenin Blanc juice. Ultimately, the results did not appear to warrant the effort, and the practice was discontinued.

Despite pasteurization's potential for aromatic enhancement, most winemakers would agree that it is best to put wines made from top-notch grapes through as little manipulation as possible. From a purely sensory perspective, it's probably harder to make great wine that is also mevushal.

This is likely why Herzog, America's largest producer of kosher wines, is currently making its top-of-the-line Cabernet and Syrah without flash-pasteurization. Kiddush Hashem, a tiny California label made by Santa Barbara winemaker and Rabbi Samuel Perez, is also made in a non-mevushal style, as are the acclaimed wines of Recanati, a fairly new Israeli brand.

There are also a number of worthy kosher wines coming out of France, including kosher lines made by otherwise non-kosher wineries such as Laurent-Perrier and Nicolas Feuillatte, in Champagne, Château Giscours in Margaux, and Château Yon Figeac in Saint-Emilion. But a Bordeaux appellation and non-mevushal winemaking techniques are no guarantees of quality. Like wines everywhere, some are good and some are not. In addition to the United States, Israel and France, non-mevushal wines are now being made in Italian, South American, South African and Australian wineries with varying success, reflecting a kind of renaissance in kosher winemaking that is currently taking place around the world.

Ironically, the revolution in New World kosher wine is currently being driven by two non-Jews: Peter Stern, 60, executive winemaker for Herzog Wine Cellars in California, and Joe Hurliman, 46, Herzog's winemaker. They oversee production for both the Herzog and Baron Herzog labels.

Stern has worked for Herzog since 1985, when the company contacted him to help develop its varietal wines. With a masters degree in enology from the University of California at Davis, Stern, a Napa Valley native, had previously worked for Mirassou Vineyards in San Jose, and had also consulted for the fledgling Golan Heights Winery in Israel, beginning in 1983. Hurliman, also from California, was assistant winemaker for Central Coast winemaker John Alban for eight years before being recruited by Stern in 1998.

From a purely technical point of view, it doesn't matter whether Stern and Hurliman are Jewish or not. Both non-kosher Jews and non-Jews alike are subject to similar restrictions in the winery. They cannot come directly in contact with juice or wine or operate cellar equipment during the winemaking process. But like the head winemakers at most large non-kosher wineries, Stern's and Hurliman's work revolves around computers and spreadsheets—not hauling hoses and crushing grapes. Their jobs are to spell out winemaking protocol and communicate it to Herzog's full-time kosher cellar crew, led by cellarmaster Josh Goodman. Judging from Herzog's scores in this report, Stern, Hurliman and Goodman make a formidable winemaking team.

For many individuals reading this article, the practice and customs required in making kosher wine may seem fairly esoteric. But questions of faith cannot easily be explained through secular logic. In a dichotomy that has not always led to an enviable position in the marketplace, kosher wine's spiritual dimension has taken precedence over its sensory aspects. Today, the challenge is to retain the essence of what makes a wine kosher, while pushing the envelope on quality.

Increasingly, it's happening on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. In January, Herzog began construction of a new 75,000 square-foot winery in Oxnard, just north of Los Angeles. It will not only be the New World's largest kosher winery producing dry wines, but it will also give the Herzog winemakers more technical options and control than they have ever had in the past. Although the facility will make only wines that conform to strict kosher law, it will also be custom-designed to encourage high-end winemaking that can be appreciated by wine lovers from all traditions.

As we have noted in the past, Editor at Large Jeff Morgan is also a California winemaker. In 2003, Morgan also began making a small amount of kosher wine under a new, yet-to-be-named label. With the exception of Kiddush Hashem, Morgan did not taste or review any kosher California wines for this report. They were tasted and rated by Steve Heimoff, Wine Enthusiast's West Coast Editor. Their reviews can be found on page 62
of this month's Buying Guide.

A Selection of Top Kosher Wines
94 Herzog 2001 Special Reserve Syrah (Edna Valley); $30. This is beautiful Syrah, a joy to drink. It pours dark and glyceriney, and while it's a bit mute on the nose, it explodes in the mouth, with flavors of cassis, spicy plum, chocolate, roasted meat, vanilla and smoke. Hard to describe the smooth mouthfeel, or the fancy aftertaste. For all the flamboyance, it's a dry, controlled wine, assured of itself and in perfect balance. —S.H.

89 Barkan 2000 Superieur Cabernet Sauvignon (Galilee, Israel); $75. Full-bodied and firm textured, with ripe, smooth tannins. The wine serves up a fine blend of blackberry, cassis, coffee, toast and herb flavors. On the finish, it's long, with a tangy citrus edge. —J.M.

89 Château Giscours 1999 Margaux; $55. Fairly plush with powdery tannins to add interest. The wine serves up a core of licorice, herb, anise, coffee, tar, blackberry, cassis and herb flavors. It's got good structure and a reasonably long finish. —J.M.

89 Kiddush Hashem Cellars 2001 Great Oaks Ranch Road Syrah (Santa Barbara County, California); $29. A well-made wine that serves up bright-edged cherry, raspberry, blackberry, sage, thyme and pepper notes. Tannins are a bit powdery. With moderate body, the wine finishes with good length and just a touch of dryness. —J.M.
88 Laurent-Perrier NV Brut L-P (Champagne); $60. Quite nice, with pleasing hints of toast, pear, apple, spice and floral notes. The wine has good body and finesse, ending with a supple roundness on the finish. —J.M.

87 Alfasi 2000 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon (Maule Valley); $10. Fairly supple, with moderate body, the wine is framed in soft tannins. Black cherry, blackberry, cassis, smoke, tar and licorice flavors come to mind, ending in a finish of moderate length. —J.M.

87 Dalton 2002 Reserve Chardonnay (Galilee); $21. Smooth and viscous, with some pretty high-toned toast upfront. Vanilla, peach, apple, pear and mandarin orange are at the core, with a bright punch at the end. —J.M.

87 Ramon Cardova 2001 Tempranillo (Rioja); $10. Firm and focused, with pleasant cherry, raspberry, herb, coffee and spice notes. The tannins are ripe, framing the ensemble with good structure and finishing with moderate length. —J.M.

86 Verbau 2001 Gewürztraminer (Alsace); $15. Bright and spicy, with hints of litchee, melon, peach, pear and cinnamon. Somewhat sweet, but with reasonable acidity for balance. Fresh on the finish.

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