Israel’s wine history is perhaps one of the richest on earth, dating back thousands of years. There are numerous biblical references to local vineyards, grapes being transformed into juice that provided an intoxicating effect, and the vine itself was deemed to be a blessing on the children of Israel. Kosher Israeli wine is an integral part of the country’s culture—as historic legacy, as standard consumption and also as an offering in many religious observances.
Unfortunately, it is the common ceremonial use that provides the primary source of identity for Israeli wines to the American consumer. The typical geographic classifications that assist wine drinkers in recognizing a region and the wines it produces—think Bordeaux, Champagne, Chianti etc.—take a back seat to the designation of kosher, which the majority of Israel’s wines carry. To many, Israeli wine and kosher wine are one and the same. And the understanding of what kosher actually means is fuzzy at best.
The fact is, not all Israeli wines are kosher. The majority are, but there are numerous nonkosher selections, produced primarily by smaller boutique, or garagiste, wineries. However, most of these nonkosher selections have limited availability or are not currently imported into the United States.
But preconceived notions about Israeli wine and kosher wine, and the automatic association of the two, have created quite an obstacle for the Israeli wine industry. Some believe the correlation discourages shoppers from trying new brands. Many associate Israeli wine with the Concord-based sweet wines, such as Manischewitz and Kedem—a view that may slowly be changing.
In the U.S., we have a large Jewish community and some still think that Israeli wine is sweet and low quality, but this perception is changing fast,” says Micha Vaadia, winemaker at Galil Mountain Winery. “Our export to the U.S. is growing, and much of the growth is in the nonkosher market.”
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Contrary to common perception, there are few differences between a kosher and nonkosher wine. The techniques used during production are almost identical; there are just some guidelines to be observed in order to achieve kosher status.
The biggest difference is that a kosher wine can only be handled by Sabbathobservant Jews at all points of the winemaking process, from harvesting the grapes through fermentation and bottling. However, it’s not necessary for a head winemaker at a kosher winery to be Jewish. Many are not, and they rely on their staff to handle the materials and equipment.
All ingredients must be certified kosher. Most wine ingredients are already kosher, but certain items, like unauthorized yeasts and animal-based fining additives such as gelatin or isinglass are prohibited. Kosher tools and storage facilities must be observed, meaning that no designated kosher equipment may be used for the production of nonkosher wine. All production must also be overseen by a mashgiach, who supervises the kosher status of the winery.
If a kosher wine is handled by a non-Jew, the wine will lose its kosher status unless it is also mevushal. The term, literally translated as “cooked” or “boiled,” refers to a kosher wine that has been heated to a high temperature to preserve its kosher status, even if handled by a nonobservant Jew.
But even for these “cooked” wines, recent innovations in flash pasteurization have greatly reduced the damage that the heating process traditionally inflicted on the sensory profile of these wines. This means that the raisiny, rubbery or stewed fruit flavors that may have been previously encountered in mevushal selections are far less common today.
To read about what Israeli winemakers eat and drink at home, click here.