Let’s get one thing straight: Kosher wine does not mean wine that’s been blessed by a rabbi. Rather, the term means that it’s made in accordance with Jewish law. With more than 300 wineries, Israel has long been a major producer of kosher wine, but you can now find it made around the world.
The difference between kosher and regular wine
The rules that govern kosher wine come into play once the grapes are crushed. From that point until the wine is bottled, only Sabbath-observant Orthodox Jews can handle the wine. A mashgiach, or kosher supervisor, makes sure that religious laws are followed throughout the process.
The reason for kosher wine comes from pre-Judaic customs. Most rabbis trace wine to pagan rituals, which led to its use in Jewish rituals like the kiddush, or blessing of the wine every Sabbath, as well as weddings and brises. Since wine grew to be an integral part of these rituals, it became subject to strict religious laws.
Most kosher wine is sold before the major Jewish holidays of Rosh Hashana (the Jewish New Year) and Passover. Both involve elaborate meals, and on Passover, Jews drink four cups of wine during the ritual meal called the Seder. Many non-Orthodox Jews use kosher wine for these holidays.
Another rule is even more complicated. Since many servers who pour the wine are not Jewish, some experts say the wine must be flash-pasteurized or flash détente before it’s bottled. These two processes change the spiritual essence of the wine, which would then be considered mevushal, or cooked.
In the U.S., all kosher wine served in kosher restaurants and catering halls must be mesvushal. In Israel, most of the wine doesn’t undergo this process. Winemakers debate whether flash pasteurization affects the quality or aging potential of the wine.
Is kosher wine expensive?
At a recent wine event in Tel Aviv, Shmulik Zur, owner of Zur World of Wines, showcased kosher wines from around the world. More than 150 wines from 40 Israeli wineries were represented, as were more than 70 wineries from throughout Europe. Some Bordeaux kosher wines were even exhibited for the first time.
“I have to buy all of the wine in advance and take [a winery’s] full capacity,” says Zur. “I send [winemakers] kosher supervisors, who are like his hands [as only they can touch the wine]. It is the same grapes and the same winemaker and the same wine.”
The only difference, of course, is the price. Gabriel Geller, director of Public Relations and Wine Education for Royal Wine Corporation, which imports kosher wine to the U.S., says the extra labor can double the wines’ price.
But in some cases, affordable kosher wine has made inroads with the general population. Case in point: the sparkling version of Bartenura Moscato from Italy, in the iconic blue bottle. Sweet and bubbly, it sells 500,000 cases a year at $12–14 per bottle.
The vast majority of Bartenura’s buyers are not Jewish, and most don’t even know it’s a kosher wine.
On the opposite end are kosher bottles from Champagne Barons de Rothschild, which sell for more than $120 per bottle. It makes about 30,000 bottles of kosher Champagne each year.
“We use the same grapes in the kosher wines as in the non-kosher wines,” says Frederic Mairesse, managing director of Champagne Barons de Rothschild. “We do the kosher version first and then, after two or three days, we switch to the non-kosher one.”
By contrast, Elvi winery in Spain makes kosher wines in six locations, with a total of 130,000 bottles produced. Its flagship wine, Clos Mesorah, includes Carignan made from vines more than 50 years old.
The month-long Jewish High Holy Days often coincide with the height of the harvest in September. On many of the holidays, all work is suspended. The dates of the Jewish holidays vary, as they fall according to the Hebrew lunisolar calendar. But when they occur in early September, it can be difficult.
Eli Gauthier, owner and winemaker of Cantina Giuliano in Italy, says he hires Orthodox Jewish workers from France to help pick grapes and make his wine. Gauthier, who also runs a kosher restaurant at his winery, says his diners are willing to pay for good kosher wine. It’s even a hit among non-Jewish residents of the small village where his winery is located.