Kosher Wine

By: Natasha Hughes
What makes a wine kosher is not a blessing but the fact that, once juice begins to run from the grapes, neither grapes nor juice can be touched by a non-observant person ? and nor can the winemaking equipment itself. Kosher wine must be made with kosher ingredients
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Kosher Wine



?By: Natasha Hughes

]]>This article was first ?published in Harpers

People in the wine trade are prone to reminiscences about their seminal wine experiences, especially the one that first awakened them to the world of sensory possibilities that can be contained in a glass. While for many of us these are positive experiences, I?m sad to say that the first wine I can remember tasting was Palwin No 10, a kosher wine. Bottles of Palwin, which are numbered 4, 4a, 10 and 11, like dishes on a Chinese menu, contain a viscous, oxidised liquid, more reminiscent, frankly, of fermented prune juice than anything that ever came from a grape. Most Jewish homes in the UK have a bottle of the stuff in a cupboard, to be trotted out on the Sabbath and other holy days for ritual blessings; and most Jewish kids grow up believing that this is what wine tastes like.

Luckily for me, my father was a bit of a wine buff, so I soon learned that there was life beyond Palwin; but for many years I remained convinced that this syrupy sacramental liquid was the Platonic ideal of a kosher wine. I?d heard rumours, of course, that some of the best producers in Bordeaux made a few kosher barriques every year, but I dismissed this as the viticultural equivalent of an urban myth. I simply couldn?t reconcile the remembered taste of Palwin No 10 with anything that could possibly come out of a cru class? ? or even a decent vin de pays ? chai.
On a recent visit to M?doc cru bourgeois Ch?teau Rollan de By, however, I was intrigued to find that part of the winery had been screened off by a large tarpaulin, which was suspended from the ceiling. When I asked what was going on behind it, I was told that this was where the ch?teau made its kosher wine ? and that the screen was there to prevent the kosher barriques from being touched by non-Jews.

Up until that moment, I?d been under the misapprehension that wine was made kosher by being blessed by a rabbi. Now I discovered that, outside of Israel at least, what makes a wine kosher is not a blessing but the fact that, once juice begins to run from the grapes, neither grapes nor juice can be touched by a non-observant person ? and nor can the winemaking equipment itself. Observant in this context implies regular attendance at synagogue and, for men, the wearing, at all times, of a yarmulke, the round skullcap of the religious Jew.

One other factor must be taken into account before a wine can become truly kosher: it must be made with kosher ingredients. In practice, this mainly means the use of kosher yeasts (raised on substances that contain no grain or animal products), as well as kosher fining agents. This rules out the use of isinglass, which is obtained from the sturgeon ? as this species has no scales, it is not kosher.

Although kosher wine is made in various parts of the world (most notably California, Chile, South Africa, Bordeaux, the Languedoc, Champagne), most, of course, is made in Israel. There, further criteria must be observed for a wine to be deemed truly kosher. The first of these is that, for the first three years after planting, a vine?s fruit may not be picked. But, as Adam Montefiore, international marketing director of Carmel Winery, points out, ?Any winery worth it?s salt will not use the first three years? worth of grapes in any case?.

A kosher vineyard should also be allowed to lie fallow every seventh year. Because this doesn?t make much commercial sense, most of these wineries ?sell? their vineyards to a non-Jew for the duration of the year, buying it back in time for the following year?s production. Growing vegetables or fruits between the vines is prohibited and, finally, in a symbolic ceremony, a small proportion of a vineyard?s annual production is poured away in an echo of the ten per cent tithe once paid to the Temple in Jerusalem.

In theory, at least, none of these practices should affect the quality of the finished wine. In short, well-made kosher wine should taste just the same as its non-kosher equivalent. In practice, however, the extra layer of regulation can lead to complications. For some wineries involved in the production of kosher wine the insistence on the presence of the mashgiach, the hands-on, Sabbath-observant winemaker at all times can prove to be the trickiest of the rules to deal with on a day-to-day basis is.

?Making kosher wine overseas is far easier in many ways than making it in Israel as some of the agricultural rules don?t need to be observed,? points out Montefiore, ?but in other ways it?s more difficult because there?s far fewer religious people around to work in the wineries, so the process loses a certain degree of spontaneity.

?I believe those wineries set up specifically to make kosher wine make the best kosher wines,? he continues. ?Those doing it for commercial reasons are bound to have pre-booked dates on which the winemakers visit the winery, which must affect the quality of the wine.?
The first time that Bordeaux?s Ch?teau Smith-Haut-Lafitte made kosher wine (a small proportion of the ch?teau?s annual production), during the 1995 vintage, is a case in point. ?The team had never worked with barriques before,? says Florence Cathiard. ?It cost us dearly as they broke pumps and other pieces of equipment. Although we now work with a very good team, production can be really tricky as the wines have their own production schedule and the Jewish holidays can sometimes interfere with that. In addition, we can guide, but we can?t intervene, which stretches the process out.?

Privately, however, many Israeli winemakers also express frustration with the process, as the insistence on the presence of a mashgiach inevitably causes minor delays (for instance, it is the mashgiach who must draw the wine from the tank or barrel every time the winemaker wants to taste it). The regulations also mean that the winemaker is distanced from the process in a more fundamental way. ?I get upset sometimes because I see winemaking as a hands-on process,? admits Carmel?s Canadian winemaker Sam Soroka, ?and the rules mean that I can?t be in physical contact with the wine as much as I?d like.?

To meet the needs of ultra-religious Jews, a small amount of mevushal wine is also produced. In a curious echo of the Indian caste system, non-Jews are not allowed to pour wine for ultra-orthodox Jews unless it has first been ?purified? by being heated for a period of time. The precise time and temperature are subject to debate, and many wineries that produce mevushal wine are content to flash pasteurise the liquid, believing that the wine remains relatively unharmed by the process. Other wineries refuse to produce mevushal wine as they believe quality is inevitably compromised by the heat treatment. In any case, the market for mevushal wine is relatively small compared to the market for kosher wine.
Although the process of making kosher wine is slightly more complicated than usual, there are also benefits, otherwise no winemaker in their right mind would go to all the trouble of doing so. ?The demand for these wines exists,? says Jean-Luc Marteau, Rollan de By?s ma?tre de chai. ?Although we can sell all of our production without making kosher wine, we feel that it?s our responsibility to provide the Jewish market with what it demands. After all, Jews have the right to drink good wine, too.?

Cathiard expresses similar sentiments. ?We started making kosher wines because of the demands of our Jewish friends. We know that these wines will be served at prestigious events in the States and the UK [bottles of kosher Smith-Haut-Lafitte were served at the wedding of Steven Spielberg?s daughter], where our regular wines would never make it. It helps us to establish our marque with these wine lovers.?
In addition to opening up new markets, kosher wines often sell for a premium. ?We sell our kosher wines a bit dearer than usual, about 10 per cent more,? confirms Marteau. ?By the time it reaches the market, I think it?s priced about 20 per cent higher than usual. But there are extra costs involved in the production of these wines ? the rabbis? work doesn?t come cheap.?

As for the reasons Israeli winemakers (whether they have a religious bone in their bodies or not) are frequently compelled to make their wines kosher, it comes down to a single factor: economics. Eli Ben Zaken, owner of Domaine de Castel, one of Israel?s premium boutique wineries, puts his decision to turn to kosher production from 2003 onwards down to patriotism. ?Although I?m not a religious Jew,? he says, ?I?m a patriotic one, and the fact that I was producing a wine some of my fellows Jews couldn?t drink was bothering me so we decided to make all our production kosher. After all, it?s as easy to employ an observant Jew as it is to employ a non-observant one.?
Patriotic sentiment aside, however, the truth for many Israeli winemakers who hope to sell their wines in their home country, kosher is a necessity. Without that vital rabbinical seal, the domestic market is limited. It?s no coincidence that many wineries decide to go down the kosher route once annual production nears 10,000 cases. Under that level, there?s enough of a market for non-kosher wine for sales of limited quantities, especially if the wine is sought-after, but volume sales are dependent on the wine being kosher.

In terms of the export market, however, the kosher seal on a bottle of wine can be as much hindrance as help when it comes to sales. Few retail outlets seem to know whether kosher wine should be sold alongside other wines or whether they should be sold from the kosher aisle. ?I believe we have to forget sacramental wine and need to do a lot of work to make sure everyone knows that Israeli wine, whether kosher or not, is good wine,? says Montefiore. ?The objective of the industry is to produce the finest possible wine that happens to be kosher ? not just to produce kosher wine. There is a difference.?

The biggest markets for kosher wine ?outside Israel ? are in America, France and the UK. The US is the largest by both volume and value after Israel ? hardly surprising given that some six million Jews live in the States. Nearly a million cases of kosher wine (with an estimated value of $100 million) are sold there each year, half of them in New York and New Jersey (the other main centres are Florida, California, Chicago and Boston). French sales are close to ?32 million each year, while here in the UK the market is worth ?3.4 million annually.

The Royal Wine Company, a kosher specialist based in New Jersey, dominates the US market. It both imports kosher wine and owns wineries in New York state and California where American-grown grapes are processed. ?In the late 70s we started importing wine that happened to be kosher,? says RWC?s owner David Herzog. ?It?s a tiny segment that is growing a lot, thanks to improvements in the quality of the wine. Once kosher wine was a sweet wine that wasn?t meant for drinking. These days you can have a good kosher Cabernet Sauvignon that you would actually want to drink with your food, and which doesn?t have to be kept for special occasions.?

Both in the UK and across the Atlantic, the market for kosher wine is subject to seasonal fluctuation. ?Our sales of kosher wine peaks at Jewish holidays,? explains Peter Vogel, owner of Panzers, an upmarket grocery in St John?s Wood (an area in London with a substantial Jewish population). ?We sell these wines all year round, but at Passover and New Year sales jump ? about 40 per cent of our annual sales of kosher wine are made during those two weeks. People entertain a lot at these times, and because it?s a Jewish festival many of them are happier serving a kosher Israeli wine.?

?Wherever there?s a Jew, there?s a need for kosher wine,? says Montefiore. ?If he?s religious there?s no alternative, for others there?s the Sabbath and a number of festivals. Judaism is a religion that celebrates wine ? at Purim you?re supposed to get drunk and at Passover you?re commanded to drink four glasses of wine on both of the nights the festival is celebrated.?


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