?By: Roger Morris
?In America, if you put the word ?kosher? on sausages, you?ll sell more meat,? observed Carmel Winery?s Adam Montefiore, considered the dean of Israel?s rapidly growing fine wine industry, during a recent trade fair in Tel Aviv.??But it?s not the same with wine.?
Nevertheless, kosher wine?s low-quality image as a sticky, overly sweet beverage is quickly disappearing as kosher winemaking around the world has grown in volume and quality ? especially in Israel?s where its mostly, but not entirely, kosher wine business has also helped the world realize that fine wines can be made in the Eastern Mediterranean region, including Lebanon and Cyprus.
Simply put, ?kosher? is wine that is made by religious, Sabbath observant Jewish men.?With one special exception, kosher wine is brought from the vineyard to the bottle using the same processes as non-kosher wine.?And kosher wine can be ? and is ? enjoyed by wine lovers of all faiths.
?We stock many delicious kosher wines in our stores from a variety of countries, including Israel, Australia, Italy, France and the United States,? says Jackie Spironello, specialty wine buyer for the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board.??They are becoming increasingly popular, although they are still sometimes a ?hand sell,?? meaning they have to be presented and explained to some consumers.
This growing popularity of kosher wine can best be understood by first looking at why its traditional reputation was so poor.
Kosher wines were for years consumed primarily as sacramental wines and with meals during the Jewish holidays, and sacramental wines in most religions have been somewhat sweet, often tasting like plain grape juice to appeal to drinkers not used to the drier, more-subtle table wines.
Second, there is not a cultural heritage of drinking wine and spirits within modern Israel, so there was little demand for local wine production in that country.?Although winemaking there was prominent in ancient times, the indigenous grape vines were ripped out during the region?s many Ottoman occupations due to Muslim prohibitions on drinking.?However, there is one cultural exception, as an Israeli travel guide explained while conducting a tour of wineries in the historical Galilee region of Israel.??We are the only religion where you have to drink wine,? he said, referring to the Purim ceremony, ?so once a year, at Purim, we all get drunk!?
Finally, observant Jews cannot drink wine that has been handled by Gentiles such as wait staff, even after bottling, so some kosher wines have traditionally been boiled, and many are still flash pasteurized, which somewhat dulls the wine?s flavors.?These are called ?mevushal? wines and make up a diminishing portion of kosher wines. ?
Steven Cook is co-owner of Philadelphia?s popular Zahav restaurant, which specializes in Israel food, and has a wine list that features 20 Israeli wines, both kosher and non-kosher, and eight to 10 other wines from the Mideast, including ones from Lebanon and Morocco.
?Most of the wine grapes in Lebanon and elsewhere are come from the Southern Rhone,? he says, ?because of the French influences in the region.??Because these grapes flourish in the Mediterranean climate, they also go well with Mediterranean food, Cook says, such as the braised lamb with pomegranate on Zahav?s menu.
Although their countries have been at war, the winemakers of Lebanon and Israel have much in common and often sing the others? praises.?In the hills of northern Israel, Micha Vaadia, winemaker at Galil Mountain winery and a wine school graduate of the University of California at Davis, points to a nearby hill just across the border in Lebanon.??The Bekaa Valley is just a few miles beyond,? he says, referring to Lebanon?s equivalent of Napa Valley.?
? For years, Chateau Musar, founded in the Bekaa in 1930, was a beacon to the world showing that the Eastern Mediterranean could produce fine wines, and in recent years it has been joined by other quality producers.
Khalil?s, which has been the go-to place for lovers of Middle Eastern and Mediterranean food in Pittsburgh since 1972, has a wine list strong in these Lebanese selections to match its offering of regional foods.
But it is in Israel where the Eastern Mediterranean winemaking explosion has been greatest, with dozens of wineries popping up throughout the country over the past few years, several of which export to the United States.??There has been a revolution in the last 25 years,? says Haim Gan, a prominent Israel wine writer and lecturer. ?We are now getting the experience we need with various clones and their terroirs.?
region, Yair Shiran, Israel?s Economic Minister to the United States, says, ?The Galilee is the Isreali Provence!??There, vineyards even cloak the hillsides at the fabled Armageddon, although the small crossroads town has the official, less-apocalyptic Hebrew name of Megiddo.
But whether Kosher wines come from Israel or elsewhere, not all producer will advertise that fact on the front label of imported wines.?Most will have a ?U? inside a circle on the back label, denoting the Orthodox Union, and some will have an encircled ?K? for a kosher certification agency.?A ?P? means kosher for Passover.
?Restaurateur Cook says that kosher wines, especially from Israel, ?are getting more and more exciting.?It?s a lot like the chicken and the egg.?If there is more demand, then there will be more good wines made at prices people can afford,? noting that the price point for the quality offered for some kosher table wines can be somewhat high.
?We always get more demand for kosher wines during the Jewish holidays,? the PLCB?s Spironello says, ?but they shouldn?t be thought of as just holiday wines.?Many are just delicious on their own merit.?
A Kosher Wine Sampler
Barkan Pinot Noir.?From one of Israel?s respected wineries, this pinot noir has typical dark cherry flavors with light hints of spices.
Baron Herzog Central Coast Chardonnay.?From one of California?s best kosher producers, this chardonnay is crisp with great flavors of tropical fruits.
Bartenura Moscato d?Asti.?Lightly sweet and very fragrant, this white wine is typical of the Northern Italian region.
Galil Mountain Galilee Barbera.?Beautiful flavors of black raspberry fruit with a kiss of creamy oak and a crisp finish.
Yarden Galilee Cabernet Sauvignon.?Full-flavored, but yet lean and long on the palate with dark blackberry flavors and a touch of milk chocolate.
Yarden ?Oden Vineyard? Galilee Chardonnay.?Soft and juicy with nice tangerine flavors.