published Thursday, March 14th, 2013

Kosher wine is evolving

RECOMMENDED

FRANCE: Chateau Giraud Sauternes, Kosher Edition; Chateau Pontet-Canet, Pauillac, Kosher Edition; Laurent-Perrier, Champagne Brut NV Kosher Version

FROM ISRAEL: Castel, Grand Vin Castel; Recanati Wild Carignan Reserve; Yarden Merlot

FROM THE U.S.: Prix Vineyards Reserve Syrah

FROM SPAIN: Elvi Wines EL26 Priorat

— Master sommelier Richard Betts

If you remember when kosher wine meant mostly cheap and sweet, you probably know that the second part is no longer true. Today, there are plenty of quality kosher wines being made around the world.

But did you also know that kosher wine has come so far there now are super-premium varieties that go for more than $100 a bottle?

The syrupy kosher wines of the past stemmed mainly from economics. Jewish immigrants to America needed wine, a crucial part of their religious traditions, but didn’t have access to high-quality grapes. So they used the Concord grapes that grow in the Northeast, producing wines with an unpleasant character, usually described as “foxy,” which was masked by adding sugar.

But in recent years, a number of producers have begun making classic red and white kosher wines. A pioneer was Herzog Wine Cellars in Southern California, and there also is a growing wine industry in Israel.

Making wine kosher isn’t particularly hard, says Jeff Morgan, winemaker at Covenant, a winery in the Napa Valley that makes a kosher cabernet sauvignon that goes for $90 a bottle. The ingredients in wine are kosher; the trick is to keep things that way.

The basic requirement for doing that is to make sure that the grape juice and fermented wine is only touched or handled by Sabbath-observant Jews, which is what happens at Covenant, where associate winemaker Jonathan Hajdu is a Sabbath-observant Jew.

Covenant wines are not “mevushal,” a term that means the finished wines have been heated, making it possible for them to be handled by nonobservant Jews and remain kosher. In the old days, that used to mean boiled, which is ruinous to wine. These days, winemakers use flash pasteurization. There’s debate over whether this does or doesn’t affect the quality of a wine, but Morgan is on the side of the doubters and doesn’t do it.

Other than that, Covenant wines, consistently praised by critics, are made like other premium wines — with high-quality grapes, natural yeast fermentation, no filtration and French oak aging.

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