Raise a Glass To Kosher Wine

By Adeena Sussman

Published June 06, 2007, issue of June 08, 2007.
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If you see a kosher cabernet on the shelf at your local wine shop, there’s a good chance it’s been sold to the store by Royal Wine Corp., the New Jersey-based wine producer, importer and distributor that owns Kedem and Baron Herzog wineries, represents dozens more from around the world and was a pioneer in bringing prestigious kosher wines to the United States from France.

At a sold-out event New York City earlier this year at the Museum of Jewish Heritage, Royal brought together many of its domestic and international brands for a very public showing of just how far the producer feels these wines have come. Kosher chef, cookbook author and TV personality Jeffrey Nathan provided a smorgasbord of upscale kosher food.

“The story of these wines is incredible,” Nathan said. “There’s no longer a cloud hanging over the world of Jewish wine.”

Moving far beyond Manischewitz, Jews are consuming more wine — 20% more in the past two years, according to Martin Davidson, Royal’s director of communications.

And while there were some oddities at the Kosher Food & Wine Experience — for instance, a plum vodka by the manufacturers of Slivovitz that tasted suspiciously like its higher-proof cousin — there was an impressive showing of wines worth savoring.

Some of the most desirable selections came from California’s Herzog Wine Cellars, which recently moved into an impressive new state-of-the-art facility in Oxnard, Calif., located in Ventura County on the coast north of Los Angeles. There, Dan Hurliman, who has been the Herzog winemaker for six years, is crafting a new generation of Herzog vintages. His 2004 chardonnay — aged sur lies (allowing the wines contact with yeast sediments left over from fermentation) and then in American oak barrels — calls to mind Burgundy-style wines, neither too sweet nor over-oaked; they’re the perfect partner for grilled salmon.

Another California standout was Covenant, a cabernet made by Jeff Morgan. A former wine journalist, Morgan began producing a nonkosher rosé wine, SoloRosa, before deciding to make a kosher wine using 100% Napa Valley grapes. “I wanted a challenge,” Morgan said. To make his wines kosher, he brings his grapes to the Herzog facility and supervises the winemaking there. Aside from solid reviews, there has been another result for Morgan: “It’s brought me closer to my faith.”

A proliferation of wines from up-and-coming wine-producing regions was another trend on display. Goose Bay, the first kosher wine from New Zealand, presented a citrus-tinged, mildly spicy sauvignon blanc and a fruit-forward pinot noir begging to be served with a cheese course.

One of the more interesting offerings came from Rothberg Cellars, which hails from the fertile city of Paarl, near Cape Town, South Africa. Rothberg’s pinotage — wine made from a grape that’s a crossbreed between Pinot Noir and Hermitage (also known as Cinsault) is a light-bodied, young wine that packs a healthy wallop of fruit.

Probably the most excitement is being generated around Israeli wines, whose production has exploded in recent years as experienced, passionate winemakers have finally figured out ways to best exploit the grape-friendly territory. In a country plagued with practically constant political strife, the wine industry is something everyone can feel good about.

Some of Israel’s most buzz-worthy kosher wines are coming out of Domaine du Castel under the tutelage of Eli Ben Zaken, a secular Israeli Jew who was previously the owner of a popular (and now-closed) kosher restaurant in Jerusalem, Mamma Mia. In the late ’80s he began planting grapes in the Judean Hills, dubbing the region “Haute Judée” as he crafted French-style wines with serious chops. At their winery on Moshav Ramat Raziel, Ben Zaken and his family have developed a cult following among connoisseurs and critics in the United States. A few years ago, Castel became kosher; all of its wines are superb. Its Grand Vin, a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot grapes with a bit of Petit Verdot thrown in for good measure, makes a perfect match for steak or lamb skewers.

I also liked the offerings from Segal vineyards, an offshoot of Israeli giant Barkan. Segal, which began as a vodka-making concern in Russia 200 years ago, before its owners immigrated to Israel and began making wines in the 1940s, considers itself the pioneer of winemaking in Israel’s northern Galilee region. Its less expensive fusions, available in both white and red blends, combine popular grapes to make food-friendly, drinkable wines. Its more expensive unfiltered, single-vineyard cabernet sauvignon was also a winner, with hints of spice and satisfying tannins.

One of my favorite sips of the evening came from Gush Etzion Winery. While Shraga Rosenberg is producing a whole line of respectable wines at his 11-year-old winery located in the Israeli settlement of Gush Etzion, I couldn’t resist his sour cherry wine — a maceration of cherries, sugar and alcohol that was the liquid embodiment of a warm, late-summer sour cherry pie.

Adeena Sussman is a food writer and chef living in Manhattan. Next year she will begin organizing culinary tours to Israel.

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