As the Seder draws near, Jews of all stripes become oenophiles, setting out to stores to choose the perfect wine for their Passover meals. As with the meals themselves, which by now include vegetarian and gourmet selections as well as the traditional brisket, kosher wine options have increased exponentially in recent years, leaving brains swimming even before the drinking begins.
The American kosher wine industry came into its own in the late 19th century, when the concord grape was easily cultivated in the Northeast. The grape required a generous addition of sugar to perform that miracle of transforming grape juice to wine, and thus an American Jewish tradition of syrupy sweet wines emerged — with the distinctive taste becoming de rigueur. This was perhaps best summed up in the motto of Schapiro’s wines since the 1890s: “Wine so thick you can cut it with a knife.”
Concord wines — Schapiro’s, of course, along with the ubiquitous Manischewitz and Kedem — for almost a century dominated the kosher market until some American Jews began thinking that perhaps their knives were best kept by their dinner plates. Hagafen Wine Cellars — founded in 1979 — and California’s Baron Herzog — founded in 1985 — offered an alternative and set a precedent for kosher wines to follow.
A recent kosher wine tasting at the Hannah Senesh Day School in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, a collaborative effort with the neighborhood’s Scotto’s Wine Cellars, offered up roughly 70 wines from around the globe, proving that there’s room in the market for more than Manischewitz. New York’s Gotham Wines boasts more than 250 kosher offerings.
This diversity has met with enthusiasm from Jewish connoisseurs, although some traditions are not to be trifled with. Chef Jeffrey Nathan of the upscale kosher eatery Abigael’s and the author of “Adventures in Jewish Cooking,” told the Forward that he still prefers a concord wine for the Seder’s Four Cups: “It’s the only time I like tradition.” The evening’s meal, however, is an entirely different matter.
Even with the multitude of offerings, the prescribed four cups at one meal is a quantity to reckon with: A cup, in this case, measures between 3.5 and 5 ounces — except, of course, for children and those with extreme health problems. The exact amount has been the center of a rabbinical debate on the interpretation of an ancient measurement — based on the amount of water displaced by an egg, no less, according to Rabbi Moshe Elefant, executive rabbinical coordinator of the kashrut division of the Orthodox Union. While others will opt for grape juice, Rabbi Elefant said that this aspect of Passover is about “showing freedom, pride and happiness, which is better achieved with wine.” A low-alcohol wine like the organic Bartenura Nebbiolo (Italy, mevushal) is good for those trying to keep their wits about them (or hoping to drive home).
“It is considered preferable,” the rabbi added, “to drink red wine.” Why? “In halachic literature red is considered better. It symbolizes a lot of aspects of the night, looks like blood: the blood of the sacrificial lamb, the blood on the doorpost.”
For those with an aversion to red, however, there is a loophole of sorts. Because “Passover is a time for emancipation, it should be done with as much freedom and emancipation as possible,” the rabbi noted. Adding a drop of red wine to either white wine or juice is not uncommon.
Jewish law also dictates that one drink the best wine — meaning either the highest quality or the selection one finds most enjoyable — within one’s means. To that end, the Forward consulted several kosher gourmands — Laura Frankel, chef-owner of Shallots kosher restaurants in New York and Chicago; Avrum Kirschenbaum, co-owner of New York’s Levana; Nathan; Patricia Smith, manager of New York’s Le Marais (which has its Passover label bottled by Baron Herzog), and Anthony Dias Blue, the wine and spirits editor at Bon Appétit magazine — about the wines they’d recommend for the Seder table.
A general rule of thumb emerged among the experts: With gefilte fish, a Chenin Blanc or Chardonnay works well, while the main course is complemented best by a hearty red: Merlot or Cabernet Sauvignon. (Wine aficionados made a point of mentioning that avoiding French kosher wine — made by French Jews — adds insult to injury for a population facing a wave of antisemitism.)
Kirschenbaum added that “years are not important in kosher wine, unless you’re buying a special reserve.”
The small sampling here is meant to illustrate the breadth of wines available for this year’s Passover table, with an eye to tightened purse strings. As Frankel put it, “If you’re going through all the trouble of this ridiculously long meal, you might as well have an extravagant wine to go with it.”
Fortant de France Chardonnay 2001*
Bartenura Pinot Grigio* (Royal Wine Corp.)
Beckett’s Flat Margaret River Shiraz* (Abarbanel)
Daltôn Cabernet Sauvignon (Abarbanel)
Alfasi Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2000 (Royal Wine)
Hagafen Cellars Syrah 2000*
Baron Herzog Chenin Blanc*
Verbau Alsace Gewürztraminer (Royal Wine)
Ramon Cardova Rioja (Royal Wine)
Baron Herzog Zinfandel Lodi Old Vine* (Royal Wine)
% Alcohol by volume
From Les Vins Skalli, this white is “really very nice,” says Blue. Velvety taste, acacia flower, crisp.
Dry and fruity from Castelboglione in a blue bottle that will surely snag your eye.Very popular at wine tasting.
A “super-duper wine,” Kirschenbaum says. A peppery red with ripe berry flavors from western Australia.
From the hills of the Upper Galilee, a fruity taste with hints of oak.
Rich with flavor, full-bodied with a lingering pleasant aftertaste. If for some reason this one remains uncorked, it’s made to age well.
From the Napa Valley: “very nice,” “lush, ripe, lots of black raspberry fruit.”
“Crisp and fruity,” Frankel says. “Inexpensive and delicious, dry yet tart,” Kirschenbaum says.
Very nice “spicy, fresh, creamy,” Blue says. Also one of Kirschenbaum’s favorites: “very spicy.”
New this year: The first kosher wine to emerge from Spain, made with tempranillo grapes in north-central Spain near Haro. Wild berry flavors, ruby-colored, earthy.
This month’s Wine Spectator: “Hearty and chewy… with a wallop of heavily toasted notes and cherry flavors. Drink now.”
The Finer Points Of Kosher Wine
What’s the difference between kosher wine and kosher for Passover wine?
In order for a wine to be kosher, it must be created under a rabbi’s immediate supervision, with only Sabbath-observant Jewish males touching the grapes from the crushing phase through the bottling.
While all wines require some sort of mold (yeast) for fermentation, kosher for Passover wine must be made from a mold that has not been grown on bread — sugar or fruit are often used to create yeast —and must exclude several common preservatives, like potassium sorbate. Most kosher wines are kosher for Passover, but not all, so it’s best to check the label.
Once a bottle of non-mevushal kosher wine has been opened, it must only be handled by Jews if it is to remain kosher. At family Seders where non-Jewish guests or hired help will be pouring or passing wine and in kosher restaurants, mevushal wines are used. Mevushal wine is a wine that has been brought to high temperatures, which allows it to maintain its kosher standing no matter who pours from the bottle. The traditional method of creating mevushal wine — boiling — has been replaced, thanks to new technologies, with a flash pasteurization process that in just seconds brings a wine to the necessary temperature (between 170 and 192 degrees). This allows a mevushal wine to stay both tasty and kosher, helping Seder goers to celebrate their freedom with friends and family who aren’t Jewish.
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