I think it’s fair to say that Kosher wines do not have the best reputation. In fact, the infamous screw cap and yellow label of a certain brand who’s distinguishing feature is a number rather than a region or grape variety is something that might strike fear into the hearts of those who fancy a glass in the evening. Happily however, this situation is changing due to the global wine trade becoming more and more open.
In fact, many of the world’s most famous wine regions produce Kosher products, including Bordeaux, Chablis and Rioja and I am happy to say that the quality of these wines matches the non-kosher versions. I’m sure many of you are wondering what Kosher wine actually is if it’s not sweet red that doesn’t really taste too appealing, made in Israel. Well there are two sides to making a wine Kosher, the people who are involved in the process of wine making, and the process itself, not where the wine is from or what sort of grapes it is made from.
Making wine is pretty simple; sterilise every piece of equipment you are going to use, pick grapes, crush grapes to get grape juice, add yeast to ferment it, put through a sieve to get the bits out and bottle it. Now provided all the people involved in the process are orthodox male Jews who observe the Sabbath and the vineyard and winery have been blessed by a Rabbi, you have the people side sorted. Two things affect the process itself. One is the ban on the use of non-kosher products in the fining process (the sieving bit). The second is the one that has caused all the problems. The wine must be pasteurised to be pronounced kosher for Passover, which in effect means it has to be boiled.
Now as you can imagine, wine is not supposed to be boiled before you drink it and until recently the only way of doing this was to literally bring to the boil and simmer gently. Nasty. Not any more though and thanks to borrowing technology from the milk industry, wine can now be ‘Flash Pasteurised’ meaning it can be designated Mevushal. This does add to the cost of manufacture however, along with a few other factors which contribute to the overall higher cost of Kosher bottles when compared to ordinary wines.
One cost is that 1% of the year’s production must be poured on the ground in a ceremony called Maaser, this is done to symbolise the taxes paid to the high priests at the time of the first and second temples. Another cost contributor is the law that states that no wine may be produced on every seventh year, effectively meaning no income for the grower. Many get round this by sub-letting their fields to non-kosher wine companies for the year in question. A final issue is the age of vines when wine may first be made, four years old. The fruit from the third year is picked and destroyed. In modern wineries however the fruit from vines is not considered of a high enough quality to produce wine until the fourth year anyway. Still, you can see why a product that you can only make six years out of seven, 1% of which you must destroy and have to wait four years to make in the first place might command a premium.
So what’s the difference between this method and standard methods? Both use four year-old grapes and above for their wines. Both sterilise everything carefully to ensure no contamination of the wine. Both use the same methods of pressing and vinification. Kosher wine is pasteurised and not filtered or fermented using non-kosher products. After that it is all down to supervision by Rabbis and the performing of the relevant religious rituals.
The Jewish community in the UK suffers from a quality wine drought simply because of our lack of a major producer in this country. Go to France and in most of their wine regions you can get your hands on Kosher versions of the local produce, the same can be said of the USA, Chile, Australia and the rest of Europe. Luckily, the rest of the country is on the same boat and has to rely on imports. In fact, the UK is at the very centre of the international wine trade with London at its heart. You can buy more wines, from more countries here than anywhere else in the world, so too Kosher wines if you know where to look.
Sadly the local supermarkets will only stock alternatives to No.10 in any numbers if the local area has a very strong Jewish community and even then the choice is not exactly wide. Specialist shops are also hard to find so you will have to rely on mail-order or internet shops. Two which I would recommend are Hallgarten Vintners in London who sell the fantastic Yarden Mt. Hermon wines. For me, the best Israeli producer exporting to the UK, the wines are not cheap, but they are good. The other place for those of you connected to the web is www.kosherwine.com These guys have a great range of wine from around the world and are on hand to give you advice and descriptions of the wines.