"There is no excuse for bad kosher wine."
In my early 20s I worked at a wine merchant in Leeds in the north of England. Customers would regularly inquire, usually before Passover, about kosher wine. I would point them to the bottle of Palwin No. 10, a red dessert wine from Israel, on the top shelf, the label almost unreadable from age and dust. Without fail the customer would make a face and say that they wanted something to enjoy, not kiddush wine (ceremonial wine). At least Palwin is made from respectable grape varieties, mainly Carignan, and sweetened with grape juice. The American equivalent, Manischewitz, is made from Concord, a native American grape with a taste generally described as foxy, and sweetened with high fructose corn syrup. Classy!
Without really thinking about it, I assumed that there was something intrinsically different about kosher wine, hence the unique taste of Palwin et al. Jeff Morgan, an American winemaker I met at a kosher wine tasting in London, put me right: "The grapes are the same as for non-kosher wine. Any other ingredients such as commercial yeasts and fining agents just have to be certified kosher. Kosher wine is made in exactly the same way as non-kosher." There's one difference, however. "From grapes arrive at the winery," Morgan says, "they can only be handled by sabbath-observant Jews."
Despite being Jewish himself, Morgan isn't observant enough to physically make kosher wine. He doesn't mind, and compares his role to that of a conductor in an orchestra. This strictness in handling emphasizes how sacred wine is in Judaism. Kosher food can be prepared by anyone, as can alcoholic drinks made from other fruit. With wine even the bottling can only be done by sabbath observant Jews. What happens to it after that, however, is according to Morgan "open to interpretation." Some say the wine can only be poured by observant Jews, and other disagree. At the Kedem kosher wine event I attended in London earlier this year they had a crew of eager young men in kippahs pouring the wine in enormous drinking measures rather than tasting samples.
Wines like Palwin are pasteurized so that they become mevushal, meaning that they can be served by anyone. Jeff tried to explain this to me: "Mevushal is a method for making our wines taste really bad 2,000 years ago to discourage non-believers from drinking it and using it to worship Bacchus or Baal or whoever." Perhaps this was the thinking behind Manischewitz. Nowadays there are gentler techniques to make wine mevushal without ruining the taste, though the best kosher wines are usually not mevushal.
Jeff makes premium wines in both California and Israel under his Covenant label. They are sold in some of the best restaurants in the US including the French Laundry and A16 in San Francisco. He's particularly enthusiastic about his Syrah, which is made from a single vineyard in the Golan Heights near the Syrian border. "I think that Syrah is to Israel as Cabernet is to Napa" he said. Over in the Judean Hills near Jerusalem a group of producers calling themselves the Judean Hills Quartet are doing spectacular things with Bordeaux varieties as well as syrah.
But it's not just in Israel and the U.S. where high quality kosher wines are being made. In Bordeaux there are a number of kosher crews who produce cuvees at some of the region's top chateaux including Léoville Poyferré in St Julien and Lascombes and Giscours, both in Margaux. These wines are made in small quantities and the prices reflect this. In contrast, the Capçanes winery in Spain produce kosher wines of all types, even a rosé. These are rugged mountain wines infused with the perfume of Catalonia. "It's about making excellent wines, full stop," Morgan says. "There is no excuse for bad kosher wine."
Here are a nine kosher wines from Israel and beyond that will have you reaching for another glass rather swallowing with a grimace. None of these wines are mevushal so if you're being strict make sure the person pouring is shomer shabbat.
2013 Netofa Red ($22, J Wines)
This blend of Syrah, Grenache and Mourvedre from the Lower Galilee shows how well Rhône varieties are suited to Israel. This is mellow, warming and supple with excellent fruit.
Made by the businesss formerly known as the Palestine Wine Company (i.e. Palwin), this reminds me a little of an Australian Riesling. It's bone dry, with limes and some toasty development on the finish.
2014 Montefiore ($16, Martin Wine Cellar)
A blend of Syrah, Petite Sirah, Malbec and other grapes grown in the Judean Hills. It has a nice fragrance on the nose with juicy raspberry fruit. Simple and unpretentious.
2014 Domaine du Castel Grand Vin ($65, Kosher Wine)
A member of the Judean Hills Quartet. Napa cabernet fans will love this. The tannins are just gorgeous with lots of fresh blackcurrant fruit and then layers of nicely-judged oak.
2014 Covenant Israel Syrah ($73, Skyview)
You can see why Jeff Morgan is so excited about Israeli Syrah. This has a ripe, dark fruit on the nose with notes of cloves and liquorice. It manages to be both concentrated and intense but also graceful and fragrant.
2014 Flam Classico Judean Hills ($24 Wine Library)
The winemaker Golam Flam studied in Italy and there is something of a Super Tuscan style about this wine. Savory and serious, made from Bordeaux varieties with a little Syrah, it's very much a food wine.
2014 Capcanes Peraj Petita ($16, Shoppers Vineyard)
This is a blend of Grenache, Carignan and Tempranillo from Catalonia. I love the combination of power and delicacy, firm tannins and sweet fruit, flowers and savory notes.
2012 Chateau Fourcas Dupre, Listrac-Medoc ($28, Sherry-Lehman)
This is ripe, fragrant, young-drinking Bordeaux from one the most underrated parts of the Medoc. It's a much better value than most kosher wines from the region.