Wine is a central part of Jewish culture. It is prayed over during the weekly Shabbat, drunk under the Chuppa during the exchange of vows and sipped with relish four times during the Passover Seder dinner. It would stand to reason that given how much vino we are required to drink, us Jews should probably make the best wine there is.
This is, very sadly, far from true.
This year for Passover, I am here to Let My People Go… or at least their palates. Kosher wine doesn’t have to taste like the remnants of a Smucker’s Grape Jelly Jar. It can be drinkable and, yes, even delicious and complex.
There are two basic types of kosher wine: Mevushal, and Non-Mevushal. It is usually the Mevushal wines that have given Kosher wine a bad name. The process of making a Mevushal wine entails flash-pasteurization. In a nutshell, due to the intricacies of Rabbinical laws concerning Kosher diet, any wine that is made and is handled by a Gentile (or a non-Sabbath observant Jew), cannot be considered Kosher. The wine, however, can be “purified” by boiling it. It only need boil for a split second, but boil it must. After that, it can be served by a Gentile and still be considered Kosher.
This would all be well and good if heat weren’t wine’s number one enemy. Raising the vino’s temperature to that point, even for a split second, drastically changes the flavor of the wine and robs it of most of its unique characteristics. Drink a little bit of this stuff and your taste buds will feel as repressed as the protagonist of a Phillip Roth novel.
Non-Mevushal wines, however, are made completely by Sabbath observant Jews. By doing this, there is no need to “purify” the wine. Strict Kosher observant Jews will only allow other Sabbath observing Jews to serve this wine to them, to avoid breaking Kosher law. If you are serving this wine for Passover, however, this will most likely not be an issue.
Making Non-Mevushal wine is much easier to do in Israel, where keeping Kosher is not only a way of life, but the norm. And it just so happens that grapes have been grown and wine has been made in Israel for thousands of years.
One of my absolute favorite producers in Israel is Tishbi. Their Tishbi Cabernet Sauvignon/Petit Sirah, 2007 ($11.99 at Crush Wine & Spirits, 153 E. 57th St. btwn. Lexington and Third, 212-980-WINE) rivals any Cali-cab I’ve had at the same price point. It has tons of pipe tobacco and leather scents, with big, bold cherry fruit flavors, and the 30 percent Petit Sirah gives it a peppery finish. This wine’s sturdy tannic structure cuts through the fattiness of braised lamb shank perfectly.
Aside from the lamb, a Seder contains many other dishes with lots of other big flavors, like the spicy cinnamon and apple based Charoset. A white wine can get drowned out in a meal like this unless it has some bold flavors of its own. The eponymous Golan Chardonnay, 2007 ($15.99 at Beacon Wines & Spirits, 2120 Broadway btwn. 74th and 75th, 646-213-0776), is a no-nonsense chardonnay with enough spice, vanilla and tropical fruit flavors to stand up to anything the Seder table can throw its way.
For something sweet and light to finish off your Passover celebration, try Dalton’s Sweet Muscato, 2004 ($12.99 at www.hudsonvalleywinesandliquors.com). From the Galilee area of Israel, Dalton’s slightly fizzy Muscato shows that kosher wine can be sweet and interesting at the same time. Ripe peach, tangerine and honey flavors are balanced by an effervescence that keeps the sweetness from being overbearing.
Above all, always make sure to check that the wine you are buying is a Non-Mevushal. Many producers make both Mevushal and Non-Mevushal versions of their products. While this is by no means an epicurean stamp of approval across the board, it will at least ensure that it hasn’t been boiled.
Now, if we can just do something about that gefilte fish.