Last week, I took a variety of wines to my friend's home so we'd have choices for dinner. I had a malbec from Argentina, a Rioja from Spain, a cabernet sauvignon from Israel, and a red blend from California. What did all these wines have in common? They were all kosher.
These four wines, along with an ice wine from Canada and an Israeli merlot that I had previously opened (pictured at left) were all included in a box of kosher wine samples I received. The ice wine was the first bottle I saw when I opened the box, and it threw me. In fact, I was confused for a minute about the entire box at first. I didn't realize these were the kosher bottles I was expecting, and I couldn't recall any other shipments that big that were on their way.
Opening that box taught me something right away about kosher wines. They come from many countries and are made from many grape varietals. In fact, unless you were to see a kosher symbol on the back of a bottle, you would have no way of knowing whether you were drinking kosher wine or not.
I asked Jay Buchsbaum, Royal Wine/KEDEM's vice president of marketing and director of wine education, what makes a wine kosher. The simple answer is that from the crushing of the grapes until the sealing of the bottle, the entire process is overseen and handled by Sabbath-observant Jews. He shared more details about the basics of kosher wine.
Growing and picking the grapes
There are no specific requirements for growing the grapes or picking the grapes that go into a kosher wine. The one exception, says Buchsbaum, is in Israel.
"In Israel, you cannot harvest a wine until after the third vintage from a new vine. Strictly speaking, this only applies in Israel, but most vintners won't use grapes from new vines until they are at least 4 years old anyway since the grapes usually aren't good enough for wine making," said Buchsbaum.
At any vineyard that supplies grapes for kosher wine, harvesting can be done by Jews and non-Jews alike. It's only from the beginning of the crush that Jewish handling is required.
Kosher wine ingredients
Any varietal of grapes can be used for kosher wine, and there are no specific ingredients that are required for a wine to be kosher.
But, there are some ingredients that may not be used in a kosher wine. Gelatin is used by some winemakers as a fining agent to remove any solids left in a wine, but it's not allowed in kosher wine. Non-wine based yeasts and certain acidification and balancing agents that may originate from a non-kosher or dairy source are also prohibited, according to Buchsbaum.
The end result
"The objective of making wine kosher is to keep the wine pure both physically and spiritually," he said. "The rabbi supervision is there to ensure this. When an individual receives a wine that is 'pure,' they can sanctify it and make it special for their own needs."
This pure wine can be served at any time, but kosher wines are required for observance during holidays and rights of passage such as weddings or bar and bat mitzvahs.
"What most people are surprised to find out about kosher wines is that they can come from everywhere and they're generally as good or better than their non-kosher counterparts," said Buchsbaum.
In my opinion, the kosher wines I've been sampling recently back up Buchsbaum's claim. The merlot and the malbec were enjoyable wines that were true to their varietals. Had I not brought them to the gathering, I wouldn't have noticed anything different about them.
Kosher wines now come from 17 countries, and that number is growing. In addition to still red, white and rose wines, there are kosher Champagnes from France and port wines from Portugal.
The growth of these wines, of course, is a good thing for those who keep kosher because those consumers will have more variety to choose from. And, as that variety grows, it's also good for those who don't keep kosher to understand that these wines are no different in taste or quality than non-kosher wines. Just because a bottle has a kosher symbol on the back doesn't mean everyone wouldn't enjoy it.