To say that I'm Jewish would be a stretch. Yes, technically I believe I could become a member of the state of Israel, as I have the proper matrilineal lineage and cultural heritage, but if one measures Jewishness by connection to culture and faith, I've got nothing to hang my yarmulke on, so to speak. As a kid I went to my share of Passover Seders (though not every year) and I had no bar mitzvah. The depths of my memory can yield about 8 words of Hebrew, scattered recollections of hunting for the afikomen (a broken piece of matzoh that is used mostly to keep children focused at Passover time).
One of my strongest memories of the few Jewish holidays that were observed by my household is the wine. Frankly, the wine was the only thing among all the traditional Jewish foodstuffs that actually tasted good. That's because back the Seventies, what we were sipping mostly was the sweet, concord-grape flavors of good old Maneschewitz kosher wine. Ah those were the days.
Lucky for us all, especially those wine lovers who are interested in keeping kosher (or those who are interested in giving such folk gifts), the world of fine Kosher wine has exploded in the last twenty years, and now there are hundreds of Kosher wines available from most every major wine producing region of the world.
So what is Kosher wine exactly? Since biblical times, wine has had a special place in Jewish (and many other religions) culture and ceremony. Ritual blessings including wine are found in the earliest Jewish texts, and it has come to be a part of most ceremonies of faith and cultural observances. To be kosher, at a basic level, a wine has to be handled throughout its production process by strictly observant Jews -- that is, those who observe the tradition of the Sabbath and other religious prescriptions. There is probably some word or categorization of orthodoxy which describes this set of behaviors, but I don't know what it is.
Beyond its handling, kosher wine must also be made in such a way that it does not contain any materials or ingredients that fall outside kosher strictures, including non-indigenous yeasts or other food products. At the most basic level, that is all there is to Kosher winemaking.
There is a slight trickiness to kosher wine, however. Technically to be fully kosher according to the criteria above, it cannot be handled by anyone other than strictly observant Jews. Which means that if someone who does not meet the strict observance requirements opens a bottle or pours a glass, it will be spoiled and no longer Kosher.
To combat this problem, there is another type of Kosher wine, known as mevushal. Mevushal (literally: "boiled") wine has been purified to the point that it will remain Kosher even if handled by "idolaters." Wine is made mevushal through a pasteurization process not unlike the flash pasteurization that is now performed on most fresh squeezed orange juice that is sold in supermarkets. It is important to note that mevushal wines are not necessarily "more kosher" than plain kosher wines, they are just more flexible in how they can be handled and sold prior to consumption.
I was recently asked to review some kosher wines for a piece I wrote on Epicurious, and as Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish new year) began this past weekend, I thought I'd share the results.
The good news: there are some very good kosher wines out there to be had. The tricky part is finding them.
Full disclosure: all these wines were received as press samples.
2004 Dalton Reserve Sauvignon Blanc, Upper Galilee, Israel
Light blond in color this wine has a yeasty, citrus nose. In the mouth it is somewhat flat with primary flavors of grapefruit, though they are a bit dull. Score: 7 Cost: $16
2004 Dalton "Canaan" White Blend, Galilee, Israel (Sav Blanc, Chard, Riesling)
Light gold with a hint of greenness, this wine possesses cool aromas of pears, starfruit and petrol. These give way to exotic flavors of starfruit and other tropical fruits with nice acidity and an excellent finish. Score: 8.5 Cost: $16
2005 Hagafen Sauvignon Blanc, Napa
Light green-gold in the glass, this wine smells of banana bread and yeast. In the mouth it is slightly bitter with flavors of green apple skin, and unripe apples. While it has a nice acidity, when combined with the flavors the wine ends up slightly harsh on the palate, rather than harmonious. Score: 7.5 Cost: $13
2005 Hagafen Chardonnay, Oak Knoll District, Napa
Light gold in color, this wine has a classic Napa Chardonnay nose of butter, toasted, oak and vanilla aromas. In the mouth it is smooth with flavors of light apple and citrus flavors with hints of oak, that while pleasant, do not have the complexity to elevate this wine above the merely pleasant. Score: 8 Cost: $21
2005 Baron Herzog Sauvignon Blanc, Central Coast
Pale yellow gold in the glass, this wine has the classic varietal aromas of gooseberries plus notes of dry hay. In the mouth it has a nice mineral acidity that brings to life flavors of citrus zest, grapefruit, and a slight yeasty quality which creeps in on the finish. Score: 8.5 Cost: $8
2004 Herzog Special Reserve Chardonnay, Russian River Valley
A very pretty yellow gold, this wine has a luscious nose of pastry cream and papaya as well as other hard to define tropical fruits. In the mouth it is silky with glycerin and has nice flavors of pastry cream, vanilla, lemon, and toasted oak. The finish is substantial and incorporates elements of tropical fruits. Score: 8.5/9 Cost: $27
2005 Hagafen White Riesling, Napa
Light green gold in the glass, this wine smells of honeysuckle and stewed pears. In the mouth it has a light, pear-like sweetness but little complexity beyond that. Well chilled, this is a perfectly pleasant sipping wine for a hot day. Score: 8 Cost: $15
2005 Hagafen Riesling, Potter Valley, CA
Nearly colorless but with light green hues, this wine has an unusual nose of warm bread and stone fruits. On the tongue it has a brightness and primary flavors of pears and apples. Despite being dry or nearly so, the wine has the aromatics that give it a sweetness through the finish. Score: 8/8.5 Cost: $15
2005 Dalton Moscato, Upper Galilee, Israel
Pale gold in color, this wine has a nose of paraffin, sultanas, and fresh grapes. In the mouth the wine has a slight spritz of tiny bubbles and the classic grapey and melon flavors of Muscat. This is a fairly sweet wine that I recommend be drunk well chilled as an aperitif or after dinner. Score: 8/8.5 Cost: $11
2004 Borgo Reale Moscato d'Asti DOCG, Italy
Pale gold in the glass with the smallest of bubbles, this wine has a nose of honey and stewed apple aromas. In the mouth it is lightly sparkling with flavors of soft baked apples and fresh bread. Score: 8/8.5 Cost: $10
2005 Dalton Rose, Upper Galilee, Israel
A perfect rose pink color, this wine has a very sweet, fruity nose of strawberries and plums. In the mouth it has tarter flavors, most of rhubarb and strawberries and a moderate acidity, with a slight sweetness. The wine rises above flabby and one dimensional, but does not have the dynamism that the best roses can muster. Score: 8/8.5 Cost: $16
2004 Hagafen Pinot Noir, Napa
Light ruby in color, this wine has a classic nose of cranberry and dried herbs. In the mouth it is lush and well balanced with flavors of cranberry and pomegranate, tinged with dried and fresh herbs which linger through the moderate finish. Score: 8.5 Cost: $25
2004 Borgo Reale Sangiovese di Puglia, IGT, Italy
Medium garnet in the glass, this wine has a soft nose of cherry and plum aromas. In the mouth the wine is smooth and slightly woody, with primary and relatively simple flavors of stewed cherries and sawdust tapering into an unremarkable finish. Score: 8/8.5 Cost: $10
2004 Borgo Reale "Vespertino" Chianti, DOCG, Tuscany, Italy
Dark ruby in the glass, this wine has an unusually fruity nose for a Chianti, with aromas of black cherry and plums. In the mouth it is round with cherry, chocolate, and damp earth flavors that, combined with decent acidity, make for a pleasant wine that lasts to a nice finish. Score: 8/8.5 Cost: $13
2003 Hagafen Merlot, Napa
Medium garnet in color this wine smells of stewed plums and prunes. In the mouth it has a nice chocolate character with elements of black plum that unfortunately don't gel into a coherent presence on the palate and fall apart towards the end of the taste, keeping the wine in the realm of good, rather than excellent. Score: 8/8.5 Cost: $27
2003 Dalton Safsufa Cabernet, Upper Galilee, Israel
Medium to dark garnet in the glass, this wine has a nose of green wood, green bell pepper, and oak. In the mouth it is smoky, with a core of cherry flavor wrapped in green woody flavors that while not overwhelming ultimately aren't to my taste when it comes to Cabernet. Having said that, this is a competently made wine with nice fruit to it. Score: 8 Cost: $20
2003 Hagafen Cabernet, Napa
Dark garnet in color, this wine has nice aromas of black cherry and tobacco. In the mouth it is round and well balanced with flavors of black cherry, chocolate, leather and tobacco. Nearly imperceptible tannins support a decent finish. Score: 8.5 Cost: $35
2002 Dalton Reserve Cabernet, Galilee Israel
Dark garnet in color, this wine has an unusual nose of smoky game, figs, and crispy bacon. In the mouth it has the classic green bell pepper signature of Cabernet Sauvignon, but it is muted enough and integrated with soft cherry to not overwhelm the wine. Round and satin textured, the wine has a nice acid balance and sweet tannins, though the finish is a bit weak. Score: 8.5 Cost: $30
2002 Hagafen Cabernet, Napa
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine has a nose of cola, cherry, and tobacco aromas. In the mouth it is all soft black cherry all the time. With light tannins and good acidity, this is a pleasant, well-made Cabernet. Score: 8.5 Cost: $35
2004 Dalton "Canaan" Red Blend, Galilee (Cab, Shiraz, Merlot)
A dark garnet color, this wine has a dark nose of damp earth, sweet wet leaves, and black plum. In the mouth it lacks dynamism but presents pleasant flavors of black fruit and a light tannic structure, but not much more complexity. Score: 8/8.5 Cost: $16
2004 Borgo Reale Toscana Rosso IGT, Tuscany Italy
Deep garnet in color, this wine has a nice nose of leather, blackberry, and wet earth. On the tongue it has a lovely satiny mouthfeel with dry tannins that wrap around a core of cherry fruit that lingers into a reasonable finish. Score: 8.5/9 Cost: $23
2004 Borgo Reale Primitivo di Manduria DOC
Medium garnet in the glass, this wine has a nose of stewed figs and blackberries. In the mouth it has a lovely spiciness, with primary flavors of blackberry and figs, and must have a tiny bit of residual sugar as it tasted a bit sweet to me. A very nice Primitivo, nonetheless. Score: 8.5/9 Cost: $15
2004 Hagafen Zinfandel, Napa
Medium garnet in color, this wine has a luscious nose of blueberry, chocolate, and vanilla. In the mouth it has unusually strong chocolate and blackberry flavors for a Zinfandel, and a reasonable finish. Score: 8.5 Cost: $29
2004 Hagafen Reserve "Moskowite Ranch, Block 61" Reserve Zinfandel
Medium garnet in the glass, this wine has a nose of primarily blackberry aromas with hints of white pepper. In the mouth it is rich and smooth with deep flavors of blackberry, tobacco and spice, all of which linger and last into a very nice finish. 200 cases made. Available for direct purchase from winery only. Score: 9. Cost: $??
2003 Hagafen Syrah, Napa
Medium garnet in color, this wine has aromas of blackberry, blueberry, and tobacco. In the mouth the primary flavors are of black and blue fruits, with a slight tough of greenness. The flavors are most in the front of the wine and fade quickly as the wine passes across the palate, leaving little except the impression of light tannins in the finish. Score: 8 Cost: $27
2003 Hagafen "Heston Vineyard, 'L' Block" Reserve Syrah, Napa
Dark garnet with bright purple highlights in the glass, this wine has a rich nose of chocolate, blueberries and tobacco. In the mouth it is silky and full with chocolate and blackberry flavors, supported by a very light tannic structure that merges with white pepper and mixed spice notes in the finish, which is pleasant. Available for direct purchase through the winery only. Score: 8.5/9 Cost: $??
2003 Herzog Special Reserve Syrah, Edna Valley
Dark garnet in color, this wine has more of the characteristic central coast white pepper aroma than most any Syrah I have ever had. These scents are mixed with blackberry, which is the main flavor that characterizes the body of the wine along with blueberry and spices. Score: 8.5 Cost: $30
2003 Baron Herzog Zinfandel, Lodi
Medium purple in the glass, this wine has a nose of green blackberry bramble. In the mouth it is tart and bitter with primary flavors of blackberry, green leaves, and a slightly plastic flavor which hovers at the edge of unpleasantness. Score: 7 Cost: $11
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