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04.09.2009

The World's Best Kosher Wine?: Tasting The Covenant

cov-logo-image.gifThe more stories I hear about how some wineries get started, the more I tend to think that by far the best way to start a wine brand is almost by accident. Ten years ago if you had told wine writer Jeff Morgan that he'd eventually be making the best (and most expensive) Kosher wine in the world, he would have probably fallen off his chair laughing. At that point, his exposure to Kosher wine consisted of the seven consecutive years he wrote (what he says was) essentially the same story on Kosher wine for the Wine Spectator. I'm not counting the Maneschewitz he had growing up as an occasionally-observant Jewish kid.

But as it happens in the wine business, little things sometimes end up having a big impact. Those seven years left Morgan with the distinct impression that Kosher wine could be an awful lot better than it was, even though he had discovered several domestic producers of very good wine.

After writing for the Spectator, Morgan went on to work as the wine director at Dean & Deluca, a gourmet grocery store in St. Helena, CA, in the heart of the Napa Valley. Living in the heart of wine country, Morgan started making a little wine for the heck of it, founding what is still the only new world winery dedicated solely to producing dry rose wine. Solorosa was just a small, personal project for Morgan -- a nostalgic connection with some time he had spent as a cellar rat in Long Island as a young man.

But proving to himself that he was able to make a commercially viable wine was the second crucial step that prepared him to have a happenstance conversation with Leslie Rudd (the owner of Dean & Deluca) one day that began with the question, "So why isn't there any really fantastic Kosher wine being made?" and ended with the crazy idea of making a high-end kosher Napa Cabernet.

Morgan had no idea what he was getting himself into, but he comes across as the kind of guy that is game to try anything if only to find out. With Rudd's help, he found a 3-acre parcel of grapes in the historic Larkmead vineyard, and set out on a journey of discovery that has truly proved worthy of the name he eventually applied to his wine: Covenant.

Kosher wine is both incredibly easy, and maddeningly hard to make. First of all, all wine starts off Kosher (which just means sacred). The problem is, Kosher wine instantly becomes not kosher if it is handled in its production or bottling by anyone other than a proper, sabbath observing Jew. So, in order to make Kosher wine, all you have to do is get a crew of properly observant Jews to make the wine, and make sure that from the time of harvest to the time of bottling, no one but them gets to touch the wine in any way shape or form, and nothing is added to the wine that is not kosher itself (this includes yeasts, though so called "native yeasts" are considered Kosher).

As a minor aside, there are actually two kinds of Kosher wine. The kind that cannot be touched by anyone other than the observant, and the boiled kind. Mevushal wines, as they are called, are flash pasteurized. Once heated to the point of being inert, they can be handled by anyone and remain Kosher. The problem with these wines is that, well, they tend to taste pretty bad.

So setting out to make a top quality Kosher wine just involves having the right people do all the work. That doesn't sound so tough, until you start looking at a calendar. The thing with winemaking is that certain things have to happen at pretty specific times, from picking, to the crush, to fermentation, and beyond. During the Fall and early Winter once harvest has begun, most wineries are madhouses of activity all day, every day. And that is precisely when there are many days when observant Jews can't do a single bit of work. When you have to complete all your work by sundown on certain days, and when other days you can't work at all, making wine becomes very, very tricky.

And of course, being the winemaker but not actually being able to touch the wine can throw a bit of a wrinkle into your plans as well.

Morgan himself isn't an observant Jew, which means that to do something as simple as taste his wine from out of the barrel, he has to get one of his special crew to uncork the barrel, siphon out the wine, put it into a glass that they have cleaned, and hand it to him.

Despite these significant obstacles, Morgan, with the help of consulting winemaker David Ramey, has made a wine that can only fairly be described as a top tier Cabernet from Napa that just happens to be Kosher.

Made from the same Larkmead parcel since it's first vintage in 2003, Covenant is made from carefully hand-harvested Cabernet Sauvignon grapes that are destemmed, but not crushed before they are thrown into the fermenter. Fermentation occurs often with native yeasts, but sometimes with an approved Kosher yeast to help, and the wines age in French oak before being bottled unfined and unfiltered.

At which point they are safe to be handled by lousy Jews like me.

A couple of weeks ago, I had the opportunity to sit down and taste every vintage of Covenant that has been made, along with a second label that Morgan has started called, amusingly, The Red C. Here are my tasting notes from the experience.


2006 The Red C, Napa Valley
Medium ruby in the glass, this wine has a nose of dark, ripe cherry aromas with strong aromas of wet wood. In the mouth it has a very unusual, creamy texture, with lush bright cherry fruit, hints of black cherry, vanilla and notes of wet wood on the finish. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $42.


2006 Covenant Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa
Medium ruby in color, this wine has a bright nose of black cherry, tobacco, and cola aromas. In the mouth it is smooth, round, and very silky, with primary flavors of black cherry, graphite, tobacco, and cassis. Smooth tannins persist through a nice long finish. Score: around 9.. Cost: $90.


2005 Covenant Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa
Medium ruby in color, this wine has a nose of oak and almond skin aromas In the mouth it is chocolatey, with fine powdery tannins, and flavors of oak, cherry, and cocoa powder. Very silky in texture. Despite not having a significantly different oak program, this wine is more dominated by oak than the '06, which weakens it for me.Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $90.


2004 Covenant Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa
Medium ruby in color, this wine smells of black cherry, graphite, and wet earth. In the mouth it is extremely soft, and beautifully plush with black cherry, cocoa, tobacco, and deep wet earth flavors. Amazing powdery tannins, and restrained hints of oak emerge on the finish. Lovely. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $85.


2003 Covenant Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa
Medium ruby in the glass the wine has a very nice floral nose of violets and black cherry. In the mouth it is overwhelmingly soft, with plush, velvety, black cherry, and cassis qualities, that linger in the finish. Somewhat lacking in acidity, but still quite pretty and eminently drinkable. Score: around 9. Cost: $90.


For anyone interested, most vintages are sold out, but some vintages are still available to purchase on the winery's web site.

Comments (11)

Joe Public Wine Drinker wrote:
04.10.09 at 7:14 AM

Alder this is a nice article, but really making Kosher wine is no different then the current trend of wine making today. Some of the most expensive and sought after wines are Biodynamic farmed and use only Native Yeast. In many cases the wine industry is starting to mimic Kosher wine making. Fruit source is the main reason most Kosher wines are not receiving high scores. When a good Kosher winery receives good fruit like Covenant, good wine happens. One of the best wines I have had in a while is made by Herzog Wine Cellars called Generation VIII 2006. This is a Cabernet Sauvignon made in Southern California the same way the make their $13 Cabs, but the fruit is from To Kalon Vineyard (Yes, NO CAL SO CAL can also make great wine with your fruit), and sells for $150 a bottle. I recently traveled to Israel and struggled to fine one bottle of wine that I would order a second time. I know that I am going to hear back from some of your readers saying “oh you should have tried...”, no trust me the wine is sub par at best. The reason for my struggle was not the wine making process, but the fruit source. The point I am trying to make is the old adage, “With great fruit you can have great wine, and not even GOD can make great wine from bad fruit.”

Alder wrote:
04.10.09 at 9:04 AM

Joe Public,

Here's a review of a bunch of domestic and imported kosher wines I did a while back. Herzog and Hagafen are the two producers in the US that are making higher quality wines.


http://www.vinography.com/archives/2006/09/vinography_reviews_a_bunch_of.html

Dylan wrote:
04.12.09 at 12:03 PM

Thanks for the well-researched background on Jeff Morgan, Alder. I was particularly curious what went into a Kosher Wine and with a thorough understanding for how some work days go, I can certainly see the obstacles involved. I admire his ability to keep with the formalities of tradition in order to remain a Kosher product.

Sommeliere wrote:
04.13.09 at 8:35 AM

Alder, as another non observant Jew who suffered Maneschewitz as a kid and now in the wine ed business, I agree
that Covenant is superb. Two other (non-California) excellent kosher wines are Domaine du Castel Grand Vin (Bordeaux blend) from the Galilee, about $55 and Valandraud's kosher cuvee from Bordeaux about $250.

04.16.09 at 3:49 AM

Just a quick semi-correction Alder. Azur Wines is a start up husband and wife team winery that released its first bottling last year, based out of Napa. They're dedicated principally to their $24-ish bottling of Provencal-style rose (220 cases) with no residual sugars. So there's at least one other dedicated dry rose producer on the block. Although technically they do make a second label sauvignon blanc (150 cases). Their wines are strictly mail order and direct to restaurants at this point.

Anyways, I've talked directly with Julien (winemaker) and Elan (wife and co-owner) in my pursuit of a summer internship. Who knows what will come of it but Wine Spectator like their wine and they are clearly passionate and dedicated and seem dead set on helping to pioneer Old World style dry roses in the New World.

So I guess technically not a correction, but I still thought you'd be interested.

04.23.09 at 1:51 AM

I am a california student studying at an International university in Israel and I have had the pleasant experience of drinking kosher Israeli wine for the last three years. All I can say is; Kosher wine is the way to go...... When kosher wine is made it has an extra bit of love and care put into it, so for me at least, the experience is much better.

This summer I will be working at an Acclaimed Israeli winery and despite the fact that I am getting a degree in Finance I have decided that i want to be become a Kosher wine maker.

My fav Kosher wineries:

Tishbi
Yatir
Yarden
Dalton

yael miller wrote:
05.05.09 at 7:18 AM

Great article and interesting history on Jeff!

There are others in Jeff's league that are trying to make top-tier wines that can rival their non-kosher counterparts. My brother and a couple other friends made an excellent syrah wine about three years ago which Jeff himself rated at around 9. This was their first wine.

They are planning to bottle 3-4 more barrels of different wines they've had aging for a year now. Unfortunately, those who are passionate are also underfunded - they simply don't have the funds to make these wines commercially available. It would be great if interested investors could back talented, young winemakers trying to bring a new breed of superior kosher wines to the market. The talent and passion is definitely out there.

mark glicksman wrote:
08.16.09 at 4:41 PM

Yatir Forest from israel is way off the charts and in a class of its own its unfortunate that people havn't begun to realize how advanced the wines coming out of israel are today!

Justin S. wrote:
11.27.09 at 7:36 AM

It truly is an excellent wine! just bought it foro $79.99 at A to Z Liquor on 185st. in Fresh Meadows NY.
i think the owners name is Rafael.

David wrote:
02.17.10 at 9:12 PM

You wrote "Kosher (which just means sacred)".
"Kosher" does not mean "sacred", it means "permitted".
Kiddush means sacred or holy, and is the blessing made on Shabbat.

08.03.11 at 1:26 PM

People of the Board...

Kosher = FIT
Fit to consume in reference too this conversation.

Things such as plates, glasses, counters and any eating tool or area can be termed and used for KOSHER or eating purposes.

Wine itself before it can enter a CHAMBER (Steel Tank, Cask, Oak Barrel it must be according to Kosher standards (Not have been used with Un-Kosher Products or Burned out(212F) or Cold Pickled in Water 3 times for more than 24HOURS)) FIT for use. 99% of All Kosher wines are Kosher for Passover which also means no by-products of Grain of any kind (Yeast or Otherwise) can be mixed into wine during production. All Kosher wines that I have heard of or seen are also Pareve (Not Meat or Dairy) which means the Chambers and by-products will not contain Gelatins from meat or any milk by-products. All Kosher Wine that I have seen or heard of can be listed as Vegan!

All of the information has been gathered over the years of working for Kosher agencies, studiing laws and working as Manager for a wine store. For anyone to be sure what is or is not Kosher always consult a local Rabbi you trust.

Love be with your day,
Yehoshua Werth

P.S.
I drank un-Kosher wines for Years and Yes NOW there is very little difference if any when it comes to finding GREAT Kosher Wines.

Try Tishbi Special Reserves, Yarden, Bravado, Segals, Shilo, Yatir, Hafner (Austria) Ice Wines Rated Tops in the world),Herzog Reserves , Recanati, Hagafen, Tio Pepe Sherry, Capcanes (Spain) Robert Parker 95 & 94 Ratings, B.R. Cohn(Kosher Version), Odem Mountain, Hevron Heights, Dalton, Barkan Reserves, Borgo Reale “Brunello”, Carmel & Kosher Versions of Pontet Canet, Malartic, Leoville, Ladoix, Piada and Many, Many more Outstanding wines.

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