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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.

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