Kosher Keepers

By Robert Simonson

Published on April 14, 2008

In February, Manhattan's Puck Building was host to the second annual Kosher Food & Wine Experience, an industry event at which kosher-wine makers from around the world present their wares to distributors, wine store owners, critics, and the general public. This year the hall was abuzz with talk of a recent appraisal of Israeli wine that had appeared in uber wine critic Robert Parker, Jr.'s influential publication The Wine Advocate. Printouts of the piece were handed out to the crowd like candy; winemakers touted their cherished scores of 90 or above to anyone willing to listen.

Kosher-wine makers have long had a self-esteem problem, mostly because the term kosher itself bears a stigma. To many minds, it still means sweet, unsophisticated, substandard; it denotes a wine that is a cultural product first, a culinary one second. The campaign to have kosher wines placed on an equal footing with nonkosher wines has been on for some years, but it got a big boost from Parker, without whose blessing few wine regions, vintners, or vintages ever truly arrive. The Wine Advocate article (actually written by Mark Squires) awarded more than a dozen wines from Israeli makers scores between 90 and 100.

Parker and Squires's findings came as no surprise to people who have observed the progress of kosher wines over the past decade, however. As with every winegrowing area in the world and every once underrecognized varietal, the march toward quality has been steady, as growers race to meet the demands of an ever more discerning wine-drinking public.

My wife if Jewish, so I have had a steadier acquaintance with kosher wine than perhaps most wine writers can claim. Every Friday night, a kosher bottle is needed for our table. At Passover—when we typically spend both seders at the homes of friends—the search is ratcheted up: we require a wine that will ease our way through the long, often tiring ceremony. What's more, many of our Jewish friends have also begun upping their standards; to them, serving a bottle of insipid kosher wine at the holiday table is no more acceptable than passing a jug of Gallo at a fancy dinner party.

In the past, with some work, I have always been able to find a wine that made for satisfying seder drinking; one that possessed the qualities I look for in any bottle I buy: balance, structure, minerality, and a minimal reliance on oak aging and aggressive fruit-forwardness to furnish its personality. It took a little doing, but it got done. What has changed recently is that the search is no longer a chore. I can now easily recommend a dozen kosher wines off the top of my head. What's more, I'd recommend them for everyday drinking, not just once a week (or once a year).

Most of my favorites come from Israel, whose producers are clearly now at the forefront for quality kosher vino. Smaller vintners dedicated to limited output, minimal technological interference, and old-world (typically French) models are making wines that compare favorably with the output in other wine-producing countries. The French kosher wines, in fact, could learn a lot from their Israeli counterparts, in my opinion. Many of the French koshers I sampled tasted like drab imitations of nonkosher models, whereas the best Israeli koshers possess their own, vibrant personalities. What follows is a list of Passover wines that will make the four mandatory cups a pleasure to drain and may find a place on your wine rack thereafter.

Binyamina ($16)
This vintner makes a great many wines, but I was the most impressed with two of its chardonnays—the Chardonnay Reserve 2004 and the Onyx 2004. Both keep a clear distance from the popular fruit-and-oak California style because the wine is left on the lees (the skins) for a time; that lends them a pungency and bite. The Onyx comes from a single vineyard and shows a corresponding focus.

Bartenura Prosecco ($18)
Kosher champagne is either wretched or terribly expensive. If you want bubbly at your seder, go for this enjoyable prosecco, a wallet-friendly crowd-pleaser.

Weinstock Cabernet Sauvignon Cellar Select 2005 ($20)
Goose Bay Sauvignon Blanc 2006 ($20)
Some Passover imbibers will insist on mevushal wine—a subset of kosher drink that involves the juice's being flash-boiled. This methd, Jewish law has it, makes it suitable to be touched by non-Jewish hands. Argue all you like; it's simply very difficult to boil a wine and have it come out at the other end with any appreciable depth or complexity. These two—the red from California, the white from New Zealand—are among the mevushals that show the best. Both offer pleasurable drinking and reasonably distinctive flavor. And the prices—both roughly $20—work.

Bazelet Hagolan Cabernet Sauvignon 2004 ($30)
This wine came as a revelation to me a couple years back, when a fellow seder participant just returning from Tel Aviv pulled some out of his suitcase. An outstanding unfiltered cabernet of firm structure and understated fruit, it floored the gathered company with its quality. The 2006 is just as good. The Golan Heights winery, merely ten years old, has been certified kosher only since 2004. There's also a pricier reserve ($45), but the regular cabernet is the better value.

Psagot Edom 2005 ($30)
Psagot does just cabernet sauvignon. It also does just merlot. But this blend (75 percent cabernet/25 percent merlot) is where it hits the mark. The bottle won't change your life, but the wine is a solid, dependable, easy-drinking delight. There is oak here, but it knows its place. Everything is balanced.

Domaine du Castel ($40)
This is the winery that most folks are raving about these days, and no wonder. All three wines the Judean Hills-based company produces—the top-grade bordeaux blend Grand Vin (2004); Petit Castel, also a bordeaux blend, but more lightweight and merlot heavy (2005); and "C" Blanc du Castel, its chardonnay (2005)—are excellent. It's clear that the winemakers are aping French models, but they're doing it well, without seeming like pretenders, and there's character to spare all the way down to the bottom of the glass. These beauties cost $40 and up, and they're not easy to find

Capcanes ($65)
After all my talk about how great the Israel kosher wines have become, here I go praising a Spanish producer! But Capcanes, located in the southeastern appellation of Montsant, is very likely the best kosher wine in the world. The blend of granacha, tempranillo, and carignan found in Peraj Ha'abib has depth, complex fruit character, and well-integrated tannins that make it worth the high price. Still, the producers were smart to bring out the entry-level Peraj Petita this year; it performs like Ha'abib's likable little brother and is more affordable at $18.

Chateau Valandraud 2003 ($500)
If you must be a big shot and also have the wherewithal, who am I to tell you not to honor your seder meal with this beauty, made by the lauded St-Émilion "garagist" Jean-Luc Thunevin? Some call this the best kosher wine in the world. Drop for drop, dollar for dollar, though, I'd still tap Capcanes as the better value. The Valandraud is more ageworthy, of course, but you're not going to age a Passover wine, are you? You're going to drink it in one go.


Union Square Wine & Spirits
Fourth Avenue and 13th Street
New York, New York

Skyview Liquors
5681 Riverdale Avenue
Riverdale, New York

Liquors Galore
1418 Avenue J
Brooklyn, New York

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