April 20, 2005
Long gone are the days of holding your nose to sip a glass of Manischewitz.
The cloying Passover wine was my first encounter with kosher wines as a kid in Los Angeles — think sweetened and fermented Welch’s grape juice.
You had to sneak up on the glass and, in one swift motion, gulp it down like cough medicine. "Mazel tov" it was not.
Fortunately, like just about everything in the wine business, quality has improved. You can actually savor a glass of kosher wine just like any other, as a general rule.
But what does it mean to be kosher? Does it have its own style? A simple definition of kosher is any food prepared in accordance with Jewish dietary laws. The wines may be from anywhere. Here’s a few other details winemakers adhere to to be deemed kosher:
• The equipment and machinery used to press and store the wine must be used exclusively for the production of kosher products.
• From crush to bottling, only Sabbath-observing Jews may physically handle the grapes, equipment and wine.
• Yeasts and filtering agents must be certified kosher.
• No artificial colors or preservatives may be added.
OLD, NEW STYLES
Early kosher wines were made from the plentiful Concord variety of the Northeast. They were like Welch’s grape juice slurped by kids on summer afternoons. Most of the traditional brands, like Manischewitz, Kedem and Mogen David, fall into this category. Skip these. While they’re fine for putting on the rocks and blending with club soda or lemon lime, it’s sticky child’s play, not wine for those who enjoy dry red and white table wines.
California producer Baron Herzog is another story. This venerable Central Coast winemaker is synonymous with good everyday wine that adheres to kosher bylaws. Other good names to look for at Fry’s, Safeway, Bashas’ and specialty wine shops are Dalton Estate and Carmel from Israel, Abarbanel from France, Bartenura from Italy and Teal Lake from Australia. Prices range from $10 to $15 per bottle.
"Some of these brands compete with (nonkosher) wines," says Clyde Schachner of AJ’s Fine Foods of Chandler. "It’s not just for Passover anymore." Well said. I’d sip these regardless. During a recent tasting, I thoroughly enjoyed several wines from this group. Bartenura’s 2003 pinot grigio showed nice, fresh fruit flavors without all the acid usually associated with pinot grigio. It was wellbalanced and dry and would pair nicely with seafood.
Two other good starter wines included Baron Herzog’s 2002 sauvignon blanc and 2004 white zinfandel. I felt like I was at the circus snacking on cotton candy with the white zin, with its distinct strawberry-candy impressions. The low alcohol content is appealing, too, at just 11 percent. The sauvignon blanc also made me take notice. The bottle exhibited pleasant apple and green pepper nuances, in a package that can go head-tohead with nearly any nonkosher wine from the same region. Both wines are best served chilled. The white zin would also work on ice.
The best red of the group also came from Baron Herzog. The 2002 cabernet sauvignon felt like diving into a bowl of ripe blackberries and plums, with a little spice thrown in.
Remember those warm, muddled berry-cider drinks as kid? This is it in wine form. Pair this bottle with a roast, steaks or pasta with red sauce.
Finally, if you’re having trouble finding the kosher wine department at your local store, and a clerk can’t help you (the wines are not very common), seek out the "Circle U" or "Circle P" symbol on the bottle. They signify certified kosher and certified kosher for Passover. And toast the holiday!