An interesting development in the gastronomic world is the emergence of kosher wines that are totally unlike the thick, sweet wines traditionally used by Jews on religious occasions. The new kosher wines are of a number of well-known varieties–including Soave, Valpolicella, Beaujolais, Bordeaux, and Gewurztraminer–and they are good, dry, reasonably priced wines whose appeal is not confined to a religious public.
This development is typical of the changes in taste that have taken place in our nation over the last few years. The consumption of beef, eggs, and milk is down; fresh vegetables are now favored over canned ones; and, in wines and beers, dry has triumphed over sweet. (Let us remember, however, that in 1983, McDonald’s sales were up $800 million from the previous year.) Whereas the change in our food preferences is largely due to a concern with health, the new vogue for dry wines is perhaps more taste-related.
“Kosher,’ which can be translated as “fit’ or “proper,’ means that a product has been prepared in strict accordance with the Jewish dietary laws under rabbinical supervision. What struck me as interesting is that any wine can be made in a strictly kosher way; like so many of us, I was laboring under the impression that the only kosher wine was that very sweet, lush brew made from Concord and similar grapes, most of it produced in New York State. When one thinks about it, it is obvious that kosher wines have been made for centuries in Europe, in accordance with local tastes. But until recently, these have never been successful, or even well known, in the United States, in spite of attempts to popularize them.
According to Joseph Stern, an official of the Royal Kedem Wine Corporation, the growing popularity of nonsweet kosher wines is due to the change in tastes, especially among younger people, and to a renewed interest in tradition among practicing Jews. The Monarch Wine Company, which makes the traditional Manischewitz sweet wines, now also offers a basic blended red Burgundy at $3, and a basic white Chablis at the same price. The Kedem line, however, is much larger and consists of a very fine selection of imported European and Israeli wines, including a red Bordeaux Chateau Le Pin ($6.19), a Gewurztraminer from Alsace ($6.49), and an Israeli Sauvignon Blanc ($6.19), to mention just a few representatives of its comprehensive line of kosher wines and spirits. I was also interested to learn that Mr. Stern foresaw the change in tastes about a dozen years ago, when he started importing kosher Bordeaux. The Kedem wines made from hybrid grapes such as Seyval Blanc and De Chaunac were charming, I thought, in the tradition of the best New York State nonkosher hybrids. (I am sorry that I cannot appreciate the traditional Kedem kosher wines made from native grapes such as Delaware and Catawba, but the fact is that I simply do not like the flavor of those grapes, either in nature or fermented, my tastes being for the dry.)
Some very good dry wines from Israel are imported by the Carmel Wine Company, which markets them under the Carmel label. Carmel is indebted to Baron Edmond de Rothschild, owner of the famous grand cru Chateau Lafite-Rothschild in Bordeaux, who in 1882 sent vines from his vineyard to Israel, where, since antiquity, the wine industry had been developed in a more or less haphazard way and largely for religious purposes. The finest Carmel wines, and they are very good indeed, are the Special Reserve Cabernet Sauvignons, and the Sauvignon Blanc and Chenin Blanc, which both retail for about $3. I had the 1976 Cabernet Sauvignon Cabinet Reserve, well worth its price of $14. All the dry Carmel wines are vintage-dated, although I’ve been told there is not a great deal of difference in quality from one vintage year to the next.
Schapiro’s Wine Company, Manhattan’s only working winery, which has been in the business since 1899, sells 32 varieties of wine, including a new line of dry imported French and Italian wines, among them a big, robust 1981 Gigondas from the Cotes du Rhone ($7.50), and pleasant dry Soaves and Valpolicellas ($4.39). For anybody wanting to while away a Sunday afternoon (from 11 A.M. to 5 P.M.), I recommend a visit to the winery’s cellars, which offer a free tasting tour (visitors under 19 years of age are invited to taste pure Concord grape juice). The address is 126 Rivington Street, near Essex in downtown Manhattan. And in California’s Napa Valley there is Hagafen, California’s only full-service kosher winery, which makes premium wines, or fancier wines than the ordinary California wines. Alas, Hagafen does not make large quantities of wine as yet, so it may be difficult to get its wines outside the state.
All of this made me wonder what really makes a wine kosher, besides the supervision of a rabbi, and after some research I discovered that the grapes themselves must be produced according to ancient Biblical laws, which include: that no other crops be planted between the vines; that the grapes not be harvested until the fourth year after planting; that every seventh year the vines and soil must rest and remain untouched for one entire year; that 10 per cent of each harvest must be set aside for the poor and needy; that the wine must be touched by fire (usually accomplished by a flash heating process that does not affect the wine’s development); that all wine-making procedures must be supervised by a qualified Orthodox rabbi.
The ultra-religious demand that the grapes be nurtured, from planting to vinification, only by Sabbath-observing Orthodox Jews. (In California, Kedem takes over a whole winery, which is scrubbed and sterilized in every detail.) I have heard it said that these laws, which are agricultural, apply rather to the primitive agriculture of the days when the laws were set forth in Exodus and other books of the Bible; and I also have heard that very orthodox Jews will not have their wine poured by less orthodox believers. In other words, I have not been able to find a monolithic codification of the laws concerning the kosher producing of wine. But that is another story; in the meantime, many of the dry kosher wines make excellent, reasonably priced drinking for everybody.