The story of Hanukkah—the Jewish festival of lights—is one of faith, dedication, and perseverance, much like the story of Kosher wine itself. For many years, Kosher wine has evoked thoughts of sweet, syrupy wines with little flavor and even less character. In fact, most wine critics never even bothered with the stuff. But Kosher winemakers never gave up.
Today, a new generation of winemakers, as well as advances in science and viniculture, has led to breakthroughs in Kosher winemaking around the world. These days, there’s more quality and choice out there than ever before, and sommeliers and wine critics have taken note. The start of Hanukkah, not to mention the many holiday parties jingling doorbells this time of year, offer a great chance to take a closer look at Kosher wine – these ain’t your Bubbe’s bottles!
The term “kosher” simply means “fit or proper.” In the world of wine, it refers wine that adheres to classic Judaism’s dietary laws, known as kashrut. Since wine is typically made from naturally kosher items (i.e. grapes, sugar), and because of its role in many religions, the focus of the kashrut involving wine tends to be on handling and production. In order for a wine to be considered “kosher,” observant Jews must be involved in the entire winemaking process, from harvest to bottle.
When kosher wine is produced and sold commercially to Orthodox Jews, it requires a hechsher, a seal of approval (pictured) that authenticates the kosher status of the wine. Hechshers can be obtained from a supervising agency, such as the Orthodox Union, a rabbi or posek (rabbinical law scholar), or a supervising beth din, or court of Jewish law.
Kosher vs. Mevushal
“Now, there are ‘levels of, or within, kosher wine,” said Kathy Morgan, a Washington, DC-based Master Sommelier, wine eductor and wine director at the restaurants Range and Aggio. “Wines can be kosher or kosher mevushal.”
Mevushal (which means “cooked” or “boiled”) wines can be made from the same ingredients as kosher wine and in the same way, but they are heated during the production process. Kosher wines can be used in religious celebrations, whereas kosher mevushal wines cannot. Kosher mevushal wines can be consumed by Jews even if they are handled by a non-Jewish or non-observant Jewish person, whereas kosher wines cannot. Many restaurants and catering operations carry kosher mevushal wines so that any staff member can handle and serve them.
The process of heating wine to the point of mevushal can negatively impact on the flavor and structure of wine. And this is where the source of that bad flavor reputation comes from. “Not a lot of wines can come back from being boiled,” Morgan says. And she’s right. (Try this experiment: Heat 2 oz. of wine in the microwave, then chill to room temperature and take sip. You’ll get the idea.) However, many contemporary kosher winemakers are utilizing flash pasteurization, as a way to heat the wine according to Judaic law, but without damage to its structure and flavor. The result? A game changer.
So this Hanukkah — or any day! — give kosher wines another try. You’ll be glad you did. L’chaim!