While living in the USA where kosher wine is an anomaly to the average wine consumer, it wasn’t such a surprise that few people including even Jewish consumers were for the most part unaware what made kosher wine kosher. I’d even find learned orthodox rabbis who might know a few but not all the precepts. It was a speciality seemingly left to the auspices of rabbis supervising kosher wine production. As someone who developed a taste for Israeli wines and a thirst for knowledge about those wines I often found myself becoming a proponent of kosher wines as well.
Upon moving to Israel it was a surprise to me that most religious Jews in Israel are fairly unaware of the basic tenets of what differentiates kosher wines from non-kosher wines. After all, about 95% of the bottles made in Israel are kosher.
The principles concerning kosher wine revolve around two venues: what happens in the vineyard where the grapes are grown and what happens at the winery where the grapes are juiced and that juice is fermented into wine.
In the vineyard, grapes, like other kosher crops in Israel, must not be harvested in the first year. With wine grapes it is even more restrictive. They must be withheld until the fifth year. For quality wine this is in any case a good procedure in practice as younger grapes tend to produce less complex and aromatic grapes. Additionally, every seventh year the crop shouldn’t be harvested at all in order to give the land a sabbatical. There are loopholes many growers employ to circumvent this restriction such as selling off the land symbolically to non-Jews for that year. Also, cover crops, such as other fruits or vegetables, aren’t allowed in between the vines which is a custom in some wine regions.
The most significant and often controversial restriction pertaining to making kosher wine is that once the grapes reach the winery only a rabbi-approved Sabbath-observant Jew can handle the grapes, juice or wine until it’s in a sealed bottle. Even the winemaker or owner of the winery, if not approved by the supervising rabbi, may not enter certain areas of his own winery without an escort and typically they must have someone hand them the wine from tanks or barrels as wines ferment or age.
It’s also important that certain wine techniques employed in making many non-kosher wines such as using gelatin or other animal by-products to clarify or add color to the wine not be used. There are suitable alternatives that are used almost universally by kosher and non-certified wine makers in Israel such as using bentonite (a clay product) to clarify wines. A symbolic tithe of 1% of the wine also needs to be ritualistically spilled off to pay tribute to a more substantial 10% that was once the tradition.
One of the least understood aspects of making kosher wine is the extra step of making the wine 'mevushal', literally meaning 'cooked'. This requirement is often enacted upon request by customers for occasions when wine will be poured by non-observant Jews or non-Jews to observant Jews. In Israel, it’s a less significant issue than in the Diaspora where it’s almost a given that a waiter or waitress pouring you a glass of wine is non-Jewish. The tradition started to prevent assimilation by Jews and to render kosher wine impure for any potential pagan ritual.
Cooking wine to render it 'mevushal' used to be a slow process that was disastrous to wine. Today 'mevushal' wine is generally flash-pastuerized, a process which takes seconds and does far less damage than in the past. There is a commonly accepted belief (with a few exceptions) in the industry that 'mevushal' wine still comes off as slightly tainted. Where most kosher wine used to be made 'mevushal', now it’s the exception and not the rule, so just by being non-'mevushal', the perceived if not actual quality of most Israeli kosher wine has been elevated. Israel’s largest winery, Carmel, used to make all their wine 'mevushal' and now it clearly states non-'mevushal' on the back of their bottles except when requested to be 'mevushal' by special order.
With three prominent Israeli boutique wineries, Flam, Saslove and Tulip, seeking kosher certification starting with their 2010 vintage, it should be noted that their wines won’t be changing in any noticeable way with respect to the taste and aroma. Except for some new employees who handle the wine, the winemaker, the grapes, the oak barrels and mostly every technique in an out of the vineyard and winery will remain the same. The only noticeable change will be the certification on the bottle stating which rabbinic council or councils have supervised the wine and that it meets their standards that the wine is kosher. In much the same way, some kosher wine might also say it is organic and you would only know this because of the label, not by the taste.
Kosher Israeli wines are now frequently winning awards in competitions against non-kosher wines from around the world. So, if you haven't tried Israeli kosher wines recently, let's just say you haven't really tried kosher wines.
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