With Passover around the corner, many people will be looking for a tasty drop of wine that is officially kosher. Helena Nicklin looks at what kosher actually means for wine and tells us where to find the good stuff.
What is Passover?
Passover, also known as Pesach, is a Spring festival that is one of the most important holidays in the Jewish calendar; a time when Jewish people remember how Moses led their people away from Eygpt and the ties of slavery.
This year, the eight-day celebration begins on Saturday 27th March and as usual, will be marked with a series of rituals, which include specific meals such as the ‘seder’; a feast held at home on the first and second nights where the story of Moses is retold.
Given how strict the dietary rules are that govern kosher food, what does this mean for wine given the significant part it plays in Jewish celebrations?
What makes a wine kosher?
During Passover, the Jewish kosher laws go full steam ahead and anything leavened, i.e. made with yeast or raising agents, must be avoided. Grape wine is allowed as the yeast needed to begin fermentation comes from fruit, rather than grain, but certain preservatives such as potassium sorbate may not be used. Just like all kosher food, kosher wine must be made according to strict laws during all stages of its production and must be certified kosher.
Interpretations of the kosher rules can vary from community to community, but to officially be kosher, only practising Jewish workers should handle the wine at all stages of production from handling grapes to winemaking and bottling. This also means that care must be taken when sourcing anything that comes into contact with the wine, such as selected yeast strains and fining agents as they must also be kosher.
Some certification bodies require a rabbi to supervise the production process, but this isn’t always the case. Once the bottle is opened, it should also be handled by someone observant of the Sabbath, though there are some ways around that as we will see later.
Do kosher wines taste different to normal wines?
These days, most kosher wines are just like regular wines, but in the past, they didn’t have the best reputation for quality. Many of them would be sickly sweet in style or have a cooked taste to them – or both. Some kosher wines are heat treated as part of the production process, which can explain this and the reason for heat treating is to make the wine fit to be handled by non-Jewish or non-observant waiters while keeping its kosher status.
In the past, this used to mean bringing the wine to the boil, which destroyed much of its nuances and fresh flavours. Nowadays, these ‘mevushal’ wines as they are known when they are heat-treated, are usually flash-heated to 80˚C before immediately being cooled down to 16˚C, which is a gentler process and allows the wine to keep its structure and fresher flavours.
The reasoning behind the benefits of heating wine is not totally clear, however. Ostensibly, it’s to kill off any remnants of yeast, but as we saw before, normal wine yeast from grapes is allowed anyway as it is not from grain.
In any case, regardless of how the wine is heated, the process must be overseen by a mashgiach (a Jewish person who supervises any type of food or drink service), who will be in charge of tipping the fruit into the press and operating the pasteurization equipment. Once out, it can be handled as normal.
Fine kosher wines
Israel is leading the way with modern, fresher styles of kosher wine (seek out Baron Herzog, Flam, Dalton, Domaine du Castel and Golan Heights winery) and Bordeaux now has a fair share of kosher wine players too.
Here are some wines to seek out:
Barkan Classic Sauvignon Blanc, Israel
Clos des Lunes, Lune d’Argent
£34.99 on offer here
Domaine Les Marronniers, Chablis, France
Jezreel Valley Adumim, Galilee, Israel
(Syrah, Shiraz Carignan and Argaman)
Château Clarke, Listrac-Médoc, Bordeaux, France
(Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon)
Château Lascombes Chevalier de Lascombes, Margaux, Bordeaux
(Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Petit Verdot, Cabernet Franc)
Read more wine guides, features and reviews by Helena here.