Passover Wines

The following is a guest post from Natalie Berkowitz, author of The Winemaker’s Hand: Conversations on Talent, Technique, and Terroir:

Passover Wines
By Natalie Berkowitz

The psalmist who stated “Wine maketh glad the heart of man” spoke of the enduring tradition of wine as man’s companion. Highly anticipated holidays herald the cycle of seasons, make ordinary days special and slow down the swift passage of time. Passover presages Spring’s rejuvenation and recalls the Jewish Exodus from Egypt millennia ago. Jews, both orthodox and less traditional, gather family and friends around a seder table laden with food and wine. At Passover, when four cups of wine are poured as libations during the reading of the Seder service, it becomes a question of which wines add a sense of joyfulness to the occasion. This holiday season, welcome guests with a cornucopia of reasonably priced choices from great wine-producing regions, made with exacting rabbinic supervision, some mevushal, and others not. The choices are almost mind-boggling, and promise a sense of adventure that marries well with the complicated and delicious celebratory meal. Contrary to common misconception that a special blessing certifies wine as kosher, its production must follow strict dietary regulations of Kashruth. These regulations permit non-Jews to harvest grapes, but designated rabbis must carefully supervise vineyard management and vinification, from grape crush through fermentation until the bottles are sealed.

For centuries, wine was boiled to ensure its purity, inadvertently destroying many vaunted qualities. Most kosher wines are qualify for accommodating with Kashruth laws, using the modern technique of flash pasteurization developed at U. C. Davis, America’s notable enology school about twenty years ago. Today, kosher wines are heated at a temperature of 160 to 195 degrees for a few seconds, a major step that maintains their flavors and integrity. The extra step, called Mevushal, satisfies the needs of the Ultra-Orthodox and permits wine served in restaurants to be poured by other than observant Jews. The holiday celebrating the Exodus of the Jews from Egypt has even more stringent requirements for wine and food in order to be Kosher for Passover.

Blind tastings prove that many quality kosher wines are indistinguishable from their non-kosher counterparts. It has been an uphill battle to convince a doubting public, but a gradual acceptance has skyrocketed sales to both Jews and the general public, especially when they win awards, are touted by word of mouth, and compete with favorable prices when compared to non-kosher counterparts.

Eastern European immigrants drank wine made from different grape varietals in the old country, but they were forced to adapt their winemaking skills to the native Concord grape found on the Eastern shore of America. This tart grape needed copious quantities of sugar in order to make palatable wine. It explains why up until recently, wine used for Sabbath blessings and the mandatory four glasses of wine at a Passover seder had a syrupy quality that tasted like thinned-out grape jelly. A lingering admiration for this cloying wine still lingers, perhaps because of a romantic notion that this was the wine Moses might have drunk in the Land of Milk and Honey.

Passover menus run the gamut from traditional briskets to chicken, lamb, and duck. Sephardic traditions are different from their Ashkenazi counterparts. Some recipes fall on the sweet side prepared with nuts and apricots, or “bimuelos,” matzo pancakes served with sugar water and syrup. Sweet dishes pair well with sweeter wines, like a white Yarden Muscat or Galil Mountain Gewurtzraminer. Ashkenazi Jews cast traditional votes for gefilte fish, chicken soup and matzo balls, and brisket. Yet more adventuresome fare is appearing on seder tables.

New kosher labels from well-respected growing regions produced under strict rabbinic supervision favorably compete with their non-kosher counterparts. This change was brought about by world-wide cooperation between vintners, new technology patterned after California and French counterparts, greater respect for vineyard management, and new varietals. Kosher wines compete favorably with their non-kosher wines counterparts. In fact, winemaker Ernie Weir, who crafts Hagafen wines in Napa Valley, notes the kosher label doesn’t deter consumers of all persuasions from enjoying his high quality wines..

The usual pairings of white wine with fish and red wine with meat go out the window. Red wine tends to be more popular than white during the seder, but a practical hostess often serves white rather than red wine because it’s hard to remove wine stains from a pristine damask tablecloth. Gefilte fish requires special consideration. The melon and pear flavors of crisp Israeli Carmel Valley Riesling/Chenin Blanc blend pairs well with gefilte fish, as does the award-winning Baron Herzog Chenin Blanc. Try a spicy, floral Verbau Gewurtztraminer (one of my favorites).

For Reds, head for the Israeli Barkan Reserve Merlot, a full-bodied Herzog Special Reserve California Cabernet, Sauvignon. Backsberg Pinotage from South Africa, or the Teal Lake Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon from Australia, all tasting of some combination of dark berry, spice, and oak notes. They fit the bill as excellent companions to chicken, pot roast, lamb or duck.

I tried the full range of Israel’s Galil Mountain Winery and found them amazingly good. Their Barbera will knock your socks off with its deliciousness. They are owned by Golan Heights that also makes very good wine. Yarden, Carmel, Margalit, Dalton, and Amphora are increasingly dedicated to quality. Baron Herzog Wine Cellars seems to be producing everywhere from Europe to California. More quality and choice occur across the board in a range of prices from moderate to expensive.

The wide spectrum of wines is confusing to consumers who want to liberate their thinking about kosher wines while still following the strict letter of religious laws. It’s exciting to expand one’s taste from same old wines and to complement the seder dinner with interesting wines made from Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Muscato, Merlot, Shiraz, Zinfandel, and Cabernet Sauvignon.

With so many choices available, the best idea is to follow the dictum “Drink whatever you like with food, so long as it’s wine.” Break out of the adage that says “I know what I like” because it means “I like what I know.”

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