When I first thought of kosher wine, I flashed back to the sticky sweet Manischewitz that someone insisted on bringing to our Passover Seder. Without exception, it was completely ignored for what my family called the “real wine,” bottles of non-kosher red from Napa or the Rhône valley or Tuscany. The Manischewitz, it seemed, was purely symbolic—although as a curious kid, I’d always take a sip, then pucker up in sugar-induced shock.
But I was wrong. Like all wine, kosher wine is made around the world–not just in Israel (and Israeli wine is not necessarily kosher). It can be either mass-produced or a carefully crafted product of love…and anywhere in-between. Which is to say, there’s no reason kosher wine can’t be high quality and delicious. The world of kosher wine is much more complex and richer than most people know.
Those who follow Jewish religious dietary laws, called kashrut, adhere to a set of rules for food preparation and winemaking. Fun fact: the word “kosher” comes from the Hebrew term for “proper” or “fit,” meaning fit for consumption. Kosher wines have become increasingly popular, with production amounts rising in Israel, France, Germany, the United States, and South America in recent years.
“Kosher wine is made just like other table wine, with an extra set of rules to make it consistent with Jewish dietary law,” explains Orna Welner, Marketing & Sales Director at WelnerWines. “In order for a wine to be deemed kosher, it must be made under the supervision of a rabbi. The wine must contain only kosher ingredients (including yeast and finishing agents), and it must be processed using equipment that is rabbinically certified. No preservatives or artificial colors may be added. The wine can only be handled — from the vine to the wineglass — by Sabbath-observant Jews.”
Categories and Processes for Kosher Wine
Kosher for Passover wine is kosher all year long, including Passover. This wine must follow the rules of the special diet that religious Jews observe during the holiday. Wines require some sort of mold (yeast) for fermentation; kosher for Passover wine must be made from a mold that has not been grown on bread, for instance sugar or fruit. And kosher for Passover wine cannot contain common preservatives, like potassium sorbate.
Some wine is kosher, but not for Passover, so can be consumed throughout the year, but not during the holiday. Passover is the most important period for the kosher market in terms of wine consumption, so many winemakers choose to make all their wine kosher for Passover.
One way a wine becomes Kosher is by the Mevushal process. In Hebrew, Mevushal literally means “cooked.” This practice dates to ancient times when pagan societies used wines as part of their rituals. Religious Jews refused to use non-Mevushal wines for this reason. This tradition carries on to today. “If the wine is not Mevushal, a religious Jew will not agree to drink it when a non-religious Jew poured for him,” Welner explains. “The definition of ‘non-religious Jew’ refers to non-Jews and also Jews that are non-religious, like me and my family. In kosher caterings, restaurant, and parties they used to pour Mevushal wine so non-religious Jews can serve it to the religious Jews.”
Non-Mevushal kosher wine, which isn’t heated, must be poured exclusively by religious Jews if an observant Jew wishes to consume it. From an economic standpoint, kosher wine being Mevushal maximizes the possibilities of serving and enjoying it.
In the old system, the Mevushal wine was warmed very slowly at a temperature of at least 188 degrees Fahrenheit. The heat killed the flavor and complexity of the wine “which means the wine receives a disgusting taste and the shelf life becomes shorter,” says Welner. Think Manischewitz. This near-boiling of the wine was responsible for kosher wine’s bad reputation for many years.
Today, the Mevushal process uses modern technology using “flash pasteurization” carried out under under the supervising rabbi and is infinitely better for the flavor and character of wine. During a flash pasteurization, the wine passes through warm pipes for only a few seconds, which does not damage the wine’s taste or quality. Welner explains, “if you make a blind tasting at our wineries of non-kosher and Mevushal kosher wine, the taste will be the same.” This innovation meant a whole new world for kosher wines.
“Nowadays with the advanced technology, experience and know-how, we are able to produce excellent kosher wines that taste the same as regular non-kosher wines,” Welner adds. “It is always exciting to see: when customers taste our wine, they cannot believe it is kosher and Mevushal. This is even true for the professionals from places like Wine Enthusiast magazine.”
Today, a wide variety of kosher wines of different varietals are available from wine regions around the world. Kosher Prosecco, a light, affordable and fun sparkling wine from the northern Veneto region of Italy, is increasingly popular. Another advantage to kosher wines is that they are suitable for vegans, as animal-derived ingredients are never used.
“We are quite certain that more and better kosher wines will be available throughout the coming years, with the growing demand of the kosher audiences, who appreciate good wine,” says Welner. She also predicts that more kosher wines will be sold in the non-kosher market, due to their excellent value for money and wide appeal. These days, kosher wines are for everybody.
Kosher Wines We Love
Layla Vineyards makes kosher wines that are estate grown and bottled in the Lontué-Maule Valley appellation in Chile’s Central Valley, in the foothills of the Andes.
Layla Vineyards Chardonnay
This fresh and easy-drinking white has aromas of popcorn and vanilla, with flavors of green apple, grapefruit, and anise. It’s medium bodied with a defined acidity that pairs beautifully with grilled fish or fried chicken.
Layla Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon
Deep berry and cherry notes meld with moderate tannins and mild acidity to make a great wine for any occasion. This Cab Sav is even better with a juicy burger or a rack of ribs. It’s a seriously great value, too.
Layla Vineyards Merlot
This well-balanced, juicy red wine is even better with a bowl of spaghetti Bolognese or a bar of dark chocolate. It’s bright and fruity, with notes of raspberry and tobacco and a bit of pepper on the finish.
Hannah Howard is a writer and food expert who spent her formative years eating, drinking, serving, bartending, cooking on a hot line, flipping giant wheels of cheese, and managing restaurants. She is the author of the memoir Feast: True Love in and Out of the Kitchen. Hannah is a graduate of Columbia University and the Bennington Writing Seminars. She writes for SELF, New York Magazine, and Salon.com, and lives in New York City.