After eons, kosher wine finally matures
Wine in the Levante may date back to pre-biblical times, but until recently, Israel was not producing much you would actually want to drink. Journalist William Echikson writing in the Wall Street Journal recalled the obligatory ritual wine at Pesach in his youth, a kosher NY State Concorde: “Sickly sweet, like alcohol-tainted grape juice.”
No longer, says Edward Ferszt at his kosher Vinothek in Vienna’s Leopoldstadt with laconic wit:
“It took the Jews 3,000 years to learn to make decent wine. Well, now they do.”
Ferszt’s splendid selection of contemporary Israeli wines is liquid proof. Although wine has always played an important part in Jewish ritual, the ancient art of winemaking deteriorated badly over the millennia. But in the 1990s, a radical replanting program with classical European grape varieties transformed the winescape and Israeli vineyards now offer many good dry wines.
Kosher is the better organic
What makes a kosher wine kosher? A rabbi has to confirm that the wine was produced without using forbidden additives. This is especially critical for filtering: no gelatin (which often includes animal products, usually pork), and filtering only with paper or bentonite (a fine volcanic earth, much loved in health food circles). And that no one has worked on the shabbat.
Julius Hafner in Mönchhof (Burgenland, just outside Vienna) is a major supplier for Ferszt, and all his wine is fully kosher. His Kellermeister is an accredited maschgiach, a trusty of the rabbi. In Israel, the rules are even stricter: the vines must be four years old before the first harvest and left fallow every seventh year to regenerate.
“But that’s what a good grower does anyway,” says Hafner. His wines are also bio (organic) certified, but “the kosher rules are stricter.” This makes for good wine and good business. Hafner has even built up a flourishing export trade to China, not exactly a major matzo-munching market. The reason is kosher’s reputation for quality. “The Chinese don’t trust their own corrupt food licensing authorities, but they know a rabbi can’t be bought.”
Pesach and beyond
Passover has come and gone this year, but Ferszt has kosher wines for all occasions and purses. There are modest Tuscan Chiantis and Cabernet Sauvignons from €5-€10, Spanish Riojas at €8-€15, and of course Austrian classics from Hafner: Grüner Veltliner and Blaufränkisch at €7-€18. Then there is the famous dessert wine, Eiswein, created with an enormously arduous procedure where the grapes are harvested late, frozen solid on the vine. The work is finger-numbing hard and the quantity produced modest, but the results spectacular. Expect to pay about €15-€25 for a 0.375 (half) bottle.
The imported Israeli wines are not cheap, but there is a wide selection of excellent dry whites and reds at around €15-€30. For a special occasion, try the 2013 Treperberg Legacy Petit Sirah at €68, which comes in a magnificent presentation box. Among the thousands of great Jewish jokes, bon mots on kosher wine are rare, but there’s one at least. Skip the preamble and go to the punch line: “Was 5773 a good year?” (Work it out).