Types of Kosher Wines

There are three basic categories of Kosher wine. They are:

Kosher


Produced in a manner that is approved to be in accordance with Jewish Dietary Laws (Kashrut).

Kosher for Passover


Wine that has not come into contact with bread, grain, or items made with leavened dough (you guessed it, pretty much all wines fit this description!). Most Kosher wines are also “Kosher for Passover.”

Kosher le Mehadrin


Wine for which the rules of Kashrut have been stringently approved.

So, if Kosher wines are equal to non-Kosher wines, why do they sometimes have a bad reputation? It’s quite possible that the concept of Yayin Mevushal (literally “cooked wine”) and sweet sacramental wines have something to do with it.


Mevushal Wine

Kosher caterers and Kosher restaurants in the United States only serve “Mevushal Wine” (pronounced mev’ooshal). This is a Kosher wine that has been flash pasteurized, so it remains Kosher even if a non-observant or non-Jewish waiter serves the wine. A wine that is not Mevushal is no less Kosher than one that is. The techniques of flash pasteurization have improved over the years. That said, most of the better quality Kosher wines, are NOT Mevushal.

Whether or not a wine is Kosher is irrelevant to quality. Most Kosher wines are quality wines, which just happen also to be Kosher!

higher end kosher wines

When it comes to gauging the health of the high-end kosher wine market, Andrew Breskin is the canary in the wine cellar, so to speak: The healthier the market for pricey kosher wines, the busier Breskin is.

And he’s plenty busy these days.

Breskin, who is based in San Diego, is a wine lawyer, importer, broker, appraiser, cellar master and former sommelier. Six years ago, he took a risk and launched a retail and import operation, Liquid Kosher (liquidkosher.com), specifically to cater to what was then a fledgling high-end kosher wine niche. He said he began Liquid Kosher on the strength of his “belief that the high-end kosher consumer would and should exist, with the right products, service and expertise. … Same as what was available in the broader wine world.”

The risk seems to have paid off.

“The high end of the market is strong,” said Breskin, who now has warehouses on both coasts to service his clients. “It’s really in a healthy place right now.”

One sign of a mature wine culture is the development of a high-end market. Over the last decade or so, a large and growing variety of expensive kosher wines have been introduced, and they have sold well, according to anecdotal evidence. These wines are pitched to consumers with significant disposable income who are eager to shell out serious money for perceived quality and rarity in wine; they embrace the notion that better costs more, and they are eager for better. A distinct high-end kosher wine niche, then, has clearly taken root.

“The high end of the kosher market is really vibrant,” said Jay Buchsbaum, vice president of marketing and director of wine education for Royal Wine Corp., the largest producer, importer and distributor of kosher wines and spirits.

Likewise, Dovid Perelman, CEO of the JCommerce Group, which owns both jwines.com and kosherwine.com online retailers, agrees. “The high end of the kosher wine market,” he said, “is just doing phenomenally well right now.” (No one interviewed for this story would share specific sales figures, which tend to be closely guarded, especially for private companies.)

As a trend-spotter, Breskin essentially harnessed his years of professional experience in the non-kosher market to try to offer something unique in the kosher market. In this he was also “armed,” as he put it, “with a new [kosher] Bordeaux no one ever heard of, a cache of vintage assorted kosher wines, and a bunch of Yarden Rom [an early and successful high-end kosher effort from the Golan Heights Winery].”

Today, Breskin is the exclusive importer of a line of critically acclaimed premium French kosher wines from Domaine Roses Camille and winemaker Christophe Bardeau (see story on page 3). And he also buys, sells and facilitates trade in the kosher wine after-market: commerce in private high-end and rare kosher wine collections, largely among and between other private collectors. As Breskin put it, “one of the things I did was to professionalize, perhaps even invent, the kosher wine after-market. Now, instead of a handful of guys in Brooklyn trading bottles, there are legitimate market-tested prices, as well as proper vetting of provenance and storage.”

Mirroring professional services that are specialized but widely available in the non-kosher wine market, Breskin characterized what he offers this way: “Someone looking to find or collect great premium kosher wines” or enter the high-end after-market can now turn to professional advice for “personalized selections, wine cellar and wine collection planning and evaluation, sourcing of rare bottles and bottle-formats, or to simply have their wines properly appraised.”

When it comes to the actual prices for kosher high-end wines, “the sweet spot is $65,” said Breskin. “The $40 range is kind of a dead zone,” he added, “though under $40 there are some excellent values.” Perelman agrees: “We sell far more in the $60 range then in the $40 range.”

Explained Perelman: “$15-$20 seems to be the most popular [price category], with $18 about average, but the $30 range is where the wines begin to get really serious, and the $60 range is where it just pops; [at this price range] folks are in the zone for high-end wine, they are eager and ready to spend more money and so tend to jump well above the average.” Indeed, this $60 range is, said Perelman, “just an awesome price point these days.”

For Breskin, average prices for good or decent quality kosher table wine is between $18 snd $25, while for Mendel Ungar of Red Garden Imports, which imports a variety of well-regarded European and Israeli kosher wines, the average “would start at $12-$13,” with “over $40” being high-end territory.

Part of what drives this push for premium-priced wines is perceived value and heightened consumer appreciation for quality. According to Buchsbaum, “The market is really appreciating these [expensive] wines now — consumers have really developed a palate for serious wine; it’s not just the show-off value, but real sophistication in their appreciation for and approach to these wines.”

This growth of the high-end segment is related to the fact, observed Breskin, that the “overall quality of the higher-end wines has increased while the prices have remained relatively stable”; that, he said, has created a perception of real value in the higher-end wines. So “while the wines from producers like Covenant, Castel, Yatir, Flam, and the like have gotten better,” he said, “the prices have remained good and stable — so they mostly all represent good, solid value to consumers.”

Kosher producers have, of course, been eager to meet this growing consumer demand with a wide variety of expensive wines. “If anything,” Buchsbaum said, “demand exceeds supply, and the market is moving faster than production.” Wineries like Covenant from California and Domaine du Castel from Israel or Capçanes from Spain have developed and held firm footholds in the high-end segment of the market long enough, he noted, that “they are able to plan better for the growing market and so we can keep them in stock.” After all, he explained, not only does the creation of premium quality wine take significant time and resources, and a substantive and sustained effort and ethos to constantly improve, it also takes proper planning.

“Covenant, for example,” noted Buchsbaum, “sold out in the first six weeks in the beginning; only once they realized and understood the demand for premium kosher California cabernet, did they begin to plan appropriately for growth; now production has caught up so that we can just about keep it in stock vintage to vintage.”

By contrast, he lamented, “the Herzog single-vineyard range is basically all gone for now. “There really isn’t anything else that’s mevushal from California in this price range, so there is an added restaurant-based pressure on these wines.” Regardless, Buchsbaum added, “no matter what we produce in this category, we seem to sell out fast. Premium wines take time and simply can’t be brought online fast enough.”

Despite robust sales, this kosher high-end market is still in its cultural infancy. “Almost all of the high-end wine being sold today is for immediate consumption, rather than cellaring,” Buchsbaum said. “People want a nice wine for Shabbos, or a special occasion — their buying habits aren’t much different from the rest of the market, except that they are looking for premium wines, rather than more affordable wines.”

Being exclusively focused on this high-end space, Andrew Breskin’s account is similar: “I would say that definitely more is being purchased to consume than to age; most people just don’t have cellars and they’re not buying wine fridges. For everyone laying down a half case of Castel [Grand Vin], there are probably three or four who buy one bottle for that Shabbos. Maybe they accumulate a small collection now and again, but it’s mostly still for near-term consumption.”

For Breskin, though he believes the high-end market is strong, it clearly still has a way to go. But he maintains that “the wine-collecting culture” in the kosher wine market “is definitely on the rise,” and people are “beginning to see the value in keeping wines.” Overall, he concluded, the market trends in this space are “really positive.”

The canary, it turns out, is doing well, thank you. ♦


fashionably kosher

Fashions,” observed Marcel Proust, “being themselves begotten of the desire for change, are quick to change also.”

No place does this seem to be truer than in the kosher wine world, where there is always the desire to try something new and different. Fifteen years ago, for instance, Riesling was one of the bestselling kosher white wines, but then almost completely disappeared from the market (and is only just now starting to come back into style).   Five years ago, Viogniers were all the rage, and now it is pink rosés.  Likewise, 10 years ago nobody in the kosher wine world (except for wine geeks) had ever heard of the Carignan, which is now the grape behind some of the best and trendiest kosher red wines. 

Pink is taking over the kosher white wine world. Rosé is a term used to describe wines in the color spectrum between red and white, from faint pink to dark rose. They are made from the juice of red grapes, which was allowed only limited contact with the grape skins after the grapes were crushed. Grape juice is always pale, even when it comes from red grapes. The color of a wine comes from the grape skins, and the less time a juice spends in contact with the skins, the lighter in color will be the wine it produces.

Like white wines, rosés tend to be light- or medium-bodied, are best drunk well-chilled, and when well-made are crisp, dry and refreshing.  For over 20 years there have been good kosher rosés available in the U.S. (one of my first “Fruit of the Vine” columns in this paper, in 2005, was on rosés), but until recently they just didn’t sell very well. But times have changed. According to Jay Buchsbaum, executive vice president for marketing and director of wine education for kosher wine giant Royal Wine Corp., “Rosés are hot. … We’re bringing in a lot more rosés.” 

Fashions,” observed Marcel Proust, “being themselves begotten of the desire for change, are quick to change also.”

In the kosher red wine world, Carignan is another one of the rising stars.  Named for the town of Carinena in the Aragon region of Spain, Carignan is a late-ripening, hardy, high-yielding, black grape that grows well in warm climes. While today most of the world’s Carignan is grown in France, and is indeed that country’s most planted black grape, in Israel this has been the dominant variety for more than a century.   

As Adam Montefiore, the Jerusalem Post’s wine columnist and the un-official brand ambassador for Israeli wine, explained to me in 2012, “It is true that there are more hectares of Cabernet Sauvignon planted [in Israel], but because of overall higher average yields, Carignan is still the leading variety in terms of tons harvested, with approximately 20 percent of the total wine grape harvest.” 

While most Israeli Carignan is used as a blending grape or to make somewhat indifferent red wines (Daniel Rogov, the late Israeli wine critic once told me that he believed that up to a quarter of budget-priced Israeli “Cabernet Sauvignons” were actually made from Carignan), when old Carignan vines are heavily pruned, they can produce remarkable wines. There are now excellent kosher Carignan wines coming from Israel and Spain; and Jonathan Hajdu, one of California’s most talented kosher winemakers, says that he will later this year release an old vine Carignan though his Adventurers’ Guild wine club (see story on page 14).  Hajdu says said that he likes his Carignan so much that he plans to start incorporating Carignan into his regular offerings. 

For those wanting to keep up with the fashions, below are tasting notes for some kosher rosé and Carignans that are worth seeking out.

Rosés:

Les Lauriers des Rothschild, Rosé, France, 2015: Made of the same cuvée of Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon as used in the red Les Lauriers des Rothschild, this light-peach-colored, light-to-medium-bodied wine has a floral nose with notes of apricots, apples and cream. Look for flavors of peaches, nectarines and oranges, with a touch of honey. Sixty percent of the wine aged in used oak barrels, which gives the wine a very light layer of oak and just a bit more body than found in many rosés. This vintage is nearing the end of its life, and it should be consumed by the end of the summer. However, the next vintage should be out very shortly. Score A-/B+ 

Covenant, Red C, Rosé, Sonoma, 2016: Light-bodied and rose colored, this classically Californian rosé is dry and crisp, with flavors and aromas of strawberries, raspberries, sour cherries and honeysuckle.  Well-structured and very refreshing, it should be served icy cold, and within the next year. Score A-/B+ 

Don Ernesto, Beret, Rosé, Napa Valley, 2016: Made by Ernie Weir (a.k.a. Don Ernesto) of Hagafen Cellars, this light-bodied, deep-rose-colored Syrah rosé has flavors and aromas of strawberries, watermelon and cantaloupe, with notes of Meyer lemons and honeysuckle, and just a hint of greenness. Dry, crisp and refreshing, this wine should be consumed within the next year. Score B+ 

Vitkin Winery, Israeli Journey, Rosé, 2016: This dry, light-bodied, dark-peach-colored rosé was made from a blend of Grenache and Carignan using the Saignée method with the addition of some press wine. The wine has a very floral nose with hints of citrus and honey.  Look for flavors of grapefruit and peach, with a touch of honey. Drink within the next year.  Score B+ 

Carignans:

Capçanes, La Flor del Flor, old vines Samsó, Montsant, 2012 (Barrel Sample):Made from Carignan grapes — known as Samsó in the Catalonia — grown on head-pruned 85-to-105-year-old vines, this wine is meaty, muscular and full-bodied. The nose, which is still tight, is dominated by cherries and cassis, blackberries, cedar, oak and pipe tobacco with a note of violets. Look for flavors of sour cherries, blackberries, cranberries, with notes of cassis, crème de mûre, and cedar, oak and bitter chocolate in the background. Well-structured, with an abundance of powdery tannins, and good mineral extraction, the wine is only now just approachable, but will only start to show its best in a year or two and should be able to cellar until 2028 or longer.   Score A/A-.

Recanati, Wild Carignan, Reserve, Judean Hills, 2014: This full-bodied, dark-purple-colored wine was made from Carignan grapes grown in a non-irrigated vineyard on vines that were planted more than three decades ago. The nose is complex with notes of cherries, cranberries, blackberries and oak, with an intriguing whiff of Earl Grey tea. Look for flavors of cherries, cassis, blackberries, cranberries, plums, and espresso, with notes of anise, and allspice all built upon an earthy, oaky, background. Well-balanced, with powerful-yet-supple tannins, this wine should drink well until 2022 or 2023. Score A-. 

Jezreel Valley Winery, Shomron, 2014: Made from Carignan grapes grown on 45-year-old vine-stock in the Shfeya vineyard, north of Zikron Ya’akov, this garnet-colored wine has a bouquet of cherries, cassis and cranberries, with notes of uncured tobacco and cedar. Fruit-forward, but with surprising depth, the wine’s flavor has elements of cherries, cranberries, red currants, rhubarb and spice. Drink now and for the next four years. Score B+

Carmel, Appellation, Old-Vine Carignan, Shomron, 2009. Dark garnet in color, this full-bodied wine was made from Carignan grapes grown on 30-year-old vines near the winery’s headquarters in Zichron Ya’acov. While nearing the end of its life, this wine is still drinking well. Oak and brier dominate the nose but also look for whiffs of cherries, red currents and cassis. The flavor has elements of cassis, cherries, red currents, raspberries, oak and spice. This wine should be consumed in the next six months. Drink up. Score B+.


How is Kosher Wine Made?

Kosher wines are NOT blessed by a Rabbi. To make Kosher wines, there are two basic requirements:

1. Must Only Be Handled By Jews In The Winery

Only religious Jews may handle the wine and touch the equipment from the time the grapes arrive at the winery. Even a Jewish winemaker who is not orthodox is not allowed to draw samples from the barrels. This may be frustrating for a hands-on winemaker, but Kosher producers are used to it…and it is not a restriction that affects quality.

2.There Are Stricter Wine Additive Rules

Yeasts, fining, and cleaning materials have to be certified as Kosher and must not be derived from animal by-items. An example, fining agents that are not permitted include gelatin (animal derivative), casein (dairy derivative), and isinglass (because it comes from a non-Kosher fish.) Many Kosher wines are perfectly suitable for vegetarians – and vegans too (if egg white is not used).

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