Kosher wine quality

The principles of making Kosher wine are the same as for non-Kosher wine. The same Cabernet Sauvignon grapes, whether grown in California, Bordeaux, or Galilee, are grown and harvested in the same way, fermented in the same temperature controlled tanks, aged in the same small oak barrels, and bottled in the same manner. The winemaker will have studied at a place like U.C. Davis, and the winery equipment is the pretty much identical. A Kosher winery is just like any winery producing non-Kosher wines!

What Is Kosher Wine?

Consuming kosher foods is essential to all who observe Jewish religious dietary laws (Kashrut). The religious laws are a set of standards for food preparation and winemaking. Just so you know, the term “Kosher” was derived from the Hebrew word for “fit,” meaning fit for consumption.

Kosher wine has been a subject of passion throughout the ages.

Very nice Pinot, spicy, fruity, and well-balanced
The winery's premier red wine, featuring a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon (75%) and Merlot (25%)
A blend of 95% Sangiovese and 5% Cabernet Sauvignon, From organically grown grapes

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 (, 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 and 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. ♦

wine regions of israel: classic flavors of the northern golan and galilee

It’s somewhat shocking to consider that a country the size of New Jersey has such wide variety in its winemaking terroir (the soil, topography and climate in which grapes are grown) that it has at least four distinct regions. Israel actually has five official, legally defined wine region appellations: Galilee, Judean Hills, Samson, Desert and Shomron. We are dividing our article slightly differently because the broadest swath of interesting kosher vineyards in Israel is concentrated in the Galilee, Shomron and Judean Hills regions.

With thanks to Tzvi Silver of our Jewish Link/Israel offices, we will discuss the regions as north (comprising the Golan Heights and the Upper Galilee), "east" (comprising Gush Dan, Samson, the coastal and Judean Plains), west (comprising the Jerusalem area, Judea & Samaria/Shomron) and south (the desert/Negev region).

Israel’s broad variety in terroir is likely one of the reasons why the winemaking world generally has not yet characterized with any certainty the unique nature of the “typical Israeli wine.” While a typical wine likely doesn’t entirely exist, in this series we are looking at both classic and new wines that have characteristics that have already or may yet become defining wines for Israel, in both the kosher and the secular world. “The fact that kosher wines from the Shomron’s Tishbi Winery, for example, are now on menus in restaurants and hotels as ‘a wine from Israel,’ and is not specifically listed on menus as kosher, is a sign of a growing trend for importers to market good-quality, high-end wines from Israel to the general population, rather than only to kosher-keeping consumers,” said Ami Nahari, CEO of The River Wine. This represents an important step in the growth of Israel as a winemaking region, he told The Jewish Link.

For this part one of four planned articles, my tasting group sampled both a white and a red from three vineyards in the north of Israel, with wines coming from the Golan Heights and the Northern Galilee. Notably, these are wines from the most temperate/coldest region of Israel; meaning the grapes experience extreme temperatures between the day and nighttime hours as they grow. Temperatures can reach close to freezing at night and can be very hot in the daytime. This results in wines similar to the Burgundy region in France, and for these reasons, the winemakers tend to riff off of French winemaking rather than California styles to bring out the best in their grapes.

Hayotzer Virtuoso Chardonnay 2016 and Genesis Cabernet Sauvignon 2014

Hayotzer is a brand-new boutique winery formed as a spinoff of Arza, the oldest winery in Israel, founded in 1847, and has been known for more inexpensive sweet wines and juices. The Shor family, the original owners of Arza, are still the owners of Arza and Hayotzer today. Hayotzer has begun exporting wines from its first vintage just this fall, with many wines placed under its aptly named Genesis label. Hayotzer’s French-trained winemaker, Philippe Lichtenstein, was the winemaker for Carmel’s Zichron Ya’akov wine cellars for many years.

The Virtuoso Chardonnay, made with 100 percent chardonnay grapes, has “an extremely cool bottle design,” said Aaron, but the nose was even more impressive. “Clean. Grapefruit on the nose but the citrus wasn’t as strong in the flavor of the wine,” said Brooke. Rather, upon tasting, some spice notes of vanilla and sugar cookie came to light. For that reason, we found it paired well with sweeter foods and would recommend it with lighter fare such as white fish, root vegetables and baked apples. It’s on sale at Wine Country in Bergenfield, as are all the wines in this article, for $19.99.

Hayotzer’s Genesis Cabernet Sauvignon 2014 is an extremely accessible wine. While it’s a rich red with a full nose of red berries, it’s also light in viscosity. My opinion on this wine, and the other Hayotzer reds I tasted this past Yom Tov season, is that Hayotzer is making “red wine drinker’s red wines,” meaning that people who love red wine will love Hayotzer. “There is that typically slight metallic nature and acid with this red,” said Jen. “This wine grew on me,” said Brooke, noting that her first opinion of it changed after the second taste. “Very drinkable,” she added. Wine Country’s sale price for this wine is a great deal at $14.99. I recommend the entire Genesis line as new wines to try along with Thanksgiving dinner.

Matar by Pelter Sauvignon Blanc/Semillon 2016 and Stratus 2014

Matar is the kosher winery spinoff of the non-kosher Pelter winery. Pelter, headed by Tal and Nir Pelter, is based in Tzofit in the Golan Heights. The award-winning non-kosher winery was established in 2005, and Matar, its kosher line, was established in 2012 to make Pelter’s “invigorating and elegant” wines accessible to a wider variety of customers.

The gold-skinned semillon grape is most commonly blended with sauvignon blanc and is classically grown in France’s Burgundy region or in Australia’s Margaret River region. There are very few semillon wines available that are kosher. The Matar Sauvignon Blanc/Semillon is an easy-to-drink crisp wine that “I just want to keep drinking,” said Allyson. “It’s smooth; I like the clean and subtle flavor,” said Shoval. It’s citrus and green melon notes along with its light green color makes the wine inviting and contributes to its overall pleasant and easy quaffability. Wine Country’s sale price for this wine is $29.99.

The Matar Stratus 2014, which is 90 percent syrah and 10 percent petit verdot, has a smooth, plummy nose with flavors of cocoa, red cherries and fall spices, like cloves and nutmeg. “It’s a dry red wine, which I don’t generally like, and I not only drank this but enjoyed it,” said Aaron. It has multiple layers of full-bodied flavor, which is attributed to the grapes coming from multiple low-yield vineyards in Ramot Naftali in the Upper Galilee. This was was aged 14 months in new French oak. Like the white we tried, it is also on sale for $29.99 at Wine Country.

Yarden Katzrin Chardonnay 2014 and Golan Heights Cabernet Sauvignon 2014

Yarden and Golan Heights Winery are among the most recognizable brands of Israeli wine, mainly because the Golan Heights Winery has a beautiful tasting room and touring facilities, which are part of many visitor itineraries on their first visit to Israel.

Yarden’s Katzrin line of high-end, sophisticated wines are known for their complexity and drinkability. The Katzrin Chardonnay, which retails for $28.99, did not disappoint. “This wine has a thicker viscosity than all the whites we tried,” said Brooke. Shoval noted the wine’s significantly darker color than the other whites in our tasting as well. The golden color of the wine is the result of nine months of aging in French oak, which results in smooth flavors of spice, vanilla and apple. This is a special-occasion wine that is sure to impress; it will certainly enable all kinds of wine drinkers to enjoy it. “I can’t imagine anyone not liking this,” said Allyson. Though kosher whites tend to not age well, this 2014 wine is tasting beautifully now and can also be cellared and saved for at least three to five more years.

The Golan Heights Cabernet Sauvignon was similar to the Katzrin in that it was balanced and smooth, with beautiful viscosity, and was easy to drink. “There are not-too-strong tannins here; the tiny bit of acid hits the back of the throat in a good way,” said Allyson. “This wine balanced; it isn’t too sweet or too dry,” said Jen. Brooke noted its rich flavor would go well with main courses, but also with desserts including berries or chocolate, as both of those deep flavors were present in the nose. The sale price is $24.99.

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