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30 Second Wine Tasting Tip:
What makes wine kosher?

With the recent celebration of Passover, when Jews around the world joyously mark the birth of the Jewish nation when Moses led the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt, it seems a good occasion to take a closer look at kosher wine.

Although many people think of kosher wine as a thick, sweet and grapey drink, this is actually only one style of kosher wine, one that became popular in the United States more than a century ago, when many Jewish immigrants lived in the Northeast and had easy access to Concord and other native American grapes with the characteristic "grape-jelly" flavor that needs sweetening to make it palatable. Necessity became the mother of tradition, and for many years "kosher" in wine almost always meant heavy and sweet.

Indeed, one noteworthy kosher wine producer, Schapiro's Kosher Wine, observes with pride on its Website, "When my grandfather, Sam Schapiro, came to this country and began making wine in 1899, our company's motto was 'wine so thick you can cut it with a knife.'"

But it needn't be so; and in modern times, many Jewish wine makers in the U.S., in Israel and in many other countries are now producing dry, elegant table wines that are both fully in the European fine-wine tradition and fully kosher.

"Kosher," after all, simply means "fit and proper" in Hebrew, and as explained in the Jewish glossary on the Manischewitz wines Website, it refers to any food or drink that conforms to Jewish dietary laws and is made under the supervision of a rabbi.

The Royal Wines Website, hosted by another major producer and importer of kosher wines, tells more about kosher wine at

  1. The wine-making equipment must be used exclusively for kosher products.
  2. Only Sabbath-observant Jews may handle the wine throughout production, from crushing the grapes to serving the wine. (There's an exception to this, however: If the wine is boiled or pasteurized - "mevushal," in Hebrew - it may be handled by anyone, Jewish or otherwise, without being rendered unfit.)
  3. No non-kosher product may be used to make kosher wine. This provision, by the way, makes kosher wine of some interest to vegetarians, who can be reasonably assured that kosher wines have not used animal products in the "fining" or clarification process.

None of these rules prevent making wines in an international style, and indeed, many modern kosher wines have won awards in major competitions. As a category, they're certainly worth consideration by wine lovers of all heritages. To paraphrase the Levy's Rye Bread commercials of the '60s, just as you don't have to be French or Italian to enjoy the great wines of those countries, or any other, you don't have to be Jewish to enjoy kosher wine.

See my notes below for three examples - a mevushal white, a modern-style red, and a classic old-style kosher Concord wine. If you would like to discuss this or other wine-related topics, I hope you'll drop by our Wine Lovers' Discussion Group, Or, if you prefer, send me E-mail at I regret that the growing circulation of the "Wine Advisor" makes it difficult for me to reply individually to every note. But I'll answer as many as I can; and please be assured that all your input helps me do a better job of writing about wine.

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30 Second Tasting Notes:
Kosher wines
Baron Herzog Baron Herzog 1996 Clarksburg Chenin Blanc ($6.99)
Clear gold in color. Aromas and flavors of almonds and hazelnuts, delicate nutlike scents over fresh citrus fruit. Honey and white tropical fruit show in a complex, slightly sweet flavor, damp wool notes appearing with time in the glass. Quite interesting and drinkable, it's marked with the "circle U" symbol indicating approval by the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America and listed as "mevushal kosher for Passover." From an analytical standpoint, it's hard to say whether the evolved and nutlike flavors reflect the heat applied in the mevushal process or merely indicate that this five-year-old white has been sitting on the shelf for a while. (April 8, 2001)

Hagafen Hagafen 1996/5757 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($21.99)
Very dark garnet in color, black at the center. Oaky vanilla and blueberry fruit in a ripe, forward aroma; pleasant flavors, bright if rather one-dimensional, focus more on oak than fruit, a bit tart and tannic in the finish. A typical big California Cabernet, indistinguishable in flavor from its non-kosher competitors except by the label, which bears the vintage date in both the civil and Jewish calendars and is marked with the "circle U" and the Hebrew letters for "kosher for Passover." (April 8, 2001)

Manischewitz Manischewitz American Concord Grape Kosher Wine ($3.99)
Trademarked "the traditional kosher wine," I tasted this standard, inexpensive label to get a benchmark for the style. Dark ruby in color, it shows the strong "grape jelly" aroma and flavor of Concord grapes on the nose and palate. It's thick and syrupy sweet, a simple wine in the Jewish-American kosher-wine tradition. From a wine-taster's standpoint, it's inoffensive but not the style of wine that most "connoisseurs" would choose for everyday enjoyment. Marked with the "circle U" and "kosher for Passover" in both Hebrew and English. (April 8, 2001)

Wine Lovers' Voting Booth:
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Just a quick reminder that we're continuing this informal survey for a second week. So far we've heard from more than 800 of you in every continent but Antarctica, but I would love to see the count top 1,000. If you haven't already "voted," I hope you'll take a moment to drop by and tell us what country or region you live in.

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All the wine-tasting reports posted here are consumer-oriented. In order to maintain objectivity and avoid conflicts of interest, I purchase all the wines I rate at my own expense in retail stores and accept no samples, gifts or other gratuities from the wine industry.

More time for wine?
You don't need to wait for Mondays to read about wine! Drop in any time on Robin Garr's Wine Lovers' Page, where we add new tasting notes several times each week and frequently expand our selection of wine-appreciation articles, tips and tutorials.

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Vol. 3, No. 12, April 9, 2001

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