• by Jenny Benzie • Advanced Sommelier and Proprietress of Épernay Wine & Spirits •
Fall on Nantucket brings crisp weather with the changing of the leaves, boats leaving the harbor and thoughts of planning for the holidays. We look forward to family gatherings, celebrations and certainly festive libations. First up is the beginning of the Jewish High Holy Days, Rosh Hashanah, which begins at sundown on September 24.
In Jewish tradition, wine is considered a holy beverage. For this reason, a kosher wine is typically served at Jewish holiday events. The blessing over the wine (kiddish) is an important part of many religious ceremonies. What makes a wine kosher? Jewish laws involving wine are concerned with who handles the wine and what they use to make it. In order for the wine to be kosher, any ingredients used to make it (grapes, sugar, etc.) must be kosher. Also, only Sabbath-observant male Jews are able to supervise and handle the winemaking process, from harvesting the grapes to fermentation and bottling the final product. Wine that is described as ‘kosher for Passover’ must be kept free from contact with grain, bread and dough. Aside from the constraints mentioned above, there needn’t be any difference between the techniques used to make a fine kosher wine or a fine nonkosher wine.
Why the strict rules? In days past, wine was often used by pagans in their offerings to idol gods. They would pour a small amount of wine on the ground as a symbolic thank you when something good occurred. The rules established for kosher wine were developed so that Jews would never receive wine that had been associated with this type of idolatrous offering. Therefore, only Jews could handle the wines. Others were still worried that if a Jew had a wine served by a non-Jewish person, there was still the chance that the wine was used for idolatrous purposes.
That is, unless the kosher wine was to be designated mevushal.
In Hebrew, mevushal (perhaps the most misunderstood term in the kosher wine tradition) literally means cooked or boiled. These wines are not quite heated to a boiling point. Great care is taken to satisfy the legal requirements while exposing the wine to as little heat as necessary. They are typically flashpasteurized to a temperature that meets the requirements of an overseeing rabbinical authority. This method quickly heats the wine to the desired temperature (194°F/90°C) then immediately chills it back to room temperature. The technique, however, has minimal effect on the overall quality of the wine.
In Jewish tradition, creating a mevushal wine is said to simply alter the spiritual essence of a kosher wine, making it less susceptible to ritual proscription. It was thought that even idol worshippers would not use wine that had been boiled because it would remove much of the flavor. That means anyone can open a bottle of mevushal wine without altering its kosher status. That’s a plus for kosher catering halls and restaurants, where the wait staff may not be kosher or even Jewish. By contrast, non-mevushal, or non-heated wines, are viewed as more sensitive to religious constraints and should be opened and poured by Sabbath-observant Jews.
When a non-Jew or a Jew who is not kosher wants to share a nonmevushal wine with kosher observant friends, then the wine must be opened and poured by a Sabbath-observant individual if everyone wishes to partake. Those are the rules, pure and simple. But ultimately, mevushal wine is neither more nor less kosher than non-mevushal wine. These are two separate designations for equally kosher wines.
Mention kosher wine and the brand Manischewitz automatically pops into your brain. This New York based company is best known for their sweet concord wine often used by non-Orthodox Jews. The sweetness of this wine is associated with wines produced by Jewish immigrants to New York. They made a kosher wine using local grapes that resulted in a bitter taste that was then sweetened to make it quaffable. Modern Manishewitz is sweetened with corn syrup. Therefore, it is not kosher for Passover (where corn is forbidden), so a special bottling must be produced for Passover.
Americans are taking kosher wine more seriously these days with an increased demand for them as of late. These wines are available in many styles and do not always have to be sweet as tradition would have it. There is a trend towards making dry, premium quality kosher wines with the revival of the Israeli wine industry (such as Yarden and Dalton). Today, kosher wines are produced not only in Israel, but in other parts of the world as well, including California (Baron Herzog and Covenant), Bordeaux (Chateau Clarke) and Burgundy (Chateau de la Tour) in France, Italy (Borgo Reale) and Australia (Altoona Hills). Chateau d’Esclans in Provence is even making a portion of their wine kosher these days.
No matter what holiday traditions you will be celebrating this fall, wine always has a way to bring the event full circle. May laughter, new memories and good cheer abound on our island during your holiday festivities!