What Makes A Wine Kosher

By Adam Montefiore:

Making kosher wine is relatively simple. No blessing by a Rabbi is necessary, which is a popular misconception, and winemakers do not have to follow the strict series of rules and regulations that a chef has to adhere to, before the food he prepares may be considered kosher.

Whereas the emphasis on kosher food is based on the source of the food, the most important thing in wine is the handler. A wine is kosher if two very basic rules are followed at the winery. Firstly, only orthodox, Sabbath observing Jews may touch the must (grape juice), wine and winery machinery during the wine making process. Secondly only kosher approved yeasts, fining (clarifying) and cleaning materials may be used. Follow these two requirements and the wine will be kosher.

There are also other agricultural rules in the vineyard that stem from when Israel was an agrarian society. These forbid picking of grapes for the first three years (Orla), prevent cross planting in the vineyard (Kilai Hakerem) and promote the concept of a Sabbatical year (Shmittah). Each of these are considered sensible agricultural practices, but they only apply to kosher wines produced in Israel.

However kosher wines are otherwise made in exactly the same way as regular wines and traditional procedures are followed in fermentation, blending, maturation and bottling. There is therefore no reason why a dry kosher wine should automatically be considered inferior to its non kosher equivalent.

This view was supported by the recent tasting by Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate publication. Parker is the world’s most influential wine critic. Four wineries, Carmel, Castel, Yarden and Yatir, succeeded in having two wines with 90+ points, a score which designates a world class wine.  Yet each of these wineries exclusively produces kosher wines. They did better than the many non kosher wineries in the tasting.

The Wine Advocate summarized the tasting by stating that no wine connoisseur should avoid a wine just because it was kosher. and that the kosher certification was insignificant in terms of determining quality.

However if kosher wine can be world class, it is far more difficult to say the same about a ‘mevushal’ wine. A ‘Yayin mevushal’ is pasteurized, so it will stay kosher even if opened by a non Jewish waiter. This style of wine is mainly in demand by kosher caterers for use in banquets. Once these wines were literally cooked, but today they are flash pasteurized to lessen the bad effect on quality. However without exception the finest kosher wines are those which are not mevushal.

Incidentally many sages including The Rambam, aka Maimomedes, were against using either mevushal or sweet wines (with added sugar) for ritual purposes. He believed that only the finest wine should be used for both making Kiddush and the Four Glasses at Passover. Today more and more kosher consumers are following The Rambam, by using dry table wines for Jewish and lifestyle events, as opposed to the tradition of using either sacramental wine or grape juice.

Quite apart from trends within the kosher world, kosher wines can have a benefit outside the needs of the Jewish community. For instance Carmel wines are recognised as being suitable for vegetarians and vegans.

The regular Kiddush wines like Palwin continue to be available as a service for the traditional market.  Today though, most kosher wines are made using the classic grape varieties from the best vineyards. Wineries have the finest modern technology and have employed internationally trained winemakers. Everyone is trying to make better quality wine. When asked if my wines are kosher, I usually reply: “We make the best wines we can, which just happen to be kosher.” Hopefully both religious Jews and wine lovers are equally happy with this statement!

Adam Montefiore works for Carmel Winery in Israel. He regularly writes about wine for international and Israeli publications.