I always place a bottle of Manichewitz kosher wine on the table for the ritual meal at Passover. I not only like the taste of the sweet, syrupy wine but also being a sentimental sort, I find comfort in sipping the Concord grape wine, a staple in the kosher home I was reared in. These days, however, when I visit family or friends for Passover, I bring a dry cabernet sauvignon from a winery in northern Israel or a merlot from Chile — both of which have a kosher seal of approval.
Contrary to popular opinion, the seal of approval does not indicate the wines have been blessed by a rabbi. In fact, the opposite is true, kosher wines are used to make blessings or “L’Chaims” — meaning “To Life” — as they are referred to in the orthodox tradition.
Another misconception is that wine has to be sweet to be kosher. To this day, a friend of mine suggests that all it takes to make a wine kosher is to “dump a cup of sugar into it.” He’s not far from wrong if he was living in the early 1900s, when the only grape available to kosher wine makers was the harsh Concord grapes. Sugar was added to the mix to “neutralize” the bitter taste of the grapes, explains Joseph Zakon, founder of Kesser wines, a family-owned business in Brooklyn, N.Y. that produces naturally sweet kosher wines. Zakon selects grapes for his wines from “sweet vineyards” or vineyards that bear fruit with a higher sugar content. Kesser Concord grape wine, which sells for $7.15 at Brooklyn-based kosherline.com, is also less alcoholic at 8 percent alcohol than Manichewitz at 12 percent alcohol.
So what makes a wine kosher? “Any wine can be kosher,” says Zakon. “Grapes are (inherently) kosher,” he adds. It’s the process that determines if the wine is ultimately kosher. Primarily, the equipment and machinery used to a make the wine has to be exclusively used for kosher products. All the ingredients have to be kosher. A Sabbath-observant, orthodox Jew also has to oversee the process, from crushing of the grapes to sealing the bottle.
No such thing as a ‘kosher taste’
Today kosher wines come in all sorts of varietals from around the world. “The idea that kosher wines have a particular ‘kosher taste’ is nonsense,” says Anthony Dias Blue, wine and spirits editor at Bon Appetit and author of several books including “American wine — A comprehensive guide” and “Buyers’ guide to American wines.”
Kosherwine.com, the largest dealer online, stocks about 400 kosher wines from about 40 vineyards. Prices range from $2.99 for Kedeem Concord grape wine to Roberto Cohen Clos de Vougeot 2000 from France for $323.99.
“In general, you can get a very nice wine for $10-$20,” says Daniel Kirsche of kosherwine.com. Israeli wines are popular for the holidays, and Kirsche recommends an Upper Galilee wine, Galil Yiron, for $16.99 and Yarden Mount Hermon red or white, from the Golan Heights Winery, for $8.99.
“The quality of kosher wines has jumped several levels even in the last couple of years,” says John Roesch, wine director at Manhattan-based pjwine.com, which also carries some Israeli wines. Roesch favors kosher wines from a family-run winery in Israel called tishbi.com. Currently, he stocks a chenin blanc and a syrah for $7.99 (hard to beat that price), a merlot for $14.99 and two cabernet sauvignon — one $15.99 and the other $38.99.
But Roesch’s number one recommendation for the holidays might be Capcanes Spanish red, which he just tasted at the vineyard in Montsant, Spain. It’s a “top-flight Spanish red,” says Roesch. A bottle of 2000 Capcanes Spanish red, Peraj Ha'Abib, costs $37.99 at pjwine.com and $44.95 at store.morrellwine.com, another New York-based wine shop.
More from TODAY.com
TODAY's Takeaway: Boy, 8, describes avalanche, Lena Dunham tees up 'SNL'
On TODAY on Friday, Phoenix Scoles-Coburn remembers being buried in snow, Mark Kelly teams up with his twin brother to hel...
- 'This is the TODAY Show!': Third-graders host their own broadcast
- Instagram's latest breakout star? A yoga-loving mom of two
- Over-sized fun: Riders float over the snow on fat bikes
- Hokey smoke, Bullwinkle! Rocky and his friends are back
- TODAY's Takeaway: Boy, 8, describes avalanche, Lena Dunham tees up 'SNL'
A variety of vineyards to choose from
This holiday season, Blue recommends a mix of varietals for the Passover meal from vineyards in California, Australia and Italy.
Blue’s first pick, a Baron Herzog 2002 Zin Gris, makes a nice aperitif. The smooth, dry wine, made from zinfandel grapes, is produced in the Central Valley of California. Available in limited quantities, a bottle of Baron Herzog 2002 Zin Gris sells for $9.99 at kosherwine.com.
Blue also recommends Teal Lake 2002 Petit Verdot-Cabernet, from southeastern Australia. The full-bodied wine with “mouth-filling flavors of black fruit and herbs” is “a kosher wine in the classic bold Australian style,” says Blue. Teal Lake Petit Verdot Cabernet is available at kosherwine.com for $8.99.
A “stunning” wine for “any truly special occasion,” from the upper tier of Herzog wineries, is Herzog 2000 cabernet sauvignon, special edition, from Warnecke Vineyard in California, says Blue. One bottle of the “upscale” wine sells for $79.99 at kosherline.com.
Finish off the meal with a “lovely, effervescent white dessert wine” from Italy, suggests Blue. A bottle of Bartenura 2003 Moscato d'Asti sells for $8.99 at kosherwine.com and $13.09 at kosherline.com.
I had the pleasure of tasting this lovely, sweet Italian wine at a synagogue two blocks from my apartment, which happened to have their “first annual Passover wine festival” on the night before this article was to appear. I methodically tasted and took notes on about six white wines and six reds. In the end, my favorite — and the best value for the buck — was the white Mocsato d’Asti. It’s easy to spot among the other kosher wines because of the blue bottle, which features a map of Italy.
Traditionally, though, red wine is used at the seder or the Passover ritual meal. So I’ll probably stick with the Concord grape Manichewitz. But, as always, the choice is yours.
No matter what wine ends up on the Passover table, each participant at a seder is required to drink four full cups of wine. Each cup must hold at least 3 ½ fluid ounces. (To learn more about Passover, visit Passover.net.)
This year, the first night of Passover is April 5 and that’s a lot of wine. So start shopping, and L’chaim.
© 2013 msnbc.com Reprints