This year, Easter and the Passover Seders fell on the same week-end. My sister and I decided to make a Kosher(ish) meal for EastOver Sunday dinner: matzoh ball soup, roast chicken with matzoh and mushroom stuffing, roast leg of lamb with apricots soaked in sweet wine, Charoset, and other goodies.
Despite warnings, I was determined to find some good kosher wines to enjoy with the meal. The main LCBO Depot in Toronto proved to be the Mecca (pun intended) with over 30 different kosher wines and liqueurs in stock. (In Ottawa, your best bet seems to be the depot on Bank Street near South Keys).
My goal was to try to pair kosher wines with our meals in the same manner in which I would pair any other wines, with a view to enhancing or complementing certain aspects of the various dishes. To that end, I bought nine different wines to try.
What is Kosher Wine?
As with the practices of many religions, there is a continuum of observance with respect to kosher wines with most people adhering to the rules that suit them best. In general though, kosher wines are used for religious events such as the Sabbath blessing, Passover Seders and adhere to the rules of kosher foods. They cannot contain any elements that would be considered forbidden for food: certain fish, shellfish, pork products etc. A Kosher wine cannot be fined with certain fish products, nor could a wine fined with casein (milk product) be consumed with meat products.
At Passover, observant Jews avoid the consumption of leavened products so wine labelled “Kosher for Passover” must be produced in an environment free of yeasts, rising agents, breads and grains.
And, like Halal products for Muslims, Kosher wines must be produced under the supervision of an approved religious leader. As with many approving bodies (think organics), there are a large number of authorities around the word that can affix their seal of approval to Kosher wines. (Although I am not sure what criteria the LCBO uses to choose its kosher wines, the approving authority is clearly marked on the bottle).
Why does Kosher wine have a bad reputation?
In speaking with my Jewish friends and The Beau, I think there are several reasons why kosher wines have the reputation as not being very good.
The first has to do with the cooking of wine. There is an historical association between wine that is fit for consumption by observant Jews and the handling by idol worshipers (remember how upset Moses got over the worshipping of idols while he was off receiving the Ten Commandments?). Wines labeled “yayin mevushal” are wines that have been cooked, thereby rendering them acceptable as kosher, even if they are handled by “idolaters”. Anyone who has stored wine in overheated kitchens or in the basement by the furnace knows what heat can do to a wine: it ages it prematurely, makes the acidity more prevalent, destroys the flavours and changes the colour. Fortunately, not all kosher wine is cooked.
The second (and this is my musing) is that the drinking of wine as a regular, every day part of the meal is not a deeply ingrained part of the Jewish food culture. Unlike countries such as Italy or France where wine developed as part of the daily meal, wine was traditionally seen as a part of religious acts. And even Catholics agree that Sacramental wine is not exactly tasty!
And I cannot help but think that the exclusion (self-imposed or imposed) of Jews from the larger populations in many countries over the centuries also had an effect on the use of wine. The historical exclusion or seclusion of Jewish groups was probably not conducive to owning vineyards and becoming part of the wine-producing community. The third, again my speculation, is the culture of wine. We have to remember that, until a hundred or so years ago, people preferred sweeter wines. The change from sweet wines at table such as Madeira, Moscato and Port to today’s drier table wines is relatively recent. If the use of wine was principally religious and historical, there would be no reason to change. If you’re used to performing your blessings with Vin Santo or Manischewitz, you’re not likely to complain.
Manischewitz Concord, New York State (LCBO $6.95) – this wine is made from Concord grapes, the kind that are used in the purple grape juice you drank as a child and the grape jelly you mixed with peanut butter on toast. And yes, this is exactly how this low alcohol wine tastes. With a sugar content of 20 (0 being the usual table wine), you should consider cooking with this wine as we did. Or turn it into wine jelly with a little fruit pectin.
Jeunesse Cabernet Sauvignon, Baron Herzog Wine Cellars, California (LCBO $15.70) – Although a Cabernet Sauvignon and aged in oak, this wine was also surprisingly sweet, though less sweet than the Manischewitz. We used this wine to macerate the apples in the Charoset (an apples and walnut dish), but it was drinkable, particularly with the dark chocolate flourless cake we served as dessert. As my brother-in-law noted, it might also be good with blue cheese.
Cantina Gabriele Pinot Grigio, Italy (LCBO $16.95) – this was drier than some Italian Pinot Grigio, less flowery. It was really quite lovely: crisp green apples and a pretty colour. It was nice on its own and I can see drinking this wine before dinner, instead of bubbly, or with summer strawberries.
Hafner Gruner Veltliner 2009, Austria (LCBO $12.95) – again, less sweet than most Gruners that I have tried in the past, this was quite popular with the guests as a before dinner wine. It was also quite nice with the chicken broth and creaminess of the matzoh balls, picking up on the lingering woody notes of the wine. If you like a simple, crisp white wine at a good price, this might be your best bet.
Weinstock Cellar Select Chardonnay, California (LCBO, $17.95) – this was a classic California Chardonnay: buttery and oaky. If you are looking for a wine to match with your roast chicken and your latkes, this is the wine for you.
Weinstock Cellar Select Cabernet Sauvignon 2008, California (LCBO, $23.95) – this four year old Cabernet Sauvignon was medium-bodied, lighter than I expected from a California red which are often high in tannins and heavy. In fact, this red reminded me of a Pinot Noir in its weight. It was nothing to write home about and, at $24 a bottle, not top of my repeat list.
Galil Mountain Shiraz/Cabernet Sauvignon 2009, Israel (LCBO $24.95) – I enjoyed this red wine the most of the four that we tried. In fact, I would buy the wine whether or not I need a Kosher wine or not. It was a great red wine: cherries and currants in the mouth, with enough tannins to give it the structure you want in a red wine. It worked well with the stuffed roast lamb, the cooked fruit notes of the dish working well with the stewed macerated apricots with honey.
Castell d’Orlèrdola Brut Cava, Spain (LCBO $18.95) – not the best Cava that I have ever had and at lower prices, this is still a bubbly and, even if you are keeping Kosher, that should be not be a barrier to bubbles! A bit sweeter than most cavas, there were still the yeasty notes expected, a little lemon on the palate and enough bubbles to tickle the nose.
Red, white and rosé, you can find kosher wines to pair with any dish. And, as I never back down from a challenge, I can find bubbly for any occasion, even Passover! The LCBO stocks over 30 kosher wines. While that is a far cry from the 30 000 non-Kosher wines, it was enough for me to know that there is life beyond Manischewitz (and to be prepared for the years of Passover and Sabbath dinners to come).