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There's more to mevushal than Manischewitz. 

Keeping Kosher

The upcoming Jewish holidays of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, and the surge of public discussion of Jewish religious tradition bought on by the vice presidential candidacy of Sen. Joe Lieberman, have made us curious about an area of the wine trade that we know little about: kosher wines.

We all know about Manischewitz, and many folks have heard of Mogen David, both saccharine-sweet wines made from various fruits or Concord grapes, the same grapes that go into cheap grape jelly. But, we wondered, does kosher necessarily mean cloyingly sweet when it comes to wine? Is it possible to enjoy fine wine and still keep kosher?

Early kosher wine, for a variety of reasons, was almost always sweet. As wine drinkers have developed increasingly sophisticated palates, so has kosher wine changed. Fine kosher wine is now made by well-known nonkosher producers such as Chateau Lestage and Chateau Giscours.

Kosher simply means "proper" or "correct." A wine that is kosher means only that it is made according to particular methods of production that stem from ancient Jewish dietary law. For example, grapes must be supervised from vineyard to winery. Once at the winery, grapes and juice can be handled only by Sabbath-observant Jews, a rule that in some settings can apply to the point of pouring and consumption. Wine that is made in Israel is subject to additional rules concerning vineyard management. Most kosher wine also is mevushal, a term which indicates the wine has been pasteurized. That's right — it's boiled.

And though you might think, as did we, that torturing wine thus would basically kill any hope it had of being any good, we are surprised to report to the contrary.

Locally, we came up with four wines from three producers that expanded our kosher horizons and can classify as fine wine: Fortant de France Cabernet Sauvignon (French), Weinstock Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay (California), and Carmel Chenin Blanc (from Israel). Not a big selection, but that's about all you can find in Central Virginia.

Weinstock and Fortant both are mevushal, so we were expecting cooked and stewed flavors. The Weinstock cabernet sauvignon had some off-aroma, which we can't be sure is a defect in the wine and not a storage problem, but the chardonnay was quite a surprise: lovely vanilla and slight clove flavors with enough acid balance to finish cleanly. It paired very well with our buttery non-kosher risotto.

We were quite taken with the Fortant de France cabernet sauvignon: fruit forward with enough tannic structure to linger pleasantly. If your tastes lean toward sweeter wines, you may like the Carmel chenin blanc, which blended with French colombard for a very wide, rich honeyed flavor.

Other fine kosher wines that have gained critical attention include Baron Herzog Cabernet Sauvignon (1996), which scored in the mid-90s in a tasting at the Beverage Testing Institute, an independent tasting house that objectively evaluates wine for the industry. Also, the venerable Wine Spectator has had good things to say about the kosher wines from Weinstock and Hagafen with most scoring in the 80s range of good to very good.

Unfortunately, the biggest obstacle to enjoying fine kosher wine may be finding it. We called around to numerous shops in Richmond, including some of the larger warehouse-type stores, and found that everyone pretty much carries or has access to the same three wines. And many of those stores had to special order it, which could take anywhere from a day to a week depending on when you order. Plus, because of quirks in Virginia's alcohol distribution policies, your retailer may not be able to get a particular brand at all.

However, a poll of stores in Northern Virginia unearthed brands not readily available in the Richmond market: Herzog, Abarbanel and Yarden, among them. The world outside Virginia, particularly in the Northeast, has an even broader selection. One shop we called in Connecticut carries more than 100 different labels, and a Web site we found offers about 300 kosher selections, including a 1997 kosher Baron Rothschild Bordeaux.

In any case, to make sure you have enough wine on-hand for the upcoming high holies, our advice is to plan ahead, find a good retailer and place a special order. While there's no shortage of fine kosher wine, getting it in time is another story.

L'chaim!



Patrick Getlein is a free-lance food, wine and travel writer in Richmond. You can write to him with comments and ideas at vintagepng@yahoo.com.

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