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The Feast of Unleavened Bread : Kosher Wine: A Buyer's Guide

April 04, 1993|DAN BERGER | TIMES WINE WRITER

For wine lovers, the phrase "kosher wine" once conjured up images of square bottles and sticky sweet syrup that smelled like grape jelly.

Most of this "Passover wine" was made from such pungent grapes as Concord and Catawba. But about a decade ago, winemaking procedures improved to the point where kosher wine could be made from traditional French varieties. The result was dry and relatively attractive wine that worked well with food.

Still, Kosher wine is not widely produced, and while a few are consistently good, many more are lackluster at best and downright strange at worst.

The problem is the method of production. Those producers who heat the grape juice (before fermentation) or heat the wine (to achieve the maximum "kosherness"), can, if they are not very careful, spoil the aroma. If the juice or wine is not heated, it may not be served at strictly kosher functions.

"The vast majority of people prefer Concord grape wines to any other kosher wine," says Craig Winchell, winemaker for his Gan Eden Winery in Sonoma County. "And a lot of the people who would normally drink non-kosher wines will buy only traditional Concord-type wines for Passover because those are the wines they remember from when they were kids."

Another problem is the quality of the grapes. Consider one of the more widely available kosher wines, Carmel of Israel. Carmel is a cooperative winery that accepts everything its growers offer. Knowing their grapes are guaranteed to sell, the growers often opt for quantity over quality.

Even if they were trying to grow the best possible grapes, Carmel's growers are facing an unforgiving climate. One weather problem, such as unexpected rain, and the grapes can suffer. And yet there is potential in the region. Some of the best kosher wines I've tasted are from Yarden (though second label wines Gamla and Golan are not as interesting). Unfortunately, distribution of the Yarden wines has been spotty in the last two years.

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A few French and Italian wines are also made under kosher rules. Some are decent, but buyers should read the labels closely because some kosher wines with familiar regional designations (such as Sancerre) may be labeled "semi-dry." This would be a shock for those seeking dry wine. And most of these wines are erratic; I recently tasted eight randomly chosen kosher imports, and found none that I could recommend.

The best line of kosher wines I've tasted recently was a California brand, Hagafen Cellars. Hagafen, founded in 1979, was the first kosher producer in California and it remains the only one to use exclusively Napa Valley grapes.

Hagafen offers good value with a stylish, fresh, apple-scented 1991 Hagafen Chardonnay ($13), a light and soft 1991 Pinot Noir Blanc ($6), and a soft, semi-sweet 1992 Riesling ($8.50). I preferred the 1991 Chardonnay to Hagafen's richer, more oaky 1990 Chardonnay "Reserve" ($17), but the latter is very well made and works well with richer dishes.

All of Hagafen's white wines may be served at strictly kosher functions because they were treated by a process called mevushal in which the must is heated.

"We now believe," says Hagafen's founder and winemaker Ernie Weir, "that if flash pasteurization is handled properly you don't lose the aroma."

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Weir's red wines (which are not flash pasteurized) include a 1989 Cabernet Sauvignon ($20), a deep, brooding wine that needs decanting; a light, simple 1991 Pinot Noir ($11), and a rich, potent 1988 Cabernet Sauvignon "Reserve" ($28) that recently won two gold medals in major wine competitions.

The larger Gan Eden in Sonoma County also makes excellent kosher wines, notably two sweeter wines that would appeal to those who like the Passover tradition of sweet wines with the Seder.

There is an intriguing, pink 1992 Black Muscat ($7) with a spiced nose and a 1992 Late Harvest Gewurztraminer ($8). The latter wine, with 6% residual sugar, has gardenia and carnation scents and is very tasty. "These wines were developed because I thought they could hit three markets," says Winchell. "One was the traditional Concord grape drinker, two was dessert wine and three was for the white Zinfandel market--for people who drink off-dry wine with some residual sugar." Gan Eden also makes a refreshingly complex and crisp 1990 Chardonnay "Reserve" ($16) and a light 1990 Pinot Noir ($8). The Pinot Noir is a good value, but Gan Eden's 1989 Cabernet Sauvignon is overpriced at $18.

I liked another lower-priced line of kosher wines: Weinstock Cellars of Sonoma County. But I was less impressed by the Baron de Herzog line, a California brand that was once much better than it is today.

At one time the Herzog wines were made largely from Sonoma County fruit; now the winery has moved south of San Jose, and is using fruit from lesser regions. Of the Herzog wines I tasted, only the 1991 Sauvignon Blanc ($7) was worth the price.

Canandaigua Wine Co., of New York, which once made some fine, dry Manischewitz kosher wines from Sonoma County grapes, is looking at the possibility of resurrecting the brand next year.

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