Wine for Jews: Just Because It's Kosher Doesn't Mean It Has to Be Bad

It's that time a year again: Like their brethren across the nation, Jewish Houstonians will make their way to their local supermarkets for last-minute kosher wine shopping.

And like most Jewish Americans, they will find themselves ill-prepared in selecting the wines, partly because for most of them, it's on the only time of the year that they feel compelled to serve fine wine.

It's downright unheimlich. While Jews are not generally known for being "big drinkers," they can't perform any of their religious rituals without wine.

The ancient miracle of wine is invoked at nearly every turn in the liturgic lives of Jews: When a circumcision is performed; every Friday and Saturday for the arrival and farewell to the Sabbath; every time a marriage is performed, etc.

The bottom line is that, spiritually speaking, you can't get much done without uttering a brucha (prayer) praising the Lord for the miracle of wine and then having a little taste.

And in order for the ritual to be legit (at least in the eyes of Jewish authorities), the wine must be kosher. In other words, it must be made in accordance with Jewish dietary laws and the entire process must be overseen and blessed by a rabbi.

The good news for Jews across America is that there are more kosher wines available to them than ever before. And their quality has never been higher.

But with the appearance of more and more fine wines in the United States, another one of life's little ironies has emerged.

As more and more wineries produce "fine" kosher wines, they increasingly deliver higher alcohol levels and greater concentration of flavor and body. In other words, as fine wine producers try to make wines that will have greater appeal for the contemporary palate, many have embraced the "California" style -- oaky, buttery, fruit-forward, and highly alcoholic -- and in doing so they make the wines less food-friendly.

Many Jews only purchase and consume fine wine twice a year -- the New Year and the Passover. Now more than ever, those Jews run the risk of coming home with a concentrated and/or "hot" (i.e., highly alcoholic) wine that won't pair well with food.

When you head to the grocery store or wine shop to purchase a kosher wine for the High Holidays, look carefully at the alcohol content of the wine.

For whites, try to stay under 12.5 percent; and for reds, under 14 percent. These rules-of-thumb are by no means the word of G-d. And there's certainly nothing wrong with high alcohol when it's in balance with the wine. But these figures will give you an indication of the wine's food-friendliness (without having to taste the wine before you purchase it).

Belden's has the best selection of kosher wine in Houston, with more than 200 entries according to the Belden's Braeswood Square branch manager. Overall, its prices are higher than other retailers (in some cases, significantly), but the number of choices can't be beat.

The most competitive pricing can be found at Kroger on South Post Oak, where the kosher buyer reported that the store currently has more than 100 labels in stock.

In an arbitrary survey of four wines, the South Post Oak Kroger had the best price for three of them and didn't have the fourth in stock (the 2011 Baron Herzog Chenin Blanc Clarksburg).

Here are the four wines, selected solely on the basis of what their labels reported, two from Israel, one from California, and one from New York.

1. Baron Herzog 2011 Chenin Blanc Clarksburg (California).

Let me cut to the chase: I loved this wine. It had wonderfully balanced alcohol (11 percent!) and the natural acidity of the Chenin Blanc made it pair beautifully with my Manischewitz "all white fish" gefilte fish. The price of the wine may vary depending on where you buy it. But with dried and ripe stone fruit flavors, this fresh and delicious wine is a winner all the way.

2. Yarden 2011 White Wine Mount Hermon (Golan Heights, Israel).

One of the things that attracted me to this wine is the fact that it is not mevushal. For a wine to be mevushal, it must be gently cooked after vinification is completed. By cooking the wine, the winemaker ensures that it is "unfit for idolatrous use" (see the Wiki entry for kosher wine). And thus, it may be served by a Gentile and remain kosher. But the the application of heat also changes the wine's character.

While I wasn't such a fan of this high-alcohol (13.9 percent), oaky California-style wine, I appreciated its boldness and its ability to hold its own in its category. It rates low on the food-friendliness scale but it will be a hit among the oaky and buttery crowd.

For under-$15 at Kroger, it represents a superb value for the quality of the wine.

3. Galil Mountain 2009 Shiraz [Syrah] (Galilee, Israel).

This one was another winner for me: Fresh, clean, and bright, with classic Syrah (Shiraz is another name for Syrah) flavors (does a classic "bacon fat" note make the wine treif?). I loved that there was no oakiness on the wine and how it's food-friendliness and freshness wasn't compromised by its 14.5 percent alcohol (high but not too high for a wine like this).

A great value for the quality, it's available under-$20 at both Belden's and Kroger.

4. Kedem N[on] V[intage] Concord Grape (New York State).

For those of you who want to go old school, my recommendation is the 11.5 percent alcohol "extra heavy, specially sweetened, natural grape wine" made from Concord grapes by Kedem. This is the one that evokes kiddush after shul at Temple Beth Israel circa 1978 and unlike its top competitor (which contains "not less than 51 percent Concord grapes"), it's made entirely from grapes (and not from a blend of grapes and other berries). Both Belden's and Kroger had it for around $5.

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