Passover is to the kosher food market what Christmas is to the rest of retail – it’s make-or-break time, and the season to roll out new and exciting products. The kosher wine trade is no exception, and this year there are plenty of new and interesting kosher wines to enjoy at your Seder.
Passover is a special and holy time. It is the Jewish festival commemorating the exodus from Egypt and the liberation of the Israelites from slavery, and is probably the best known Jewish holiday. It is the ultimate excuse for Jews to gather and eat and schmooze and contemplate the divine, as well as divine food, such as brisket, tzimmes, matzah balls, and kosher wine.
Just in case there are any doubts, there are some truly excellent kosher wines in the market today. We have all read the usual tiresome obligatory introductory shtick by wine writers the world over: “It’s not your grandfather’s kosher wine anymore!” Part historical stigma and part cultural apologia, kosher wine as a category still suffers an image problem.
True enough, kosher wine in the United States has most often been associated with sweet and heavy Concord grape wines made by companies such as Schapiro’s, Manischewitz, and Mogen David. Nostalgia helps keep these labels alive among Jews, but the kosher consumer market has drastically shifted up the quality scale. Since kosher is a dietary code rather than a taste profile, there is nothing about kosher wine that requires it to be qualitatively any different from non-kosher wine, much less sweet and syrupy or disappointingly undrinkable.
Here, then, are 10 kosher wines that are well worth seeking out for your Passover festivities this year.
Goose Bay, Chardonnay, Marlborough, New Zealand, 2006 ($26): The latest from this New Zealand label – produced by the Spencer Hill Estate winery under contract for kosher wine importer Royal Wine Corp – is a very appealing lemon-to-chartreuse colored, mouth-watering, dry, crisp, textured and fruity chardonnay exhibiting aromas and flavors of apples, tropical fruits, something faintly herbal, and with pleasantly light oak and vanilla undertones. This should prove to be both a crowd pleaser and an appetite enhancer. Score: 4/5.
Psagot, Merlot, Judean Hills, Israel, 2004 ($25): This dark, deep medium bodied, fairly oaky, garnet colored merlot offers aromas and bright flavors of plums, black cherries, and something a tad bell-pepper-like, but with some enjoyable whispers of clove and green peppercorn-like spices; the tannins are a bit too soft, so drink it in the next year or so, rather than further down the road. Score: 4/5. Note: Psagot, which means “summit” or “the peak” in Hebrew, is a settlement situated northeast of Jerusalem on top of a hill overlooking the al-Bireh village of Ramallah, as well as the Wadi Kelt basin, the Jericho Valley, the Dead Sea, and the Edomite Mountains.
Barkan, Reserve, Shiraz, Israel, 2005 ($20): Made of 93% Shiraz, 5% Cabernet Sauvignon, and 2% Petit Verdot grapes from Barkan’s vineyards in Kiriat-Anavim (in the Jerusalem Hills) and Eliad (in the Golan Heights), this dark violet to purple colored wine is firm, intense and rich with aromas and flavors of oak, black currants, blackberries, cherries, licorice, clove, thyme, and cedar wood, and with traces of spearmint, vanilla and perhaps a tinge of musk. The wine needs some time to open, so swirl it around vigorously before your first sip. Score: 4/5.
Herzog, Syrah, Special Reserve, Edna Valley, California, 2004 ($34): This medium to full bodied nearly opaque garnet to black colored California Syrah combines elegance and brawn. This almost creamy yet still assertively tannic wine presents nicely layered aromas and flavors of black currants, raspberries, ripe plums, black pepper, cloves, something very much like tobacco (but in a good way), and even some chocolate. Not one to cellar for the long haul, enjoy it now and over the next couple of years. Score: 4/5.
Binyamina, Yogev, Cabernet-Merlot, Israel, 2005 ($14): The word “yogev” in Hebrew means “farmer” or “man of the soil” and is in recognition of the esteem and appreciation the winery has for the toil and dedication of their viticulturalists and farmers (named on the back of the label). This simple but appealing medium-bodied blend of 50% Cabernet Sauvignon and 50% Merlot is a case in point, offering pleasing aromas and tasty flavors of blackberries, currants, plums, cassis and some subtle herbal and cedar wood notes; nothing fancy here, but honest, clean and quaffable. Drink now. Score: 4/5.
Carmel, Gewürztraminer, Late Harvest, Single Vineyard, Kerem Sha’al, Upper Galilee, Israel, 2005 ($19): This sweet, elegant dessert wine has some lovely depth, with pronounced aromas and flavors of apricots, peaches, nectarines, litchis, cinnamon, honey, pineapple and rose petals all set against nicely balancing acidity, preventing the whole from seeming too sweet or sticky. Brilliant now, it should keep and mature if properly cellared through 2012. Score: 5/5.
Capcanes, Flor de Primavera/Peraj Ha’Abib, Montsant, Spain, 2003 ($45): A stunning wine! This delicious oak-aged, deep, dark ruby-colored blend of 40% Grenache, 35% Cabernet Sauvignon, 30% Carignan and 5% Tempranillo grapes is wonderfully balanced between tannins, acidity, wood and fruit, with almost tangible aromas and elegant yet robust flavors of black currants, plums, sweet blackberries, raspberries, cherries and mocha, with intriguing overlays of cedar wood, coffee, white pepper, licorice and minerals, and with something very much like mint emerging on the lengthy finish. Outstanding now, this will continue to develop and drink well through 2013, if cellared properly. Score: 5/5.
Hagafen, Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley, 2003 ($40): Another stunning wine. Like virtually everything from this Napa winery, their latest Cab (technically a blend of 89% Cabernet Sauvignon and 11% Cab Franc grapes) is simply gorgeous. This opaque inky colored wine is sumptuous and supple, perfectly balanced between fruit, acidity and tannins, and deliciously complex, offering layers of aromas and flavors that include currants, black cherries, cedar wood, black licorice, black pepper, dark chocolate, eucalyptus, cassis, blueberries and mint, with a marvelous earthy finish with spice, berries and something slightly menthol in the long, rewarding finish. Drinking brilliantly now, if properly cellared, this will age gracefully over the next decade – presuming you have that sort of patience and self-control. Score: 5/5.
Recanati, Special Reserve, Israel, 2003 ($30): Give this one time to breath, and it will command your respect. This deep, full bodied, brilliantly balanced blend of 72% Cabernet Sauvignon and 28% Merlot grapes offer luxurious aromas and flavors of currants, cassis, black cherry, plums, vanilla, with subtle but conspicuous layers of mint, black pepper, café mocha, and with that distinctive and intriguing Recanati stamp of bell peppers, olives and Mediterranean herbs. Delicious now, but will reward proper cellaring through 2015. Score: 5/5.
Barons Edmond et Benjamin de Rothschild, Haut Medoc, Bordeaux, France, 2003 ($30): Made at the Rothschild’s famed Chateau Clarke, this medium bodied, oak aged blend of 40% Merlot and 60% Cabernet Sauvignon grapes is well crafted with a nicely balanced if somewhat mild structure of tannins and acidity, showcasing aromas and flavors of red currants, black cherries, and blackberries, with appealing notes of black pepper and chocolate. Drink now. Score: 4/5.
5/5 = Excellent
4/5 = Very good indeed
3/5 = Good
2/5 = Kind of drinkable
1/5 = Best reserved for hand-to-hand combat