Happy Purim to all!
Over the 15 years of writing this newsletter, my primary objective (beyond getting folks to drink more wine) has been to encourage people to step outside their comfort zone and try new wines and expand their oenophilic horizons to better appreciate the majestic world of wine, for which the kosher consumer’s options are constantly growing. Far beyond its generic description of fermented grape juice, wine is associated with celebration and is used to sanctify our most sacred days, times and customs. However, it is also a beverage, there to give pleasure and this people should drink what they like, regardless of what anyone else – professional or not, may say. If you like the wine – that means it’s a good wine (for you).
Despite ongoing efforts to eliminate any form of snobbery from the kosher wine world, I recently realized that I had failed a large chunk of wine lovers. With Purim’s connection to “Yom K’Purim,” I am asking forgiveness from the legions of wine lovers out there who have never been able to read up on their favorite wines – a benefit limited to readers of this newsletter, focused more on the dry and more complex wines we tend to discuss more rigorously. However, as one of teshuva’s primary steps, that ends today and today we will discuss those delectable sweet treats, whose enormous audience is evidenced by the tremendous sales volume these wines see.
Two famous religious figures of the 16th century were prominently engaged in viticulture – the great Jewish Tzadik Rashi whose father was a winemaker (and with whom he produced wine) and the monk known as Dom Perignon who, according to (erroneous) legend, discovered the methodology for producing and created the first sparkling wine. Both these famous ancient vintners lived and worked in the Champagne region of France (although Dr. Hayim Soloveitchik contends that the proximate Troyesian grapes were unfit for wine production and questions the Mesorah of Rashi’s winemaking profession). As befits their incredible accomplishments, both have monumental oenophilic institutions named after them. Dom Perignon’s name graces the flagship wine of one of the world’s largest Champagne producers – Moët et Chandon and Rashi’s name is used to promote an eponymous portfolio of (mostly Italian) kosher wines – each of breathtaking complexity, finesse and elegance. Another famous religious figure whose name is now being used to properly honor his impeccable taste in wine is the Rambam. In addition to being a tremendous Gadol HaDor and Tzadik whose halachik and philosophical contributions were unprecedented and remain unparalleled, the Rambam was a Renaissance Man who predated the Renaissance, with wide-ranging talents including astronomy and medicine (he was an attending to the Egyptian Royal Court). The Rambam’s personal taste in wine is clearly evidenced by his criteria for sacramental wine which had to be red, non-mevushal, undiluted by water, non-sweetened by sugar and unaffected by unpleasant tastes including those from mold, TCA, VH, oxidation, overripe grapes or overwhelmingly oaked wines. However, the numerous producers using the Rambam’s name are obviously far better versed in what makes a wine great, with virtually every wine bearing his name being mevushal, overly sweet and often of dubious origin.
While many so-called wine professionals preach the virtues of dry and tannic wines, wine producers have long realized that the key to the wine industry’s success is, much like any other, giving the customer what they want. While trying to force conviction (in the form of dry wines) down the consumer’s throat may provide some perverse form of elitist satisfaction, a real wine professional knows that there is always more to learn and these sweet wines have more to offer than some of the world’s most expensive wines. While boring dry table wines utilize common grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Chardonnay, whose origins are in decidedly foreign countries like France, the wines most often used to sanctify a religious occasion are often produced from far superior and vigorously growing grapes like the Made in America Concord grape or Italy’s Great White Hope – Moscato. One of the wine world’s greatest injustices was leaving these magnificent grapes off the list of Noble Wines. Why should a one-trick pony (Vitis Vinifera) like cabernet Sauvignon be celebrated by wine lovers everywhere while multi-talented folk (Vitis labrusca) like the Concord (who can be utilized for wine, eating and jelly-making), are regulated to second best, if that?
Easily one of America’s greatest creations, the grape is named for the Massachusetts town where it was conceived and, in a great showing of comradery and partnership between two traditionally antagonistic (in sports) regions, is widely grown in the New York Finger Lake region. With a primary use of jelly making, their suitability to kosher wine is obvious, where preferences for dark, jammy, rich and sweet flavors prevail over nearly any other criteria. Showing great resistance to the oft-maligned flash-pasteurization practice undergone by so many of the wines reviewed below, it has become the poster girl of the genre.
Another prestigious example are the wines produced from the regal Moscato Bianco grape, with the Bartenura Moscato D’Asti being the flag bearer whose charms are spread by the millions across the globe. Blessed with a sweet shallowness, effervescent nature and rich bubbles, the wine is so loved that it has earned the moniker – Blue Bottled Abomination from certain so-called more serious wine aficionados. Produced mainly in the north-western province of Italy – Asti (but also in the near-by regions of Alessandria and Cuneo), the wine is typically sweet, low-alcohol wine and mevushal; revered by all for its lightness, great food-paring and delectable sweetness. The Bartenura Moscato D’Asti (a venerable producer Bartenura, who have a long history steeped in excellence), cloaked in its easily recognizable regal blue bottle, is clearly what the Rambam was referring to when insisting on quality wine for any religious occasion (a competing wine even utilizes the Rambam’s name on the label to assure one and all of the wines everlasting quality).
Yet another proud member of this family of wine is the semi-sweet wine that affords the luxury of complex sophistication with sufficient drinkability. The grandmother of these wines is Emerald Riesling that for years dominated the palate of the Israeli wine consumers before snobbery and elitism took over (in the form of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and other more mundane grapes). Growing up in Israel, my palate remembers with great fondness many of these Emerald Riesling wines including fantastic examples from Carmel and Binyamina. Today another member of this family is rearing its noble head – the semi-sweet red wine. Gary Vaynerchuk thinks that this type of wine has a huge market potential and, in one of his shows, posited that the taste profile of the semi-sweet Cabernet Sauvignon – Jeunesse, from Baron Herzog could become of America’s leading sellers if it didn’t suffer from the kosher stigma.
The last member of this family is probably the most famous and widely revered by wine-lovers everywhere – the White Zinfandel. While most readers of this newsletter are undoubtedly familiar with the brash and tannic older brother – “regular” (or Red) Zinfandel, sugary White Zinfandel, is the most widely sold wine in America and for good reason. Low in alcohol and loaded with delightful flavors of skittles, cotton candy, bubble gum, this is an exceptionally easy-drinking wine, preferred by any self-respecting oenophile. It has the panache of quality and is loaded with enough complexity to keep even the most snobbish wine drinker interested and engaged. I have reviewed one of these wines below as well and highly recommend grabbing a bottle (or case) and seeing for yourself.
As usual, I have reviewed some of my favorite options below, all worth seeking out both for immediate drinking and cellaring in order to follow their development over the next couple years. The unifying traits of high sugar, mevushal and a lack of vintage specificity combine to ensure that the wine can cellar comfortably for longer than most other kosher wines – sometimes for or decades. As an added bonus all of the following wines are YH Best Buys!
Bartenura, Moscato, Vintage Irrelevant: Words don’t suffice to describe the delectableness of this popular wine, well deserving of its flagship standing among the genre. Year after year, the quality of this wine is maintained by only using the best and freshest grapes, with cold fermentation resulting in a light and delightfully fresh fruity taste. Great balance between the sugars and candy flavors, tinted with some citrus and floral notes. With perfect sweetness, this wine is great as an aperitif or with dessert. Loads of grapey fruit, peach and stewed pears, together with the low price, all combine for a delicious and refreshing wine that keeps the kosher wine consumer coming back for more and more. Should be served chilled and is also great combined with some Canada Dry club soda, crushed (or cubed) ice and a little piece of lime squeezed in for a great shpritzer. 6% AbV. Mevushal. Drink now until death do you apart.
Carmel, King David, Concord, Red, All Vintages Matter: The wine I grew up with and likely most responsible for turning me to the dark side of dry wines. Adding Israeli ingenuity to American muscle, the grape was transported to Israel where the great Carmel Winery worked its magic and improved on what was previously considered perfection. Royal purple in color with sweet notes of grape jelly and refined sugar, the wine’s lingering finish is a great substitute for dessert. According to the producers, the wine is to be served chilled and is a perfect match with full flavored beef, veal, or chicken dishes, as well as pasta and cheese (but obviously not at the same time). 12.5 AbV. Mevushal. A great candidate for your fallout shelter wine, the wine can be enjoyed now and will cellar comfortably through 2134, likely longer.
Contessa Annalisa, Carino, Italy, 2015: Part of a portfolio of superior Italian wines, the Carino is a secret blend of undisclosed premium grapes. The Carino is defined by its rich and voluptuous bouquet of ripe fruit and complimentary flavors of vanilla, strawberry and brown sugar. Other notes include plums, cherries and chocolate-covered blueberries. The medium bodied palate goes down smooth – the most important internationally recognized trait of any decent wine. 11% AbV. Mevushal. Drink Always.
HaCormim, Kondition, Judean Hills, n.v.: A unique blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Argaman, Petit Verdot, Caldoc and Red Muscat which doesn’t exist anywhere else in the world, the wine utilizes ancient traditional production methods and blends date honey and fresh Judean Hill herbs to create the perfect wine before it was barrel-aged for 20 months (or “at least 12”, per the description). The name Kondition was famous in antiquity in the kingdom of Judah and Israel and is named for the “Hamra Tava” (good wine) of the times. The wine has a deep color with rich aroma and a pleasant sweetness making it perfect for Kiddush where it can be matched with your favorite herring or kishke. 13.6% AbV. Mevushal. Drink now through the coming of Moshiach.
Herzog, Baron Herzog, Jeunesse, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pick Your Own Vintage: As mentioned above, Gary V loved this wine and I must add myself to its long list of raving fans which also include these twins from France who honored it with an incredible balancing act routine. A wine that does great justice to the most noble of all varietals – Cabernet Sauvignon. Highly recommended as I doubt you have ever tasted such a special example of this grape ever before. I hesitate quote but the author of this hit the nail on its head when saying “among the enchanting secrets that often escape aficionados of Cabernet Sauvignon are the youthful nuances of character that are displayed during the wine’s infancy”. A rich and royal purple color is the first indicator that you are about to experience something special which is only reinforced by the fresh raspberries, blackberries and cherries leading into a slightly sweet and lingering finish. Gobs of vanilla and strawberries abound, reminding you of a delicious strawberry and cream dessert. A fresh young character envelops this wine, giving it sophistication and complexity and the genesis of its name – French for youthful. 13.5% AbV. Mevushal. Drink now.
Joseph Zakon, Petite Sirah, California, Any Vintage Will Do: Taking advantage of a varietal with a proud history of improvement in the hands of Americans and Israelis, Joseph Zakon has taken Petite Sirah to dizzying new heights with this lusciously sweet wine. Bright notes of blooming white flowers are complimented by fruity notes, coffee, chocolate and oak. Smooth and sublime, the wine makes for easy sipping and can be enjoyed well chilled or at room temperature. 13% AbV. Mevushal. Drink early in the morning or late at night for best effect.
Kesser, Niagara, Blanc, Vintage Neutral: Another member of the illustrious and multi-faceted Vitis labrusca family, the Niagara grape isn’t a good traveler, making it a perfect candidate for the budding oenophilic locavore trend (also known as Estate Wines). 9% AbV. Mevushal. A lusciously sweet and rich flavored wine, excellent as an aperitif, with lightly flavored foods and especially for Kiddush.
Rashi, Joyvin, Lambrusco, Red, dell’Emilia IGT, Emilia-Romagna, A Blend of the Best Vintages: In Roman times, the Lambrusco was highly valued for its productivity and high yields with Cato the Elder stating that produce of two thirds of an acre could make enough wine to fill 300 amphoras (that’s a lot). While there are DOC frizzante wines, the best grapes are reserved for wines like this – super high quality and refreshingly sweet. Fruity and floral aromas of roses and red berries complement intense flavors of ripe wild strawberries and raspberries bursting with juicy sweetness. Pleasantly balanced with a touch of acidity, this is the perfect wine for adding a little pizzazz to your glass, no special occasion required. 7% AbV. Mevushal.
Rambam, Moscato, Rubino, Rosé, Italy, 2017: With a bright pink color, ridiculously and cloyingly sweet notes of skittles, cotton candy and artificial sweetener, this was clearly what the Rambam had in mind for quality table mind and is likely beaming with pride as he serves it to the guests at the Moshiach’s seuda. Mevushal.
Weinstock, White Zinfandel, California, 2017: Another hugely popular wine and I cannot help but agree after my extensive tasting of this wine over the years. Respectfully representative of this honorable grape with ton of great wine aromas like cotton candy (as if it was made from these special grapes), fruit taffy and ripe strawberries on first attack are closely followed by light citrus hints, vanilla and some tart raspberries. A light and pleasing sweetness complements the fruit and candy, notwithstanding its (relatively for the genre) high alcohol content. A great Shabbat gift that any self-respecting wine-lover would enjoy and eagerly open to complement any meal especially where the “wine’s crisp texture, bright color, and distinctively fresh taste pair wonderfully with fish, poultry entrees, or as an aperitif”. Serve chilled. 10% AbV. Mevushal. Drink for breakfast.