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A Brief History of Kosher Wine

What Makes it Kosher?

The Jews may have the oldest codified relationship to wine of any people on earth, but kosher wine ironically is best known for its “unorthodox” taste. In the context of Jewish history, this dubious distinction is understandable. Thousands of years ago, the Jews lived in the Holy Land , where grape growing and wine making were common practice. But after the Roman conquest of Jerusalem some 2000 years ago, the Jews began a long period of wandering known as the Diaspora, which presented them with a serious enological challenge. Rarely were their new homes in exile blessed with vineyards such as those previously known in their ancestral land.

Nevertheless, tradition as well as religion mandated the drinking of wine, and vintners did their best with whatever means were at their disposition. Wine was even made from dried raisins when necessary. Apparently the socio-economic status of the Jewish people in exile did not facilitate a steady supply of grapes worthy of a first growth Bordeaux ! In fact, in Europe Jews were often proscribed from owning the land necessary to grow grapes.

A century ago, Jewish immigrants to America found local Concord grapes to be plentiful. But the wine produced from these Native American grapes had a so-called "foxy" character. Keeping the wines sweet made them more palatable, and this sweet style became synonymous with kosher wine.

More recent history has been kinder to Jewish wine makers, and currently there is a revolution in quality among kosher wines the world over. These wines are made from such classic grape varieties as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc from both the New and Old World . With access to top notch grapes and contemporary cellar methods, kosher wine makers are now creating wines that may equal or surpass those that are not kosher. Indeed, it would appear that kosher wine makers have now restored the sensual quality of this sacred beverage to a level commensurate with its spiritual status.

What makes a wine kosher?

In Jewish tradition wine is considered a holy beverage. The blessing over the wine—or Kiddish—is an important part of many religious ceremonies. For this reason, a kosher wine at its most basic level is one handled only by strictly Sabbath-observant Jews. In addition, kosher wine makers are forbidden to use any products, such as unauthorized yeasts or other potentially non-kosher ingredients that might fall outside the parameters of kosher convention. Kosher wine makers can, however, use natural, indigenous yeasts, such as those favored by many top winemakers in the U.S. and Europe .

Aside from the constraints mentioned above, there needn't be any difference between the techniques used to make a fine kosher wine or a fine non-kosher wine. That is, unless the kosher wine is to be designated mevushal, perhaps the most misunderstood term in the kosher wine tradition.

In Hebrew, mevushal means literally boiled. However, mevushal wines are not quite heated to a boiling temperature. Mevushal wines are nonetheless flash-pasteurized to a temperature that meets the requirements of an overseeing rabbinical authority. The technique does not necessarily harm the wine. In fact, a few well known non-kosher wine makers believe it may enhance aromatics.

But that is not why certain wines are made mevushal. For Jews, the technique simply alters the spiritual essence of a kosher wine, making it less susceptible to ritual proscription. That means anyone—whether kosher or not—can open a bottle of mevushal wine without altering its kosher status. It's a plus for kosher catering halls and restaurants, where the wait staff may not be kosher or even Jewish. By contrast, non-mevushal, or non-heated wines, are viewed as more sensitive to religious constraints and should be opened and poured by Sabbath-observant Jews.

So what happens when a non-Jew or a Jew who is not kosher opens a kosher wine that's not mevushal? Well, to be honest, not much. Since non-kosher individuals don't follow kosher rules anyway, they are not particularly affected by ritual law. However, if they are sharing a non-mevushal wine with kosher friends, then the wine must be opened and poured by a Sabbath-observant individual if everyone wishes to partake. Those are the rules; pure and simple. But ultimately, mevushal wine is neither more nor less kosher than non-mevushal wine. These are two separate designations for equally kosher wines.


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