Call it the kosher paradox.
When it comes to food, many people, including non-Jews, appreciate that the ingredients have been handled in accordance with Jewish dietary laws. Kosher foods have the imprimatur - to borrow a Roman Catholic term - of purity. The chickens, for instance, though kosher specifically by virtue of their method of slaughter, are valued by trendy chefs because they also tend to be better fed and handled than the factory-raised birds destined for breaded nuggets.
Too bad about kosher wine, though.
Or so lots of people, Jews and non-Jews alike, persist in thinking. If it's kosher, it must be really lousy - farshtinkener if you speak Yiddish. Add to this the fact it generally costs more to produce a kosher wine (equipment must be specially sanitized or kept separate, and rabbinical supervision isn't free) and you have yourself a pretty poor value proposition.
The stigma persists despite no shortage of sanguine articles by critics over the past 10 years under such headlines as "Manischewitz no more" and the particularly cringe-worthy, "Don't pass over these kosher wines."
So, permit me to venture into relatively uncharted terrain this Passover season. Let me appeal to the wine snob in you. Though few people outside the world of high-roller Jewish wine collectors know this, some of the world's great and stupidly expensive wines are - ready for it? - kosher.
Brands your bubbe never served at her seders, like the stunning white wine that kicks off my kosher recommendations today, Château Larrivet Haut-Brion Blanc 2006 ($109.95 in Ontario). Brands like Smith Haut-Lafitte ($125), Château Leoville Poyferre ($100) and Château Valandraud ($350), three top Bordeaux that make special kosher cuvées.
In Burgundy, France's other snob-wine region, kosher chardonnays and pinot noirs costing $80 and up are produced in grand cru vineyards.
They include Batard Montrachet and Clos de Vougeot, which comprise some of the world's most expensive agricultural land.
"Manischewitz no more"? Frankly, those headline writers were showing uncharacteristic understatement.
A problem with the general perception of kosher wines these days is that it's not just out of date; it's often the result of flawed logic. When a lousy wine happens to be labelled "kosher," people tend to think there's a hard link between its lousiness and its kosher-ness.
If you're anything like me or most other wine aficionados, the vast majority of wines that hit your tongue will not make you smile; they'll be either ho-hum or dreadful.
I've tried many kosher wines produced since the quality revolution began about 15 years ago and I can say the dud rate among them is not way higher than among wines in general.
Fact is, the kosher category has improved vastly in recent years. This is for several reasons. The biggest impetus has been pressure from the market. A growing number of observant (or frum) Jews are wine connoisseurs.
Plus, today there's also a large market of non-observant Jews who will buy only kosher wines for Jewish occasions, like Passover seder meals. They prefer not to drink subpar wines.
Another reason for the quality boom is the general revolution in Israeli winemaking. Better vineyard sites, new capital investment and the rise of quality-minded boutique producers in Israel have all raised the kosher bar. Many Israeli wineries now also make very good non-kosher wines.
That said, kosher is hardly synonymous with Israel. The most surprising kosher wines I've tasted recently have come from elsewhere, notably Australia (the Beckett's Flat line called Five Stones is a standout for value), New Zealand (Goose Bay is terrific), the aforementioned France and Italy. Never had a good kosher prosecco? You're attending the wrong seders, my friend.
Many top French wineries, such as those I mentioned above, release expensive kosher cuvees in addition to their regular bottlings.
The juice is one and the same except in one respect. The kosher stuff is handled only by observant Jews from the time the grapes are crushed.
But probably the biggest leap forward in kosher quaffing has been a religious decree. There are two levels of kosher wine. There's the regular stuff that's handled by observant Jews (and supervised by a rabbi), which is permitted to be labelled kosher.
Then there's the hard-core stuff called mevushal, which has been pasteurized to about 90 C as a symbolic nod to spiritual purity, a way to keep it unsullied from the hands of non-Jews. This permits the rest of the world to uncork and pour it for observant Jews.
It was this latter, mevushal stuff that gave kosher wine its really bad rap (besides the gratuitous sweetness of Manischewitz and its cloying ilk, made with grapes designed for jam and Welch's juice). Enlightened kosher authorities today have relaxed the rules to accept what's known as flash pasteurization, in which the wine is heated for less than 30 seconds. This is done in the beer and other industries, and it's generally considered benign, not protracted enough for the flavours to developed those infamous "cooked" or prune-like notes of old. Some wine geeks claim, counterintuitively, that flash pasteurization can boost the bouquet of a wine. Sounds like another kosher paradox.
Sentieri Ebraici Gioia Vino Spumante 2008 ($24.95, Italy; order direct in B.C., Alberta and Ontario from Catalano Wine Estates, 416-446-0084, email@example.com). A blast of fresh and baked red apple gets backup from minerals and crisp acidity in this intriguing, dry sparkling wine from central Italy.
Chateau Larrivet Haut-Brion Blanc 2006 ($109.95, France). Your seders will never be the same. Sublime white from Bordeaux, silky, with notes of pear, tangerine, honey and vanilla. Perfect balance.
Dalton Safsufa Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc Chardonnay ($16.95, Israel). Light, reminiscent of a tocai or soave from northern Italy, tinged with citrus and minerals.
Goose Bay East Coast Pinot Noir 2007 ($28.95, New Zealand). A no-compromise pinot that will have people exclaiming, "I can't believe it's kosher!" Forward, jammy berries and a soft, rounded texture, with added intrigue from herbs, violet, raspberry and a hint of old-woodshed air.
Galil Mountain Shiraz 2007 ($20.95, Israel). From a top kosher producer in Israel, a full-bodied, fruit-forward red in the Australian style. Soft and very ripe yet not flabby. A crowd pleaser.
Baron Herzog Cabernet Sauvignon 2007 ($18.10, California). Full-bodied and so accessibly Californian, with a velvety texture, notes of cherry and chocolate. A Lowney's Cherry Blossom without the nuts.