Permit me to begin this column on kosher wine with a nod to non-Jews: A couple of products below, including a $9.95 tempranillo and a $16.95 Chianti, are better than most non-kosher wines in the same price and stylistic league. Kosher wines, to borrow a bar mitzvah metaphor , have come of age.
And let me explain off the top why you're reading about such wines in February. It's not because I'm a clueless goy who doesn't know Passover is still two months away. Nor do I believe Passover is a consolation meal Joel and Ethan Coen plan to eat if they fail to win best-directing Oscar for True Grit on Sunday. It's because of Purim.
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Traditionally, liquor boards in Canada have waited till just before Passover to trot out kosher selections, a festival that this year begins the evening of April 18. Recently, though, there's been growing awareness about Purim, which this year starts on the night of March 19. That feast commemorates Jewish people's escape from an extermination plot by Haman the Evil. Queen Esther foiled the plan, leading to a central observance that ranges from the reading of the Biblical Book of Esther to boisterous noise-making in synagogues.
There's a strong wine angle, too. People are encouraged to exchange gifts of food and wine as well as to give alms to the poor. And the Purim meal often features hearty drinking. Early theologians even encouraged drinking to the point of inebriation. It's not my place to encourage such excess, but I'd like to suggest some fitting selections should you be in the market for an apt gift or plan to host a Purim blowout.
As I've noted in previous years, kosher wine is a Borscht Belt joke no longer. Connoisseurs in the Jewish community, both observant as well as secular wine geeks (who revert to kosher wines for religious occasions), have ignited demand. Wineries, notably many outside Israel, have heeded the call. There are fine examples coming from Argentina, New Zealand, California, France and Italy as well as the Holy Land, including top stuff costing more than $100. Goose Bay from New Zealand and the Five Stones line from Beckett's Flat in Australia are especially reliable.
All kosher wines are distinguished by one fact. They must be handled by observant Jews, under rabbinical supervision, from the time the grapes are crushed. Well, that and the fact they cannot be clarified using animal proteins, such as egg whites, a practice often used in non-kosher wines. But some are more kosher than others. There's a hard-core subset known as mevushal. These are created for situations in which the person doing the pouring is non-observant. To maintain the continuity of spiritual purity for religious ceremonies, the wines are pasteurized, or heated to about 90 C. The step amounts to a symbolic, protective cleansing.
This mainly is how kosher wines fell into disrepute. Wine generally doesn't take well to heat. In the past, mevushal bottles tended to taste cooked and dull. Enter a modern decree. The rules were relaxed to accept something called flash pasteurization, in which the wine is heated for only about 30 seconds – not enough to cook it. There's even a plausible argument that the process can boost aroma, but it's debatable.
Some wines below were released this week in Ontario through Vintages, while others are, or will be, more widely available across the country.
Borgo Reale Primitivo Salento 2008, Italy
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $19.95
Primitivo is genetically identical to the zinfandel grape of California. This Italian beauty delivers the classic plum-raisin-chocolate profile of zin. Velvety and ripe, it pulls back before it gets too sweet, thanks to juicy acidity and astringent tannins. Serve it with spicy meats. Mevushal.
Galil Mountain Yiron 2006, Israel
SCORE: 89 PRICE: $33.95
Dark chocolate takes centre state in this full-bodied red blend of cabernet sauvignon, merlot and syrah. It starts sweet, with syrupy plum and raisin, then ends reasonably dry. Watch out for the 15-per-cent alcohol, unless you're intent on getting a Purim buzz on – and your spouse is driving.
Emuna Tempranillo 2007, Argentina
SCORE: 89 PRICE: $9.95
A killer value. Full-bodied and exceptionally smooth, this goes down like rich hot chocolate. There's the slightest suggestion of prune, but it shows enough acidity to keep it on track. It's a good choice for those who like their beef well-done. Mevushal.
Tekiah Cabernet Sauvignon 2007, Argentina
SCORE: 89 PRICE: $14.25
Another good value. Currants and chocolate are carried on a full-bodied, luscious and slightly creamy frame, with dusty tannins and acidity creating a dry finish. Good for steak or beef roasts.
Cantina Gabrielle Chianti 2009, Italy
SCORE: 88 PRICE: $16.95
Medium-bodied, soft and succulent, this need make no apologies for its kosher status. I love the chewy-cherry core and dry, silt-like tannins. Very Italian, and proudly Jewish. Matzoh pizza, anyone?
Vignobles David le Mourre de L'Isle Cotes du Rhône 2009, France
SCORE: 88 PRICE: $15.95
It's like a plum-studded chocolate bar dusted with black pepper. Almost too ripe, this chewy red starts sweet then ends dry and spicy. Braised red meats would be a fine match.
Ella Valley Sauvignon Blanc 2009, Israel
SCORE: 86 PRICE: $21.95
Here's a white that manages to be both oily and tangy, the added texture likely from the addition of 10-per-cent semillon. It's light and austere, flavour-wise, but there are whispers of pear, citrus and stone. Serve it with light fare.
Efrat Israeli Cabernet Sauvignon Merlot 2009, Israel
SCORE: 88 PRICE: $15.25
Full-bodied and fruit-forward, this red shows cassis, chocolate and spice, with a soft core and juicy finish. Serve it with roast or grilled beef. Mevushal.
Hagafen Pinot Noir 2007, California
SCORE: 85 PRICE: $34.95
Okay, so not all kosher wines are great, not even expensive ones. I don't love this Napa Valley red, but, then, I bristle at most Napa pinots. Some pinot diehards may go for its notes of bitter cherry and herbs, which to me seem more fitting as symbolic reminders of slavery commemorated at Passover than for the bacchanal of Purim.
Bartenura Moscato 2010, Italy
SCORE: 86 PRICE: $14.40
This is a very lightly effervescent dessert white in the spirit of moscato d'Asti. Moderately sweet, it shows pure muscat flavour reminiscent of white table grape, with a nuance of orange juice and decent acidity. I would prefer a touch more spritz.
Cantina Gabrielle Pinot Grigio 2009, Italy
SCORE: 85 PRICE: $16.95
Decent straightforward pinot grigio, which is to say neutral-tasting, but there are vague hints of pear and citrus here. And the kosher designation counts for a lot.