The Jewish feast of Purim begins at sunset Saturday. On the tables of many observant Jews, kosher wine will be flowing just as freely as it will at Passover a month from now, perhaps more so. A time of merrymaking, Purim commemorates the defeat of Haman's plot to destroy the Jewish population in the ancient Persian empire. A story recounted in the Book of Esther, it features banquets and hearty drinking; wine-soaked feasts are part of many modern Purim celebrations, which are centred on the meal called seudah.
Purim is a time of giving, too, typically involving baskets of prepared food such as nuts, dried fruit and the triangular cookies called hamantashen. I gather that wine is a growing feature of those baskets, in part because kosher brands have improved strikingly in recent decades.
Among the four kosher selections that lead the notes below, I particularly like the Vignobles David, a red from France's Rhône Valley. Established in 1992 by Alain David and now run by his son and chief winemaker, Frédéric, the 114-acre estate is certified organic. It's a small, family-run affair, with 3,800 of the 10,000 cases it produces annually devoted to kosher selections. Frédéric eschews the flash-pasteurization step employed by some producers, so his wines are not mevushal. That means they must be handled by Sabbath-observant Jews at the table to preserve their religious status. (Mevushal wines can be served by anybody.)
The pasteurization process, which involves heating the wine briefly in symbolic purification, can cook away some of the finer aromatics. With his kosher wines, Frédéric aims for the same quality achieved in his non-kosher range, and I think he does so pretty consistently. I'm not Jewish, but I don't need to be to appreciate his excellent 2010 Côtes du Rhône, which excelled during the Rhône growing season's near-ideal weather.
Vignobles David Réserve Côtes du Rhône Villages 2010 (France)
SCORE: 91 PRICE: $23.95
Full-bodied and initially soft, this kosher, non-mevushal blend of grenache and syrah comes across like strawberry ice cream laced with licorice and black pepper. A little bit toasty and leathery, too, it finishes with firm tannins. Perfect for beef or lamb roasts. Available in Ontario.
Segal's Fusion Merlot/Cabernet Franc/Cabernet Sauvignon 2011 (Israel)
SCORE: 89 PRICE: $19.95
The Segal family started out as distillers in the 1920s and turned exclusively to wine in the 1950s. The winemaker, Avi Feldstein, also a poet, unapologetically used the controversial technique of micro-oxygenation to soften this kosher (and mevushal) red's astringent tannins. The result is a concentrated, smooth offering with delectable notes of cherry liqueur, dark chocolate and spices. Nice for braised red meats. Available in Ontario.
Five Stones Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2010 (Australia)
SCORE: 89 PRICE: $19.95
The kosher Five Stones line is made by Beckett's Flat in relatively cool Western Australia, where the wines tend to show crisper structure than those of the vast wine-producing area in the southeast. There's plenty of savoury character in this full-bodied mevushal red, which shows tobacco, cedar and herbs along with plummy fruit. Try it with steak. Available in Ontario.
Banero Extra Dry Prosecco (Italy)
SCORE: 88 PRICE: $13.95
You don't have to be in the market for a kosher–mevushal wine to warm up to this bargain bubbly. Dry, with flavours of green apple and tinned apricot, it offers up a frothy mousse. A fine start to a Purim or Passover celebration. Available in Ontario.
Margrain Home Block Pinot Noir 2009 (New Zealand)
SCORE: 92 PRICE: $32.75 in Que.
There's Burgundian-style elegance and subtle complexity in Margrain's medium-bodied, silky red from the fine pinot region of Martinborough. It serves up raspberry and cherry jam and a hint of caramel lifted by spice and tight acidity. Very versatile, it would shine with grilled salmon or herb-roasted pork. Available in Quebec.
Stags' Leap Petite Sirah 2008 (California)
SCORE: 91 PRICE: $49.99 in B.C.
Petite Sirah, a deeply coloured, jammy-juicy variety, has become a fine signature for Stags' Leap. Fasten your seat belts. It's dense and tannic, with a flavour that might suggest grape juice served from a cedar box. Save it for rich, saucy meats, such as pork or beef ribs. $39.95 (suggested retail) in Alberta.
Trius Merlot 2011 (Ontario)
SCORE: 87 PRICE: $14.95
Medium-bodied and well-structured, this Niagara red produced by Hillebrand offers up chewy cherry and blueberry notes with pronounced characters of herbs, licorice and oaky spice. It's suitable for roast poultry. $14.79 in Man., $15.99 in N.S., $15.99 in Nfld.
Palacios Remondo La Montesa 2009 (Spain)
SCORE: 89 PRICE: $17.95
La Montesa refers to the vineyard in Rioja where the famed Palacios family sources this organic red. It's made mainly from garnacha and reveals that soft, supple grape's character beautifully. Medium-full-bodied, it's smooth and ripe, with strawberry and spice-cake characters. Drinking well now (lamb would be a nice match), it should cellar well for up to six years. $19.25 in Que.
Propeller Revolution Russian Imperial Stout (Nova Scotia)
SCORE: 92 PRICE: $4.85/500 ml
Almost pitch-black, this 8-per-cent-alcohol gem of a beer pours with a thick, persistent head and exhibits great balance for the turbocharged style. Velvety smooth, it comes across with prune-raisin fruit, chocolate, black licorice, molasses and dark-roast coffee, balanced with lively bitterness. A delectable winter treat. $4.85 in N.S.