Monday, April 11, 2016

Kosher Wines for Passover: Not your Grandfather's Manischewitz!

Last week, I co-hosted a Kosher for Passover wine tasting at Julio's Liquors in Westborough. Julio's, for those not familiar with it, is not your typical liquor store. They hold several free tasting events a week, ranging from wine evenings, to whiskey, to beer, and many weekend afternoon festivals featuring large selections from multiple distributors. They have a large basement space dedicated to these events. For me, the result is that I've not bought anything that I didn't like in the past four years, because I've had an opportunity to taste pretty much everything I've purchased prior to buying.

With around 70 people filling the room, we had a lot of fun tasting a broad range of kosher for Passover wines from all over the world, distributed by Monsieur Touton wines. For those who could not attend in person but wanted a review so that they could stop by to make a purchase before Passover (or for those reading this in other locations who are on the hunt for something a bit different), here are my tasting notes from the evening.

I began the evening with a quick history of wine-producing among Jews, what makes a wine Kosher (and kosher for Passover), and what the origins of the four cups of wine are. I won't post the full presentation here, but just a few key points:
1) Ancient Israel is one of the earliest sources of vineyard growth and wine making in the world. Biblical references include Noah, and the 12 spies who brought a huge vine of grapes back from Canaan as proof of the fertility of the land.
2) The Talmud references 60 varieties of wine. Wines were flavored with spices, salt, date honey, and cooked into a sweet syrup (the equivalent of today's Manischewitz and other sweet kiddush wines).
3) In winemaking there is a process called 'fining' which helps to remove some of the soluble particulates from wine. These can be from organic or inorganic sources. When an animal product is used it renders the wine unkosher. Additionally, for those who are strictly observant, a wine will need a kosher certification stamp on it. Kosher for Passover wines are those where the certifiers will verify that the wine has not come into contact with any grain product from harvest to production.  Wine that is 'mevushal' is very quickly flash pasteurized. Today, that can be done with lasers. Historically, it left a somewhat 'cooked' odor to the wine, but today's technology can lead to some 'mevushal' wines being pretty good. The reason for this process has to do with some pretty ancient halachah about avoiding wines that may have been used for idolatrous purposes, and/or mixing with non-Jews in taverns. It has little relevance today, except for strictly observant Jews who continue to follow the letter of the law.
4) The Passover Seder was modeled on the Greek Symposium - a gathering that involved copious amounts of wine drinking. There was some debate in the Talmud about how many cups of wine should be drunk at a Seder. It took a while for our ritual today to become fully formed and settled. One interesting remnant of the original debate is 'Elijah's Cup'. When some rabbis advocated for a fifth cup (based on how they were parsing phrases in Exodus that refer to God's redemption of the slaves from Egypt), it was decided to pour a fifth cup but not drink it. Elijah, who tradition has it will announce the coming of the Messiah, was also understood by these ancient rabbis to be able to answer all unanswered questions when he came. Apparently, this included the question of how much wine we should drink at our Seder!

Here are the wines we sampled and their 'regularly listed' price. For those going to Julio's who mention last week's tasting, they will honor the preferential pricing they had, while stocks last.

Louis Blanc 'Les Favieres' 2015 Coteaux Varois en Provence $19.99
This is an excellent Rose wine that I'd be happy to drink at any time. If you are serving chicken at your Seder, this would be a nice accompaniment. Hints of watermelon, raspberry, and mint. Vibrant, long finish. Mevushal.  This sold out at our tasting, but you can place an order with Julio's.

Joseph Mellot 'La Graveliere' 2014 Sancerre $31.99
From the Loire Valley in NE France. The priciest wine that we tasted, but an exceptionally good Sancerre. 100% Sauvignon Blanc grapes. Flavors of red grapefruit, balanced minerals, and a little spice on the finish. This sold out at our tasting, but you can place an order with Julio's.

O'Dwyers Creek 2015 Sauvignon Blanc $16.99
100% single vineyard Sauvignon Blanc from Marlborough, New Zealand. Also organic, vegan and mevushal.
More a mix of tropical fruits (pineapple and passion) than the Sancerre. Citrus, lemon/lime finish -  more acidity than the Sancerre. Very fragrant.

Ella Valley Vineyards 2013 Estate Chardonnay $20.98
100% Chardonnay
I've been a big fan of Ella Valley wines since I tasted them about 10 years ago at an Israeli Wine Festival at the Israel museum, Jerusalem (the same museum that holds the Dead Sea Scrolls). I don't love all of their range equally, but on the whole I've found them to be consistently among the better wines to come out of Israel. Not the cheapest here in the USA, but I'd rather pay an extra $5 for an Ella wine than a mediocre Dalton, Alfasi, or Carmel wine any day.

A light, almost sherbert-like crispness with green apple, lemon, and a touch of cinnamon. If you like Chardonnay, you'll like this one.  Monsieur Touton is no longer carrying Ella Valley wines, so the case or two that is left at Julio's is the last they'll be bringing into the State of MA for a while.

Louis Blanc 'Vintage' 2012 Cotes du Rhone $14.99
Main grape is Syrah. Also some Grenache and one or two other varietals in small quantities.
Dark blackcurrant and peppery finish with medium tannins. Will pair well with lamb or beef.

La Fille du Boucher (The Butcher's Daughter) 2012 Bordeaux Reserve $14.99
70% Merlot 30% Cabernet. A great story to this wine. Named for the daughter of the largest Kosher meat family producer in France. The daughter runs a famous kosher restaurant in the Old Jewish quarter, Paris.  This wine is a very dry red with deep fruits and medium tannins and a long finish. You'll enjoy this if you like an earthier, heavier red. Will pair well with a fattier meat like lamb or a brisket.

Luis Felipe Edwards 'Terra Vega' 2014 Bin No. 964 Carmenere $7.99  From Chile
This sold out at our tasting, but you can place an order with Julio's.
This was a big hit at our tasting. Very pleasant, fruity wine that is very competitively priced. Lacks some of the depth of the larger, drier reds, but a very nice wine to either drink by itself, or with a lighter meat dish. I'd even suggest pairing with chicken or turkey if you prefer a red wine. It has a beautiful deep, red color but is light on the nose and has a fruity, blueberry taste with a slightly peppery finish.

Ella Valley Vineyards 2011 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon $29.99
85% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Merlot, 5% Petit Verdot.
See my notes above the Ella Chardonnay for my personal preference for this winemaker and the limited availability moving forward in MA.

This is a well-rounded, predominantly Cabernet Sauvignon wine. It has deep blackcurrant tones, a hint of licorice, and forthright but well-balanced tannins. I'm making a Moroccan beef stew for my Seder so this is the kind of full-flavored dry red that will pair well with a rich, meaty dish. It might be a bit heavy on the tannins and spice for some (in which case the Carmenere is probably the wine for you), but this and La Fille Du Boucher are, in my opinion, the more sophisticated and 'big' wines of the range that we tasted.

Cantina Gabriele 'Vino' NV Sweet Red $9.99.
70% Merlot, 30% Sangiovese.
Think of this as a better 'upmarket' version of Manischewitz. It has a very slight sparkle to it and is sweet but not cloying or syrupy. It comes from South of Rome and is certified vegan as well as Kosher.  This isn't my personal taste - I like a chilled dessert wine like a light Muscat, Sauternes, or Icewine. But this one was also a sell-out at the tasting, and I even brought home a bottle, knowing that I'll have guests who really won't enjoy the Ella Valley Cabernet but would rather have something like this. And its only 5.5% ABV!

I hope you try something a little different for your Passover meal this year. One thing everyone at our tasting came away appreciating - there's much more to Kosher wine than Manischewitz!
Chag Pesach Sameach!