Wine lovers tend to whine when it comes to Passover: having to give up the good grapes for kosher for Passover wines is more painful than clearing the house of anything leavened. However, if you know where to look, you can drink as well as you eat. First, a lesson on kosher wine. If you don’t want the lesson, go directly to Page 2 to get to the recommendations.
What makes a wine “kosher?”
Regulations. Anyone can grow and pick the grapes and transport them to the winery, but as soon as crushing begins, the wine can only be produced by Sabbath-observant Jews—a non-observant Jew can’t even push a button to start a machine. Aside from needing a steady supply of Sabbath-observant Jewish winery workers—which could be a challenge in California wine-growing regions—it gets more complex.
No work can be done on the Sabbath or on a Jewish holiday. But wine-making is organic chemistry: when the grape juice is ready to be processed, winemakers are at its bidding. Not so with kosher wines: if something needs to happen on Saturday or Rosh Hashanah, it waits. (This can be risky: e.g., fermenting grapes can start to spoil. If they’re being watched, you can take action before damage is done.)
The winemaker has to decide whether to make wines mevushal, the Hebrew word for “cooked,” or non-mevushal. A mevushal wine can be served and opened by a non-observant Jew and remain kosher; a non-mevushal wine cannot. This has commercial implications: mevushal wines can be opened by waiters at restaurants and events. Mevushal is an added process that brings the must, the slurry of grape solids and juice resulting from the grape pressing, to the boiling point (this happens before the fermentation process begins). Other techniques include modern flash-pasteurization of the fermented wine, which some experts feel compromises the mouthfeel of the wine, especially reds.
What else makes a wine kosher?
No animal products can be used in processing. Non-kosher winemakers can use egg whites or gelatin to clarify the wine—to attract suspended particles and drag them down to the bottom of the barrel as sediment. Kosher winemakers use bentonite, a clay material. Similarly, kosher winemakers would never use animal bladders for filters.
Physical cleanliness is also mandated by kosher law. Tanks, crushers, presses and all equipment must be cleaned three times by modern steam cleaning, scalding hot water (and when needed, blowtorches).
All barrels for aging must be either brand-new or used exclusively for kosher wines.
It is a misconception that kosher wines are blessed by rabbis; rather, they are made kosher (the Hebrew word for “proper” or “correct”) so that blessings can be made on and over them by rabbis or anyone else. And now, the wines.