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Next Year in Napa

Why is this wine different from all other wines? Kosher for Passover doesn't have to mean Manischewitz anymore.

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While no two Passover Seders are exactly alike -- some families do slow-cooked brisket, others look forward to crispy roast chicken -- all too often the single (dare we say lowest?) common denominator is a certain traditional, sickly-sweet wine that we feel obliged to wash it all down with. "How," Le Cirque 2000's Ralph Hersom wants to know, "can you go from drinking a wonderful Château whatever-it-might-be from France or a great-quality Cab from California the rest of the year . . . to Manischewitz?"

Good question. The obvious answer is that many of us don't realize that the world of kosher wine extends beyond sour Concord grapes from upstate New York that require pounds of sugar to make them drinkable. Kosher wines come in every possible style, from dry to sweet, white to red, still to sparking. "You can just pick a wine out of a hat and there'll be some kosher equivalent," says Joshua Wesson, co-founder of Best Cellars on the Upper East Side. "Vouvrays from the Loire? They're there. Bordeaux? No problem. Shiraz from Australia? Absolutely."

If you're leery, you're not alone. "Kosher wine gets a bad rap," says Anthony Mardach, wine director of Roy's New York restaurant. "They're just as good. There's no kosher taste in wine. Nothing tastes kosher." So what exactly makes kosher wines kosher? Strange theories abound; even some of the experts we talked to professed that they had no idea. (We heard everything from barefoot rabbis dancing over grape-filled cauldrons to colored lights that cook the liquid.) The truth is actually quite simple: All equipment must be employed exclusively for kosher wine-making; the wine can only be handled by Sabbath-observant Jews, which also means no tending to vats or picking of grapes on Saturdays. And only kosher-certified products -- including yeast and refining ingredients -- can be used.

The result in most cases is a wine like any other that drinks nicely with ceremonial meals -- or with everyday dinners, for that matter. "People think, 'Oh, my goodness, it must be terrible,' " says Hersom. "Then you taste these wines, and they are certainly not." To find out which kosher wines are drinking nicely this year, we asked experts around town for their picks.

Spirited Pursuit
Wesson stocks a selection of kosher wines at Best Cellars, where bottles are arranged according to style (from crisp sparklers on one side to rich ports on the other), and most sell for less than $15. He says that kosher wines are best when they're young, so don't worry too much about the vintage. Forced to choose the two best kosher white wines in his store, he eventually settled on Alfasi Chardonnay ($8) from Israel and Weinstock Contour Chenin Blanc ($10) from California. "They don't see a lot of wood," he says. "They're not very oaky the way a lot of Chardonnays can be. They're fresh and young, and they're mouthwatering." For red wines, he likes the Dalton Estate Cab-Merlot ($17) from Israel, which is about 60 percent Cabernet. "It's very fruit-forward, and that's a good thing, because fruit helps a wine go with food. They don't have a lot of tannin, which will make your mouth pucker up so you talk like Ross Perot on a bad infomercial."

Over on Madison Avenue, Bert Mertzel, a salesman at Sherry-Lehmann, gives Baron Herzog from California the nod, specifically the Sauvignon Blanc ($8), a crisp white with a slight acidity to it, which he notes is an excellent complement to gefilte fish, as well as to chicken or veal. For brisket, he suggests a fruity 1998 Baron de Rothschild French Bordeaux from Haut-Médoc ($23.50).

It's no longer impossible to find kosher wines at tony restaurants. "One of my suppliers brought me a Yarden blind and asked, 'What do you think of this Cab?' " recalls Michael Greenlee of Gotham Bar and Grill. "And I said, 'Wow, it's really good,' and he goes, 'Guess what? It's made in Israel and it's kosher.' " He now stocks Yarden Merlot ($17.99, Astor Wines & Spirits) from Israel, "a pretty firm wine that's not too jammy and tastes great paired with short ribs."

Tim Kopec, the sommelier at Veritas (known to oenophiles as a wine list with a great restaurant), has had similar experiences: "At first, some of the staff were a little skeptical; they looked at me like, 'Why do we have this?' Then slowly but surely you see that you have to reorder it." Kopec likes the Tishbi Estate Chardonnay ($14.50 at Best Cellars). "Because it's on the lighter side, more pears and apples, a slight citrus nose as opposed to a more voluptuous, creamy style. It's great by itself as an aperitif or with light, white fish or fowl that's braised or roasted, not too tricked up with spices." But it's the Baron Herzog Special Edition Cabernet 1997 ($47 at Garnet) that Kopek can't stop kvelling about. "It's very typical of the 1997 vintage in Napa: rich, plummy, luscious, red-and-black, fruity Cabernet."

At Campagna, where every year chef Mark Strausman creates an Italianesque Passover spread (this year he's making Tuscan chicken-liver pâté and rack of lamb), it's sommelier Greg Corbin's job to select accompanying kosher wines to serve by the glass. "What I was initially going for was drinkability," he confesses. "Then I remember I tried a couple of different Yardens. The 1998 Chardonnay and 1999 Sauvignon Blanc ($15.99 and $10.99 at Acker Merrall & Condit) have a really nice acidity. The Weinstock Cabernet Sauvignon 1998 ($9.99 at Astor) from California has some great fruit to it. It's not overly tannic."

Hersom is also a Yarden fan. He especially likes the Katzrin Chardonnay 1997 ($25.99 at Union Square Wines & Spirits). "It's a dry, full-bodied white that's been aged in oak. The Baron Herzog Chenin Blanc ($5.99 at Garnet) has a lighter style than Chardonnay and is great as an aperitif. The Red Zinfandel ($10.95 at Morrell & Company) has a lot of berry fruit. It's medium-bodied, so I'd say it can also go with chicken or even a salmon steak."

Bubble Effect
If you still have room left over after polishing off a plate of macaroons, you might be surprised to know it's even possible to enjoy a kosher sparkling wine. Laurent Perrier Champagne ($29.99 at Chelsea Wine Vault) is "the Dom of kosher Champagnes," according to Brian Matzkow, the food-and-beverage director at the Tribeca Grand's Church Lounge. John Osborne, wine buyer of Astor Wines & Spirits, opts for Yarden Brut ($21.99 at Astor), which is "very reasonably priced for sparkling, kosher or non-kosher." For a sweet dessert wine -- but not, you know, too sweet -- Gamla's Muscat from Israel ($8.99 at Astor) is "fresh, fragrant, lightly sweet," says Osborne, "very refreshing after a big meal."

Best Cellars, 1291 Lexington Avenue, near 87th Street, 212-426-4200; Sherry-Lehmann, 679 Madison Avenue, near 61st Street, 212-838-7500; Astor Wines & Spirits, 2 Astor Place, 212-674-7500; Garnet Wines & Liquors, 929 Lexington Avenue, near 68th Street, 212-772-3211; Acker Merrall & Condit Co., 160 West 72nd Street, 212-787-1700; Union Square Wines & Spirits, 33 Union Square West, 212-675-8100; Morrell & Company, 1 Rockefeller Plaza, at 49th Street, 212-688-9370; Chelsea Wine Vault, 75 Ninth Avenue, near 15th Street, in Chelsea Market, 212-462-4244.


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