April 17, 2008

What Makes a Wine Kosher? Wineaux Educational Moment!

One of the holiest days in the Jewish calendar is upon us, and it is a holiday fraught with emotion, historical crises, and spiritual uplifting. It is Passover, or as it is known in Hebrew, Pesach.

Because the Passover Seder (celebratory dinner that takes place during the first and second nights of the eight-day holiday) requires that several glasses of wine be drunk during the ceremony, wine has a special place and has special significance during this time. The wine also has to be symbolically the purest, which means that it has to be kosher.

The most popular misconception about kosher wines is that they are blessed by rabbis. Quite the contrary; wines are made kosher so that anyone can make blessings. “Supervised” is a far more accurate term, since the men who are overseeing the vineyards are working very hard, and are not necessarily rabbis.

Kosher laws are derived from the Torah (the first five books of the Bible) where God sets down His laws for what Jews may or may not eat. The reasoning behind the kosher laws can be quite bewildering. Many commandments fall under the principle of "Chok," i.e., divinely given laws beyond human understanding. The Torah also required that most offerings, whether of animals, grain, olive oil, flour, or other foods, be brought with a "wine libation," indicating that wine was an integral part of the worship service.

To ensure wine's purity, the establishment of wine koshering laws began during the time of Maimonides, about the mid-1100s. While not specified in the Torah, the practice of certifying wine as Kosher came about because of the religious practices of the non-Jewish populations surrounding Jewish societies. These populations would use their wines as libations to their gods, which was anathema to the Jews who were expressly commanded to avoid even touching items that were used in sacrifice to alien deities. The Jewish religious leaders then expressly forbade any wine that was handled by a non-Jew, since it was not clear whether that person would have used such wine during their worship services.

Kosher wine starts in the vineyard with Orlah, which means that it is forbidden to use the grapevines from the first three years of the planting. However, it is not necessary that grapes come from kosher vineyards (although there are many who would disagree vehemently about that statement) since grapes are Pareve (neither milk nor dairy) – essentially, neutral.

Some unethical winemakers would use bovine blood to increase the redness of their wines, and kosher laws expressly forbid the consumption of blood in any form. (I’d say that such wines were probably overly earthy and lacking in fruit). So no animal products may be allowed to touch the wine. Winemakers often use egg whites or gelatin to clarify the wine. Kosher winemakers, on the other hand, use bentonite, a type of clay, to attract suspended particles and drag them down to the bottom of the barrel. Egg whites are forbidden because they may have blood spots in them or the gelatin may be made from non-kosher animals, rendering it unfit to drink.

In addition, only Sabbath-observing Jewish males are permitted to touch or handle the wine from the moment grapes are harvested and crushed until the wine is sealed with a cork and capsule into a bottle.

All equipment must be spotlessly clean and not used for the making of non-kosher wine. All barrels must be brand new and/or used exclusively for kosher wines. No barrels used for non-kosher wines may be used in kosher winemaking.

Jewish law states that kosher wine can become non-kosher if it is opened and poured by a non-Jew, such as a waiter or bartender, unless it has been previously boiled. (Don’t flinch. It’s not a bad thing). The laws of Kashrut (i.e, kosher laws) specify that the wine has to be made different from non-kosher wine in every respect. A mevushal wine retains its religious purity no matter who opens or pours it. While mevushal wines “used” to be inferior in quality, technology has whittled away at the differences between mevushal and non-mevushal wines. A recent study at the University of California at Davis, the nation's top winemaking school, has shown that it's often impossible to taste the difference between the two.

Making wine mevushal is a process which brings the “must” (the slush of grape solids and juice resulting from the grape pressing) to the boiling point, defined as heating it until air bubbles are brought to the surface and some wine is lost through evaporation. This is done before the fermentation process begins.

Wine served at large functions invariably is mevushal, as it retains its Kashrut quality even when the bottle is opened by non-Jewish waiters and passed around the table at a mixed gathering.

A perusal of a wine’s label will tell you whether a wine is kosher, and if it is, whether it’s mevushal. In order to be kosher for Passover - which has special requirements during the holiday - the wines are almost invariably mevushal.

So there you have it! Happy Passover!

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