Kosher wine. What is it and how does quality compare?
Most people know that Orthodox Jews are subjected to dietary restrictions based on interpretation of Jewish law contained in the Torah. This interpretation of Jewish written and oral law is known as halacha (plural; halachot). Amongst the forbidden foods are pork products. In addition, Jews may not eat animals unless they both chew their cud AND have cloven hoofs. Shell fish are also forbidden. Jews may not eat any fish unless it has fins AND scales. These are biblical injunctions and this is not the forum to discuss the origins of these laws. However, we see that the kosher laws extend also to drinking and other areas.
So, are there kosher laws related to wine? The answer is yes. Kosher laws also govern the wines observant Jews may drink. What makes a wine kosher or not? The grape and wine are treated quite strictly mainly because grape juice and wine are used in religious observance. In practice, once the grapes enter the winery, they can be handled only by Sabbath observant Orthodox Jews. All handling of the must (the grape juice before fermentation) and wine must cease on the Sabbath, from sundown on Friday evening to nightfall on Saturday, and most religious holidays, even if the wine would spoil! All products used in the making of the wine must be kosher, so though rarely used today, no bulls’ blood for fining. Isinglass, which is derived from dried fish bladders, may be used if it is from a kosher fish, although there are some differences in interpretation here.
Today, kosher wine is generally of two types; non-mevushal and mevushal. Non-mevushal wines are made just as any other wines although they must adhere to the above kosher requirements. Mevushal wines are different. The Hebrew word mevushal, pronounced m’VOO-shahl, means cooked or boiled. Cooked wine! No wonder there is a widely held belief that kosher wines are inferior!
So, what is mevushal in practice and why do we do it? The rabbis of Talmudic times prohibited Jews from drinking wine that pagans would use in pagan religious observance. As a further precaution, they even barred drinking wine from a bottle that a pagan had opened. It is believed that pagans would not cook or boil wine before drinking it or using it in religious rituals. Therefore, a Jew drinking mevushal wine could be assured that the wine never could be associated with pagan use. An added benefit of drinking mevushal wine is that, once it goes into the bottle kosher, it remains kosher both in the bottle and after opening. Non-mevushal kosher wine however, is deemed unkoshered after being opened if the wine is subsequently handled or served by someone not of the Jewish faith. Indeed some rabbis even deem non-mevushal wine from an open bottle to be unkosher if it is handled by people of the Jewish faith who do not observe the Sabbath.
What is the effect of mevushal on wine quality? I think we can agree that if we take finished wine before bottling and boil it at a temperature of 212 degrees F for say 30 minutes, the resulting wine quality is likely to be compromised. However, what if we were to take the must and flash pasteurize it? The must is heated to about 175 degrees F, far below boiling point and left there for less than 1 minute. There is arguably no damage done to the must in this instance and the process is not detectable in the finished wine. Furthermore, the rabbis are generally in agreement that flash pasteurization satisfies the requirements of mevushal.
Winemakers the world over have experimented with heating of musts and wines in the interest of extracting color in red wines and increasing color stability. A fairly recent process that is being used is called Flash-Détente. Flash-Détente also involves the heating and cooling of musts though there are other differences in the process. I visited a winery in New Zealand that was using some flash pasteurization for its Sauvignon Blanc white wines in a quest to achieve better color and overall stability. The winemaker did not know anything about kosher wine or mevushal and saw the process only as a quality enhancement!
So, is well made kosher wine less good? The answer is no. Non-mevushal or mevushal wine can be drunk with the same confidence as any other wine. Going to visit observant Jewish friends or family? Feel very comfortable taking kosher wine. Take an Israeli wine perhaps. The Israeli wine industry is vibrant and growing rapidly with some first rate offerings. Not all Israeli wine is mevushal. In fact Israel also makes non-mevushal kosher wines and even non-kosher wines.