Uncorked: Kosher wines didn't start out sweet
"Tradi-shun," goes Tevye's song in the — well — traditional Broadway musical "Fiddler on the Roof."
And you might think tradition says that, with Passover approaching, it's time to buy sweet kosher wines.
You should think again.
For centuries, it turns out, when generations of the Herzog family was making kosher wine in Czechoslovakia, most of those wines were dry. The sweet stuff came along around 1900, when Eastern European Jews came to New York City to escape the pogroms back home and started looking around for local grapes to make kosher wine.
The nearest vineyards, in upstate New York, grew mostly the concord grape, resistant to the area's frigid winters.
"It makes good juice and jam, but it's kind of tart for making wine," said Nathan Herzog, executive vice president of the Royal Wine Corp., a producer and importer of kosher wines from 13 countries, including the United States.
So they made the wines sweet.
But a decade ago, as America got sophisticated about wine, kosher wines made a major turn back toward dryness.
"It's been a 180-degree change," said Herzog. Today, fine, dry kosher wines come from around the world, from the malbecs of Argentina to the chiantis of Italy to cabernet sauvignons from Israel and chardonnays of California.
"Quality is first, and being kosher is second," he said. Royal's kosher wines have done so well in Jewish circles that the company now is putting its emphasis on conquering the general, non-Jewish wine-drinking crowd.
"We want people to drink our wine not because it's kosher, but because it's good."
And with Passover beginning Friday, it's a good time to talk about kosher wines.
Kosher means "correct," or "proper." Wine dramatically evokes its meanings. For starters, it's important that the wine be pure for the saying of "kiddush," or the blessings over wine at Seder meals.
As the wine is made, special attention is paid to cleanliness, with crushers, tanks and presses steam-cleaned three times and aging done in new oak barrels.
No animal products are allowed in the wine. So while non-kosher winemakers often drop whipped egg whites or gelatin through the wine to clarify it, kosher winemakers use only sterile bentonite, a form of clay.
For what it's worth, this means kosher wines are vegan, while non-kosher wines may not be.
In some cases, the wine is treated further — heated to make it "mevushal," which in Hebrew means "cooked." This is for wine that might be served by non-Jewish workers to Jewish worshippers - as in a hotel or restaurant.
In early days, the wine was actually boiled, with great damage to its flavor. Today, it is heated to 185 degrees, where the first tiny bubbles start to form, then quickly cooled, achieving the same ends but preserving the wine's flavor.
"Kosher wines cover the globe," said Herzog.
All of the following wines are classified as kosher for Passover; mevushal as noted.
2011 Bartenura Sweet Sparkling Moscato, Italy, (7.5 percent alcohol): crisp bubbles, sweet tangerine flavors, light body; $18.
2009 Capcanes Peraj Petita Montsant, Denominacio d'Origen, Spain, garnacha, samso and ull de Llebre grapes (14.5 percent alcohol): aromas and flavors of black cherries and earth, firm tannins, full body; $22.
Louis Royer VSOP Cognac, France (40 percent alcohol): spicy tangerine and hazelnut aromas and flavors, powerful alcohol; $65.
2010 Goose Bay Pinot Noir, East Coast, New Zealand (13 percent alcohol): intensely fruity, tart cherry and licorice flavors, silky and smooth; $18.
2011 Bartenura Moscato, IGT Provincia di Pavia, Italy (5 percent alcohol), mevushal: lightly sweet, slightly fizzy, orange and peach flavors; $15.
2007 Carmel Winery Petite Sirah, Old Vines, Judean Hills (13.5 percent alcohol): blackberry and espresso flavors, full-bodied, firm tannins; $30.
2009 Baron Herzog Chardonnay, Central Coast, mevushal (13 percent alcohol): rich, ripe pineapple and vanilla flavors, crisp and sweet; $15.
2009 Binyamina Reserve Carignan, Galilee, Israel (13 percent alcohol): aromas and flavors of red plums and cinnamon; $25.
2009 Herzog Special Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, Alexander Valley, mevushal (14 percent alcohol): hint of oak, flavors of black cherries and anise, ripe, round tannins; $35.
Nonvintage Morad Winery "Danue" Passion Fruit Wine, Galilee, Israel (14 percent alcohol): sweet-tart guava and grapefruit flavors; $20.
2010 Goose Bay Pinot Noir, East Coast, New Zealand (13 percent alcohol): tart cherry and licorice flavors; $22.
2010 Pacifica "Evan's Collecton" Pinot Noir, Oregon (13 percent alcohol): black cherry and licorice aromas and flavors, light-bodied and crisp; $30.
2009 Segal's Chardonnay Special Reserve, Galilee Heights, mevushal (13.5 percent alcohol): lush, ripe pineapple and caramel aromas and flavors; $18.