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Kosher wine 

It's not just for Seder anymore

Hold on to your matzoh balls, here come the kosher wines. Traditionally, these religiously important wines have not exactly screamed quality; instead they were thick, syrup-sweet tongue-attackers. But, there's good news for the approaching Passover. In the last 15 to 20 years, kosher wines have improved dramatically and arrived at a new level of everyday people-pleasing quality.

American kosher wines are rooted in upstate New York, home to the indigenous Concord grape. Early settlers and Jewish immigrants set up shop fermenting these wild grapes -- the same used by Dr. Thomas Welch in his famous juice. A distant cousin of the esteemed European vitis vinafera grape family (Cabernet, Chardonnay, Merlot, etc.), the Concord is brutally acidic (like sucking on a Key lime), and forms the base for the granddaddy of kosher wine, Manischewitz. To overcome the high acid to make a palatable product, the winemaker has to add loads of sugar. So historically, American kosher wine has been synonymous with a diabetic's nightmare.

But with the kosher wine movement in California toward vitis vinafera grapes, wineries like Baron Herzog, Gan Eden and Weinstock are challenging their sugary stigma. In addition, improvements in shipping technology have introduced high-octane Merlots and Cabernets from Israel, France, Chile and Australia. But with all that, worldwide sales still hover at only 1 million cases a year, mostly sold around Passover. To move the needle, kosher wine producers are expanding varietal choices and delivering better quality wine that -- gasp! -- even non-Jews would deign to consume.

What makes wine kosher? Kosher wines are basically born the same way as other wines, only with a few stringent rules. According to Peter Stern, director of winemaking at Royal Wines, America's leading kosher wine producer, there are two rules when making wines kosher. 1) Animal-derived material -- such as gelatin -- is forbidden in the winemaking process. One exception is using egg whites (from eggs containing no blood) in the "fining" or "clarifying" stage, a voluntary step that removes sediment left over from fermentation. 2) From beginning to end, all equipment must be kosher, for example, the fermentation tanks must be "koshered" or sanitized with a special hot water spray process, and Orthodox Jewish workers must handle all winemaking duties. This rule continues all the way through the bottling stage, until after the cork and seal are in place.
A Passover rite.Wines have deep significance in the Passover Seder. During this elaborate dinner, participants consume four glasses of kosher wine at appropriate times during the dinner to represent the four stages of the Israelites' exodus from Egypt: freedom, deliverance, redemption and release. Both red and white wines can be used, but red is preferred because it represents the blood spilled in Egypt.
With better wines to choose from, Seder diners can now kick up their heels and escape to dry wines, but it's high time non-Jews venture out and explore the kosher plains. Besides, kosher Zin pairs just as well with gefilte fish as with grilled chicken breast. Shalom.

Recommended:

Baron Herzog 1999 Zinfandel ($14) : Before trying this rich, ripe Zin, I wasn't a believer in kosher wines. But I was converted by this amazing stuff loaded with raspberry and a spicy finish.

Alfasi Valle de Maule 1998 Cabernet Sauvignon ($8) : Smooth and relaxed, like a Brad Pitt character. This Chilean wine flirts its balanced tannins and cherry subtleties. An inexpensive Cab for Merlot drinkers.

Weinstock 1997 California Chardonnay ($9) : Buttery and very oaky, it sports pineapple, pina colada flavors. Relax on the beach, and dream of the Caribbean.

Baron Herzog 2000 Chenin Blanc ($8) : Clean, citrusy and refreshing, this slightly sweet Chenin can chill out any spicy dish. Goes down easy, especially on the wallet.

Taylor Eason is a regionally based wino who studied the juice in France and Italy. Comments? E-mail corkscrew@ creativeloafing.com or call 1-800-341-LOAF.

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