Kosher wine is a complicated and tricky subject even for the very knowledgeable. Any readers of this blog are advised to consult much more authoritative sources than The Wine Guy before utilizing the information here as a guideline for wine usage in any special observance. My purpose here is to present a brief informative primer for wine aficionados and fellow wine stewards who often come into contact with people with questions on Kosher wine.
Generally speaking, kosher wine must not contain or utilize any dietary ingredient prohibited under kosher law, must not come into contact with utensils or machinery that have formerly come into contact with those ingredients and both the product and all its associated utensils and ingredients must not have been in contact with idolatrous persons or utilized for idolatrous purposes.
The fairly liberal Conservative Union has resolved that wine does not to be certified and labeled Kosher to, in fact, be considered kosher wine. That however leads to considerable difficulty (and some controversy, as well) in determining if a particular wine, in fact meets the requirement of being kosher. Typically organically grown and produced wines that are not hand made are generally considered kosher but care must be taken to research details. For example a certified organic, sustainable wine may meet all dietary and additive restrictions. It may, however, have been made from manually crushed grapes, which makes it uncertain in meeting the kosher requirements for handling. Similarly, a certified organic and sustainable wine could have been fined with agents from dairy and meat by-products thus negating the ability of the wine to be kosher.
For that reason, those wishing to observe kosher in both the religious and dietary sense are best advised to select a wine that has been certified kosher by an appropriate rabbinical council or body. In the U.S. these will either bear a “K” or “OU” symbol depending upon which governing body the certification comes under. Wines bearing these symbols will have been certified to have meant all the condition above plus they will have the further requirement that the grapes and their juice, from the time of harvest through bottling, were only handled by Sabbath-observant Jewish males. Additional caution is still required, however, in that bottled wines, certified as Kosher, can become un-kosher, in certain cases, if opened and handled by non-Jewish persons. To overcome that possibility most rabbinical authorities add the proviso that the wine should be labeled “mevushal” (cooked or pasteurized). This process reduces the flavorings of many wines as well as its ability to age and is the reason that most of the early kosher wines were extremely fruity and sweet. Recent technical developments, including “flash pasteurization have reduced this impact and have resulted in many fine kosher wines that ate drier and more full-bodied.
The final complication comes into play in the observance of Pesach or Passover. Many wines, certified as Kosher, and suitable for most other kosher occasions, may not be suitable for this Jewish religious observance because of its additional prohibitions and regulations governing “Chametz” and “Kitniyot”. Chametz involves five grains (wheat, barley, spelt oats and rye) that have come into contact with water for more than 18 minutes. It also involves any utensil or cooking item that has been utilized in preparing foods item considered chametz as well as any item that has come into contact with chametz that has not been cleansed. During the days of Passover (and the number of days varies from Israel to other countries) observant Jews are prohibited not only from ingesting but also from possessing Chametz. The other category, Kitniyot, includes maize, rice, peas, beans and lentils. The regulations covering exposure to Kitniyot vary from a complete prohibition for Ashkenazi Jews to limitations on usage (mainly non-food purposes) to allowance in some sects (Sephardic Jews). In the case of aforementioned sweeter wines, some certified kosher wines were sweetened with corn syrups and therefore, would fall under the prohibition of using Kitniyot for food purposes and would therefore, be unsuitable for Passover. Another example of a kosher wine unsuitable for Passover would be one in the yeast utilized to ferment the wine was grown on bread. Not prohibited normally, this would violate the stricter provisions of the holiday. Certified kosher wines that are also certified for Passover will be clearly labeled with an additional “P” symbol in addition to the normal "K" or "OU" if they are certified Kosher for Passover. It is these only these wines that should be on-hand or utilized at Passover.
I hope you find the above information useful. It’s important for us who work in wine to determine from our customers the degree and nature of the kosher wine they are seeking. If the concern is just simply dietary in nature, many organic or sustainable wines that meet conditions set forth by the Conservative Union may satisfy their need. If the desire for a kosher wine involves any form of religious observance or ritual, or if the customer is keeping kosher as a practice of his faith, care should definately be taken to insure the product offered has been properly certified by a rabbinical authority. Finally, if the customer is seeking a kosher wine for Passover, extra care and verification is needed to insure the product meets the very special conditions for that holiday.
Again, I caution readers that this is an area of very limited knowledge and expertise on my part. For further information and guidance, consultation with a rabbi or with a governing authority such as the Orthodox Union is highly recommended.
As a side note, I would also encourage readers who are lovers of wine history to also explore the impact of the Jewish culture on viniculture and winemaking. References such as the description in the Old Testament of Noah planting a vineyard after the flood abound in Jewish history. Wine has occupied a special place in their observances and rituals throughout their recorded history. The Jewish people were also probably the pioneers of ripasso style wine, having to resort to utilizing raisins in winemaking after being conquered by the Babylonians and forced to leave Jerusalem. I am currently enjoying an exploration of this history and my discoveries will probably become something to share in future blogs.
Until then, do take time to enjoy a glass of wine. Le chayim!