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A toast to kosher wines

Judaism has many wonderful traditions, but Maneschewitz wine is not one of them.

With a flavor profile akin to grape lollipops, the sweet rotgut that sells for $4 a bottle has long defined kosher wine. However, there’s a new generation of drinkers and vintners who see no reason why their love of wine should be compromised by their faith.

“The first massive immigration of Jews was in New York and they all grew Concord grapes because they were the only kind that would grow there,” says president Daniel Kirsche. “They were very tart and the only way to make it pleasant to drink was to add tons of sugar. The older crowd is stuck on the Maneschewitz.”

With Yom Kippur and Sukkot, aka the Season of Our Rejoicing, October is busy at The nation’s largest seller of kosher wines, it’s not based in New York, or even Los Angeles, but in Skokie, Ill. Kirsche says he launched the site eight years ago with about 80 wines; today, he stocks more than 500 and adds an additional five or 10 each month. Treated properly, any grape can be kosher.

“The most important things are that a rabbi has to be present while the wine is being made and, once the juice is pressed, it has to be handled by observant Jews,” Kirsche says.

Of course, Israel produces a number of kosher bottles, with Golan Heights Winery offering premium, single-vineyard wines under its Yarden label.

However, you also can find kosher producers in Bordeaux, including Chateau Leoville Poyferre and Domaine Labet Corbet Corton Charlemagne, while Laurent-Perrier does a kosher version of its rosé brut, a delicate and delicious Champagne.

From Napa Valley comes Covenant, a rich and complex single-vineyard cabernet sauvignon praised by wine critic Robert Parker as “what must be one of the finest kosher wines in the world.” And Oxnard’s Herzog Wine Cellars offers both the Baron Herzog wines found at grocery stores and the premium Herzog Special Reserve line.

Caitlin Stansbury, sommelier at the Lodge in Beverly Hills, met Jeff Kavin at his Greenblatt’s Deli & Fine Wines in Hollywood to taste an assortment of kosher wines.

Best of tasting:

Herzog Special
Reserve Russian River Valley Chardonnay
, 2003 $25
Belle of the ball. Relatively balanced, full-bodied and creamy, with flavors of oak, spicy pear and ripe Macintosh apple. Kavin compared it to a white Burgundy, adding, “It’s not easy to find a better kosher bottle.”

Covenant Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, 2003 $85
Deep ruby red color, nice cherry nose, with echoes of cardamom, clove, nutmeg and cocoa. Really opens up in the glass over time.

Also tried:

Yarden Merlot Galilee, 2001 $45
A very drinkable crowdpleaser with flavors of plum, cassis, black cherry. Says Stansbury: “Bitter herbs on the finish make it a good match for charoset.”

Herzog Special Reserve Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, 2002 $34
Easy to drink, but a very soft cabernet.

Herzog Special Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon/Zinfandel/Syrah $34
Tasters found too much oak, throwing the wine out of balance.

Yarden Cabernet Sauvignon Galilee, 2001 $45
Plush and opulent, but high alcohol and too much oak.

Bartenura Moscato, 2004 $10
A fortified sweet wine, this is a best seller at Tasters compared it to a green apple Jolly Rancher, “but not in a bad way.” Similar to a Moscato di Asti, this dessert wine needs to be well chilled.

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