Taste: Red, white or bubbly, it's all kosher

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We have been saying for years that kosher wines have come a long way and that anyone who keeps kosher now has a world-wide selection of wine from which to choose.

From Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon to Hungarian Tokaji, the selection is wide and deep, though, of course, the choices are better in some stores and regions than others. Heck, we recently had a kosher Primitivo. That's the grape receiving attention these days because tests showed that it's the same as America's Zinfandel. (American indeed: A bill was introduced in the California Legislature this year to make Zinfandel the state's official grape.) This wine, from Italy, was exuberantly fruity, quite pleasant.

At the same time, we realize that, when push comes to shove, especially at important moments, people who are looking for kosher wines want basic, bottom-line advice from us: What red, white or sparkling wine should I pick up? Or, as Diane Schwartz of Charlotte, N.C., put it: "Our daughter is getting married in the summer and the wedding will be kosher. I want to do some research so that I can offer good red and white wines for the weekend and of course Champagne. Could you send me a list of better wines to try?" Since we have been conducting kosher tastings for years, and include kosher wines in our regular tastings, we decided to focus this column on some consistent winners that are worth a search.

First, let's repeat our explanation of what makes a wine kosher. The process starts with special treatment and attention to cleanliness. Rabbis or their assistants supervise the wines' production, from crush to bottling. The wines are made with special enzymes and yeasts and fining agents -- not animal byproducts, such as gelatin, for example -- that clarify the wine. Often their front labels will sport an "O" with a "U" inside with a "P" near it. This is the stamp of approval of the largest kosher-certification body, and basically means there's no need to read the label further to learn that the wine is kosher for Passover. Some labels will simply say "kosher for Passover."

Most kosher wines are kosher for Passover. Wines that are kosher for Passover must adhere to rules beyond what is required to be just kosher -- they cannot, for example, contain various ingredients that aren't allowed at Passover -- and winemakers have told us that it makes sense for them to make a single line of wines that is both kosher and kosher for Passover.

The most notable exception to a wine being kosher but not kosher for Passover is one part of the Manischewitz line. Manischewitz's sweet Concord is the kosher wine many of us grew up with; indeed, a spokeswoman for Constellation Brands, which makes Manischewitz, says it is still the No. 1 kosher wine in America, with more than one million cases produced each year. From the end of December through Passover, the company produces kosher-for-Passover wines, she told us. For the other eight months of the year in its kosher wines, Manischewitz uses fructose, a sweetener derived from corn, which is forbidden at Passover, she told us. The company urges customers looking for kosher-for-Passover wines to read its labels closely.

Some wines are both kosher for Passover and mevushal. A mevushal wine is one that can be handled by the general public, such as a non-Jewish waiter, and still remain kosher once it's open. A mevushal wine is heated in seconds by flash pasteurization, with the temperature brought down quickly so as not to harm the wine. Some wineries do this to the unfermented white and blush juice; others do it to reds after fermentation. We are often asked if the mevushal process harms the wine. In our tastings through the years, we have not found a consistent difference in taste between mevushal and nonmevushal kosher wines.

So, based on our tastings over the years, here's some specific advice about reds, whites and bubblies. We're not saying these are the world's greatest kosher wines, but they have been consistently among our favorites over the years and they are more available than some.

SPARKLERS: A number of France's top Champagne houses make a small amount of kosher bubbly, and it is definitely worth looking for, especially because most people don't know this, so it's a marvelous surprise. Over the years, our favorite has been Nicolas Feuillatte, which is also the one we see most often. But we recently tried a kosher Champagne from Heidsieck & Co. that we liked even more. In any event, it's obviously hard to go wrong with a real Champagne that happens to be kosher. For a less expensive alternative, the Blanc de Blancs from Yarden, in Israel, is also good -- classy and bold.

WHITES: The most consistently tasty kosher white we've had over the years has been Chardonnay from Yarden. It tends to be plump and very easy to drink with or without food. If you can find it and are willing to spring for the extra cost, we especially like the Yarden special bottling called Katzrin, which is not only big and rich but also has abundant acids that make it better with food and lighter on its feet.

Kosher Rieslings, both semi-dry and late-harvest, have also been among our favorites over the years, so if you're willing to go with something sweeter, that's the grape we'd look for.

REDS: In tasting after tasting over the years, red wines from Hagafen Cellars in California have done well. In a general tasting of midrange Cabernet Sauvignons last year, the 2001 was among our favorites. We wrote of it: "A big boy. Intense, tight, structured and filled with blackberry fruit. Real verve." We feel strongly that you simply can't go wrong with a Hagafen Cabernet Sauvignon.

The special bottlings of Herzog Wine Cellars in California have also been among our favorites. We're fond of the Alexander Valley "Special Reserve" because we always argue about it. John finds it overly herbal and Dottie finds it rich, but we both agree that it's a winemaker's wine -- that is, it has a very distinctive personality that would make any meal more interesting.

For a less-costly alternative, we've usually enjoyed the Cabernet Sauvignon from Weinstock Cellars, though sometimes we find it a bit weak, more like Merlot than Cabernet, which might be fine for Merlot lovers.

By the way, the biggest buzz in kosher wine recently has been the introduction of a very small-production, and very expensive, Cabernet Sauvignon called Covenant from Napa Valley that has received some fine reviews. We found the 2003 at a store (for $95) and, unfortunately, it was disappointing. We thought it was overly creamy, with a kind of purple blandness. Still, it's so widely talked about that, if you happen to see it and are willing to spend that kind of money, it might be a treat for guests and you can decide for yourselves what you think.

There are many other outstanding kosher wines on the market. Whether you keep kosher or not, you should explore them.

A Kosher Sampler

We looked back over our notes for the past years to find a few specific kosher wines we like year after year. Then we bought a recent vintage of each that we found on shelves and tasted them. We did not taste them blind. If you live in an area where kosher wines are hard to find, keep in mind that more and more wine shops around the country, including some with good selections of kosher wine, have Web sites and will ship to many states. The prices listed below are generally representative, though they vary widely.

CHAMPAGNE
VINEYARD/VINTAGE/REGION: Heidsieck & Co. Monopole 'Blue Top' Brut (nonvintage), France
PRICE: $66.99(1)
TASTERS' COMMENTS: Beautiful wine. Full and rich, elegant and nutty, like biscotti. A real celebration wine. This is not a simple quaffer; it would go well with food.

VINEYARD/VINTAGE/REGION: Nicolas Feuillatte Brut (nonvintage), France
PRICE: $49.00
TASTERS' COMMENTS: This is our "default" kosher bubbly because we always like it. Always. It's fresh and toasty, with the kind of lively acids that make it good to sip alone or to have with dinner.

WHITE
VINEYARD/VINTAGE/REGION: Yarden 'Katzrin' Chardonnay (Golan Heights Winery) 2000 (Galilee), Israel
PRICE: $28.99(1)
TASTERS' COMMENTS: Woody, rich and mouth-coating. Comforting. It's something of a butterball, but has enough acids to keep it from going over the top. Less special, more inexpensive bottlings of Yarden Chardonnay have also been among our favorites.

RED
VINEYARD/VINTAGE/REGION: Hagafen Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon 1999 (Napa Valley), U.S.
PRICE: $36.00
TASTERS' COMMENTS: Lovely, smooth tastes of blackberry and black cherry, with a nice earthiness and a relaxed elegance. Always good.

VINEYARD/VINTAGE/REGION: Herzog Wine Cellars 'Special Reserve' Cabernet Sauvignon 2000 (Alexander Valley), U.S.
PRICE: $32.00
TASTERS' COMMENTS: Serious wine: deep, dark and structured. Very dry, with herbal hints and filled with wonderful surprises throughout.

VINEYARD/VINTAGE/REGION: Herzog Wine Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon 'Special Edition; Warnecke Vineyard, Chalk Hill' 2000, U.S.
PRICE: $68.00
TASTERS' COMMENTS: Fruit, cedar, blackberries and black pepper all combine into a real purity of taste with great structure. Still young and tight. Tastes expensive.

We bought these in New York. (1)We paid $72.00 for Heidsieck and $31.00 for Yarden, but these prices appear to be more -representative. Prices vary widely.



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