FOOD & DRINK / Grapevine: Kathryn McWhirter tries kosher wines for Passover

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The Independent Culture
IT'S SURPRISING for a country whose agricultural produce is otherwise so admirable how Israel manages to mess up its wines. The star exception, however, is a company run by a group of four kibbutzim and four co-operative farms, from a precarious political position on the Golan Heights. The Golan Heights Winery makes wines (labelled Yarden and Gamla) that are good to excellent by world standards. The Golan winemakers have studied in California, Australia and New Zealand. They are all Jewish, but since they are not Orthodox, none of them is allowed to touch the winery equipment. If they did, the wine could not be kosher.

In the winery, all the hands-on work is done by unqualified Orthodox Jews under their supervision. In addition, under Jewish religious law, the vineyards in Israel must lie fallow or be symbolically sold to a non-Jew every seventh year. There must be no work on the Sabbath even if the bubbling vats are overheating - a computer takes control in the Golan Heights winery.

Sadly, from the point of view of their quality, most kosher wines are pasteurised for religious reasons. This overcomes the problem of non-Jews touching the wine, which would render it un-kosher. Even non-Jewish cork-pullers or waiters would be unacceptable otherwise. At the Golan Heights winery, they make only two wines for that ultra-Orthodox market and don't pasteurise their other wines.

The traditional heavy, red, sweet kosher wines are still used in most Jewish homes for the religious part of next week's Passover celebrations. With meals, many have now turned to the lighter, drier modern style.

The Golan Heights Winery makes a surprisingly good, rich, savoury sparkling wine of Champagne-like quality, ***Yarden Brut (from pounds 12-pounds 15). The ***1990 Yarden Cabernet Sauvignon (pounds 11.60-pounds 12) is also excellent, firm and quite oaky with rich plummy fruit and a hint of tobacco. **1989 Gamla Cabernet Sauvignon (pounds 6.50-pounds 7.50) is softer and very attractive, oaky with dark blackcurrant and blackberry fruit; the **1990 Yarden Merlot

(pounds 9-pounds 9.80)is grassy but ripely plummy.

Of the whites, my favourite is the sweet ***1990 Yarden Muscat (pounds 4.70-pounds 5), which is deliciously grapey with complex flavours of barley sugar, flowers and almond. **1992 Yarden Chardonnay (pounds 7.70-pounds 9.50) is nicely oaky, with appley fruit and lemony acidity. The other whites are good but less good value - though they are more fun than other Israeli whites.

A score of small-scale wineries have sprung up in Israel in the past few years. The only one selling here is the tiny Baron Wine Cellars, good but not up to Golan standards: a ripe, modern, grass and tropical fruity *1991 Sauvignon Blanc and a floral, lemony *1991 Dry Muscat (both pounds 5.99 Corney & Barrow of London EC1 and W11). I was uninspired by the big range of wines from Israel's wine giant, Carmel, except for the **1988 Carmel Baron Edmond de Rothschild Cabernet Sauvignon (pounds 6.85-pounds 7.60), a good, big, dark red with soft tannin, some oak, and rich blackcurranty fruit.

Kosher wines don't necessarily come from Israel. From California I enjoyed a nearly-dry, deliciously ripe and peachy **1992 Baron Herzog California Chenin Blanc (pounds 5.15-pounds 6.10), a honeyed, pineappley, grapefruity **1992 Baron Herzog California Chardonnay (pounds 8.40-pounds 9.80) and *1991 Baron Herzog California Cabernet Sauvignon (pounds 8.45-pounds 10.20), very blackcurrant-fruity with a touch of tannin. From Italy, *Bartenura Soave (pounds 4.50-pounds 5.90) and *Bartenura Pinot Grigio del Veneto (pounds 5.40-pounds 6.10) were both light, simple and fresh, *Bartenura Gavi (pounds 5.75 Habers) more aromatic, with lemony acidity.

Apart from some over-priced clarets, my French favourite was *1992 Chardonnay Vin de Pays du Jardin de la France, Herzog Selection (pounds 6.25-pounds 7.50), which is honeyed and fruity, with typical high Loire acidy.

STOCKISTS: The following suppliers have most of the wines: Habers Kosher World of Prestwich, Manchester; Amazing Grapes of London NW4, which does mail order; Selfridges, London W1; Europa Country Market, London NW11; Zelda's Delicatessen of Newcastle, also mail order; L'Chaim of Edgware, also mail order. Some of the non-Israeli wines are also available from Costcutter of Gants Hill, Ilford. For local stockists of the Golan Heights wines phone 0582 22538, and for the non-Israeli wines 061-708 9909.

*** excellent; ** very good; * good