Food & Drink: Too good to pass over

Kosher wines - `passed by the Chief Rabbi' - have long been the butt of jokes. But all that is about to change for Jews and non-Jews alike. Illustration by Otto
It may be something of a hardship for observant Jews to miss out on bacon because "the swine cheweth not the cud" and shellfish because they lack "fins and scales in the waters", but there's always chopped liver and gefilte fish to compensate. However, while the primary purpose of the biblical dietary laws was to ensure good health, it still seemed odd that Jews should have to miss out on the pleasures of drinking wine unless that too was kosher.

In the case of wine, health is not the issue. Because wine became associated with idol worship, Jewish laws decreed that to avoid contamination by non-believers, wines destined for sacramental use should only be made by religious Jews. More relevant today though is the Jewish fear of assimilation. As Claudia Roden points out in her labour of love, The Book of Jewish Food, the orthodox Jewish community feels that free access to wine in social situations could, for young Jewish people, lead to "the formation of attachments and [ultimately] intermarriage".

Not that anyone who's ever drunk the sweet raisiny red, Palwin Number 10, could ever be accused of using kosher wine for seduction purposes. If anything, the accompanying blessing is needed to help the medicine go down. But kosher wine is no longer all the sweet and sickly concoction of yesteryear. Far from it. Thanks to the modern approach to wine adopted by the Golan Heights winery and Baron Cellars in Israel and the pioneering American wine company Kedem, kosher wine is undergoing a stealthy transformation towards respectability.

What makes a wine kosher? This is more a question of who makes it than how it's made. From the crushing stage to bottling, the wine must be handled by orthodox Jews who observe the Sabbath. If the winemaker is non-Jewish, he or she is not permitted to touch any of the tanks, pipes, or filters while wine is sitting inside or passing through. Only products approved by kosher law may be used. So chemical additives and agents such as gelatine, dairy by-products and non-grape grain yeasts are not permitted. For this reason - and because of these stringent restrictions on personnel - kosher wines can cost more than their non-kosher counterparts.

Even within the world of kosher wine there are three distinct categories. "Kosher" is wine which can be consumed by anyone observing kosher dietary laws. "Kosher for Passover" is wine which contains no grain products (ie grain-based yeasts) making it suitable for the grain-free festival. Then there's wine which can be poured by a non-observant Jew. Traditionally Yayin Mevushal, as it's known, involved boiling the wine to ensure that "heathens" would not recognise it as wine and use it for their own religious ceremonies. If that seemed a little drastic, flash pasteurisation is now used, although whether or not this avoids damage to the wine is a moot point.

The Israeli wine industry was established in the last century by Edmond Rothschild at Rishon le-Zion with vine cuttings from Kashmir. By the early Nineties, there were 2,200 hectares under vine, producing the equivalent of 20 million bottles a year. To enable Israel, a hot country, to compete effectively, modern winemaking techniques such as picking the grape at optimum ripeness, temperature control and the use of new oak barrels have been introduced at Baron Cellars and Golan Heights. As a result, wine quality has soared. Typical of the new style is the 1995 Gamla Cabernet Sauvignon, an attractive claret-style red made by the California-trained winemaker, Victor Schoenfeld. Golan also produces the superior, if more expensive, Yarden range, which includes a Cabernet Sauvignon and the Yarden sparkling wine which is sold by Marks & Spencer for pounds 9.99.

Schoenfeld works with Peter Stern, who makes the Baron Herzog range of wines for Kedem in California. Stern started his business in 1981 and has done much to reduce sugar levels and introduce cold fermentation for the Gamay grape since, improving both the Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay. "For some reason there is a stigma attached to kosher wine," says Stern. "But with the higher quality products we are now producing, kosher wines are starting to become more appreciated." Kedem sells around half a million cases of kosher wines which are produced not just in the States but also in Israel, Italy, France, Chile and, shortly, Australia. According to managing director, Nathan Herzog, "demand is growing rapidly and not just from orthodox Jews but from non-Jews as well".

Probably the most famous Jewish name associated with wine is Rothschild. At the Rothschild property of Chateau Clarke in the Medoc, Pierre Midownick makes 2,000 cases of kosher red Bordeaux under the name Haut-Medoc Barons Benjamin et Edmond de Rothschild. His other kosher wines, all French, include wines from Chateau Giscours and Yon Figeac, as well as Sauternes, Loire, Chablis Domaine de la Tortue and Jeanmaire Champagne. "The image of kosher wine is not very good but that is now changing. The fact that's it's kosher shouldn't mean it's inferior. There is a lot of good kosher produce in the world," says Midownick.

The newest kosher wine, out only last month, is Tio Pepe Kosher Sherry the result of a project evolved over the last five years with Gonzalez Byass, the Sherry bodega, together with Kosher Wines International and the London-based Beth Din, which gives the kosher seal of approval to foods and wines.

Production, from the receipt of grapes through pressing and ageing in criadcras (top and middle row barrels) and soleras (bottom row with the oldest wine), has been the responsibility of a special group of rabbis with the assistance of Gonzalez Byass's experts. It's not one to be passed over

White of the week

Tio Pepe Kosher Sherry, pounds 10.45-pounds 13.50, Amazing Grapes, London NW4 (0181- 202 2631). Sussers, London NW11 (0181-455 4336). Savoury and dry with a sourdough, Marmitey touch to it from the yeast activity, it has a refreshing aroma from the film of "flor" (literally flower) yeast under which the wine sits when it is slowly fermenting in cask and finishes bone dry and refreshing.

Red of the week

1995 Gamla Cabernet Sauvignon, pounds 8.45-pounds 8.99, Amazing Grapes, Sussers, Selfridges, London W1 (0171-629 1234). A claret-like red made from 100 per cent Cabernet Sauvignon with an attractive blackcurranty aroma and a touch of French oak imparting a lightly cedary, spicy quality to the cassis-like fruitiness.