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Kosher Cabernet Sauvignon for Passover

Wine Reviews
Written by Fred Swan
Thursday, 19 March 2009 06:04

It’s fortunate for people who keep kosher that there was no commandment against coveting thy neighbors wine. Only a tiny fraction of all wine released is kosher. Much of the kosher wine that is sold does not provide a drinking experience which is entirely positive, let alone similar to that of the best non-kosher wines. And the availability of terroir-reflective wines, which many of us take for granted, is almost nil when it comes to kosher bottlings.


The good news is that some dedicated people are trying to change this. For example, Covenant Wines is focused on providing top notch Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon that is kosher. We recently purchased a bottle each of their two 2006 releases to try.

Jeff Morgan of Covenant Wines

Before we get into the wines themselves though, or the details on Covenant Wines, let’s take a step back for a moment. What is kosher wine? How is it different from “regular” wine?


The difference between kosher and non-kosher wine is in the treatment of the grapes once they arrive at the winemaking facility. Up until that time, the grapes are just grapes. They can be grown anywhere in any fashion. The grapes can be of any variety and can be handled by the same people who would tend any vineyard. But once those grapes arrive at the winemaking facility, they are considered wine. All wine is considered to be kosher until its handling renders it non-kosher.


To remain kosher, wine must be handled only by Sabbath-observant Jews. Should the wine be handled by anyone else it is no longer kosher. And anything that is added to the wine during the winemaking process must be kosher too.


There is no technical reason why kosher wine should be inferior to non-kosher wines. Many makers of non-kosher wines use ingredients that are considered kosher. They do this not for religious purposes, but because they believe it yields better wine.


quot;color: #000000; font-family: Helvetica, Arial, sans-serif; font-size: 14px; font-style: normal; font-variant: normal; font-weight: 400; letter-spacing: 0px; line-height: 17px; opacity: 1; padding-bottom: 0px; padding-top: 0px; text-align: left; text-decoration: none; text-indent: 0px; text-transform: none; margin: 0px" class="paragraph_style_2">For example, natural yeasts are kosher. Many winemakers think that using natural yeasts  creates a more interesting, terroir-reflective wine. But, if a kosher winemaker believes that the natural yeasts may be ineffective, he can still use commercial yeast. He just needs to ensure that those yeasts have been certified as kosher.


Similarly, it is kosher to use the whites from unfertilized eggs to fine a wine. And this is a process used by many wineries including the best chateaux of Bordeaux. On the other hand,fining agents generated from sturgeon bladder are not acceptable because sturgeon is not kosher.


If the wine is to be used for Passover, no flour should be used in its production. Again, this is not a big deal as flour is rarely used in the making of quality wine.


For most red wines oak barrels are a key “ingredient” in the wines flavor. Fortunately, standard barrels may be used for kosher wines. This means that kosher winemakers still have access to their “spice rack.” And sulfite, the magic purifying agent used by almost all wineries, is also perfectly fine for use in kosher wine.


Most of the unique challenges in making kosher wine are actually related to manpower, since the wine can be worked on only by Sabbath-observant Jews. In Israel that is not much of a problem. In most other places, including the wine country of Northern California, finding enough experienced cellar workers who are Sabbath-observant Jews to put out a commercial volume of quality Kosher wine is difficult.


There is one unique “technical” process that is required if a kosher wine is to be designated mevushal. The wine must be heated to a purifying temperature, typically through flash-pasteurization. There is some debate as to whether or not this process hurts the flavors of a wine and many “regular” low-price, high-volume wines are flash-pasteurized so as to take no chances with contamination. However, most chefs will tell you that high heat means death to bright fruit flavors. That spells trouble for fine wines. But not all kosher wine need be mevushal.


What’s the benefit of mevushal wine? If a bottle of kosher wine is opened or handled (ex. poured) by someone other than a Sabbath-observant Jew, then that wine is no longer considered kosher unless the wine is mevushal. Mevushal wines are considered sufficiently purified that they may be handled by anybody. So, if a kosher wine is to be consumed at home by Sabbath-observant Jews or in a restaurant with such people available to handle wine service, it is not necessary for a wine to be mevushal. And, of course, one can always insist on pouring one’s own wine at a restaurant. Don’t insist on buying cooked wine if you don’t need to.


And that brings us back to Covenant Wines. Their goal is to provide wine that is as good as the top non-kosher wines. To that end, they do not flash pasteurize and therefore their wines are non-mevushal.


When it comes to the big problem of finding cellar workers, Covenant Wines initially solved it by making an arrangement with Herzog Wine Cellars. Herzog has been making kosher wine in southern California since 1985. However, as of the 2008 vintage, the Covenant wines are made at Raymond Vineyards in St. HelenaProduction will continue to be under the supervision of the Orthodox Union (OU), the world’s most recognized kosher certification organization. Since Raymond is much closer to the vineyards and to Covenant’s base of operations, it is a much more convenient location for them.


This will also make it easier for Covenant to expand their offering. Beginning with the 2008 vintage, they will be releasing two additional wines. Lavan is a Chardonnay that uses grapes from the Bacigalupi Vineyard in the Russian River Valley. The other wine will be called “Solomon’s Vineyard” and is a Cabernet Sauvignon based on grapes from Rudd vineyards in Oakville and Mt. Veeder.


For now, Covenant Wines current releases are two 100% Cabernet Sauvignon wines from the 2006 vintage. Both wines are unfiltered and aged in French oak. The flagship wine, Covenant, is based solely on grapes from Block A5 of the Larkmead Vineyards just north of St. Helena. Block A5 is a three-acre, L-shaped plot right next to the vineyard owner’s house. The vines are all cane-pruned, clone 7.


The other Covenant Wines release, Red C, is made predominantly of St. Helena fruit, clones 337 and 8, from the Young Vineyard. However, the Red C also includes a bit of both press and free run juice from Covenant’s Larkmead Vineyard grapes.


Covenant and Red C are both serious and powerful wines as one would expect from luxury bottlings of Napa Valley Cabernet. These aren’t wines to drink within ten minutes of opening or for serving with chicken salad. They are full-bodied, well-extracted wines built to age well and/or to be consumed with serious meat dishes. I highly recommend at least an hour of decanting; more is better. Braised beef and lamb would be good dinner partners for the wine.


I decanted both wines for about an hour before taking my first serious sips. I watched the wine evolve over several hours and then checked in on the remaining drams (which had been sealed and refrigerated, but not vacuumed) the next day.


When opening Covenant, I was greeted by aromas of black cherry, blackberry, oak and cedary, cigar-boxy spiciness. It rapidly closed down but opened up again after time in the decanter. The aromas remained consistent at that point and the same things were evident in the flavor, along with a heap of dark chocolate. The mouthfeel was very nice with powdery tannins and a rich viscosity that persisted with the bitter chocolate in a medium to medium plus finish. When sampling the wine again the next day (at a proper temperature of course), the strength of the oak had receded a bit. This allowed aromas of bacon, mint and dried herb to join the party.


The Red C had more herbal notes, including mint, eucalyptus and rosemary, from the beginning. It’s oak seemed a bit more mildly toasty so there was less of the extra dark chocolate. The fruit also remained more forward from the outset and smelled pleasantly of candied cherries. Again, the fruit and chocolate flavors were consistent with the nose. Though if marionberries are a fruit you’re familiar with, you can taste them along with the cherry. The Red C also provided interest on the second day. It’s flavors then included dried cranberry and caramel with some cocoa nib on the finish.


The Red C sells for $42 and Covenant is $90 which means that some people will see them as special occasion wines. That is fair enough. The Covenant in particular comes in a beautiful and extremely heavy bottle that will present very well at a special dinner. However, when considered with the prices of other ambitious, French-oak aged Cabernet Sauvignon wines from premium Napa Valley vineyards, Covenant Wines offerings are well within the realm of “normal.” In fact, finding good Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon for less than $50 is pretty rare these days, so the Red C is a really good deal. And, when you take into account the extra care, more expensive labor, and limited production levels involved in these wines plus the lack of any other kosher wines in the same category, Covenant is very competitive too. So, create yourself a special occasion and try the wines for yourself.


They are available at many premium wine sellers and also directly from Covenant Wines via the web. If you want to get some for Passover, act quickly though. Supply is limited. And, they are running a special deal for Passover. Any online purchase from Covenant Wines through Passover comes with free shipping and a 10% discount. If you want to try a wine with a bit of age on it, I understand Covenant Wines also has a little bit of the 2003 Covenant on hand for $150 per bottle.


The vintners of Covenant Wines are Jeff Morgan and Leslie Rudd. Jeff has a broad range of experience in the wine industry, from winemaking to writing and wine education. He has been widely published in magazines and is the author of several books, including Dean & Deluca: The Food and Wine Cookbook and The Plumpjack Cookbook: Great Meals for Good Living. He served as West Coast editor for Wine Spectator magazine, including being a member of its tasting panel, and was also wine director at Dean & Deluca for some time. In addition to his current work with Covenant Wines and as a consultant to other wineries, he is an instructor the the Culinary Institute of America’s Rudd Center for Professional Wine Studies.


Leslie Rudd is the owner of the respected Rudd Vineyards & Winery in Napa Valley’s Oakville district. In addition to managing the Rudd business, he manages Standard Beverage (founded by his parents in 1949) and is chairman of Dean & Deluca.


This article is original to Copyright 2009 NorCal Wine. All rights reserved.


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