Since Rosh Hashana is all about clean slates and fresh starts, perhaps it’s time to give kosher wines another chance.
At least, that’s what Aron Ritter, enophile and founder of the New York-based Kosher Wine Society, says about the wines with a reputation for plonky sweetness and the Jewish new year (which this year begins Wednesday).
And a growing number of people seem to be listening. This year the society, now at 800 members, is holding its third “new wines for the New Year” tasting, featuring wines from several countries and including about two dozen Israeli wines new to the U.S. market.
“It’s a really cool concept,” says Ritter. “People love to come out and taste new wines, learn what’s new.”
Israeli wine doesn’t have a very high profile in the United States, but the winemaking tradition there stretches back thousands of years.
About 25 years ago, the industry was hit by the kind of reform movement that swept through New World winemaking as new apprentices studied enology in France and California, then took that expertise back home.
“You have all these wineries in Israel that start to say, ‘You know what? There is a market for good quality wine.’ They started to really cultivate the land to produce good quality grapes,” says Ritter.
One issue for kosher wine producers is overcoming the old image of kosher wine as a sweet, cheap product that dates from early producers who made wine in New York state using the Concord grape, which requires sugar to balance its acidity. With more producers making kosher wines out of premium grapes, such as cabernet sauvignon, that perception is changing.
At Carmel Winery, a major Israeli producer, there’s been a switch in strategy from exporting mostly sacramental wine to higher quality vintages, Adam Montefiore, wine development director, says in an e-mail. Carmel, which produces 15 million bottles annually, has a long history going back to 1882 when it was founded by Baron Edmond de Rothschild, owner of Chateau Lafite in Bordeaux.
Carmel, which produces 100 percent kosher wines, has nearly 3,500 acres of vineyards ranging from Upper Galilee in the north to Negev in the south.
Kosher wines are a small fraction of the overall wine market, but the segment is growing with more customers looking to upgrade to higher-quality bottles, says Gary Landsman, spokesman for Royal Wines, one of the largest importer, producer and distributors of kosher wine in North America.
“Ten years ago you would be hard-pressed to find a $30-plus bottle of kosher wine,” he says in an e-mail. “Now there are over 100 or more of these wines ... and they regularly sell out shortly after release, especially the highest-end wines, partly due to their scant allocation.”
The market has been driven by two things — customers developing more sophisticated tastes and competition in the kosher wine market that has driven up quality.
Kosher wines are being produced in all of the world’s major wine regions. In Israel, an emerging wine producer, most of the wines produced are kosher, Landsman said.
And the market isn’t limited to customers seeking products made in compliance with Jewish dietary laws.
“You are seeing non-kosher consumers purchasing kosher wines because they are good,” says Landsman.