A Brief History of Kosher Wine

The Jews may have the oldest codified relationship to wine of any people on earth, but kosher wine ironically is best known for its “unorthodox”taste. In the context of Jewish history, this dubious distinction is understandable. Thousands of years ago, the Jews lived in the Holy Land, where grape growing and wine making were common practice. But after the Roman conquest of Jerusalem some 2000 years ago, the Jews began a long period of wandering known as the Diaspora, which presented them with a serious enological challenge. Rarely were their new homes in exile blessed with vineyards such as those previously known in their ancestral land.

Nevertheless, tradition as well as religion mandated the drinking of wine, and vintners did their best with whatever means were at their disposition. Wine was even made from dried raisins when necessary. Apparently the socio-economic status of the Jewish people in exile did not facilitate a steady supply of grapes worthy of a first growth Bordeaux! In fact, in Europe Jews were often proscribed from owning the land necessary to grow grapes.

A century ago, Jewish immigrants to America found local Concord grapes to be plentiful. But the wine produced from these native American grapes had a so-called "foxy" character. Keeping the wines sweet made them more palatable, and this sweet style became synonymous with kosher wine.

Another point to remember is kosher wine isn’t a variety or category like Italian Wine or French wines are, Kosher wine can be made out of any grape variety, in any region in the world.   More recent history has been kinder to Jewish wine makers, and currently there is a revolution in quality among kosher wines the world over. These wines are made from such classic grape varieties as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc from both the New and Old World. With access to top notch grapes and contemporary cellar methods, kosher wine makers are now creating wines that may equal or surpass those that are not kosher. Indeed, it would appear that kosher wine makers have now restored the sensual quality of this sacred beverage to a level commensurate with its spiritual status.

What Makes Wine Kosher?

In Jewish tradition wine is an important part of many religious ceremonies. For this reason, a kosher wine at its most basic level is one handled only by strictly Sabbath-observant Jews. In addition, kosher wine makers can’t use any products, such as unauthorized yeasts or other potentially non-kosher ingredients that might fall outside the parameters of kosher convention. Kosher wine makers can, however, use natural, indigenous yeasts, such as those favored by many top winemakers in the U.S. and Europe.