CLOYINGLY SWEET!" That is how most people have been likely to describe kosher Passover wines -- until now. Times and wines are changing. Indeed, we are witnessing a revolution in kosher wine: Dry French, Italian, and California wines are joining ranks previously filled mostly with bottlings from Israel and New York. And even more exciting is the appearance of many varietal and controlled appellation wines: chenin blanc, chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, cabernet, bordeaux and soave, to name a few -- and all of them dry.
This year, at least 25 dry kosher wines are available for Passover use. So, no matter how elaborate a dinner, there is a kosher wine to accompany each course.
Native American grapes such as the concord were, until recently, all that were available for winemaking in the Northeast. The concord in particular needs to be heavily sugared to be made into wine. Moreover, the "Welch's grape juice" flavor of concord is discordant as a dry wine. But the growing interest of Americans in wine has led to the extensive cultivation of European wine grapes -- which make good dry wines -- in the U.S. and has fostered a market for imported dry kosher wines.
Unfortunately for the wine lover, the dry kosher wine revolution has not gone far enough. Only two of the 16 dry kosher wines I recently sampled at a double-blind tasting can be described as good. The rest were either "acceptable" or "disliked." As a class, the whites were better than the reds, with most of the latter showing poorly. These judgments incorporate the opinions of selected wine experts and casual wine drinkers who were at the tasting.
Part of the quality problem may be due to the way in which the wines are made kosher. Basically, to be kosher the wine must be handled only by religiously observant Jews from the time it becomes wine throughout any time the wine is unsealed, and may not come into contact with non-kosher foods or utensils. In addition, the winery must be closed on the Sabbath and Jewish holidays. For Passover, contact with leavened grain products must also be avoided. For example, grain alcohol cannot be used to fortify a port or sherry for Passover use. So far, so good. None of these steps should detract from the quality of the wine. But many wineries take the process one step further to allow the wine to remain kosher even if it is opened by non-Jews: at some point during vinification either the grapes or the wine is boiled. (The Hebrew words "yayin mevushal" generally appear on the label of such wine.) This treatment is bound to impair the quality of the final product.
Nine whites and seven red wines, all dry, were evaluated. Of these, two were oxidized and were not included in the ratings below. We also tasted three sweet wines. By far the best was a Bartenura Asti-Spumante, a semi-sweet Italian sparkling wine. In fact, it received the highest rating of any wine -- dry or sweet -- we tasted. But at $7 a bottle it was also the most expensive. It would make an excellent dessert wine or a nice alternative to a still wine for those people who don't care for dry wines.
Not all wine stores carry kosher wines. Most stores that do stock them carry those produced or distributed by Manischewitz. Carmel wines might be a bit harder to find. So far, in the District of Columbia, only Central carries Kedem products, though at least one other store in town was hoping to get them before Passover. Morris Miller, near Silver Spring, has a large selection of Manischewitz and Carmel wines. WHITES RECOMMENDED
Kedem American Chenin Blanc 1980, California, about $3.50. Light, pleasant, fruity aroma. Good fruity flavor with a bit of character. It was dry but not bone dry. Would be good with chicken, turkey or veal, or dairy dishes.
Manischewitz San Luis Obispo Pinot Chardonnay 1979, California, about $4.50. Clean citrusy aroma. It had good body, a nice fruity flavor, and good acidity which offset a touch of sweetness. No chardonnay character but a pleasant wine. Its tartness makes it a good match for fish as well as fowl. ACCEPTABLE
Bartenura Soave 1980, Italy, distributed by Kedem, about $4.50. Very light, nearly-absent vinous aroma. Dry, with little character. Overpriced for a soave.
Manischewitz Mendocino French Colombard 1979 , California, about $4.50. Appealing, citrusy aroma. In the mouth it was dry, fruity, citrusy, simple, and tart, though not completely dry. In style it bears some resemblance to a dry German wine. It would go well with turkey and perhaps chicken or fish. DISLIKED
Carmel emerald riesling 1978 , Israel, about $3.90. Light aroma of overripe grapes. Thin, watery overripe taste, tart and dry.
Kedem Seyval Blanc 1979 , New York, about $3.50. Hardly any aroma. Little flavor, dry, characterless, and not particularly pleasant.
Chateau augey , non-vintage, Bordeaux, distributed by Kedem, about $5.00. Moderate earthy and almost pungent aroma. Flavor was nothing special and extremely tart, considered a major flaw by some tasters. If you like highly acidic wines you could serve this one with fish, but it may not please many people.
Carmel, sauvignon blanc 1979 , Israel, about $3.60. Off-aromas, poor balance and off-flavors. NOT EVALUATED
Carmel Chenin Blanc 1979 , Israel, about $3.60. Our bottle had spoiled. It was oxidized. REDS ACCEPTABLE
Chateau Le Pin , non-vintage, Bordeaux, distributed by Kedem, about $5.50. This wine has a typical cabernet aroma with an earthy character that suggested wet terracotta. It tasted tart, dry, earthy and like a cabernet with a good intensity of flavor and a hint of berries in the finish. It will go well with beef or lamb, though its earthy qualities will not appeal to everyone.
Manischewitz Argaman Atic , non-vintage, Israel, about $4. It had a light, berry and cherry aroma. It tasted smooth and fruity and was well balanced with a touch of sweetness. DISLIKED
Carmel Carignane , non vintage, Israel, about $3.25. Pungent, not-quite-clean aroma. It tasted dry, a little sharp and slightly oxidized.
Kedem de Chaunac 1977 , New York, about $3.50. This wine had a sweet, medicinal aroma, with an unpleasant flavor to match.
Carmel Select Cabernet Sauvignon 1975 , Israel, about $5. Off, earthy aroma. It had burnt, raisin, earth and barnyard flavors; very unpleasant.
Bartenura Valpolicella 1979 , Italy, distributed by Kedem, about $4.50. This wine had a pale ruby color; it could be mistaken for a rose. It had a sweet, cooked cherry, cough medicine-like aroma. It tasted slightly sweet and tart, with a thin, cooked cherry flavor. NOT EVALUATED
Carmel avdat , non-vintage, Israel, about $3 to $3.35. Our bottle was badly oxidized.