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Feature: Kosher wine is kosher in Israel

Posted: Monday, 20 February 2012 15:46

Feature: Kosher wine is kosher in Israel

Feb 20 : Although even experts cannot tell the difference in the perfumes or flavours of Kosher and non-Kosher wines in a blind tasting, there are tedious and clear-cut religious differences in the wine making process that must be understood and followed diligently, writes our regular contributor John Salvi MW who was recently in Israel for several days, visiting wineries like Barkan and Vitkin

After spending several days tasting in Israel, including three enchanting days as a guest of Barkan Winery and a visit and tasting at Vitkin Boutique Winery, it was fascinating to learn the difference between the process of making kosher and non-kosher wines and the rules and regulations that surround the former. In comparative blind tastings in Bordeaux, experts are known to be unable to tell the difference between kosher and non-kosher wines, including me. This is hardly surprising as they are fundamentally the same wines. 

The only difference is the religious rules that must be obeyed diligently, nay religiously in wine making process.

Women are a no-no

For the sake of this article it should be clarified that by Rabbinical definition, a religious Jew also described as an observant Jew, is a person who is uncompromising in his observance of all areas of Jewish Sabbath-law (kashrut) and other religious practices.  He is so approved only by the rabbi.  Otherwise a person is labelled as non-religious and is not permitted to touch kosher grape juice, wine or wine making materials. Women, even if deemed religious, are not permitted to work in contact with wine.

Only religious Jewish men are kosher

To start with, every worker- from the most senior to the most junior level, who will be in any way in touch with grape juice, wine or any wine making equipment or material (barrels, vats, pumps, etc.) has to be deemed religious (Shomer Shabbat).  Before he is employed for the job, a committee must look at his family background and his private life, especially whether he observes the SHABAT (Sabbath). 

Only the approved employees may touch any of the above.  Even the wine maker, if he or she is not kosher, which is the case for Irit Boxer of Barkan Winery and her father, may not touch.  She may only give the instructions and watch them carried out.  Whenever she goes to the bulk, bottle or barrel cellar, she has to be accompanied by a representative of the Rabbinical authority (Mashgi’ah Kashrut). He will follow her wherever she goes to see that she never touches anything deliberately or by mistake. This gentleman’s salary is paid by the winery. 

Should a barrel full of wine be touched by mistake, regardless of the volume or value it contains, the wine will be destroyed.  Worse, the same fate awaits a vat however large or precious.  Non-Kosher persons must be very careful never to slip or fall.  The only way to get around this, if it happens, is to offer such a barrel or vat to a non-kosher buyer, but it will have to be sold on the non-kosher market!  Even then this can only be done in very specific cases and depends upon the Mashgi’ah’s decision.

Premises that contain wine should be closed by a solid closure and this may only be locked and unlocked only by a religious person who holds the keys.  It happens occasionally that this person arrives late in the morning and the entire cellar staff has had to wait patiently until the gate is unlocked.

By law, wine may be made from fresh or dried grapes, but kosher wine must use kosher grapes.  A bottle of wine in a winery is untouchable by a non-religious person until it has been sealed and capsuled.  At this point there will be no further contact with the wine and anybody may handle it.  Just as wine in a vat, wine with only a cork is still not touchable as the cork would touch both the wine and the person handling the bottle.

Cooked Wine - Yayin Mevushal

There is a category called “cooked wine”- Yayin Mevushal.  This is a kosher wine heated to a certain temperature, normally using the process of flash pasteurisation, for a given time- generally about 85°C, for a few seconds.  Although the wine is kosher this process does affect the organoleptic qualities of the wine and is used for the lower end of the scale.  Experienced tasters have found that the organoleptic quality does not change in the beginning, but that the main effect is on the ability of the wine to age.

Never on a Sabbath

Naturally nothing at all can be done on the Sabbath.  All access is firmly under lock and key and the key holder is observing Shabbat.  One simply has to hope that there will be no accidents to vats or barrels that will cause loss of wine.  On a normal workday it has happened that a non-religious winemaker has seen wine running out of a vat due to a worker not properly closing a tap.  The winemaker must call for a religious worker to come and close the tap and watch the wine run out until their arrival however long this may take.

Kosher vine laws

What goes on in the vineyards is also strictly controlled by “kashrut” laws.  Anybody, religious or non-religious, may tend the vines and work the soil; Jewish year is agricultural, it runs from first September to end August.  The rule is that the fruit of the vine may not be used until the 4th year, but almost a year can be gained if the vines are planted before the beginning of the year.  However, if one wants to do this, they must be planted a minimum of 45 days before the beginning of the agricultural year.

For this reason most planting is done between mid-June and mid-July. Until the fruit may be used, either the flower buds must be removed to prevent fruit or the fruit must be destroyed.  Every seventh year the vineyard should lie fallow for one full year.  No vegetables or fruits may be cultivated between rows of vines.  The most rigorous controls by the rabbinical delegate are therefore during the third and seventh years.

The majority of picking in Israel is done by machine, but for top quality wines, or grapes that are picked by hand, a non-religious person is permitted to pick them.  It is when the person risks coming into contact with the juice that he/she is no longer permitted to handle them.  For this reason the person who tips the grapes into the waiting truck must be religious.  There is now juice present and he is in touch with the container.  There is some discussion about the truck driver, especially if he has to stop for petrol on the way back from vineyard to cellar.  Strictly applied, the truck, including the petrol cap, should not be touched by a non-religious person as there is grape juice in the truck

Strictly controlled processes

One of the more complex problems, and often a costly one, is the materials, particularly the chemicals used in wine; they must all be kosher. For example blood and gelatine are forbidden for fining. Bentonite is used (natural diatomaceous earth or Kieselguhr) for lesser wines and white of egg for the finer ones.  Products such as tartaric acid are used, but for such products it is difficult to find a kosher producer in Israel, especially if the needs of the wine producers are very small. 

It has been known for wine sediment to be collected from Israeli kosher wineries and sent to Italy, where they extract tartaric acid under kosher conditions and send it back to Israel.  Yeasts have to be cultured by kosher laboratories and are expensive.  Oak chips and oak powder are kosher produced in Israel.  Barrels are imported and may be handled by non-religious persons until they are filled with wine.  Nonetheless, they have to be made especially for kosher wineries, without the cereal based paste often used as a sealant between staves.  This because wine has to be even more strictly kosher for Passover (Pesach) when all cereals are forbidden. 

Applying kosher rules is even more strictly observed for Passover.  All this is expensive, as is the cost of calling a rabbi, whenever needed, and explains why kosher wines are nearly always more expensive than non-kosher.  Large wineries, such as Barkan, have their own rabbi and almost without exception these gentlemen are learned and erudite with an extensive knowledge of religious rules and regulations, even if these are subject to personal interpretations in many cases.

Wine drinking may not be kosher

Sometimes, if a non-religious person is having a meal with a bottle of wine and is joined by a particularly religious one, the latter will decline to drink the wine with him because, un-capsuled and uncorked, it has been handled by the former and become non-kosher.  For such highly observant Jews the religious theory is that wine consuming leads to social intercourse and frivolousness in decisions, possibly leading to a weakened sense of judgement that may result in the violation of the religious and moral laws.  Drinking wine in the company of gentiles may lead to intimacy that may lead to inter-marriage!

Being passionate is kosher

In spite of all the rules and regulation great wine is being made and great wine is being enjoyed.  More and more and more vineyards are being planted in Israel and ever finer wine is being drunk and enjoyed by discerning palates both on the Israeli market and in the world export markets.  They are enjoying considerable success.  The producers, who are mostly producing kosher wines, are passionate about what they do and totally undeterred and undismayed by any problems or restrictions that kosher wine-law may place in their path.

To a non-religious Jew or a gentile, this article and the process to make kosher wine may still sound utterly confusing but it is very kosher with the Israeli winemaker, who understands the cost implications of slip-ups and the procedure to make kosher wine and for whom it is an every-day routine to follow.


John Salvi, Master of Wine

Tag words: Kosher, Israel, Barkan, Vitkin



Charles Metcalfe Says:

Excellent and informative article, John. Is the kosher wine market a big one? Otherwise one would wonder at wineries jumping through all these religious hoops...

Posted @ March 09, 2012 15:32


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