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What is Kosher Wine?

With the Jewish holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur both in September, we thought some information was fitting.  But get ready, kosher wine is a bit complex.

The term kosher means “pure” or “fit.” Kosher wines are those that are fit for Sabbath-observant (Orthodox) Jews to drink. By law, such wines can only be handled by a Sabbath-observant Jew from the time the grapes enter the winery until the time the wine is bottled. A non-Jew or non-Sabbath-observant Jew can be involved in the winemaking, but he or she cannot handle the wine while it’s in barrels or tanks. Additionally, anything used in making a kosher wine—from yeasts to fining agents—must also be kosher.

Kosher wines come in two categories—mevushal and non-mevushal. In Hebrew, mevushal means “cooked” or “boiled.”

Non-mevushal kosher wine (wine that is not cooked) must be made, handled, bottled, certified, opened, and poured only by a Sabbath-observant Jew. It is, in a sense, the highest class of kosher wine. If a non-Jew touches a non mevushal wine, the wine in effect loses its spiritual essence and is considered unfit for sacramental use. Strictly-observant Jews will not drink a non-mevushal wine that has been touched by someone who isn’t Jewish and observant.

The second, and far more common type of kosher wine is mevushal. Mevushal wines are flash-pasteurized and can therefore be bought, opened, and shared among Jews and non-Jews, as well as non-observant Jews and observant Jews. Kosher wines served in restaurants and at catered events are always mevushal.

Religious scholars speculate that the reason for the two types goes far back in history. Traditionally, Jewish religious authorities knew that wine was used not just for sacramental purposes, but also socially. Wine eased and encouraged social interaction. It’s thought that early Jewish intellectuals may have feared such socializing, viewing it as the first step toward the disintegration of Jewish culture and the assimilation of Jews into other cultures. To mitigate this, two versions of Kosher wine would be made. Mevushal wine would be, quite literally, boiled, making it less palatable and potentially lower in quality, but also “morally sterilized.” Mevushal wine could therefore be shared by non-Jews and non-observant Jews with observant Jews.

Today mevushal wines are no longer boiled per se, and many are no longer flash pasteurized. Instead, during a method called flash-détente, the just-picked grapes (rather than the wine) are quickly heated and then rapidly cooled in a vacuum. Flash détente is gentler than flash pasteurization and has less impact on the flavor of the final wine. It has tended to close the flavor gap between mevushal and non-mevushal wines.

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