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KOSHER WINES DESERVE THEIR JUST DESSERTS

Notwithstanding the increase over the last few years in the sophistication, diversity, range and availability of kosher wines that has given the kosher consumer French Bordeaux, Californian cult Cabernet Sauvignon, true Champagne and many additional, other-worldly, treats; one great wine seems unable to shake the adage-old, pre-conceived, notion that kosher wine is bad.  Why don’t kosher dessert wines get any respect?

Part of the answer seems to derive from folk’s stubborn association of kosher sweet wine with the likes of Manischewitz, Malaga or Bartanura’s infamously blue-bottled Moscato D’Asti; as opposed to those delectably sweet, but still sophisticated dessert wines which while sweet, contain enough acidity and depth to be enjoyed by the sophisticated wine lover.  As an added bonus, these are great wines to introduce non-wine drinkers to a more serious wine as they are both sweet and accessible.  While we can only fantasize about a kosher Chateau d'Yquem, there are an increasing number of dessert wines from around the world that are more than worthy of your attention, palate and dollars.

While all grapes contain sugar, the fermentation process that converts the crushed grape juice into wine, converting most of that natural sugar into alcohol.  In order to create a sweet dessert with enough alcohol and acidity to keep from becoming heavy and flabby on your palate a number of methodologies are available.  What all these methods have in common is that they strive to increase the sugar level in the grape by eliminating as much of the water as possible (effectively dehydrating the grape).  The three most common methods are (i) leaving the grapes on the vines long past typical harvest (late-harvest wines), (ii) using frozen grapes (Icewine) or (iii) infecting them with a fungus that sucks out the water (Botrytis wines).  An additional method involves fortifying the wine with additional alcohol during the fermentation process (thus stopping the fermentation of the remaining sugars) which gives us Port – a topic for another time.  I have briefly described these three methods below, and provided tasting notes for some great wines in each category.

Of the three methodologies mentioned above, the easiest to produce are “late-harvest” wines.  Such wines are made by, as indicated by their name, harvesting the grapes much later than usual (which is usually early fall).  At that point the sugar level (or brix) is around 24-27% brix with levels going up to 40% for some late-harvested wines (the higher the brix, the sweeter the wine).  Riesling is one of the most popular grapes used to make late-harvest wine with good examples being the Teperberg Silver, Late Harvest White Riesling or Hagafen’s multiple late harvest White Riesling wines, but Chardonnay and Gewürztraminer are popular as well and the wines listed below are made from those two grapes.

Eiswein, or Icewine, is made from naturally or artificially frozen grapes.  When the water in the grapes freezes the sugars and other dissolved solids don’t, providing for a more concentrated grape must that is pressed from the frozen grapes.  This added concentration results in a significantly higher level of concentration of both the natural flavors of the grape and the residual sugar.  Unlike the Sauternes-based wines described below, grapes used to produce Icewine are kept free of the Botrytis fungus giving the wine its characteristic refreshing sweetness tempered by high acidity.  Natural ice wines require a very cold freeze (by law in Canada −8 °C or colder, and in Germany −7 °C or colder), which must occur after the grapes are ripe.  This means that the grapes may hang on the vines for several months following the normal harvest.  If a freeze does not come quickly enough, the grapes may rot and the crop will be lost.  If the freeze is too severe, no juice can be extracted.  As a result, natural harvests for ice wine are relatively rare (and very expensive).  While in Austria, Germany and Canada, the freeze must occur naturally to be deemed ice wine, in many other countries (including Israel) cryoextraction (mechanical freezing) is used to simulate the effect of a freeze which allows the grapes to hang for far less extended periods.  This is how Yarden’s Heightswine is made.

One of the most famous types of dessert wines - Sauternes wines – are grown in the Sauternes district of Graves in southern Bordeaux and are primarily produced using the Sémillon grape.  The most famous of these wines is Chateau d’Yquem (pronounced d’ee kem) which is the only wine Sauternes to receive the elite Premier Cru Supérieur classification.  The most famous aspect of these wines is that they are infected with Botrytis Cinerea, a fungus also known as the “Noble Rot”.  In addition to draining the water from the grape the fungus add a distinct character to the wine resulting in flavors of honey, heather and sunshine.  These wines are very labor intensive as the grapes are hand-picked, sometimes over a long period, in order to ensure that only infected grapes are selected and, as a result, yields are exceedingly low resulting in very expensive wines (d’Yquem wines can go for $10,000 a bottle from certain vintages).  Part of d’Yquem's greatness is its extreme longevity as bottles from 1893 are still drinking well and as they age, these wines grow deeper, darker and more mature.  Among kosher wines, As a result, a Sauternes wine is probably your best bet for a wine to put down for many years.  In Israel, Botrytis is found only sporadically and was only utilized naturally once – in the near mythical Yarden Late Harvest Sauvignon Blanc of 1988.  I had the opportunity to taste this magnificent wine once a number of years ago and could never locate a bottle for sale.  Yarden’s Noble Semillon (noted below) is made by introducing Botrytis to the grapes in a special environment within the winery and many wineries use small amounts of infected grapes in their late-harvest wines.  In addition to those from Sauternes, some other known Botrytis wines include those from Barsac or the Aszú wines of Tokaj Hungary.  A member of the most perfect food-pairing, matching so perfectly with Foie Gras that one is forgiven from wondering why bother eating anything else at all.

Below are a number of highly recommended wines made in the three various methodologies described below.  Given the incredible labor necessary to selectively harvest these grapes and the fact that yields are driven down so low, dessert wines tend to be more expensive than your regular dry table wines.  Coupled with their intense sweetness and appropriateness as a stand-alone dessert, these wines are regularly bottles in half (i.e. 375 ml) or slightly larger (i.e. 500 ml) sized bottles.

Shabbat Shalom,
Yossie

Late-Harvest

Hagafen, Prix Vineyards, Late Harvest Chardonnay, 2006:  A product of Hagafen’s “Prix” wine club, this wine is simply amazing!!  A very dark golden colored, full-bodied wine made from Chardonnay grapes with Botrytis elements felt throughout this wine.  Very sweet but with enough acidity to keep the sweetness (resulting from 18% brix) from overpowering the wine and its aromas and flavors.  On the nose citrus, apple orchards wet from summer rain and hints of caramel, spices and vanilla which follow through onto a delightful palate of sugar, more apples and limes all with intense hints of heathery Botrytis onto the long finish.  The wine is drinking nicely now and should cellar for at least another 4-5 years.

Carmel, Sha'al Single Vineyard, Late Harvest Gewürztraminer, 2006:  A great Israeli desert wine which gives the various Yarden dessert wines a serious run for their money and makes for a better buy.  A medium bodied and very sweet wine, the 2005 was rated a 90 by Robert Parker.  An extremely well made wine with great balance between the sweetness and bracing acidity.  While not a Botrytis wine per se, a portion of grapes used in the wine were infected with the noble rot giving it hints of heather and honey on the palate.  Very concentrated with the sweetness very upfront and not afraid to come out swinging.  You will find tingling spiciness and litchi fruits (which are both typical of the Gewürztraminer grape) on the nose and palate along with apricots, peaches, and juicy ripe tangerines with hints of honey and citrus on the medium finish.  One to stock up on and drink for the next 2-3 years - kudos to Carmel on a delicious and sophisticated wine!

Icewine

Hafner, Gruner Veltliner, Eiswein, Burgenland, Neusiedlersee, Austria, 2002:  Made from the most common grape planted in Austria, this wine is a magnificent example of a true Eiswein and a delicious treat.  Until the 1980’s Gruner Veltliner wines were mass-made commercial wines sold by the bucket in Vienna’s mass-market food and wine joints.  Despite their perceived lack of complexity, these wines went well with anything from potato salad to game dishes, from salamis to roast beef and lamb.  Starting in the 1980’s Gruner Veltliner wine underwent a revolution resulting from better care of the vineyards and more modern winemaking methods yielding wines that often attain excellence.  Located not far from Vienna on the shores of Lake Neusiderle, Hafner produces a number of kosher wines some excellent, some merely good.  This wine falls squarely in the excellent category.  Made in the traditional Eiswein manner, entirely from Gruner Veltliner grapes that were allowed to freeze on the vine.  A very sweet wine blessed with ample acidity to keep the sugars in check.  On both the nose and palate, dried summer fruits go nicely with typical spiciness.  Very enjoyable right now, this wine will cellar for another four years or so.

Golan Heights Winery, Yarden, Heightswine, 2007:  I love this wine which has been an annual and consistent hit of the Golan Heights Winery since the first year it was produced.  A rich and satisfying dessert wine made from Gewürztraminer grapes producing aromas and flavors of honey, apricots and other fresh summer fruits tinged with pleasant and not overwhelming spices, with a long caressing and slightly creamy finish.  Well worth trying.  The name “Heightswine” is a play on its origin (the Golan Heights) and production method (creating Icewine), as the winery utilized cryoextraction to manually freeze the grapes in the winery as opposed to the natural occurrence of such freezing in colder climates.

Botrytis

Langer, Tokaj, Aszú, 5 Puttonyos, 1998:  When compared to other Botrytis wines, one can easily discern a different style.  Currently in its prime, this wine is drinking beautifully with dried apricots, citrus peel, ripe honeydew and honeysuckle combining with cloves and other spices.  Less elegant a wine than the Yarden noted below, but with a long and lingering honey finish that makes this one a wine to remember.

Golan Heights Winery, Yarden, Noble Semillon, 2004:  Yarden’s top dessert wine is a full bodied powerhouse loaded with the deep honey flavors typical of Botrytis with a slightly spicy background to keep things interesting.  As opposed to the other Botrytis wines listed which contracted the fungus naturally on the vine; this wine was manually infected in a controlled environment at the winery.  Typical flavors of honeysuckle along with aromas and flavors on citrus, peach, melon and even some pineapple combine to make this wine a deeply satisfying experience from start through the long, lingering finish.

Chateau Guiraud, Sauternes 1er Cru, 2001:  One of the best kosher Sauternes available and in my opinion, one of the best kosher dessert wines out there period!  This dark, honey colored wine is loaded with aromas and flavors of peaches, apricot, apples, limes, clementines all with a Botrytis honeyed background and a tingling spiciness.  Relatively thick on the tongue but in no way flabby and with a long lingering finish, this is a treat to be savored as every sip will make you jump for joy as layer after layer of flavor presents itself.  At its prime now, this wine should cellar nicely for another ten years at least.  For some reason, the 1999 vintage is easier found and is almost as good.

Chateau de Fesles, Bonnezeaux, 1997:  I had the pleasure of tasting this wine recently and am sadly down to my last bottle.  In addition to the more famous Sauternes and Barsac dessert wines, wines from the Bonnezeaux region also produce magnificent Botrytis wines.  This sensuous wine from the Layon Valley is more intensely sweet than typical Sauternes like the Guiraud above, but contains plenty of bracing acidity that reins in the abundant sweetness.  Wonderful notes of nectarines, pineapple, white peaches, vanilla and honey along with hints of licorice.  An awesome match to some of my favorite all time foods – Foie Gras, fruit tarts, salty cheeses or Canard à l'Orange.

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Yossie Horwitz is a corporate lawyer by day and a constant oenophile.  He writes “Yossie’s Wine Recommendations”, a weekly newsletter exploring kosher wines, wineries and other assorted wine topics that was recently mentioned in the New York Times (http://nyti.ms/bYm4vU) and the Jewish Week (http://bit.ly/9uGovi).

You can sign up for his free weekly newsletter at: www.yossiescorkboard.com