What Kosher Wine Is, and Isn't
The most popular misconception about kosher wines is that they are blessed by rabbis. Quite to the contrary, wines are made kosher so that blessings can be made on and over them by just about anyone. There is absolutely no "hocus-pocus" involved in producing kosher wines. The word "kosher" means "proper" or "correct." There is a vast spectrum of kosher laws (or "Kashrut") running the gamut from the prohibition of mixing dairy and meat, to the list of prohibited and permitted animals and fish.
The roots of Kashrut are from the Torah (the Bible) where G-d sets down his regulations for what Jews may or may not eat.
Today, wine is still an elemental and essential component in Jewish sacramental services, both in the synagogue and at home. The saying of "kiddush," or the blessings over wine are critical for the observance of the Sabbath and holidays as well as for the wedding ceremony, circumcisions and other life cycle events. The kosher laws regarding wine have been refined and codified over the millennia by the rabbis so as to ensure maximal sanctity for this beverage. The purity and holiness of wine is an imperative due to wine's surrogate status for the sacrifices of old.
When one makes a blessing over wine, you are essentially asking for
World's First Wine Laws
Kosher wine laws are the oldest winemaking laws in the world. Spain and Portugal may wrangle over which has the oldest appellation control laws in the world without realizing that Jewish religious law regulating every aspect of kosher winemaking predates any other wine law by centuries.
Wine occupies a special place in the laws of Kashrut, compared to food. The grape is placed above all other fruits because of the precious wine that is pressed from its skin and, perhaps, because the intervention of man is not even needed to produce wine.
Wine on The Vine
As grapes ripen on the vine, they can attract birds. The birds peck at the fruit to get at the sweet flesh. With the skin broken, the microscopic yeasts in the bloom - the haze you often see on grapes - attack. The wild yeasts convert the sugar in the grapes to alcohol and, voila, instant fermentation. Without the help of man, nature has begun the process of making wine.
Birds and humans aren't the only creatures to recognize nature's magic. Toward harvest time, bees sip the nectar from the fermenting fruit and fall woozy to the ground. Vignerons picking the grape bunches at harvest have learned to let the bees be, to avert an onslaught.
Judaism recognizes this divine process, treating the grape with special reverence. It is only grapes from which we derive sacramental wine. And whenever there is wine on the table, we offer a prayer.
Our sages knew well the wonders of wine. No organism harmful to humans can live in it and it has been used medicinally virtually as long as it has been made. In fact, many recent studies by medical researchers around the globe reveal wine's (particularly red wine) beneficial nature towards combating heart and vascular diseases, some forms of cancer and even dementia.
Some Kashrut Specifics
Having accorded wine a status above all other manmade liquids - neither beer nor hard liquor carry its religious significance, as they are not made from grapes - the codifiers of Kashrut girded it with strict production requirements to guard its purity.
For example, no animal products may be allowed to taint the wine. Non-kosher winemakers often use egg whites or gelatin to clarify the wine. But kosher winemakers use bentonite, a clay material, to attract suspended particles and drag them down to the bottom of the barrel. And they never use animal bladders for filters.
Physical cleanliness, in addition to religious purity, is mandated. Tanks, crushers, presses and all equipment must be cleaned three times by modern steam cleaning, scalding hot water and when needed, blowtorches. All barrels must be brand new and/or used exclusively for kosher wines. No barrels used for non-kosher wines may be used in kosher winemaking.
There are two levels of kosher wine, that made through the normal processes of winemaking and that made with one extra process. That second process is called "Mevushal." Mevushal is the Hebrew word for "cooked."
For wine to retain its kosherness when opened and poured by a non-Jew, such as waiters, the laws of kashrut stipulate that the wine be made chemically different from non-kosher wine in every respect - in this case, that it be made Mevushal. A Mevushal wine retains its religious purity no matter who opens or pours it or drinks it. Modern technology allows the rules of fine wine production to merge satisfactorily with religious laws.
Making wine Mevushal is a process which brings the liquid to the boiling point, defined as heating it until air bubbles are brought to the surface and some wine is lost through evaporation. The point at which most modern kosher winemakers apply the heat is to what is called the "must," the slurry of grape solids and juice resulting from the grape pressing, is done before the fermentation process begins.
The modern technique of making wine Mevushal is to run the "must" quickly through a heat flash pasteurizing unit where the wine is quickly heated to at least 185 degrees Fahrenheit. The "must" is then cooled down just as quickly and the rest of the fermentation and winemaking process goes on.
Wine served at large functions invariably is Mevushal, as it retains its Kashrut quality even when the bottle is opened by gentile waiters and passed around the table at a mixed gathering.
Over the years, technology has whittled away at the difference between Mevushal and non-Mevushal wines. A recent study at the University of California at Davis, the nation's top winemaking school, has shown that it's impossible consistently to taste the difference between the two.
Also, only rabbinical supervisors (Mashgichim) are permitted to touch or handle the wine from the moment grapes are crushed until the wine is sealed with a cork and capsule into a bottle. (See "Kashrut" section of our website).
Wine for One and All
Abarbanel produces and imports both Mevushal and non-Mevushal wines for the convenience of all our customers. All our wines are kosher for Passover all year long and are produced that way from the outset. Since no Abarbanel products have additives such as sugar, corn syrup or fermentation yeast derived from grain or animal based sources, it is simple to be "kosher for Passover" when the wines are initially produced.
The laws of Kashrut also include "Shmita," or the sabbatical year, which the Torah requires that vineyards lie fallow and no harvest be made once every seven years and again on the 50th, or jubilee year. Shmitta only applies to vineyards in the Land of Israel. The most recent shmitta year was the 2001 vintage. Consequently, you will find no 2001 vintage Israeli wine products in our portfolio. Other requirements include Trumot and Maaserot, which directs that a small portion of wine be poured away (see "Kashrut" page) to symbolize the tithes paid to the Temple and the priests (Kohanim) when the temple stood. Kosher wines do not demand Jewish-owned vineyards as all grapes, as fruit, are inherently kosher. Kosher winemaking laws only come into force from the moment of crushing the grapes and the process of making juice begins.
The Abarbanel family is meticulous in producing its wines in observance of the laws of Kashrut as well as the most advanced winemaking techniques.
A major rule of kosher winemaking for the Abarbanel family is this: It must taste good. The Abarbanel family has been drinking wine longer than many others. The family can document its history at least as far back as King David and traces its current lineage to one of the great sages of Jewish history, Don Isaac Abarbanel, known as "The Abarbanel" in his days of Torah commentary and counseling kings and queens such as Spain's Ferdinand and Isabella, among others.
The past fifteen years has seen a revolution in the quality, scope, variety and caliber of kosher wines from all parts of the world. For the past 11 years the ancient Abarbanel name has appeared on the fronts or backs of some of the world's most outstanding kosher wines - a blending of ancient sanctity with 21st century winemaking all L'kavod Hashem, for the glory of G-d, on your Sabbath or yom tov table or for your celebration.