Wine is an integral part of the Passover holiday. "It has come to be a symbol of joy and celebration," notes Rabbi David Segal. "Traditionally, the Passover seder includes four cups of wine, perhaps a sign of Passover's paramount importance as a celebration of freedom. Drinking wine, let alone four cups, is a sign of freedom, of being redeemed from bondage."
But what should go in those cups? It depends on how observant you are, of course, but if you're sticking to wines that are officially Kosher for Passover, you've probably seen the options multiply in recent years. We tasted our way through a case of these wines in search of the most delicious bottles. But first, a little background...
What Makes a Wine Kosher for Passover?
Passover wine has come so far from syrupy-sweet Manischewitz that it might be considered insulting to even mention those Concord-grape based beverages here. "Fine kosher wines are made the same way that fine non-kosher wines are made," says Jeff Morgan of Covenant wines in California's Napa Valley. "There is no kosher winemaking 'technique.'" What's required for the wine to be considered kosher, continues Morgan, "is that the wine be handled only by Sabbath-observant Jews. And there are plenty of fine winemakers and cellar workers who are Sabbath observant. Great grapes and skilled winemakers yield great wines—kosher or not."
Kosher wines must be produced without any non-kosher ingredients (such as non-kosher clarification agents, such as isinglass). Kosher-for-passover wines must be made in a cellar that's free of bread, dough, or grain products, or, perhaps most importantly, leavening agents (such as any non-kosher non-indigenous yeasts, which are often added in wineries to kickstart fermentation. There are some kosher-certified yeasts that are allowed for inoculation, though, and many kosher wineries do use them rather than waiting for indigenous yeasts to start fermenting the wine.)
You might have heard once that Passover wine has to be boiled. This isn't exactly true. There are basically two types of kosher wines: mevushal and non-mevushal. These days, mevushal wines are flash-pasteurized, and according to Jewish tradition, this type of wine can be opened and served by anyone (including non-Jews!) without altering its kosher status. Non-mevushal wines can still be kosher, but the strictly observant believe that those wines can only remain so if opened and poured by Sabbath-observant Jews. Many certified kosher-for-passover wines are non-mevushal these days—the info is always printed on the label if you're curious. Most of the wines in our lineup were non-mevushal.
Alright, let's get to what you should drink.
Perhaps the best Passover-approved white wines we tried were Sauvignon Blancs. We loved the bright and lively Dalton Oak Aged Fumé Blanc 2011 from Galilee in Israel, which is partially fermented and aged in oak casks for around 4 months, adding supple texture to a tangy, herbal wine with piercing acidity. It sells for around $16.
Covenant Wines in Napa Valley offers an unoaked single vineyard RED C Sauvignon Blanc Dry Creek Valley Allan Nelson Vineyard 2012 that balances rich texture with bright, fresh acidity that left a tangy lemon flavor lingering long after each sip was swallowed. Laced with light green herbal flavors, this elegant Sauvignon Blanc sells for around $24.
We started in Israel. Yarden's Mt Hermon White Blend 2011—a mix of Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc with a little Semillon—is a budget-friendly pick at $12. The blend is effusively floral, popping with flavors that will remind you of honeydew and rich mango nectar. Serve it with appetizers: a salad with tarragon and lightly smoked trout would be perfect.
For those who prefer less floral wines, Dalton Safsufa Vineyards Chardonnay, Semillon, Viognier 2012 blend is an easy-drinking option that balances silky richness with bright fruit (plus a touch of crisp acidity.) It sells for around $15.
Dalton's Unoaked Galilee Chardonnay 2012 was fermented in stainless steel and allowed to rest on the lees for a month; the result is mellow and smooth, full of ripe yellow apple flavor and a touch of mango. Though we found the finish a little offputting, this silky wine is a good under-$20 option.
Covenant Wines in Napa Valley makes a silky and decadent Chardonnay called Lavan from the Bacigalupi Vineyard in California's Russian River Valley that's fermented and aged in French oak barrels for 12 to 14 months. (We found it a bit too vanilla-scented for our taste, but your mileage may vary depending on how much you like oak.) It sells for $38 a bottle.
We weren't wild about Yarden's super-oaky Chardonnay, but if you're looking for bubbles, Yarden offers a festive sparkling 2005 Yarden Blanc de Blancs that's rich but balanced with a nice lemony tartness and sells for around $25. Serve this sparkling Golan Heights-grown Chardonnay with an earthy appetizer of chicken-liver paté (served on matzoh, of course)—whatever's left over will go nicely with a main course of roast chicken.
The Red C Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2010 ($44) from Covenant is rich and dense, ready for sipping with brisket or other red meat. It has a vein of iron and tomato paste running through it, almost salty, and it seems spiced with fennel seed and juniper. While this is certainly a muscular wine, there's a bit of acid to lift it.
Yarden's 2008 Cabernet Galilee (around $35) is a bit more peppery, with purple fruit flavors that tend toward raisin and sweet fig. (There's a little merlot in the blend.) It would be lovely with braised poultry and anything cooked with cloves, dates, saffron, anise, or citrus. If your seder meal borrows from Sephardic tradition, this might be the ideal wine to pour. It was one of our favorites of all of the Passover bottles we tried.
Your options beyond Cabernet include Dalton's 2009 Alma Shiraz Mourvedre Viognier (around $25) blend, a smooth cocoa and black currant-laced shiraz with just a little peppery spice from the mourvedre, and the earthy, almosty meaty Dalton Oak Aged Shiraz 2010 (around $22).
Wines provided as samples for review consideration.