In the past 4+ years living in Spain, I’ve seen my fair share of Spanish and Portuguese wineries. From old, rancid smelling and spiderweb infested bodegas making drop dead gorgeous wines to sleek and modern wineries who couldn’t make a decent bottle of wine if their life depended on it, my experiences have been vast and memorable. But never in my life have I ever experienced a time when I walked into a winery making Kosher wine and was told, in a manner of speaking, “I’m sorry, but you can’t actually see the wine, both because you are impure as a non Sabbath-observant Jew and because you’re a woman.”
Gives you a moment of pause doesn’t it? My following thought was, “Am I so powerful that I can actually make an entire vat of wine turn into vinegar just by looking at it?! How many people, or things, have I made impure in my life? If only I had known the breadth of my powers earlier!” Sarcasm aside, the fact that I cannot look at the wine, touch the wine, or get near the wine as a woman or a non Sabbath-observant male Jew, is astounding, simply because it goes beyond logic for me. However, I tend to believe that religion and logic are mutually exclusive; and therefore, cannot judge the situation in this light, but I can be open to learning how people’s beliefs influence their actions. Enter stage left: Kosher wine in Spain!
Last week, while visiting the Capçanes winery in Montsant, we visited the very first winery in Spain to produce a Kosher wine in the 20th century. Mind you, Kosher wine has been in existence since 636 AD in Israel, and may have been in Spain prior to Capçanes innovative spirit. The history of Judaism in Spain dates back to Roman times, while some research even suggests that they may have inhabited the country earlier than the 3rd century. And what you may not know is that Spanish Jews were one of the largest Jewish communities worldwide, living peacefully under both Muslim and Christian rule until that fateful year 1492 when Isabel and Ferdinand expelled them during the inquisition. Currently, there are approximately 40,000 Jews living in Spain, and of that very healthy percentage, there is clearly a strong contingent of wine aficionados. (Photo from ICEX)
Capçanes dates back to the 19th century and was one of the many victims of phylloxera in Spain. Wiped out and under resourced, it wasn’t until 1933 when 5 families joined forces to create the cooperative of Capçanes. Over the years, they grew at a steady pace, but it wasn’t until 1995 when a Jewish family from Barcelona requested that they make the first Kosher wine in Spain that times truly changed for Capçanes. As taken from their website, “This demanded the installation of new equipment allowing the winemakers to identify, isolate and vinify under controlled “Lo Mebushal” conditions, small parcels of quality fruit.” Consequently, the Peraj Ha’abib (Flor de Primavera or Spring Flower) was the wine that placed Capçanes on the map worldwide.
What is Kosher Wine?
To answer this question I consulted a book given us by Richard Shaffer (Catavino’s Israeli wine guru) called, “Rogov’s Guide to Israeli Wines 2007” by Daniel Rogov. Rogov is considered Israel’s pre-eminent wine critic and was kind enough to provide us with the 7 requirements that must be followed in order to produce a Kosher wine. As taken from his book:
- According to the practice known as orla, the grapes of new vines cannot be used for winemaking until the fourth year of planting.
- No other fruits or vegetables may be grown in between the rows of the vines (kalai hakerem)
- After the first harvest, the field must lie fallow every seventh year. Each of these sabbatical years is known as shnat shmita.
- From the onset of the harvest, only kosher tools and storage facilities may be used in the winemaking process, and all of the winemaking equipment must be cleaned [sometimes up to 7 times with hot water] to be certain that no foreign objects remain in the equipment or vats.
- From the moment the grapes reach the winery, only Sabbath observant [male] Jews are allowed to come in contact with the wine. [To be clear, Jewish women are allowed at Capcanes to harvest the grapes, but neither the winemaker at Capcanes nor any other non Sabbath observant male my look at, touch or get near the wine after it has entered the winery]
- All of the materials (e.g. yeasts) used in the production and clarification of the wines must be certified as kosher.
- A symbolic amount of wine, representing the tithe (truma vama’aser) once paid to the Temple in Jerusalem must be poured away from the tanks or barrels in which the wine is being made. [I don't now in Capcanes case, but is also given away to charity by some wineries producing Kosher wines]
As explained by Inka Jechova, our trusty winery guide, on strictly a winemaking level, a Kosher wine proves to be a challenge to any winemaker. The winemaker may not have any contact with his wine other than through the Rabbi. Which means, that if the winemaker at Capçanes wants to check on his wine, he must ask the Rabbi to come in from Barcelona and take out a sample for him to both see and taste.
On a very personal, I found the process fascinating and had wished the Rabbi was there so that I could ask him a few questions. I wanted to understand every detail of the winemaking process from start to finish. Does the winemaker give him a list of instructions? How many Sabbath-observant Jews decide to become full fledged winemakers? Is language an issue both on a very practical level, but also on a technical level?
Currently, there are Kosher wines being made in DO Penedés (cava), Rioja, Priorat, Yecla, Montsant, Tarragona and Ribera del Duero. If you’re interested in getting more information on Kosher wine, you can head over to the Kosher Wine Society, or read several tasting notes on Spanish Kosher wines at Verema and El Gran Catador.
As to the 2006 Peraj Ha’abib (not 2005 as indicated on the adjacent photo), it is made with 35% Cabernet Sauvignon, 35% Garnatxa Negra and 30% Samsó and aged for 12 months in new and one year old, mainly (honestly not sure what “mainly” means, because I didn’t think you could use a barrel that wasn’t Kosher, but that is what I was told) Kosher French oak barrels. Overall, we both enjoyed this wine immensely, but it is a monster wine that needs to develop. The wine is incredibly dark in color with a fabulous black cherry, chocolate and floral nose. In the mouth, the Peraj Ha’abib showed medium fine tannins, fresh acidity and a round mouthfeel, ebbing to a long, lush dark spice and red fruit finish. Definitely a fun wine, and worthy accolades, but as mentioned, lay this bottle for awhile before popping the cork.
Now it’s your turn. Tell us your experience with Kosher wines. Have you encountered a difference between Kosher and non-Kosher wine? Do you like Kosher wines? And just out of my own personal curiosity, do you think it is humanly possible to make a wine impure by looking at it?