There is a law recorded in the Bible which states that every seventh year, the fields should be left fallow and allowed to rest. This is known in Hebrew as ‘Shmittah.’
The custom of a ‘day of rest’ or a ‘year off’ was given to the world by the Jewish faith. The Sabbath and ‘Sabbatical year’ that are well known in the western world, are the results of this.
From an agricultural point of view, this makes good sense. Farmers have always implemented crop rotation or nitrogen cycles to put the good back into the soil. However adherence to this as far the Jewish religion is concerned, has become more symbolic due to economic realities. For instance it is simply not viable to practice crop rotation when growing vines.
From a moral point of view, the Shmittah year gives a strong message of social justice and egalitarianism. The concept of giving the land and its workers a one year sabbatical and reserving part of the harvest for the poor or disadvantaged, was a socially progressive idea in Biblical times. These practices address the profoundest issues of spirituality v.’s materialism.
From the religious viewpoint, the Rabbis have come up with their own solutions. The flexibility stems from economic concerns. A year without wine would cripple wineries and vineyard owners. Therefore a special dispensation is given to relieve farmers of this requirement and the land is symbolically sold to a non Jew for the duration of the seventh year. This is known as the ‘Heter Mehira’.
An alternative is to put the winery under the supervision of a Rabbinical board who are known as an Otzar Beit Din. This is part symbolic but also gives a semblance of control allowing many religious people flexibility to be able to enjoy a Jewish wine made in the Shmittah year.
To generalize, a strictly ultra-orthodox Jew will not drink a wine produced in ‘The Land of Israel’ during the Shmittah year. An orthodox Jew may drink a wine from Shmittah year, if it has a Heter Mehira or if it made under the auspices of an Otzar Beit Din. A regular, secular Jew, by far the majority of the Jewish population, will drink any wine from this particular year.
Shmittah occurs every 7 years. The last one was 2001 and the current one relates to 2008. It only applies to kosher wine produced in Israel. Kosher wine produced abroad is not under any kind of restriction.
From a wine point of view, the same winemaking practices apply. The winemaker’s task is to make the best wine he can from this particular vintage and wine professionals will not notice anything different about the quality and style of the finished wine.
In the end, the policy is that everyone’s interests are looked after. The religious Jew, Rabbi, winemaker and vineyard owner are each loyal to their own truth and do enough to satisfy the other, without compromising in their core beliefs. The information a religious Jew needs to make his decision is written in small lettering on the back label. However in a Shmittah year wine is made, as in every year. Those ‘not permitted’ to drink it will buy a non Israeli kosher wine or will choose an Israeli wine but not from the 2008 vintage. Others will taste and enjoy their wines as though it was a regular vintage.