What Is Kiddush Wine?
Wherever Jews have resided, there has always been home based wineries making wine for the Kiddush sanctification of the Sabbath. For the required blessing, grape beverages are necessary. Apart from a regular wine, either raisin wine or even grape juice is also suitable according to Jewish traditions, being regarded by Jewish law with the same reverence as wine.
Jewish agricultural laws, with regard to vineyards in the Land of Israel, go back to the Biblical times. The Kosher wine laws are from Talmudic times. However whereas wine is used in the Jewish faith for every festival or lifecycle event, it was never prescribed what sort of wine should be used.
Maimonides, the first Jewish wine connoisseur, had high standards. He suggested that ‘wine had to be red, it couldn’t be diluted with water or sweetened with sugar and it couldn’t have any off taste, vinegar, bacteria or oxidation. It should not be mevushal (flash pasteurized) wine. A wine had to be pure and of high quality.’ It is certainly not written anywhere that a Kiddush wine has to be sweet! So how did it come to pass that Kiddush wine became associated with sweet red wine?
In Eastern Europe, due to the scarcity of grapes, wine made from raisins was acceptable. Raisin wine may be made by the soaking of dried grapes in water. This was in vogue more in countries where vines where not grown, particularly in Poland and parts of Russia. These wines were weak and watery compared to wines that we know today, so the added sweetness was necessary to mask the taste and was also most welcome in the cold climate.
In America, Jewish immigrants made wine from a Labrusca grape variety called Concord in New York State. However the harvest often had to be brought forward to avoid bad weather, the grapes were often unripe and the resulting wines were thin and harsh. Therefore they had to be sweetened to be drinkable.
In Israel in the 19th century, wine was made from food or table grapes grown by Arabs in areas like Bethlehem and Hebron. In those days much of the wines drunk were naturally sweet, with added sugar or fortified with alcohol.
So sweetness became necessary for taste and it became the norm. Sweet wines were preferred by all the family and even the children could enjoy them. Furthermore, drinking by Jews in context with religious ritual was always in very strict moderation. A bottle was never finished. However, the sweetness acted as a preservative and ensured an opened bottle would last from week to week.
Price was also always an issue. Many Jewish communities were poor. Buying wine was an extravagance. So the chosen wine was often the cheapest, though of course it had to have the right hechsher or Kashrut certificate too. The basic sweet wines were the least expensive available.
Some believe the Kiddush ceremony is important enough to choose a special wine ‘to honor the Shabbat.’ However many wine mavens, even though they decry Kiddush wines for their low quality, will still use a sweet wine for Kiddush because of tradition. They will then revert to quality, dry wines for the rest of the meal.
So this is how it was. Habit became a tradition. Kiddush wine equaled sweet red wine, particularly in the Ashkenazi world. However this was not the case throughout the Jewish world. Sephardi Jews in traditional winemaking countries like Morocco for example, and later in France, would make Kiddush using dry red table wine. It would be unthinkable for them to use a sweet wine.
However things are changing elsewhere. Grape juice which has the same status in Jewish culture as wine, is particular popular in Israel. It is seen as healthier than Kiddush wine and more suitable for children. Many have reverted from Kiddush wines to using pure grape juice. Furthermore more and more people are using dry table wines for the Friday night blessings. Still, old habits die hard – it is true to say that many people continue to use the more traditional style of Kiddush wine.
The main wineries producing Kiddush wines are the more historic wineries in Israel: Carmel, Binyamina, Efrat, Arza, Zion and Hacormim. The total production of Kiddush wine is 3.5 to 4 million bottles a year, which represents more than 10% of Israel’s total wine production. So it is not an insignificant market sector. The same wineries also produce grape juice and up to 7 million bottles of grape juice are annually produced in Israel.
The most famous and biggest selling Kosher wines in the USA and UK are Manischewitz, and Palwin respectively. Both are Kiddush wines, which are mocked for their quality, mostly by the Jewish community itself, but still drunk in copious amounts. Both are sold in their respective countries, but curiously, not elsewhere with any success. Manischewitz is owned by Constellation Brands, the largest wine company in the world, and Palwin is owned by Carmel, the largest producer of Kosher wines in the world. Other famous brands are Kedem, owned by Royal Wine Corp, the world’s largest importer and distributor of Kosher wines, and Mogen David, owned by The Wine Group, Amerca’s third largest wine company.
The main Israeli Kiddush wines are as follows:
This has been a well-known Israeli brand for well over 30 years ago. It is made from Carignan, Cabernet Sauvignon and Petite Sirah grapes grown in the coastal region of Israel (Mount Carmel and the Shefela). Over 15% alcohol, it is sometimes referred to as a Red Liqueur Wine in Europe. It is fortified with the alcohol added on the grape skins. It is then aged in oak casks, (not new), for 5 to 6 years. Kadmon will appeal to those who are looking for a higher quality Kiddush wine. It is rich, sweet & well balanced, with an aroma of plums, nuts & dried fruit. It is produced at the Rishon Le Zion Winery.
King David Kiddush wines were introduced over 25 years ago to be an upgrade over the traditional range of Kiddush wines then in the market. King David Concorde is made in the ‘Concord style’ made famous by Jews in New York State. It is made from Carignan, Petite Sirah, Argaman and Concord grapes. A proportion of the wine is aged in old oak barrels. It is made by a mistelle – with alcohol and grape juice added to the wine.
Though reds are recommended for Kiddush, there is no actual bar to using a white wine. An example of a white Kiddush wine is King David Muscat, which is a sweet, white wine, made from Muscat of Alexandria grapes. It is straw colored, with ripe Muscat aromas.
This is a well-known brand, recognizable by the parchment colored label. It is referred to as ‘the oldest sweet wine.’ It is made from grapes grown near the Jerusalem hills by Hacormim, a winery owned by descendants of the Shor family, that opened the first recorded winery in the Old City of Jerusalem in 1848. Conditon was the name given to a sweet wine in the days of the Talmud.
Massoret is a sweet red wine produced by Efrat, which is owned by the Teperberg family. It is also an oak aged wine with a cooked ripeness and a touch of cinnamon and cloves on the nose. The Teperberg family were drink distributors in the Old City of Jerusalem from 1852 and then founded Efrat in 1870. Eventually it developed from a drinks retailer and distributor into a winery. Only recently they have changed the name of their winery to Teperberg 1870, but their Kiddush wine is still sold under the Efrat name.
Hallel is a new, innovative Kiddush wine, in a world where little is new or innovative. It is semi sweet and is therefore considerably less sweet than many of its competitors. It is produced 100% from Merlot grapes, and therefore is a varietal wine. It is light, almost refreshing and should be served chilled. It also has a Zork closure and so is particularly easy to open. Hallel Merlot is produced by Arza Winery, which is owned by Moti Shor, another descendant of the Shor family. The winemaker is French trained Philippe Lichtenstein.
Other Kiddush wines include Yashan Noshan, which translates as ‘old & aged’ and is the largest selling Kiddush wine in Israel. There are other brands like Nitzahon, Topaz, Caesarea, Kings, Ninve, Ginnosar. Each one has its own following. The main Israeli grape juice is Carmel Tirosh, made 100% from wine grapes. It is pure with no added sugar or water.
Today many Israeli wineries have changed their attitude to Kiddush wines. Carmel has decided to stop selling Kiddush wines in export markets where possible, in order to concentrate on its quality table wines. Until comparatively recently, Eliaz and Efrat were two medium sized wineries mainly devoted to Kiddush wines. Now with a change of name to Binyamina and Teperberg respectively, they have reverted to mainly producing table wines. The latest traditional winery to begin the change to table wines is Zion Winery.
These wineries have made the change in the knowledge that tastes and practices are also changing. However Kiddush wines remain like an old friend.
So even though they have never been officially categorized as having to be sweet red wines, this is what they became. These are the wines that have given quality Kosher wines an unjustified bad name. However like gefilte fish and chicken soup, the Kiddush wine will linger on as a nostalgic reminder of the homely Jewish world, particularly when surrounded by family on Friday nights.