The kosher wines available in the Baltimore area represent three continents: Asia (Israel), Europe (France, Italy and Spain) and North America (California). The broadest selection of kosher wines in Baltimore can be found at Milford Liquors on Liberty Road.
Most kosher wines are denoted by a "hechsher," usually a U inside an O (for Orthodox Union), but there are other supervisory organizations with different symbols. Kosher wine labels do not always tell, in English at least, whether a wine is mevushal. For an explanation of mevushal, please see the accompanying article.
Most of Israel is too hot to grow dry wines with any character, but the high, cool Golan Heights region, captured from Syria in the 1967 war and annexed to Israel's Galil region, has proven to be an excellent growing region. Perhaps the burned-out tanks in the vineyards add something to the soil.
* CARMEL: The best-known Israeli winery, Carmel, was founded by Baron Edmond de Rothschild 110 years ago, but until recently most of the dry varietal wines have been downright awful. In recent years the winery has made moves to upgrade quality, but it still has a long way to go.
The best Carmel wines are bottled under the Baron Edmond de Rothschild label, and the best of them are as good as a mevushal wine can be. The 1986 cabernet sauvignon (about $14) is a very appealing wine, mature and spicy, but its complexity and length fall short. The 1991 sauvignon blanc ($11) is a bold, racy, very grassy version of the sort that is now rare in California. It's not subtle, but I like it. Many would hate it.
The other Baron Edmond wines, an emerald riesling and a chardonnay, are drinkable but lack structure and character. The other Carmel wines I tasted, a cabernet sauvignon, a petite sirah, and a sauvignon blanc, were drinkable mediocrities.
* GOLAN HEIGHTS: Golan Heights wineries have made impressive strides in just two decades. Most of the wines are non-mevushal. The wines are bottled under three labels: Gamla, with grapes grown in the lowest vineyards, is a good budget label. Golan, a step up, offers good quality in the middle ranges. Yarden, from the highest vineyards, is the top-of-the-line label.
Gamla is the label for the one mevushal wine: a pleasant, uncomplicated 1990 sauvignon blanc ($8) with some varietal character.
The 1990 Golan Sauvignon Blanc is a definite step up, with a light herbal quality and good length. The Golan 1990 Chardonnay ($11) and 1990 Red Table Wine ($8) are also sound, attractive wines at reasonable prices.
The Yarden wines, from the highest vineyards in the Golan Heights, are something special. Yarden's 1989 merlot, 1987 cabernet sauvignon and 1990 chardonnay are all exceptional wines with complexity to match top non-kosher California wines. Not surprisingly, half of Yarden's production is scarfed up by gentiles.
There are now at least five important California wineries that make nontraditional kosher wines -- Hagafen, Weinstock, Gan Eden, J. Furst and Baron Jacqob de Herzog.
Of these, I have found Hagafen in the past to be good but overpriced. I did not taste any of its wines this year.
Gan Eden's wines, which are not mevushal, are among the best, including the brilliant 1987 cabernet sauvignon, which outshines many non-kosher cabernets in its $18 price bracket. But beware. Gan Eden's 1988 chardonnay is over the hill.
Weinstock, when at its best, produces the best values in American kosher wines.
Among its most recent releases, the 1990 gamay Beaujolais and the 1991 white zinfandel are quite fine, but the 1989 chardonnay is miserable. That might have as much to do with the vintage as the pasteurization process. These wines are mevushal, but some of Weinstock's are not.
J. Furst is a promising newcomer with an attractive, light and fruity 1990 "Jeunesse" cabernet sauvignon for only $7. The chardonnay is less successful. The wines are mevushal.
Royal Kedem's Baron Jacqob de Herzog winery makes an ordinary chardonnay and chenin blanc, but its 1989 cabernet sauvignon from Sonoma County is full, ripe and charming, though not especially complex.
Of the kosher European wines I tasted this year, almost all off which are mevushal, none was impressive.
Bartenura's 1987 Chianti Classico and 1990 Valpolicella were perfectly awful Italian wines. The 1988 Leone gewurztraminer and pinot blanc from Alsace were decent, but no more.