Pouring for Passover


March 28, 2007|By ROB KASPER

Do all Passover wines have to taste like Manischewitz? Not anymore. While the sweet Concord grape beverage has a sentimental following among sippers who recall sampling it during many bygone Seders, now the selection of wines for Passover has become broad and sophisticated.

"I was surprised by how many wines are kosher," said Andrew S. Neusner, director of digital media for JTA, a Jewish news service in New York. Neusner and about a dozen colleagues tasted 20 wines for an article on Passover wines that the news service published in 2005. Among their picks was a Spanish tempranillo, a dry red wine described as having a winsome "hint of vanilla."

Neusner, 37, told me he recalled drinking Manischewitz at Seder meals when he was an undergraduate at Syracuse University. Now, he said, the kosher tempranillo, Ramon Cardova Rioja, is a wine he enjoys all year.

One reason that many kosher wines taste better is that the pasteurization process has improved, said Eric Stein, proprietor of Decanter Fine Wines in Columbia's Hickory Ridge shopping center.

There was a time when the wines, pasteurized as a part of the koshering rigor known as mevushal, retained a "cooked" flavor, Stein said. But the flash pasteurization process has become so refined that it is now employed by a variety of winemakers, even some producing the fine French wines of Chateauneuf-du-Pape. "They have been able to keep out that cooked flavor and keep in the fresh fruit and acid balance," Stein said.

For our tasting, Stein selected four wines. Three were made in Israel; all declared that they were kosher for Passover. I added a bottle of the kosher-for-Passover version of Manischewitz Concord Grape.

The site of the tasting was Aldo's, a Little Italy restaurant that again this year is preparing a Seder meal, with Italian touches, during Passover. Lenny Kaplan -- who is Jewish and for four decades presided over a number of Baltimore restaurants, including the Polo Grill, before retiring -- agreed to be a taster. The other tasters were Aldo and Sergio Vitale, the Italian father-and-son team that runs Aldo's, and myself, a native of Dodge City, Kan. It was an ecumenical, if eclectic, panel.

Aldo Vitale prepared two dishes, an artichoke appetizer and marinated red snapper, from his Passover menu. We ate these dishes as we sampled the wines.

Our favorite white was a 2005 Tishbi Estate Chardonnay from Israel. Kaplan described it as "smooth" and "tender on the palate."

The other white, a 2005 Cantina Gabriele Pinot Grigio, met with less approval. Sergio Vitale called it "rustic." Kaplan thought it was "a little off the mark." But all agreed with Aldo Vitale that it stood up to the artichoke, traditionally a difficult partner for any wine.

When it came to reds, Sergio Vitale praised the 2004 cabernet sauvignon from the Recanati Winery in Galilee as tasting like wine from California's Alexander Valley. Kaplan liked its berry bouquet. Aldo Vitale said it would match up well with lamb, a traditional Seder dish. The other red, a 2005 Yarden Mount Hermon, was a blend of cabernet sauvignon, merlot and cabernet franc. Kaplan and Aldo Vitale admired the wine's balance. Sergio Vitale did not care for the cabernet franc notes, which he described as "chalky."

The purple wine, the Manischewitz, was greeted with humor and understanding. It was very sweet. "It is grape juice," said Aldo Vitale. It might appeal to younger members of the Seder set, Kaplan said. Sergio Vitale suggested diluting it.


The tasting

Our panel sampled five kosher wines for Passover, which begins at sundown Monday.

Best Sip

2005 Tishbi Estate Chardonnay, $19.99. The favorite white wine of the tasting. Praised as smooth and balanced by Kaplan.

Other Whites

2005 Cantina Gabriele Pinot Grigio, $14.99. "A little rustic," said Sergio Vitale of this Italian white. Kaplan said it reminded him of grappa. Aldo Vitale liked its acidity.


2004 Recanati Winery Cabernet Sauvignon, $16.99. A garnet beauty with pleasing berry aroma, from Galilee, Israel. It reminded Sergio Vitale of the big reds of California's Alexander Valley. A great partner for lamb, said Aldo Vitale.

2005 Yarden Mount Hermon, $12.99. This Golan Heights red is a skillful blend of cabernet sauvignon, merlot and cabernet franc. Kaplan and Aldo Vitale liked its soft notes, but Sergio Vitale disliked the "chalky" flavor of the cabernet franc.


Manischewitz Concord Grape, $3.99. This fragrant wine was too sweet for this panel. (Bottles with the "kosher-for-Passover" designation on the label mean the wine does not contain fructose, a sweeter made with corn and forbidden at Passover. Manischewitz wines that use fructose carry different labeling.)

[Rob Kasper]

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