Please note: This story has been edited for length.
Jewish people around the world have something extra to be thankful for during the upcoming High Holidays: fine wines. For too long wine has been an afterthought (except for the sacramental variety) at the Sabbath table. That’s changing.
Joan Nathan, the grand doyenne of Jewish cookery in North America and author of seven bestselling cookbooks, says kosher wine used to be synonymous with syrupy cough medicine — not exactly food-friendly; really more prayer-friendly. She recently visited the Judean Hills in Israel. “I always thought of the Golan Heights as having good wine, but these wines in the Judean Hills were great — not like the sweet sacramental wines at all.” These kosher wines are, in fact, winning awards in international competition.
Natalie MacLean, the author of Red, White and Drunk All Over, notes there are many non-kosher Jews who still enjoy a traditional High Holiday meal with wine: “Brisket is delicious with rich, full-bodied red wines, such as Argentine Malbec and Rhône Valley Syrah. However, a lighter dish, such as gefilte fish, swims with crisp whites, like Pinot Blanc and Sauvignon Blanc.” She says there are loads of possibilities: matzo ball soup with Chardonnay, kugel with Champagne, “and for an extra kick, when you’ve been sitting at the dinner table for four hours, try honey cake with ice wine.”
She concurs with the other experts that Israel is producing some outstanding wines these days: “Two of my favourites are both robust Cabernet Sauvignons, one made by Saslove Winery from upper Galilee and the other, Yarden Golan Heights Winery. I’ve rated both of these wines 90 out of 100 and they’ll both age for a decade or more — long enough to get you through many Rosh Hashanah meals.”
Over the years, the Jamie Kennedy Wine Bar in Toronto has served up seasonal Jewish favourites ranging from chicken soup to latkes, and sommelier Jamie Drummond has been there with the appropriate wines to match. “Thinking of the fat present in a good chicken soup, I would tend to look toward something like a bone dry and tangy Manzanilla sherry, which may sound a little odd to some,” he says, “but people seem to have forgotten just how stunning a partner this style of sherry can be with certain foods.” He adds that a crisp and zesty Gruner Veltliner from Austria would also work well with the soup. “Brisket is interesting,” adds the Scottish-born sommelier. “Perhaps it’s just been my bad luck with the Jewish brisket I’ve been served, but it appears almost like a ‘tradition’ to burn the living daylights out of this particular cut. So I would tend to use something like a sangiovese-based Italian. A decent Chianti would be a great match actually, and since it’s probably for a special occasion, a Riserva with a little barrique aging would be a great choice, and quite often worth the extra bucks.”
Howard Wasserman, a partner at the wine-importing company B & W Wines, says that Israel, “after 2,000 years,” is finally producing wines with “chutzpah.” His company has recently put together a list of quality wines that match well with traditional Jewish foods. “Cholent, the glue of the Western Jewish world, needs a strong partner, something like an old friend, a classic deep rich Cabernet from Penley Estate [South Australia].” Israel’s Tulip Winery Cabernet worked perfectly with a recent Friday night brisket, Wasserman says, while things got off to a nice start with Vitkin Winery’s Viognier — excellent with the matzo ball soup. “Along with everyday wines, there are some Israeli collectibles, such as Margalit Cabernet Franc, which have been recognized worldwide.”
The fact remains, though, that historically Jews have not been big drinkers. “We have a tradition of eating and drinking together,” says Joan Nathan, “but not of just drinking. I think the next generation is changing that.”