JEZREEL VALLEY, Israel – Making wine without animal or dairy products and ensuring it only comes into contact with Orthodox Sabbath-observant Jews during the maceration process are some of the requirements that classify the tipple as kosher and ensure it complies with Jewish food rules.
About 95 percent of wines produced in Israel uphold these standards.
In a vineyard in the heart of the Biblical region Galilee, not far from the town of Kafar Kana, where Christian tradition says Jesus Christ turned water into wine, winemaker Jacob Ner-David is monitoring his wooden barrels, filled with the alcohol made according to the rules of Judaism.
The finished product is not hugely dissimilar to non-kosher wines – it has the same taste and can be of good or bad quality.
What differs, according to Ner-David, is the way kosher wine is made and the fact it has to be certified as such.
Since venturing into the world of wine in 2012 at the Jezreel Valley Winery, the winemaker hailing from Jerusalem has been producing some 100,000 bottles each year.
He makes various wines, but all are worthy of the kosher stamp, and 70 percent of his output is exported.
Wine has been used for thousands of years for spiritual ends and is central to both Christianity and Judaism, Ner-David points out, adding that this is one of the reasons he wanted to get into winemaking in Galilee.
Average wine consumption in Israel continues to be one of the lowest in the world, so producers are looking for ways to bring wine culture to the local population, as well as export the fruits of their labors so their bottles get uncorked.
According to Ner-David, a significant tranche of his customers are practicing Jews who only drink certified kosher wine.
But not all kosher wine is produced in Israel – Israeli wineries have to compete with businesses in the United States, France, Chile and New Zealand whose target market is Orthodox Jews. And the kosher wine market is not aimed exclusively at Jewish consumers.
The Daniel Rogov annual guide to Israeli wines, of the late bona fide food critic and wine expert, sets out the essential requirements so that a wine can be determined suitable for consumption by Orthodox Jews.
The grapes used to make wine cannot be used until four years after the first planting of the vines, other fruits and vegetables cannot be planted among the vines and the land must be left fallow every seven years to allow it to recover.
Only kosher tools can be used during harvest and at storage facilities where the wine is made.
From the moment the grapes arrive at the winery to begin the wine-making process, only Sabbath-observant Jews are allowed to come into contact with the product.
Many winemakers cannot personally come into contact with the wine while it’s being made as they are not strictly religious, and so they have to delegate the technical tasks to Orthodox Jews.
And there is another rule to abide by, according to Ner-David, which is based on an old tradition that says some of the wine has to be given to the priests, rabbis and the poor.
When Israel’s wine industry established itself in recent decades, it was agreed that about 1 percent of production – which would have in the past been given away at the Second Temple, destroyed in 70 AD by the Romans – would now be spilled onto the soil as a symbolic offering.
This last characteristic ensures the wine is entirely kosher and can be consumed by all religious Jews.