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Do "mevushal" wines taste differently?

                                       Do “mevushal” kosher wines taste differently?

For those not familiar with the kosher wine market, the term needs explanation, perhaps along with other ideas. As a brief summary, to be considered kosher, wines as well as other foods must adhere to certain biblical rules, as well as various interpretations of those rules from many rabbinic authorities over many centuries, generally referred to as kashrut (kosher).

 

Since wine serves many formal ritual purposes, there are some kashrut practices that are very specific to wine. Without getting into “Why?” the accepted basics include the following:

• Grapes may be picked by anyone, but once they hit the crush pad, they can only be handled by Sabbath observant Jews, under rabbinic supervision
• The wine making process cannot use any non-kosher products or production facilities that come into contact with such products, including other wine
• Dairy or animal based products, even if kosher are avoided because this would render the wine dairy or meat,  which cannot be mixed in kosher food preparation
• Once bottled, the wine can be handled by anyone if closed, however if a bottle is opened by, handled,  poured or even touched  by a non-Jew or non-Sabbath observant Jew, the wine is no longer considered kosher for the observant
• To allow non-Jews, or even non-observant Jews to handle an open bottle, without rendering it non-kosher, the wine may be made “mevushal” by heating it
• In the old days, such wine was actually cooked before bottling, which is what the term “mevushal” actually means
• It has been deemed acceptable by modern sources to make a wine mevushal by flash pasteurization, at various temperatures (between 74C and 90C) depending on the authority
• By heating it rapidly, and immediately chilling it down this process produces minimal quality degradation in the wine

 

There have been opinions as to whether the modern mevushal process destroys the character of a fine wine. Indeed, most low to moderate priced kosher wines sold in the US market are mevushal, while premium wines, especially those from Israel are not. This leads to the obvious question, “Do mevushal wines taste differently?”

Over many years I’ve tasted countless bottles of kosher wine, mentally comparing them to non-kosher versions from regions as diverse as Champagne to Barolo, Pinots from Oregon, Burgundy and New Zealand.  Bottom line, generally the difference was inconsequential, over the comparable quality range of regular wine contrasted with the mevushal wines.

 

Part of the problem in really answering this question, is that you have to have identical wines that are bottled both ways and taste them blind. This is not so easy, as most kosher wines are produced either mevushal, or not. This changed for me on February 24, 2014 as a result of attending the Kosher Food and Wine Experience, 2014 edition, at Chelsea Piers in NYC.  The annual event has been presented by Royal Wine, the largest kosher wine company in the world.

 

One of the brands, of the hundreds present, was Psagot, from Israel. I’ve had and admired their wines before, and up to this event only seen top notch non-mevushal wine from them.  For the US market, they were asked by Royal to produce a line of mevushal wines, called “M Series” (for mevushal), which were available to try.

I was able to taste two pairs of 2011 wines, Edom (Bordeaux blend) and a 100% Cabernet, each identical in every way according to the winemaker, except one was flashed before bottling. The source wine was the same, but fed into two bottling lines. Yes, the difference was obvious. Though both versions were fine, the non-mevushal versions were better balanced. The flashed versions came across as more tannic, most likely because some of the delicate primary fruit compound notes had been damaged. The tannins, being sturdier, were not softened, and came across as rougher on the finish in the mevushal versions.

                                                  

Don’t misinterpret what I’m saying. Both wines were very good, likeable nose, dark berry flavors, good structure and finish, but the mevushal had an extra layer of tannins at the end that asked for more time to be put back into balance. As it happens, two nights before I had a 2007 Baron Herzog Central Coast Cabernet, which was mevushal. This was not an expensive wine, and the extra time had worked its magic, making the wine lovely with roast chicken. Earlier in its life it would have shown that same roughness at the finish, but now was in better balance. Not a highly nuanced wine, it never was, but sound and very nice to drink.

 

My answer to the original question, then, is yes; but if you know what change takes place by the process, you can anticipate needing a bit more time in the bottle, as long as the wine is sound to begin with. At least that’s my opinion for now.

 

3/26/14 Update: One of my colleagues, Robert Rudko, took a read and provided another insight: In addition to losing fruit off the top, the heating process, though brief, may also break apart large tannins into smaller molecules. This would effectively multiply the astringency and coarseness of the wine, by increasing the number of smaller molecules causing more contact with the mouth’s lining. If I can make a comparison, it’s like cracking crude oil into gasoline, where large, lazy molecules get broken into many smaller and more volatile ones. Not having done any chemical analysis of before/after the mevushal process, I can only speculate, but this makes sense to me. All other  comments are certainly welcome.

 

Bernard Kenner
eatwine@verizon.net

 

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