Rosh Hashanah is fast approaching. While it is mainly celebrated by am Yisrael, the Torah refers to Rosh Hashanah as the birthday of the world; therefore it is a time of celebration for all mankind. Rosh Hashanah is often associated with sweet foods and wine. Indeed, it is a tradition to wish each other “Shana Tova U’metuka,” which translates to “A Sweet New Year!” For some so-called sophisticated wine lovers, sweet wines, however, are often thought of either as entry-level quaffers, destined to please people who don’t really appreciate wine in general, or as Kiddush wines, such as those made from Concord grapes.
As is usually the case, that is a very inaccurate generalization. There is a plethora of dessert wines that combine delicious sweetness and complexity from almost every wine-growing region and which are made in various styles.
Some of the most-famous and well-regarded sweet wines by connoisseurs the world over come from Portugal and are known as “Porto” or “Port.” These are actually wines to which alcohol is added to stop the fermentation early and retain the natural residual sugar present in the grape juice. The wine is then aged in oak barrels for periods of time, which vary from 24-36 months for the entry-level Ruby. Another well-known type of Port is LBV, which stands for late-bottled vintage. While only wines from Portugal can be labeled as Port, there are many wines from Spain or Israel that are made using a similar method, and a few excellent and delicious kosher Ports and Port-style wines are available. My favorites are the Porto Cordovero Ruby and LBV produced by Taylor-Fladgate, one of Porto’s better-known Port merchants.
Other famous and often quite expensive dessert wines are those from the Sauternes appellation, situated in France’s Bordeaux wine country. Château d’Yquem is easily the most famous winery in Sauternes and is being mentioned and featured in classic literature and movies. Unfortunately, Yquem has not—yet—produced a kosher cuvée. Château de Rayne-Vigneau, a 1er cru Sauternes neighboring Château d’Yquem, however, made a fabulous kosher cuvee that was rated no less than 92 points by the Wine Spectator! The Sauternes wines are usually made from blends comprised primarily of either Sauvignon Blanc or Sémillon, with the addition sometimes of Muscadelle or Sauvignon Gris. For the production of these sweet wines, the grapes are harvested late in the fall to allow a fungus called Botrytis cinerea to develop and spread on the vines, causing what is known as the “noble rot.” The botrytis drains the water from the grapes, which then retain very high sugar content (the sugar level in grapes is designated by a unit of measurement called “Brix”) and their natural acidity as well, allowing the resulting wines to develop in the bottles for 20 to 30 years and sometimes much longer than that. The fungus also impacts the flavor profile of the wine with distinct notes such as honey and beeswax. Botrytized wines are also produced in other regions, not only France but also in countries such as Hungary, Chile and even California, such as the amazing Covenant Zahav 2016, as well as the Hagafen Late Harvest Sauvignon Blanc 2009.
One of the most popular and likely the easiest method of producing quality sweet wines is to harvest the grapes late, when they have already dried partially on the vines. Even without the Botrytis fungus, the wines made from those late-harvested grapes can result in wines that can be as sweet as they can be delicious. The wines in the Herzog Late Harvest series includes a Chenin Blanc, a Riesling, a Zinfandel and a Muscat. Great bargains, as these wines provide delightful, age-worthy and varietally true examples of the grape varieties they are made from, all of that at a very much affordable price tag.
Another method of producing quality dessert wines is ice wine or eiswein in German, made from grapes that were picked frozen on the vines, then crushed and pressed. There is only a handful of cold-climate countries where natural ice wine can be made, primarily Germany, Austria and Canada, which experience very low temperatures relatively early during the month of October. One of the most intriguing and original kosher dessert wines that has been recently released is the Tzafona Ice Wine Cabernet Sauvignon 2016, an authentic ice wine from grapes grown in the Niagara Peninsula in Canada.
Great dessert wines like the aforementioned ones are a treat when sipped on their own as dessert or digestif, but they pair wonderfully with foie gras (goose/duck liver), blue cheese, crème brûlée, apple and pecan pie, as well as many other desserts that could enhance a festive Rosh Hashanah meal tremendously! Shana tova u’metuka! Have a Sweet New Year!
By Gabriel Geller, Royal Wine/Kedem