A few days ago I was invited to a wine tasting featuring the kosher wines of Domanie Roses Camille and Chateau la Clide, which are some of the best—and most expensive—kosher Bordeaux wines available. The tasting was run by Andrew Breskin, the wines’ importer. Towards the end of the tasting, one of the other participants asked Breskin what wine he would be serving at his seder, and he responded, “Bartenura Malvasia” (which is a sweet, light-red-colored wine, which has 5.5 percent alcohol and retails for about $12). While some at the tasting were shocked, I could only compliment his choice.
Selecting the appropriate wines for a seder poses some unique challenges that go far beyond trying to determine which wine will best compliment parsley dipped in saltwater. Indeed, there are many differing customs and halachic rulings regarding the four cups of wine served at the seder that may affect one’s choices: There are those who will only drink red wine, while others will only drink “non-mevushal” (i.e., unpasteurized) wine, and then there are those who will only drink low-alcohol wines. Some have the custom to gulp down each cup rapidly while reclining, while others will slowly sip each cup while sitting upright. Mindful of all of these considerations, what follows is just a bit of gentle advice for selecting your “seder wines.”
My first piece of advice is to avoid really expensive wines. Whether you gulp or sip wine at the seder, there is likely to be far too much going on at your table for you to be able to take the time to appreciate all of the nuances of a complex, full-bodied wine. Not to mention that after one has imbibed a few glasses of wine, it is not uncommon for the alcohol in the wine to start to numb one’s taste buds, making it difficult to fully appreciate any wine. For my own sedarim I generally try to select moderately priced wines that are well balanced, easy to drink, and not overly complex.
It is also a good idea to query your seder guests in advance as to their own wine preferences. Invariably, at every seder there will be guests who prefer sweet wines to dry, and vice versa. It’s also not uncommon for there to be some guests who will only drink red wines or some who will only drink white. Try to keep these preferences in mind when you set out to purchase wine for your seder.
For the first cup I generally recommend serving a light-bodied wine. You have a long evening ahead of you, and you don’t want to fatigue yourself by starting out with a heavy, full-bodied wine. For those who like dry white wines, a nice Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Grigio, or dry Riesling would all be good choices. For those who like their whites a bit on the sweeter side, consider a semi-dry Riesling or Gewürztraminer, or perhaps a Moscato d’Asti. For those who prefer dry red wines, consider one of the lighter-bodied Israeli Pinot Noirs or Barberas, an Italian Sangiovese or Montepulciano, a French Beaujolais served slightly chilled, or a dry rosé served well chilled. Those seeking a sweet red wine should consider an Italian Malvasia.
At many sedarim the wines served for the second and third cups are also the wines that are served with the meal. If this will be the case at your seder, you should really consider your food menu when selecting these wines. In the most general terms, one should still probably avoid really big, full-bodied wines, but one may want to try some more medium-bodied wines. Those drinking dry whites might want to consider Californian Chardonnays, and Israeli or New Zeland Viogniers. While those drinking dry reds should consider Israeli Syrahs, Californian Zinfandels, and Italian Chiantis. Sweet-white-wine drinkers may want to try a Vouvray, and sweet-red drinkers should consider trying a Muscat Hamburg (also known as Black Muscat).
Regarding the fourth cup, assuming one’s stomach is still up for it, my advice is to serve a rich, sweet, full-bodied wine. Even those who regularly eschew sweet wines may want to consider making an exception for this final cup of the seder. The seder is essentially a ceremonial celebration of freedom, and I know of no better way to leave that celebration than with a sweet taste lingering in one’s mouth. For sweet white wines, try late-harvest wines from California, and ice wines from Israel and Austria. Those who would prefer a sweet red should consider trying a true Portuguese Port wine.
In addition to wine, it is also a good idea to have some grape juice on hand for the seder. Keep in mind that four glasses of table wine have roughly the same amount of alcohol as a third of a bottle of whiskey. So if at some point in the evening one’s stomach or head cannot handle more wine, there is no shame in switching to grape juice.
My final piece of advice, and the most important, is that you should make sure that you only drink wines that you enjoy at your seder. So if the only wine you really like is Manischewitz Extra Heavy Malaga, ignore all of the preceding recommendations, and go out and buy a few bottles of the stuff.
At this point I am sure many readers are wondering what wines I will be serving at my own sedarim. So included below is the list of wines I plan to serve at my seder on the first night of Passover. Please keep in mind that this is an idiosyncratic list based on my own customs, preferences, bill of fare, and most importantly, what I happen to have in my cellar at the moment.
I wish you all a very happy and healthy Passover.
First Cup—Capcanes, Peraj Petita Rosat, Montsant, 2103: My custom is to only drink red wine at the seder, but I like to start with a wine that is crisp, well chilled, and refreshing. So I usually start my seder with a rose. Made of a blend of 60 percent Grenache, 15 percent Tempranillo, 15 percent Merlot, and 10 percent Syrah, this dry, dark-rose colored, light-to-medium bodied wine that has a fruity bouquet of cherries, raspberries, and strawberries. Look for flavors of cherries, raspberries, strawberries, and nectarines. While no longer as vivid as it was when I first tasted it last spring, this wine remains crisp and well balanced; and fortunately the 2014 vintage should be hitting the shelves in the next few months. Drink soon. Score B/B+ ($19. Available at FillerUp Kosher Wines, 174 West Englewood Ave, Teaneck, 201-862-1700)
Second Cup—Chateau du Rocher, Bordeaux, Kosher Edition, 2010: For the second cup I wanted something that would go with the beef stew we’ll be having during shulchan aruch. Garnet colored, with a medium-to-full body, the wine has a bouquet of cherries and cassis, with just a whiff of chocolate and tobacco smoke. Look for flavors of cherries and cassis, with hints of blackberries and creme de cassis. While not overly complex, this wine is well structured, with just a modicum of powdery tannins. Drink now–2018. Score B+ ($22. Available at FillerUp Kosher Wines, 174 West Englewood Ave, Teaneck, 201-862-1700)
Third Cup—Capcanes Peraj Petita Montsant, 2013: By the third cup all I will want is a very approachable, easy-to-drink red. This stainless-steel aged blend of 55 percent Grenache, 30 percent Tempranillo, and 25 percent Merlot has a bright-garnet color, and a medium-to-full body. Look for flavors and aromas of cherries, currants, and cranberries, with an earthy, tobacco note. With a moderate amount of tannins, the wine should drink well until 2018. Score B+ ($16. Available at FillerUp Kosher Wines, 174 West Englewood Ave, Teaneck, 201-862-1700)
Fourth Cup—Porto Quevedo, Ruby Port, Porto, non-vintage: I like to finish the seder with a sweet taste in my mouth, and for the past few years this port has been my wine of choice for the final cup. With an inky dark ruby-to-garnet color, and a full body, this richly sweet wine has a bouquet of cherries, stewed prunes, and chocolate, with a hint of menthol and an underlying earthy layer. Look for flavors of plums, stewed cherries, and prunes, with hints of cherry brandy and chocolate. Drink within the next two years. Score B+ ($18. Available at FillerUp Kosher Wines, 174 West Englewood Ave, Teaneck, 201-862-1700)