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How is wine made?

And what makes Kosher wine special compared to its non-kosher brethren?

The wine making process begins in the vineyard. The vine grower determines which varietal(s) he/she is going to grow (Cabernet? Merlot? Chardonnay? Riesling?) and how much of each grape. Then the vines are trained onto trellises (this is done over a period of years).

In America, and in many places in the New World, these decisions are based upon two prevailing factors: the climate of the region (certain grapes do better in a hotter climate while others do better in a cooler climate), and the vineyard owner’s own instincts regarding the land’s productivity.

However, in Europe, much of these decisions are based upon centuries of tradition. To protect the integrity of these traditions, many European nations (most notably Spain, France and Italy) have set up Origin of Appellation controls. In France, they’re called the AC, in Spain the DO and in Italy the DOC or DOCG depending on the area. More on Italy’s system later.These rules govern which grape varietals may be grown in a given region and in some cases even the maximum/minimum proportions for any given permitted grape.

For example, in Bordeaux the primary grapes in any AC red wine must include Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot. There are other grapes permitted in a Bordeaux wine, such as Petit Verdot, but these are minor in terms of overall blending proportions. However, you would never see Pinot Noir or Syrah in a Bordeaux AC red because the French wine making laws forbid it. In Burgundy the only red grape permitted is Pinot Noir (the one notable exception is in the Beajolais district, where the primary grape is Gamay), and the only white grape is Chardonnay.

After the vines have been planted and growing for several years, they will begin producing grapes. These grapes are harvested usually at the end of Summer or beginning of Fall (there are a few exceptions, such as the German Trockenberenauslese and Eisweins that are harvested much later in the year, but we will address those in a different article).

The harvested grapes are brought to the winery where the berries are separated from any stems or leaves that are still attached. And then they are pressed. With only a handful of exceptions, most notably the Concord grape, all grape juice is white; that is, without any pigmentation in it. The coloration occurs when the grape juice, called “must,” is left in contact with the grape skins. Incidentally, the only difference between a blush/rose wine and its red counterparts, in terms of coloration, is the amount of time the juice was left in contact with the skins after pressing. Some roses are only left in contact for a few hours, while some reds are in contact for months.

After pressing comes fermentation. Yeasts are added to the barrels or tanks of must and over the course of approximately two weeks the must is turned into wine. Yeast will consume the sugars that are in the must and convert that sugar into alcohol and carbon dioxide. Because in most cases the wine is not fermented in a sealed, pressurized tank, the carbon dioxide escapes and we are left with the juice and alcohol.

The difference between a “sweet” wine and a “dry” wine is merely the amount of sugar that the wine maker left in the final product.In certain parts of the world, there is an allowed practice called chaptalization, whereby the winemaker adds sugar to the fermenting must with the goal of either increasing the alcohol content or increasing the sweetness of the final product. Many European countries have banned this practice, however.

Once the fermentation is complete the new wine is aged in barrels. The barrel has a surprisingly important (or unimportant, if that’s the wine maker’s goal) role in the wine’s flavors and aromas. As part of the process of making the barrel itself, the cooper will place the partly-finished barrel over a fire, allowing the insides of the barrel to char, called “toasting” the barrel; generally speaking, the darker the toast, the more flavors the barrel will impart to the wine. There are generally three types of oak used in wine barrels: French oak, American oak and Hungarian oak. Hungarian oak, even with toasting, is generally neutral and will not impart much flavor to the wine. However, for American oak, a heavily toasted barrel will usually impart sweeter, vanilla and butterscotch flavors to the wine whereas French oak tends to give more savory qualities such as a buttery flavor or aroma.

While in the aging barrel, there is an optional second type of fermentation called malo-lactic fermentation that the wine maker can choose to have the wine undergo. This requires the introduction of a bacteria into the wine that will convert the malic acid into lactic acid in the wine. If you’ve tasted a Calfiornia Chardonnay and noticed a very strong butter flavor or aroma that’s because California wine makers are notorious for relying heavily on malo-lactic fermentation.

Now, for those of you who are lactose intolerant, don’t worry! This will not cause you to have any problems! There is no lactose in wine. Lactic acid merely gives a richer mouthfeel to the wine and provides for buttery flavors therein. There’s no actual butter in the wine!

After aging (sometimes as little as a few weeks, other times they are aged for years), the wine is fined and filtered, removing any sediment that may have been in the barrels with the wine (note: not all wine makers do this nowadays. Particularly with some of the organic or biodynamic producers, many choose not to do this process to preserve the integrity of their organic product).

Lastly, the wine is pumped into bottles and corked, labeled and shipped.

Now, where does kosher fall into this spectrum? There are two major differences between kosher wine and non-kosher wine. The first is that Shomer Shabbos Jews are the only people allowed to handle the wine, from the moment the grapes arrive at the winery to the moment the cork is placed in the bottle. That means that they are the only ones allowed to introduce yeasts, malo-lactic fermentation bacteria, any fining/filtering agents, etc. Additionally, all ingredients added to the wine, such as the yeast, bacteria and filtering agents, must all be certified kosher themselves.

The second major difference between kosher and non-kosher wine is the issue of mevushal or boiling the wine. This practice goes back to the days of the Temple. A major concern for the Jews had always been ensuring that the wine used for the sacrifices at the Temple was never otherwise used for a libation offering for one of the neighboring pagan gods. To ensure their wine’s sanctity, Jews would boil the wine first, as the pagans considered boiled wine to be an inferior product and not worthy of a libation to their gods. That practice has continued today with the following intentions: if a wine is mevushal then a non-Jew can handle the wine after it has been opened. If a wine is NOT mevushal, then after opening if a non-Jew handles the bottle, the wine is no longer kosher.

For most of America’s history, nearly all kosher wine was mevushal. It was a simple necessity to ensure kashrut at all points along a wine’s path from winery to table. However, today, mevushal wines are becoming less common, as more Jews are patronizing higher-quality wines. They realize that indeed boiling the wine does negatively affect the flavors of the wine (with some training, you can immediately tell from smelling and tasting a wine if it’s mevushal or not. It has a telltale “cooked” characteristic).

So, to get the maximum enjoyment out of their investment, wine makers and consumers alike have been gravitating more towards non mevushal wine production, particularly in Israel. Even in America, most of the mevushal wines are priced in the $10 and under category. There are a handful of higher priced wines that are mevushal; I recall a few years back that Baron Herzog had made one of their higher-end Cabernets mevushal, and it was priced in the mid 30’s at that time.

But that is wine making in a nutshell. There are nuances that I glossed over here because the goal today is to outline the overall process of making wine. As these nuances become important in a discussion of other wines, I will address them at that time. For example, take a look at my post discussing Cava and the Champagne method of bubbly production.

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