I do not usually drink Kosher wine. My recollections from childhood of sickly sweet wines with the foxy taste of non-vinifera grapes form a mental block. But a friend recently was given the Kosher cuvée of Pontet Canet 2004, so we set up a side-by-side comparison with the regular cuvée from my cellar.
I find it difficult to see the point of Kosher wine. If it’s not necessary for orange juice to be certified Kosher, why should wine need to be certified? How do grapes differ from oranges or lemons or other fruits? I suppose it’s reasonable if the wine is to be used for sacramental purposes, but it seems to be confusing things to require certification for a wine to be drunk with dinner. Of course, winemaking involves more manipulation than producing fruit juice, and I can see that it may also be necessary to certify that non Kosher products have not been used—the most obvious being some fining agents—but basically any wine that has been made in the usual way without fining or filtration should not breach the rules of Kashrus.
Fining is not an issue at Pontet Canet as the wine is not fined anyway. The Kosher wine comes from specific parcels, so that it can be guaranteed to be kosher all the way from vineyard to bottle. “The wine cannot be exactly the same, but it has to get the soul of the place… It comes from some specific parcels with the three main varieties chosen to represent the best they could the average of the estate. There is no Petit Verdot… It has to be Kosher from the receiving of the grapes. Making a selection of some barrels would mean that all the barrels would have to be produced in a Kosher way,” winemaker Jean-Michel Comme explains. About 10,000 bottles of Kosher wine were produced from each of the 2002, 2003, and 2004 vintages, and the only difference in production from the regular cuvée was that it was made in vats with an automatic system of pumping over for the weekends (because the supervisors could not be there on Saturday).
The wines were surprisingly different. To my palate, the regular cuvee is more evidently Cabernet-based; not overtly herbaceous, but not directly fruit-driven, settling down to a very nice balance of acidity with developing fruits, not quite ready yet, smooth and elegant, very much in the classical tradition of Pauillac. The Kosher version seems softer (it feels as though it has more Merlot) with lower acidity. It is more approachable and seems ready now. The difference seems almost like a subtle change in seasoning, and I wonder if the main factor could be the absence of Petit Verdot (there is 2% in the 2004 regular cuvée). It would not be unreasonable to drink the Kosher cuvée now, but to hold the regular cuvée for another three or four years. The comparison is a fascinating demonstration of how every aspect of winemaking impacts the wine.