A top 10 list of kosher dessert wines
One of life’s indispensable staples—along with a wide variety of red and white table wines and, of course, sparkling wines—are quality sweet wines. While typically referred to as “dessert” wines (or as “stickies” by wine aficionados, and often served with, or even as, the dessert course), sweet wines need not be the final wine of a meal or social engagement. Indeed, pairing such wines with sweet foods, or reserving them for the end of the meal, is more of a fashionable guideline than a firm rule.
Also note that while kiddush or sacramental wines are still a popular, if highly particularistic, type of sweet wine, it is a rather simple, limited style. In fact, the quality sweet wine category in the kosher market is vibrant, offering consumers many fabulous choices.
A quality-focused sweet wine is, simply put, a table wine that has been purposefully produced with noticeable amounts of unfermented (or residual, in wine-speak) sugar so that some level of sweetness can be tasted on the palate.
The term “sweet” is inexact, but generally a wine tastes sweet due to the levels of residual sugar it contains. The actual impact or perception of this residual sugar on one’s palate is largely understood to be significantly influenced by such factors as serving temperature and the relative levels of acidity, tannins and carbon dioxide in the wine. Alcohol, glycerol and high levels of pectins can also present as a noticeably sweet taste.
There are all sorts of methods for producing sweet wine. At the simplest, and typically inexpensive end of the quality scale, wine producers can simply add sugar or concentrated grape juice to wine that has been stripped of any ability to evolve or re-ferment. Another approach, common with port-style wines, is to add distilled alcohol to sweet fermenting grape juice to halt fermentation in its tracks; the added alcohol effectively fortifies the wine against further fermentation. Yet another method is to stop fermentation by stunning the yeast with sulfur dioxide or by chilling before all the natural, or added, sugar has been consumed.
Even before focusing on the juice or wine, there are also methods that can be directed upon the grapes themselves, either while still on the vine or before the juice has been pressed from the berries. Grapes can, for example, simply be harvested later; that is, left longer on the vine than would be necessary to produce dry wine. This additional growing period allows the grape’s berries to ripen further and grow naturally richer, promoting higher levels of sugar, allowing for higher natural residual sugar post-fermentation.
Grapes can also be deliberately left well past normal ripening on the vine to desiccate and shrivel into super-sweet raisins, which can then be vinified into sweet wine. An alternative version of this dried-grape approach entails purposefully drying the grapes after they’ve been harvested but before they’ve been vinified. Alternatively, in suitably cold climates the grapes can be left so long on the vine that they naturally freeze, thereby concentrating the juice without the raisining (drying grapes naturally in the air) experience—as in ice wine, or Eiswein. Such freezing can also be done artificially, if desired.
Far riskier, however, is the practice—a very traditional approach in some wine regions—of waiting in hopes of the development and proliferation of Botrytis cinerea. This is a common necrotrophic fungal plant pathogen that, under the right conditions, can lead to a beneficial type of rot. It is known widely as “noble rot,” as opposed to the far more commonly induced gray rot. This noble rot breaks the skin of the grapes, shrivels the berries, concentrates the sugars, and enhances and partially transforms the flavors of the affected grapes.
An inherently risky, labor-intensive—and thus expensive—approach, this harnessing of the capricious Botrytis is central to the production of such premium sweet wines as the best Sauternes from France, the top beerenauslesen and trockenbeerenauslesen of Germany and Austria, and the best Tokaji of Hungary. Though uncommon, under laboratory-like control conditions, the proliferation of Botrytis can also be artificially induced for this effect; Israel’s Golan Heights Winery has very successfully used this method in the past.
Whatever methods are employed in their production, the overall success of a sweet wine hinges on the crucial dynamic of achieving a level of balance between the perceived sweetness and the natural acidity. The higher the level of unfermented or residual sugar, the greater the need for counterbalancing acidity to prevent the wine from tasting cloyingly sweet, like syrup. Acidity is, thus, one of the key factors in making a sweet wine enjoyable to consume.
Happily, there are many wonderful kosher quality sweet wines readily available, ranging from very sweet indeed to just sweet enough to be deemed more sweet than dry.
I’ve chosen not to consider kiddush-style wines. As much-loved as these are for many folks, they are not meant as table wines per se. While I would be remiss not to mention the various moscato wines on the market, I’ve consciously chosen not to include them in this lineup.
While the many moscatos out there are not exactly interchangeable, these all tend to be of a piece. Suffice it to note that Bartenura Moscato, aka the “blue bottle,” remains the market leader and is always reliably good fun (mevushal: $12); and is even now available in a can. (A 4-pack is $15.) For a change of pace, consider the entertaining and tasty Contessa Annalisa, Moscato Gold (mevushal: $12). This Italian Moscato is sweet, effervescent and refreshing, with clean floral, citrus and ripe-fruit notes. I greatly enjoy Moscato, but think of them more as the wine-equivalent of soda, and often quaff them in a tumbler over ice.
To come up with a serviceable top 10 list, I’ve opted to aim for a balance of variety, value and ease of availability without sacrificing quality.
Suffice it to say, there are many more top-quality kosher sweet wines than just the following 10, and I could easily fill the list with just the Sauternes and late-harvest wines available in the kosher market, or with the ever growing variety of Port-style wines, but that would be a disservice.
Think of the following list, instead, as my personal top 10 list—aimed at easing exploration into the world of quality kosher sweet wine. (The wines are listed in order of price, from low to high, and all prices quoted are suggested retail pricing; actual prices at time of purchase may differ; all wines are widely available, unless noted otherwise.)
Without further ado, here are my top 10 kosher sweet wines for Passover 2021:
1. Binah, Celeste, Aromatic White Wine, Pennsylvania, 2019 ($18-20; available directly from the winery at binahwinery.com, or from kosherwine.com): A wonderfully pleasing, distinctly perfumed, beautifully balanced, semi-sweet blend of the French-American hybrid grape varieties Cayuga White (46%), Vidal Blanc (47%), and the distinctly aromatic Traminette (7%), all grown in Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley. Vaguely Germanic in style, with fresh citrus and stone fruit notes, peach, pear, lime, with floral and spice accents. Distinctive and delicious.
2. Herzog, Late Harvest, Chenin Blanc, Clarksburg, California, 2018 (mevushal: $20): A vibrant, luscious, aromatic, fruity yet serious sweet wine; offers delicious notes of pear, honey, peach, apricot, mandarin oranges, mango, custard and a smidgen of candied ginger.
3. Covenant Wines, Late Harvest Botrytis Chardonnay, Sonoma Mountain, 2016 ($30 for 375ml; the 2018 has been released, but the 2016 is more widely available in wine stores): This delicious, elegant, balanced nectar offers simply beautiful botrytized notes of stone fruits, citrus, green apple, dried apricots, salted caramel, honey and honeysuckle. Stunning.
4. Golan Heights Winery, Yarden, Heights Wine, 2017 ($34 for 375ml): Made from gewürztraminer grapes that have been artificially frozen in the winery after harvest, rather than naturally frozen on the vine; this is nonetheless delicious, rich and aromatic with notes of lychee, apricot, peach, citrus and spice, with great balancing acidity and a rewarding, complex finish. Very yummy.
5. Hagafen, Late Harvest, Sauvignon Blanc, Napa Valley, 2009 (mevushal: $36 for 375ml): Still vivacious and utterly delightful with notes of honey, orange marmalade, caramelized almonds, mango, dried apricots, candied ginger and citrus, with a long and rich finish. Beautiful, balanced, and delicious!
6. Tzafona Cellars, Cold Climate, Cabernet Sauvignon Icewine, Niagara Peninsula VQA (Canada), 2016 ($40 for 375ml): Pleasingly luscious, with aromas of ripe berries and cherries, and flavors of mildly stewed sweet strawberries, jammy cherries, and blackcurrant. Rich, sweet and yummy.
7. Golan Heights Winery, Yarden, T2, 2016 ($40): This Eastern Mediterranean take on the more traditional Portuguese Port-style wine is still my favorite of the various Israeli attempts at Port-like wine. A sweet fortified blend of Tinta Cão (54%) and Touriga Nacional (46%), offering notes of cherry, cranberry, black cherry, blueberry, caramel, subtle chocolate and a little spice; shows a little heat on the finish, but still delicious and very satisfying.
8. Dalton Winery, Anna, Dessert Wine, Traditional Solera Method (non-vintage, mevushal: $45): A gradual or fractional blend of multiple vintages of barrel-aged fortified, late-harvested Muscat of Alexandria wines, this is delicious, floral, and immensely appealing with delicate, sweet notes of honeycomb, stone fruits, dried apricots, slightly sour cherries, honeysuckle and citrus zest, all with a long, rich, and full finish. Absorbing.
9. Yaacov Oryah, The Old Musketeer, Muscat of Alexandria and Chardonnay, 2008, 8 Years ($119.99 for 500ml; available exclusively from liquidkosher.com): Delicious as ever! A lively and aromatic nose and a full, rich, sweet and thick palate. Showcasing floral, honeysuckle, crème brûlée and toasted hazelnut aromas, with additional complex flavors of tropical fruits, warm spices and candied citrus. Lush and intensely sweet, but not cloying. Very, very yummy.
10. Château de Rayne-Vigneau, 1st Grand Cru Classé, Sauternes, 2014 (kosher edition; $150; there are several other kosher Sauternes on the market, all of them utterly delicious and deserving of “top” status—especially the Château Guiraud; I opted for one that is reasonably widely available and also especially delicious right now): This is outstanding. A most harmonious blend of Sémillon (80%) and Sauvignon Blanc (20%); creamy, yet relatively light on the palate, and beautifully fresh, with pure notes of honeysuckle, lemon, pineapple, pear, roasted almonds, and an array of spices, candied fruits, and with plenty of Botrytis character. Dangerously delicious now, but will dramatically reward further cellaring, under suitable conditions, over the next 15 years or so.
By Joshua E. London