For those who love the ubiquitous blue bottle, the sweet and slightly sparkling Bartenura Moscato D’Asti—and there are many of us—Rosh Hashanah and Sukkot would be a great time to branch into something no less sweet, but a little more fancy, fruity, balanced and fun. My tasting group tried a dozen delectable dessert wines in preparation for this article, and I tried several on my own as well. We are confident that our recommendations will give you an amazing glimpse into what’s available in kosher sweet wines these days, and will serve to remind everyone, even the decidedly dry-wine drinkers among us, that today’s sweet wine is most decidedly not our grandfather’s Manischewitz (not that there’s anything wrong with that)!
Most of the bottles I am writing about here are whites picked during late harvest, where the fruit sits on the vines for a few extra weeks or even months, until the sugars in the grapes are concentrated. In a few cases, I am writing about extremely sought-after wines affected by Botrytis, which is also known as noble rot. This is a specific type of fungus that is cultivated on purpose in certain grapes and regions, particularly Sauternes, in Bordeaux. The fungus shrivels the grapes, concentrating the sugars and flavors, rendering the wine made from such grapes sweet, complex, honeyed and delectable.
If you buy one new wine this Yom Tov, make it the Herzog Late Harvest Clarksburg Chenin Blanc 2020. What we look for in dessert wine is lushness and balance, and this wine has both qualities, in spades. With a nose of cling peach, it is slightly less sweet than it smells, but it has an extraordinarily pleasing mouthfeel and slightly citrus-like bite, like that thirst-quenching hit of lemonade as it goes down. This was far and away the best value of our tasting, with a price tag around $20. It also can be acquired for less per bottle in bulk or during sale periods like now (ShopRite offers 20% off all bottles, with no limits for the Yom Tov season). This is a nice bottle, and if you like a white sweet wine for kiddush, it’s a good time to stock up.
The Covenant Zahav Late Harvest Chardonnay 2016 is a tiny 375 ml bottle that packs a huge punch of flavor and value. I’ve bought it repeatedly over the course of the last year, because it makes a lovely gift and it is an affordable luxury, like a Starbucks $6 latte. At $27, it doesn’t break the bank, but this Botrytis-led wine has notes of honey and faint lychee and is very smooth going down. Covenant’s Jeff Morgan certainly deserves to be proud of this mighty little bottle of greatness.
But if you really want to spend, and really want to impress, then look no further than Château Guiraud’s Petit Guiraud Sauternes 2017. This French, sweet wine from the region of the same name in the Graves section in Bordeaux is made from sémillon and sauvignon blanc that have, like Covenant’s Zahav, been affected by Botrytis, and at $70, this wine is a gold standard. This enjoyable easy-drinking wine has a beautiful nose of citrus and tropical fruit like pineapple, with a slight edge of lime pith on the tongue to balance it out. It’s worth every penny and if you invest in this bottle it can stay in your fridge all of Yom Tov for you to enjoy a tiny glass with dessert, or as dessert itself. These wines are also great investments; Sauternes can be saved at least 15 years and still be absolutely delicious. The same can be said for Château Piada Sauternes 2018, which has floral and lemongrass notes on the nose, and a lovely lemon herb taste throughout. This nose was actually quite different from the 2016 Piada, which I tried last year, which was quite a bit more tropical.
The same goes for the Château de Rayne Vigneau Sauternes Premier Grand Cru Classe 2018, which, at approximately $160 is basically the highest-end kosher Sauternes my team believes is currently available. It is a beautiful lemon color and it is young, delicious, fruity, honeyed, balanced and enjoyable. It’s great now, and we know it will only get better, more complex and seasoned with a little bit of age. Just like all of us.
Finally, I wanted to add a special note about the Yaacov Oryah Alpha Omega Skin Macerated Late Harvest Viognier 2020. I had the opportunity to try this not-yet-available wine last month at a tasting organized by Yaacov Oryah’s importer, Liquid Kosher. This wine, at around $50, is only available online (liquidkosher.com) but is truly worth seeking out, and deserves to be in this list of great dessert wines. I found it not just unbelievably balanced, with strong notes of honey and lychee, but also just absurdly, delicately delicious. It’s easy to appreciate, but has a lot of complexity. Yaacov Oryah, the longtime winemaker for Psagot, is a cult hero in Israel for his “orange wines,” and if you only have the chance to try one Oryah wine this year, make it this one. You will not be disappointed.
With our greatest wishes for a healthy and happy new year, shana tova umetuka.