Mendel Ungar, of FillerUp Wines, says rosé wines, in particular, are entering the market with increasingly high quality, variety and complexity.
Teaneck—The American kosher wine marketplace has been experiencing a stratospheric rise in quality. It’s been 20 years since Kedem’s thick, chewy, Concord Grape was a mainstay on Shabbos tables. First, the kosher consumer tasted dry French Merlots and breezy California Chardonnays, then more complex, carefully constructed Cabernets, and after that, the beautiful, vibrant and joyful Israeli Syrah. Winemakers brought in from France and California have, for the last twenty years, been busily grooming Israeli vineyards in the north and south with many varietals including Pinot Noir, Cabernet Franc, Gris and Viognier.
Mendel Ungar of FillerUp Wines in Teaneck has also been cultivating a store filled with the best that Israel, and the world, has to offer the kosher marketplace. Many of the wines in the store have a unique and fascinating history, and no one tells it better than him.
For example, the Bat Shlomo Vineyards, founded in 2010, is located in Israel’s wine country near Mount Carmel, approximately 70 km north of Tel Aviv. The vineyards are named for Betty Salamon, the mother of Baron Edmond de Rothschild, who first planted vineyards there in 1888. Elie Wurtman, a serial entrepreneur, venture investor and technology-company executive, has a pioneering spirit and passion for fine Israeli wine. His personal interest led him to reinvigorate Baron Rothschild's dream and replant the vineyards of Old Bat Shlomo. Wurtman’s vineyard now sells Sauvignon Blanc, Rosé, Chardonnay and Betty’s Cuvee, a special red blend. Ari Erle, a well-known Israeli winemaker who spent many years working at well-regarded vineyards in the Napa Valley, is Bat Shlomo’s winemaker. The winery’s focus is currently on the under-fed niche market Wurtman believes exists for kosher, high-quality white wines. The Sauvignon Blanc 2013 vintage, for example, was described as containing a “niche blend of lemon, pink grapefruit and tropical fruit flavors,” evoking the “joie de vivre” of the winery’s namesake. The wine retails in the $28 price range. Betty’s Cuvee retails for $60, and Robert Parker, a well-known New York Times wine critic who does wine ratings at erobertparker.com, gave the 2012 Betty’s Cuvee a score of 90 (Mark Squires was the wine reviewer).
Another wine of great interest to the kosher world is the Terres De Berne Rosé, probably the lightest-colored rosé available on the kosher market. The color of the wine is closer to straw than pink, and looks vastly different than every other rosé on the market. “It’s an art to make a rosé, because what makes rosé wine is taking out the skins of the grapes early. It’s not sweet, but a rosé does not have character, tannins or weight. If you don’t do a good job it’s just going to be a dry, empty wine. Taking out the skins early—that gives a little crisp fruit, but if you overdo it, it will get too sweet and too pungent,” Ungar said. “The sweetness can overwhelm the wine, turning it into what many customers might remember with Baron Herzog’s White Zinfandel, which for many years was the only kosher rosé on the market.”
Wine Enthusiast Magazine gave the Château du Berne Terres de Berne a score of 90. Made in the famous Southern France winemaking region Provence, the wine is considered a very high quality. “Make it a little cold, not too much. If it’s too cold you'll freeze out the flavor,” said Unger. Château du Berne has two wines on sale at FillerUp, and the Rosé is also available as a magnum, for holiday tables or large groups. On sale for $49.00, this is one of the most expensive kosher rosés on the market (the magnum retails for $110.00). Anyone interested in tasting other high-quality rosés with assorted price points, Unger said, should try Goose Bay Blanc de Pinot Noir ($24), Recanati Rosé ($15.00) or Flam Rosé ($36). Domaine du Castel also sell a high-quality rosé, but it is currently not available on the market.
Speaking about the Livni Winery, Unger said that their red wines from the Judean Hills are very bold, statement-making wines. In a signature move for Ungar, he actually would not let me purchase the Livni Pinot Noir, even though it cost $15 more than the bottle I ended up buying. “Pinots can be really fun-loving and fruity. Women love those kinds of Pinots. But real Pinots [like the Livni] have a lot of structure. On the one side, it’s light… on the other, there is structure, and can age a lot. This is not a light Pinot,” he said. If one understand that a beverage like orange juice has a structure to it, the Cabernet Sauvignon grape would be more like that, as compared to standard Pinot Noir, which is thinner or lighter, closer to the consistency of water.
According to the Livni website, “The bold purple wine tends to turn black. An intoxicating fruity aroma with blueberry and cherry scents, full-bodied, natural and balanced acidity, and long-term aging ability.” Livni’s Pinot Noir is aged 12 to 14 months in French and American oak barrels. For those, like me apparently, who are perhaps not ready for such a Pinot but are still interested in the vineyard, Unger recommended Livni’s red blend of 85 percent Cabernet with 15 percent Pinot Noir, called Reed Pipe, from 2013. This wine has been aged only four months. The Pinot Noir is $35.99. Reed Pipe is $19.99.
A fun, affordable Spanish wine that Unger recommended is Casato, a blend of red wine with natural fruit aromas. “We recommend this for the first night of Rosh Hashanah, when people drink sweet wine, and the wine has apple flavors in it,” he said. The wine retails for under $10.
A steady stream of visitors shop at FillerUp and the place buzzes steadily with energy during opening hours. Party planners and tourists are just two populations who know that their customer experience at FillerUp is unique. A recent store visitor from London was overheard telling Ungar that he had just come from a particular duty-free store at the Heathrow airport, one where everyone goes specifically for the Single Malt selection. “But your selection is better,” he said. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”
FillerUp Wines is located at 174 West Englewood Avenue, and the store hosts wine tastings each Thursday evening. Call 201-862-1700 for more information or for catering requests.
By Elizabeth Kratz