Thursday, May 28, 2020

After years of falling demand here in the United States, French kosher wines are hot once again.

As Nathan Herzog, Executive VP of the Royal Wine Corp., the largest producer, importer and distributor of kosher wines and spirits, notes, “Consumer interest in kosher French wine is steadily growing again.” So much so that kosher wine importers have greatly expanded their French portfolio. As Herzog put it, “We’ve brought over some of the most exciting French wines to date.”

What’s the appeal? Why French wine?

In the minds of many wine lovers, France is the very heart and soul of wine. The world over, wine producers, consumers and even critics, judge wines against the ideals and benchmarks set by the very best wines of France. Whether red, white, pink or sparkling, France offers storied perfection for so many.

To better explain all this, we turn to Menachem Israelievitch, chief kosher winemaker for Royal Wine in France. With nearly two decades in the industry, heavily “involved in all aspects of bringing kosher wine in and out of Europe—including being single-handedly responsible for twenty wineries in Bordeaux,” Israelievitch knows the ins and outs of the world of kosher French wine better than most.

The French believe that foods and beverages taste the way they do partly because of the place where they are made. So one of the central concepts to understanding all this is the French term “terroir,” which very loosely translates as “a sense of place,” and refers to the sum of the interactive effects on the final wine of its unique local growing conditions—everything from the soil, micro-climate and weather, to the vineyard management and methods of production. Over centuries, those who work the land growing grapes and making wine gain a deeply rooted understanding of the interplay of terroir on their wine. Thus, the “appellation” or location where the wine comes from is all important to the French, and so is greatly emphasized on the label.

Indeed, because the French attribute special properties or characteristics to their land, they have sought to protect these qualities through government regulation and laws to enshrine and protect their wine cultivation traditions, and designate each particular agricultural area or zone of production within each geographical region. These are known as the “appellation d’origine controlee” or “AOC” (“controlled designation of origin”), and this system of legal protections are thought to actively protect the wine growing regions of France. As Israelievitch notes, “In France, the appellation is the most important aspect of the pedigree of the wine.”

Consider, for example, the wines of Bordeaux. The name of a port city in the southwest corner of France from which much of the country’s wine commerce was historically conducted, “Bordeaux” means “waterside” or “seaside.” Bordeaux is also the regional name for the surrounding wine-producing area, and so also the name for the wines produced there. To this day, Bordeaux is one of France’s most prominent wine regions and is often considered the benchmark in fine, long-aged wines. Like all French wine regions, there are many regulated sub-regions in Bordeaux, in recognition of the varying soils, microclimates and traditions associated with their sense of place of each part.

“There are laws that govern winemaking in Bordeaux,” notes Israelievitch. These include regulating what grape varieties may be grown there, what viticultural practices are allowed, as well as mandates regarding maximum yields, and evaluation of each wine to ensure that it meets at least the minimal regional standards of quality. This is all in the name of protecting the good reputation of Bordeaux, and shoring up centuries of wine cultivation traditions. Typically, the winemakers of Bordeaux are all too eager to stay well within the rules both out of respect for their heritage and because they believe it helps produce the world’s best wines. “These passionate winemakers are vigilant about upholding what they have,” notes Israelievitch, “and [about] ensuring that Bordeaux wines will remain the most superior in the world.”

To the French mind, what is true of Bordeaux holds true for all of their recognized and protected wine-producing regions, like Burgundy, Champagne, the Loire Valley, Alsace, the Rhône Valley and so on. This is why, as a general rule, French wines will bear the name of the region or village in which their grapes were grown, rather than the actual variety of grape from which they were produced. Each calls to mind specific general styles, even though any particular producer or wine may vary greatly from another within the same region.

Almost all red wines from Burgundy, for example, are made using the Pinot Noir variety of grape, yet only very rarely will this name appear on the bottle’s label. Likewise, nearly all Bordeaux red wines are made from a blend of grapes rather than a single grape varietal; typically they are made from a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot grapes, though other varieties are used as well.

“So in essence, the desirability of Bordeaux wines,” or most any other French wines, “is the result of both the uniqueness of the region, but it is also much about a people who regard winemaking as their sacred duty, and something they want to pass down to their children just as they have received it from their great-grandfathers.”

As Israelievitch notes: “Interest for wine in general has become more intense, [so] people have turned to the source of winemaking.” And, he adds, “French wine country…is the source of winemaking, where all the tradition and technique is handed down from generation to generation.”

By Joshua E. London