Passover Wines Beyond Manischewitz: From Kosher Tio Pepe Fino to Champagne

The eight-day festival of Passover (Pesach) begins on Monday at sunset, March 25th this year (technically, sunset begins the new day, so maybe you prefer March 26th). During the Seder meal, four cups of wine are drunk (and we’ll hope that’s not four eight-ounces cups, but a symbolic cup – four eight cups = slightly less than a full .750 ml bottle). For many years, Manischewitz flew out the door of the wine shop I managed, but slowly shoppers began to turn to wines of better quality as the modern-day wine renaissance of dinner wine grew in popularity. Sweet was out, dry was in.

Passover Seder

Passover Seder

Today there are many options to choose from, but just any wine won’t do. The wine must be Kosher, which means it is made from grapes (a grape name on the bottle is always better) and must be free from grain, bread, dough and any contact with them. A certifying seal accompanies Kosher wines, which is overseen by a kosher supervising agency or rabbinical supervision. Until the bottle is sealed, the process of oversight is labor intensive and so, prices reflect the process.

Depending on the Seder menu, I have to assume choosing the wine makes a difference. Reading around the InterTubes I see Matzoh (unleavened bread), horseradish or romaine lettuce, a mixture of apples, nuts and cinnamon, a roasted egg (not sure how that’s done), vegetables, usually parsley or celery, lamb and the wine, but family traditions may differ. Each of those mentioned represent a particular part of the Exodus, the slavery, the pain, the tears, the hope and redemption and the sacrificial lamb.

The foods mentioned above are not necessarily served by themselves. I see Cinnamon Apple Cake for Passover, Fruit and Nut Fritters, Prime Rib with Horseradish and Stuffed Chicken. I assume the list is long.

The four cups of wine represent the promises of redemption. I can’t think of a better promise to drink to.

I mentioned that sweet Manischewitz has been ‘passed over’ for better quality wines, but look at this statement from the Kosher Wine Review:

The finest wine in the world is wasted if the people at the seder won’t drink it. Many Jews in the United States were raised on syrupy, sugary wines; give them a bottle of Vasness Romanee and you might as well pour the wine down the sink instead. So while it’s simple enough to find excellent wines and perhaps worry about whether your guests prefer a Syrah over a Merlot, the biggest problem I’ve found when buying wine for the seder is how to accommodate guests who will only drink sweet wines.

Fortunately, in recent years we’ve seen some good sweet wines available (check the listings of wine by dryness to find them). In addition, Beaujolais Villages wines are sufficiently light and fruity for many people who prefer sweet wines. I do recommend that you avoid the temptation to just purchase anything at all that’s sweet — I think it’s always good policy to purchase sweet wines that you can tolerate drinking. After all, if you can educate your guests to appreciate good wine, perhaps next year you may be able to avoid sweet wines altogether.

So there you are. Maybe it’s best to keep more than one wine on hand, particularly for the elderly or those who don’t touch wine until a sacred holiday.

Depending on how many you are serving, price will likely be a consideration – but if not…:

“It’s absolutely amazing how it’s evolved,” says Michael K. Bernstein, owner of The Cask in Los Angeles, which stocks and sells exclusively kosher wines and spirits. “It’s mind-boggling how many different kosher wines there are.”

in recent years, a number of producers have begun making classic red and white kosher wines. A pioneer was Herzog Wine Cellars in Southern California, and there also is a growing wine industry in Israel.

Making wine kosher isn’t particularly hard, says Jeff Morgan, winemaker at Covenant, a winery in the Napa Valley that makes a kosher Cabernet Sauvignon that goes for $90 a bottle. The ingredients in wine are kosher; the trick is to keep things that way.

The basic requirement for doing that is to make sure that the grape juice and fermented wine is only touched or handled by Sabbath-observant Jews, which is what happens at Covenant, where associate winemaker Jonathan Hajdu is a Sabbath-observant Jew. Read more here and another interesting article on this Napa winery here.

On to some reviews, and I have to admit that I haven’t tried these wines but am relying on reviews from those who’s reputation relies on their opinions. If you have an opinion, let me know.

Natalie MacLean is an admirer of Israeli wines. She particularly likes Saslove Winery Cabernet Sauvignon from the upper Galilee and Yarden Golan Heights Winery Cabernet:

I’ve rated both of these wines 90 out of 100 and they’ll both age for a decade or more — long enough to get you through many Rosh Hashanah meals.”

Yarden Golan Heights Cabernet Sauvignon

Yarden Golan Heights Cabernet Sauvignon

In the same article, MacLean recommends Howard Wasserman’s opinion. He’s a partner in B & W Wines:

…a classic deep rich Cabernet from Penley Estate [South Australia].” Israel’s Tulip Winery Cabernet worked perfectly with a recent Friday night brisket, Wasserman says, while things got off to a nice start with Vitkin Winery’s Viognier — excellent with the matzo ball soup. “Along with everyday wines, there are some Israeli collectibles, such as Margalit Cabernet Franc, which have been recognized worldwide.”

Wine Spectator declares the following “outstanding” to “very good.” See the full list here.

VIGNOBLES DAVID Côtes du Rôhne Le Mourre de L’Isle 2010 Score: 85 | $17 A nice whiff of warm ganache gives way to lightly dusty cherry and black currant fruit.

RECANATI Merlot Galilee 2010 Score: 87 | $15A ripe red that displays interesting notes of sandalwood and spice, with some creamy elements. Features medium-grained tannins on the finish.

Recanti Merlot from Galilee

Recanati Merlot from Galilee

RECANATI Cabernet Sauvignon Galilee 2010 Score: 87 | $15Dried cherry flavors are flanked by notes of rose petal and savory herb. Lively sandalwood notes linger on the juicy finish. Kosher. Drink now through 2016.

GOLAN HEIGHTS WINERY Merlot Galilee Yarden 2008 Score: 89 | $22A suave red, with luscious dark fruit flavors that are accented by plenty of licorice and spice notes. The powerful finish features bittersweet chocolate and mocha, with hints of savory herb. Kosher. Drink now through 2017.

CARMEL Chardonnay Upper Galilee Appellation 2009 Score: 88 | $20 Lively, with plenty of fresh-cut peach and ripe melon flavors that feature a fresh juiciness. Offers hints of gooseberry and currant on the focused finish. Kosher. Drink now through 2016.

Carmel Chardonnay from Upper Galilee Appellation

Carmel Chardonnay from Upper Galilee Appellation

DOMAINE DU CASTEL Chardonnay Haute-Judée C Blanc du Castel 2009 Score: 90 | $50Offers a toasty aroma, with loads of ripe apple, guava and pear flavors that are richly spiced. There’s good balance and structure, with a finish filled with smoke and spice. Drink now through 2018.

Wine and Spirits Magazine – Tamar Genger (full list here) and here.

2010 Dalton Canaan Red 2010 (Galilee); $17.
Red Canaan is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Petit Syrah and Shiraz and is an ideal table wine for Seder night.  This is an easy drinking medium-bodied red wine that aims to please any palate with sweet fruit, with notes of black pepper, cherries and plums, low tannins and soft vanilla tones.

2010 Shiloh Legend (Judean Hills); $35.  A blend of Shiraz (45%), Petite Syrah (40%), Petite Verdot (9%), Merlot (6%), aged for 8 months in French oak barrels separately, and an additional 8 months after blending.  This is a deep dark red with black fruit aromas and an aroma of cocoa, leather and mint with a full, lingering finish.  You’ll be fighting with Elijah for the last glass!

2009 Ruhlman Gewurtzaminer (Alsace); $17.  Violet and rose aromas, mineral notes and a lingering tropical finish.  This is a complex white with the right balance of acidity and richness to pair well with turkey, veal or other flavorful light meats. A wonderful find and one of my new faves!

Ruhlman Gewurztraminer (Alsace)


Eric Asimov writing for the NYT (all kosher) see complete list here:

Montsant from Celler de Capçcanes (Spain) – $20: “lovely, spicy, earthy”

White: Abarbanel Vin d’Alsace Riesling 2009 (Mevushal) $21 – …floral and earthy, more savory than fruity.” More on Arbanel Kosher here.

Elvi Adar Brut for about $21 – pleasant, light and easy to drink,” “not profound. Fine and airy…” (I’ve seen other reviews not so complimentary)

Drappier Carte d’Or Champagne – $60 – “highly satisfying,” “straightforward nonvintage.” Dominant grape Pinot Noir.

Tio Pepe, classic fino sherry – a kosher version. The “tangy, saline flavors of this sherry are a good representation for the tears of slavery. dry, pure, tangy, refreshing.

Tio Pepe Fino Sherry, Kosher

Tio Pepe Fino Sherry, Kosher

Asimov also suggests as a source.

While there will not be a Passover Seder at my house, if there was, the chocolate-orange liqueur, Sabra, would be in at least one of my “cups.” If you haven’t enjoyed Sabra, you really should. The first story I was told about Sabra was that the name described the Israeli female soldier: hard on the outside soft on the inside. I never forgot that serious-minded, but charming description, and have had a bottle continually in my home. When I looked for the official meaning of the word Sabra, I found “thorny on the outside, soft on the inside.” Still works for me. The word in Arabic means “patience.”


Those shopping for Kosher wine reviews and recommendations already know what Passover and the Seder ritual represent, so please indulge me as I help my non-Jewish friends (and me, myself and I) understand this bedrock tradition.

The Passover Seder is a dinner celebrating the beginning of Passover. It falls on a specific date which differs most years – the 14th or 15th day of Nisan on the Hebrew calender. During the Seder, the story of the Passover is told from the book of Exodus or the Shemot in the Hebrew Bible.

On that day tell your son, ‘I do this because of what the Lord did for me when I cam out of Egypt.’ NIV Exodus 13:8

There is also a family reading of The Haggadah, recounting the exodus from Egypt and escape from the Pharoah.

The last of the plagues G-d visited upon the Egyptians was the killing of their firstborn, while ‘passing over’ the children of Israelites – a good reason for a celebration, right?

Here is how a Seder proceeds according to

In Our Forefathers’ Footsteps

At the Seder, every person should see himself as if he were going out of Egypt. Beginning with our Patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, we recount the Jewish people’s descent into Egypt and recall their suffering and persecution. We are with them as G‑d sends the Ten Plagues to punish Pharaoh and his nation, and follow along as they leave Egypt and cross the Sea of Reeds. We witness the miraculous hand of G‑d as the waters part to allow the Israelites to pass, then return to inundate the Egyptian legions.

Kadesh—the Benediction

The Seder service begins with the recitation of kiddush, proclaiming the holiness of the holiday. This is done over a cup of wine, the first of the four cups we will drink (while reclining) at the Seder.

The Four Cups of Wine

Why four cups? The Torah uses four expressions of freedom or deliverance in connection with our liberation from Egypt (see Exodus 6:6–7). Also, the Children of Israel had four great merits even while in exile: (1) They did not change their Hebrew names; (2) they continued to speak their own language, Hebrew; (3) they remained highly moral; (4) they remained loyal to one another.

Wine is used because it is a symbol of joy and happiness.

Why We Recline

When drinking the four cups and eating the matzah, we lean on our left side to accentuate the fact that we are free people. In ancient times only free people had the luxury of reclining while eating.


We wash our hands in the usual, ritually prescribed manner as is done before a meal, but without the customary blessing.

The next step in the Seder, Karpas, requires dipping food into water, which in turn mandates, according to Jewish law, that either the food be eaten with a utensil or that one’s hands be purified by washing. On the Seder eve we choose the less common observance to arouse the child’s curiosity.

Karpas—the “Appetizer”

A small piece of onion or boiled potato is dipped into saltwater and eaten (after reciting the blessing over vegetables).

Dipping the karpas in saltwater is an act of pleasure and freedom, which further arouses the child’s curiosity.

The Hebrew word karpas, when read backwards, alludes to the backbreaking labor performed by the 600,000 Jews in Egypt. [Samech has the numerical equivalent of 60 (representing 60 times 10,000), while the last three Hebrew letters spell perech, hard work.]

The saltwater represents the tears of our ancestors in Egypt.

Yachatz—Breaking the Matzah

The middle matzah on the Seder plate is broken in two. The larger part is put aside for later use as the afikoman. This unusual action not only attracts the child’s attention once again, but also recalls G‑d’s splitting of the Sea of Reeds to allow the Children of Israel to cross on dry land. The smaller part of the middle matzah is returned to the Seder plate. This broken middle matzah symbolizes humility, and will be eaten later as the “bread of poverty.”

Maggid—the Haggadah

At this point, the poor are invited to join the Seder. The Seder tray is moved aside, a second cup of wine is poured, and the child, who by now is bursting with curiosity, asks the time-honored question: “Mah nishtanah ha-lailah hazeh mikol ha-leilot? Why is this night different from all other nights?” Why only matzah? Why the dipping? Why the bitter herbs? Why are we relaxing and leaning on cushions as if we were kings?

The child’s questioning triggers one of the most significant mitzvot of Passover, which is the highlight of the Seder ceremony: the haggadah, telling the story of the Exodus from Egypt. The answer includes a brief review of history, a description of the suffering imposed upon the Israelites, a listing of the plagues visited on the Egyptians, and an enumeration of the miracles performed by the Almighty for the redemption of His people.

Rochtzah—Washing Before the Meal

After concluding the first part of the haggadah by drinking the second cup of wine (while reclining), the hands are washed again, this time with the customary blessings, as is usually done before eating bread.

Motzi Matzah—We Eat the Matzah

Taking hold of the three matzot (with the broken one between the two whole ones), recite the customary blessing before bread. Then, letting the bottom matzah drop back onto the plate, and holding the top whole matzah with the broken middle one, recite the special blessing “al achilat matzah.” Then break at least one ounce from each matzah and eat the two pieces together, while reclining.

Maror—the Bitter Herbs

Take at least one ounce of the bitter herbs. Dip it in the charoset, then shake the latter off and make the blessing “al achilat maror.” Eat without reclining.

Korech—the Sandwich

In keeping with the custom instituted by Hillel, the great Talmudic sage, a sandwich of matzah and maror is eaten. Break off two pieces of the bottom matzah, which together should be at least one ounce. Again, take at least one ounce of bitter herbs and dip them in the charoset. Place this between the two pieces of matzah, say “kein asah Hillel . . .” and eat the sandwich while reclining.

Shulchan Orech—the Feast

The holiday meal is now served. We begin the meal with a hard-boiled egg dipped into saltwater.

A rabbi was once asked why Jews eat eggs on Passover. “Because eggs symbolize the Jew,” the rabbi answered. “The more an egg is burned or boiled, the harder it gets.”

Note: The chicken neck is not eaten at the Seder.

Tzafun—Out of Hiding

After the meal, the half-matzah which had been “hidden,” set aside for theafikoman (“dessert”), is taken out and eaten. It symbolizes the Paschal lamb, which was eaten at the end of the meal.

Everyone should eat at least 1½ ounces of matzah, reclining, before midnight. After eating the afikoman, we do not eat or drink anything except for the two remaining cups of wine.

Berach—Blessings After the Meal

A third cup of wine is filled and Grace is recited. After the Grace we recite the blessing over wine and drink the third cup while reclining.

Now we fill the cup of Elijah and our own cups with wine. We open the door and recite the passage which is an invitation to the Prophet Elijah, the harbinger of the coming of Moshiach, our righteous Messiah.

Hallel—Songs of Praise

At this point, having recognized the Almighty and His unique guidance of the Jewish people, we go still further and sing His praises as L‑rd of the entire universe.

After reciting the Hallel, we again recite the blessing over wine and drink the fourth cup, reclining.


Having carried out the Seder service properly, we are sure that it has been well received by the Almighty. We then say “Leshanah haba’ah bee-rushalayim—Next year in Jerusalem.”

End Chabad Seder ritual. Read more at Jewish Virtual Library.

Best wishes for a blessing-filled Passover to my Jewish friends, and especially to Katie.

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