Passover is very much a holiday of freedom and individual choice. Within the framework of avoiding chametz, or leaven, in all its forms, people develop their own traditions and loyalties to particular recipes. For me, it is about Israeli wine.
At my seder, we like to offer different wines for each of the four cups, but the unifying factor in our house is that all of our Passover wines are from Israel. There are some outstanding Israeli wines available locally, and it’s possible to find some really notable wines for less than $25 a bottle.
There is a custom that the wine for Kiddush should be red, but there is always someone at our table who prefers white, so it’s always available. While Israel doesn’t have a long history of making white wines, there are some outstanding ones available. Among my favorites:
Dalton Unoaked Chardonnay – I’m a big fan of this wine, which showcases the delicate citrusy nature of the chardonnay grape, without the influence oak barrels have on this wine. It’s very refreshing and great with a fish course.
Galil Mountain Viognier – Galil Mountain, a beautiful winery on Kibbutz Yiron in the Upper Galilee, makes a very nice viognier with a very earthy, almost smoky flavor.
Carmel Ridge White – a blend of colombard, chardonnay and sauvignon blanc, that is light and has a lot of fruit character.
Tishbi Chenin Blanc – this budget-priced, semi-dry wine is a nice introduction for young or new wine drinkers. It is lightly sweet, has a lot of fruit flavor and goes well with many different foods.
Israeli red wine has moved past the early years of featuring primarily cabernet sauvignon and merlot (and blends of the two). While these varieties are prominent, there are now more Bordeaux-style blends incorporating other Mediterranean grapes. Some lesser-known but worthwhile wines to look for:
Agur Kessem – The Agur winery, kosher since the 2007 vintage, makes outstanding wines. Shuki Yashuv, the winemaker, blends cabernet, merlot, cabernet franc and petit verdot, all grown in the Mateh Yehudah region of the Judean Hills to make this exceptional wine.
Odem Mountain Volcanic Shiraz – The Har (Mount) Odem winery, located in the northern region of the Golan Heights, is a family-run operation making exceptional wines. I visited this past summer, and have quickly become a big fan of its shiraz, which pairs well with beef or roasted poultry.
Carmel Appellation Series Cabernet Franc – The oldest and largest of Israel’s wineries, Carmel completely retooled about 15 years ago to focus on making fine wines. This 100 percent cabernet franc is a great example of how even large winemakers can change direction and make some really outstanding wines.
Teperberg Meritage – This wine, a blend of cabernet sauvignon, merlot and cabernet franc, and made at Teperberg’s winery on land leased from Kibbutz Tzora across Route 30 from the entrance to Beit Shemesh, is a nice, slightly tannic, full-bodied wine. It pairs well with roasted meats and cuts through the texture of carbohydrates for a really nice mealtime experience.
Tzuba Syrah – The Tzuba Estate Winery is located just west of Jerusalem, in the Judean Hills, near Mevaseret Zion. The local topography and climate provide ideal conditions to cultivate the vineyards and produce a variety of prize-winning boutique wines. This wine is made from syrah grapes and aged in French oak barrels for 16 months. The wine has a deep purple color, revealing cherry and plum fruits in harmony with delicate spices.
Tulip Just Merlot – The Tulip winery itself is unique, located in Kfar Tikvah in the Lower Galilee, a village for adults with developmental disabilities, some of whom are employed at the winery. They make several outstanding wines. This one is aged for eight months in French oak barrels and has a dense maroon red color with shades of purple. It contains aromas of ripe black and red fruit with prominent wood flavors and has a pleasant rich texture on the palate. This wine pairs well with roasted or grilled meat and poultry.
I’m not a big dessert wine drinker, but I know moscato is a very popular variety, and Carmel makes a very pleasant one, Carmel Moscato di Carmel. Only 5 percent alcohol, it’s carried in many of the Montgomery County Liquor and Wine stores. It’s been a fan favorite at several of the tastings I’ve recently conducted.
Enjoy your four (or more) cups, support Israel and have a happy Passover.
Steve Kerbel is a local Jewish educator and wine enthusiast who visits and maintains close connections with dozens of vintners and winemakers in Israel.