As longtime kosher wine producers continue to work to improve quality, a number of other serious wine producers who have made their names with non-kosher bottlings are also entering the market, bringing with them a new level of competitiveness. Among these newcomers is one of Bordeaux's leading names--Château Valandraud, one of the tiny-production Right Bank wines that command high prices.
Château owner Jean-Luc Thunevin is one of the fathers of Bordeaux's garage-wine movement, which has championed the idea that good techniques in the vineyard and cellar can lead to riper fruit and richer wines, even if production is limited to small quantities from "lesser" terroirs in simple facilities--even out of a garage--rather than at a famous château. After proving that point, Thunevin is going a step further and trying to show the world that it's possible to produce a top-quality kosher wine on par with the best from St.-Emilion.
That's not because he keeps kosher or is even Jewish for that matter. Thunevin grew up in Algeria, where his parents owned a grocery store, They became friendly with the local Jewish community since they all had something in common: They were outsiders. "His parents used to give food to the Jewish people living in Algeria in his area," says Christian Dalbavie, export manager for Valandraud. "Jean-Luc always kept a close relationship with that community. … It's after being in touch with friends of his that he started to realize there's no top kosher wine."
Starting with the 2001 vintage, Thunevin singled out a few small areas of his vineyard to use solely for the production of his kosher bottling of Valandraud, of which only about 100 cases are produced each year. When those grapes come into the winery, they're handled separately from all the other lots.
|Assistant rabbis handle the winemaking for Valandraud's kosher wine.|
Despite the differences, Thunevin wants the two versions of Valandraud to be comparable in quality. He presents the two wines side-by-side at tastings and sells them for the same price, about $280 per bottle at retail. (The kosher wine actually costs more to produce.) Indeed, the 2002 kosher Valandraud scored 90 points on the Wine Spectator 100-point scale, only one point lower than the regular 2002 bottling. In recent barrel tastings of the 2005 vintage, the kosher wine rated a potentially outstanding 89 to 91 points, while the non-kosher Valandraud is expected to rate as classic, within the range of 95 to 100 points.
Dalbavie acknowledges that the differences in production amount to a slight difference in taste. "I think the concentration is a little bit different," he says. "There is concentration on the kosher, but it's not as intense. And maybe there's a little more depth in the non-kosher than the kosher."
However, Thunevin is constantly experimenting to improve quality. He is currently using flash-pasteurization techniques that maintain the quality of the wine yet still allow it to be considered mevushal (meaning the wine can be handled by non-Jews or non-Sabbath-observant Jews without affecting its religious integrity). "He and his wife [Murielle], who is responsible for the vineyards, have really strived to make the best wine possible. Every year they try to do better and better," says Dalbavie.
He thinks that others may follow Thunevin's lead. "If you think about the kosher market, it was mainly used to buy cheap wine, Manischewitz," he says. "[But] in the past 10 years, more people have requested a better-quality product."
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