The Talmud states there is no happiness without wine. As the only drink with its own blessing — thanking the "Creator of the fruit of the vine" — wine is integral to Shabbat and other Jewish holidays.
Even the cup to hold the wine is special, often ornately decorated and of a specific volume to ensure that enough is consumed to fulfill the mitzvot.
Wine's significance is not derived from its alcohol content. Rather, it illustrates an essential principle of Judaism: that of tikkun olam, or "repairing or improving the world." Wine is one of God's gifts and humankind's efforts coming together to create something better.
More importantly, wine symbolizes the Torah. The Talmud states that "in the same way that wine gladdens the heart, so do words of Torah …" Thus, the talmudic phrase "whoever does not have wine spilt in his house is not blessed" can be interpreted to mean that each home should be filled with words of Torah.
In addition, someone who is well-versed in Torah is called an eshkolos, or a "grape cluster."
This connection of wine and Torah underscores the importance of serving wine on Shavuot. The holiday was originally celebrated by the bringing of the year's first fruits to the Temple. Now the custom is to serve a dairy meal — a tradition derived from several sources, including the comparison of the Torah to milk ("Honey and milk are under your tongue"), the description of Israel as a "land of milk and honey" and because the Israelites ate dairy on the day they received the Torah since they did not have meat that complied with the newly established laws of kashrut.
The challenge is matching wine to the traditional fare, such as cheese blintzes, fruits, chilled soups and cheesecake. Here are a few suggestions:
Sparkling wines work well with both creamy and egg-based dishes. Produced from Pinot Blanc grapes grown in the Alsace region of France, the medium-bodied Abarbanel Brut Cremant D'Alsace ($20) is well-balanced with citrus and pineapple flavors. California's Hagafen Cellars makes the lovely Hagafen Brut Cuvee Late Disgorge 2001 ($35), which has tropical fruit and toasty chocolate notes.
The sweetness of late-harvest wines also makes them a good choice. The Chilean Alfasi Late Harvest Sauvignon Blanc 2001 ($14) is nicely balanced with orange and tropical-fruit flavors, with a touch of honey at the end, while the Baron Herzog Late Harvest Chenin Blanc 2004 ($16) has toasty apricot and fig notes with just enough acidity.
The fuller-bodied, spicy-sweet Carmel Shaal Late Harvest Gewurztraminer 2005 ($16) is very good with honeyed lychee, apricot and peach flavors, and has a long finish. An interesting wine is the peach and honey-flavored Noah Muscat ($16), made from grapes that were frozen during fermentation to retain a high residual sugar.