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Kvetches of Spain: Fine Wines for Passover and Beyond
Fine wine can be found in almost every corner of the globe these days, but sourcing a decent, if not exceptional kosher wine, well, that may take some legwork — unless you know where to point your palate.
For a change of pace this year, picking up a little Spanish may be the way to go. Although Spanish wines are often lost in the shuffle to grab the latest Beaujolais from Brouilly, Primitivo from Puglia or Cabernet from California, these Old World wines with a rich history are some of the greatest wine bargains anywhere.
Drinking the Circle of Life
Dr. Moisés Cohen knows his Spanish history well. Until as recently as 1976, Jews had been prohibited from owning land in Spain, going all the way back to the Inquisition. According to Cohen, he became the first Sephardic Jew in half a millennium to buy land in Spain when he purchased a vineyard in 2000. His company, Elvi Wines, in the Priorat region of Catalonia, southwest of Barcelona, produces the prestigious Clos Mesorah label, as well as several other outstanding wines.
Winemaking and agronomy is in his family’s blood, says Cohen, who holds a Ph.D. in agricultural engineering from the Technion in Haifa. “To develop this vineyard, with its 105-year-old vines, with modern innovations and sensitivity to what has to be done properly, it has been very rewarding,” he says.
Cohen’s wines feature grapes from a half-dozen regions in Spain, all with approachable flavors that should mesh well with almost any dish you serve for Pesach.
The Elvi Cava, a sparkling wine, bursts with round fruit notes of peaches, pears, green apples and almonds, and aromas of citrus and elderflowers. A blend of Macabeo, Parellada and Xarel-lo grapes, it is a new mevushal Cava, and would make an elegant accompaniment for a pre-dinner nibble to welcome guests as they arrive, or post-dinner with sweets.
The winery’s In-Vita, blended from Pansa Blanca and Sauvignon Blanc grapes grown in Alella, on Spain’s northern coastline, exudes tart lemon and grass scents, a fresh, mild melon note and a honey-like finish — and something else I could not identify at first.
“The Pansa Blanca grapes grow on these rocky hillsides overlooking the sea,” Cohen explains. “The soil looks almost white, and what you get is that great mineral taste from the soil, but even better: You get the taste of the sea air, the salty air, just like you were drinking the wine there on the white hills.”
Cohen’s eyes sparkle with excitement when he discusses his wines. Despite his technical and agricultural achievements, the romance of winemaking seems to consume him — in a good way. When he discusses some of the kosher red wines he makes, such as Elvi’s 2010 Classico and Clos Mesorah, he is especially effusive.
“The Classico is 100 percent Tempranillo grapes,” says Cohen, “very earthy with chives and grass, almost bone dry, but yet a very light body. You can drink four cups of this at Passover!”
His greatest enthusiasm is reserved for Elvi’s flagship wine, the 2010 Clos Mesorah. “The 105-year-old Carignan grapevines are 40 percent of this wine, along with 30 percent Grenache and 30 percent Syrah grapes, and we age it in finely toasted French oak barrels. It is very elegant and rich.”
I was able to sample this wine with Cohen when he visited the United States for the 2014 Kosher Wine and Food Expo last month in New York, and it was remarkable. Earthy, vegetal and full of blackberry, cherry, leather and even honeysuckle flavors, it was like tasting the entire cycle of the winemaking process in a glass. Cohen grabbed a bottle and pointed to its label, an intricate Byzantine circle motif.
“The circle of life,” said Cohen, “is precisely what Clos Mesorah means, the close family generations, the history, the transmission of tradition.”
Sourcing for your seder
Now that your appetite has been whetted for something different and distinctive for Pesach, don’t rush out to your local PA Wine & Spirits store, or even some of the wine megastores in New Jersey and Delaware, unless you’re prepared to be disappointed. After several days of visiting state stores in Pennsylvania and big-box liquor marts in New Jersey, I found the selection of kosher wines to be, for the most part, lacking, although the Wine & Spirits store in Narberth carried a decent selection of kosher wines from California, France, Italy, Israel, Australia and New Zealand. Wegman’s Wine Liquor & Beer in Cherry Hill also contained much more than the usual suspects, with wines from Italy, Australia, Chile, California and Israel.
But none from Spain. So I’ll let you in on a little secret: think out of the big-box/state store humdrum and head to Bala Cynwyd to talk wine with Ruvane Ribiat. You will never pick a kosher wine the same way again. Ribiat manages Rosenberg Blue Star Wine, a kosher wine boutique in a busy Judaica store that houses an eye-opening selection of kosher wines from around the world. And he can offer detailed knowledge about almost every bottle in the shop.
“People don’t know about kosher Spanish wines,” says Ribiat, “but they are tremendous values, even better than Chilean wines. They are Old World wines, which means they are not as big and bold as we think of American wines. The wines have greater finesse. Everything that Spain exports is quality, at one-third to one-half the price!”
Two wines at Blue Star are perfect examples of Ribiat’s claim. A 2010 Ramon Cordova Granacha had a burst of berry fruit and pepper at first sip, followed by a smooth, cocoa-like finish. “Granacha, the grapes that make Rioja wines so popular, have great finesse and character,” explains Ribiat.
Another red, a 2011 Capçanes Peraj Petita, was an oaky, jammy pour with vibrant floral notes of elderflowers and a silken finish — “absolutely perfect for Passover,” Ribiat enthuses.
And if you’re in the mood to splurge a little this Passover, he even has a few bottles of that fabulous Clos Mesorah. ¡Feliz Pascua!
Rich Pawlak is a frequent contributor to Inside. This article originally appeared in Inside Magazine, a Jewish Exponent publication.