By Alan J. Wax
Château Grand-Puy-Lacoste, Château Giscours, Château Lascombes, Château Léoville-Poyferré, Château Cantenac Brown, Chateau Gazin Rocquencourt, Château Malartic Lagraviere. Familiar names to aficionados of top French wines.
But these highly regarded French wines, all classified growths, are different from all others.
How? They’re kosher for Passover. And for wine connoisseurs who observe kashrut, especially at Passover, which begins on the evening of March 30, this is exciting news.
To ensure wine is kosher, it must be made exclusively by Sabbath-observant Jews The winemakers may not touch it, so mashgichim do it all. The winemaker at each chateau still makes all the decisions as to blending and aging aging. And he wines must pass muster with the owners of the respective chateaus before they can be labeled.
The excitement was especially evident at the recent New York Kosher and Food Expo at the Chelsea Piers put on by the Royal Wine Corp., the largest factor in the kosher wine trade.
There, lined up on table after table, were wines from some the most highly regarded producers in Bordeaux. And behind the table, Menahem Israelievitch, Royal’s man in France, who was responsible for the production of these wines. Israelievitch worked for many yeares alongside his predecessor, Pierre Miodownick, who moved to Israel a decade ago and now owns the Domaine Netofa winery.
As Israelievitch enthusiastically discusses the wines, a large Hasidic man attired in long black coat and black hat, yells across the crowd. “Where’s the Lascombes?” Israelievitch calls Lascombes “our new star.”
These high-end wines, it seems have broad appeal.
“Kosher wines have become more serious,” said Bruno LaPlaine, vice president of Malartic-Lagravière, which has been making kosher cuvees since 2003. In the 2018 vintage, he says, the producer will add a kosher white. Malartic-Lagravière is one of the only six classified growths both for its red and white wines.
But it’s not easy to get these wines to market. It took three years of discussions before Château Lascombes agreed to produce a kosher cuvee, said Israelievitch. “If the wine is not at the same level as the non-kosher, they will not permit their label to be used.” he added, “The big chateau don’t need the kosher market.” But he said Royal’s good reputation in the industry was key to getting the cooperation of the top producers in France to produce kosher cuvees. Now, he says, Royal has relationships with 27 wineries in France.
The kosher cuvees are made at each property from specified vineyard blocks that are contracted for a year in advance —without knowing how the vintage will turn out, said Jay Buchsbaum, vice president of marketing at Royal. Because the wines are kosher, the grapes cannot be picked on the Sabbath or on holy days and there is a chance that the kosher versions may not be picked at the optimum ripeness as a non-kosher wine or may benefit or not from variations within a vineyard. “We got lucky,” said Jay Buchsbaum of the 2015 vintage. Israelievitch said the 2015 kosher cuvee of Léoville-Poyferré “was the best vintage we ever produced.” The vintage benefited from dry weather at harvest, leaving time leisurely picking.
To be sure, the wines are not cheap. Buchsbaum said the cost of a kosher cute may be 40 percent higher than the non-kosher version.
Nor are the easy find. They are on allocation—Royal only imported a few hundred cases — and some retailers are reluctant to stock them with asking prices that can reach three-figures.
Chateau Lascombes 2015, from the Margaux commune in Bordeaux’s Haut-Médoc Appellation, for example, is available for $129 at online retailer kosherwine.com. Chateau Grand-Puy Ducasse, a top selection from the Pauillac appellation is a $75 bottle. Chateau Malartic Lagraviere 2014 can be had for around $90. Chateau Giscours Margaux 2015, $135. Chateau Cantenac Brown Margaux 2015, $150.
And older vintages, more suitable for current drinking as these wines should be laid down for several years, can go for up to $700 a bottle.
The wines I tasted were for the most part extraordinary, but really need lots of time before their corks are popped.
Château Malartic 2014, from the Pessac Leognan appellation, is rich and powerful, but the tannins are soft, making the wine surprisingly accessible for current consumption. Similarly, Gazin Rocquencourt 2015 from the same producer, is dark in hue, rich with juicy dark fruit and also soft on the palate.
Château Grand-Puy-Lacoste 2013, from Pauillac, is loaded with dark fruit, tobacco and licorice flavors and solid tannins, but also is approachable now. The silky 2015 vintage has notes of dried fruit, cherries and forest.
Château Giscours 2014, from Margaux, has concentrated notes of cherries, raspberry and black currants mingled with cedar and graphite. But I was turned off by the green notes I also encountered.
Chevalier de Lascombes 2015, the second wine of the second-growth Château Lascombes, is fruit forward with tons of plum notes and more easily consumed thats its sibling.
Château Lascombes 2015 is a beautifully balanced, albeit dense, powerful wine load with loads of tannins. Give it at least eight years.
Chateau Leoville-Poyferre 2015, a second-growth St-Julien appellation wine, is an unctious, well balanced, and offers notes of cassis, tea and lead pencil.
Pavillon de Poyferre 2015 the second label of Leoville-Poyferre, is nicely balanced with notes of fruit and chai tea spices. It lacks the depth of its sibling but still a fine wine.