Germany is one of the world’s great wine-producing countries, yet for obvious reasons kosher German wines have been a rare commodity. But that is changing with the arrival of kosher Mosel Riesling from winemaker Nik Weis of the St. Urbans-Hof winery (nikweis.com) in Liewen, and also with the intimately related Gefen Hashalom (gefen-hashalom.com) German-Jewish kosher wine project.
The Gefen Hashalom wines represent the first kosher-certified Mosel Rieslings to be made in many decades, and Weis’ kosher wine is also the first to be imported into the United States at least since World War II, and is possibly — even likely — the first ever. Records of the pre-war kosher wine industry, such as it was, are pretty sketchy. Typically, kosher wine was simply a local trade, and export was a haphazard affair.
The Riesling grape makes white wines that are generally light in alcohol and refreshingly high in fruity natural acidity. More importantly for wine cognoscenti, Riesling, like Pinot Noir, is almost universally exalted by wine professionals for its seemingly inherent ability to transmit terroir — the sense or character of a place — through its extract and unique aromas. Riesling can also make very long-lived wines.
Indeed, so illustrious are German Rieslings that at one time they fetched higher prices than first-growth Bordeaux. Roughly 100 years ago, in fact, Riesling from Germany’s Mosel region were among the most expensive wines in the world.
Another wonderful aspect to the Riesling grape, however, is that it can also produce a staggering array of distinctly different styles. Weis’ St. Urbans-Hof winery, for example, grows only Riesling on his nearly 100 acres of vineyards in the Mosel and Saar, and each year produces more than a dozen completely different wines, from dry to very sweet, including — thankfully — a kosher wine since 2014.
Weis’ kosher wine is part of a larger German-Jewish kosher wine project called Gefen Hashalom (“Vine of Peace”), which began in 2014. The project started out as a partnership between Weis, Maximilian von Kunow (a friend and fellow wine producer), Dr. Mark Indig (a urologist, local Jewish community macher and chairman of the German-Israeli Society in Trier) and Benz Botmann (a businessman and then chairman of the Jewish community of Trier). Indig had long dreamed of facilitating good kosher wine from the Mosel — both because he rightly regards Mosel as some of the finest wine in the world, and because German-Jewish history ran so deep in Germany, and especially in the Mosel wine trade, before the Shoah wiped it all out. So Indig thought it would be a wonderful thing to see fine kosher wine produced there now. After all, he notes, “German wine was in Jewish hands, until the Nazis came, and the Jews made the German wine world-famous.”
Indig and his partner, Botmann, approached Weis and Max von Kunow at a Twin Wineries event — part of an unrelated Israeli-German winery cultural goodwill initiative that twins, or pairs, German wineries with Israeli wineries for cultural and professional exchanges — and persuaded them to join the project. Weis’ St. Urbans-Hof winery is twinned with the Flam Winery.
For Weis, however, the project was an easy decision. For one thing, he has always had an interest in Judaism — the Weis family folklore has for generations maintained that at some point in their distant, misted past they had been Jewish. Further, Weis’ grandfather, Nicolaus, “always had a good relationship with people from the Jewish community in our village [pre-WWII] — in fact he talked two families into escaping before the Nazis came.”
More than 20 years ago, while on a trip to San Francisco, Weis’ father, Hermann, encouraged his son to visit one of the families who survived because his grandfather had encouraged them to escape (they had eventually made it to San Francisco). During that encounter, Weis learned even more ennobling details about his grandfather (whom he never knew directly), and about the vibrant Jewish life that once existed in his region.
Finally, through his involvement with the Twin Wineries initiative, Weis has visited Israel multiple times, and was smitten. As he put it, “Israel is a wonderful, wonderful country. I love it there, especially Tel Aviv — I could live there no problem; just fantastic.”
Suffice it to say, Weis became very eager to make kosher wine. “I am committed to this kosher wine project,” he tells me. “With each new vintage we gain experience on how to do it [logistically]. I’ve kept the equipment kosher, locked away under the rabbi’s signed-and-sealed cover. The kosher wine project has become a new part of my life.”
Indeed, notes Rabbi Mendel Edelman of the Chabad of Luxembourg, who is the kashrut supervisor of the Gefen Hashalom project on behalf of the OK kashrut agency, it is because of Weis’ clear commitment and eagerness to make kosher wines that they were able to take a maximalist approach to the kashrus supervision and the kashrus protocol they agreed upon. “It was geshmack — a real pleasure to work with them,” notes Rabbi Edelmann. “We are able to maintain the absolutely highest standard of kashrus, regardless of cost. No leniency need be relied upon.”
Indeed, according to Gilad Flam, owner of the Flam Winery in Israel (with which Weis’ winery is twinned via the Twin Wineries initiative): “The Weis family is very unique, and is a real lover of the Jewish nation.” “Nik is a great guy, a really unique person…we have a slot of shared values. They are making great Rieslings, and we are very happy they are making the kosher Riesling now, too.” Indeed.
Weis’ kosher wines are the only Gefen Hashalom kosher wines that have so far been exported to the United States, but several Gefen Hashalom wines are also being made by von Kunow of Weingut von Hövel in Konz-Oberemmel (also producing Mosel Riesling). Starting in 2016, the Weingut Hans Wirsching in Bavaria, also began producing a kosher Sylvaner to be bottled in the traditional Bocksbeutel (flattened ellipsoid-shaped bottle) of the Franconian wine region. Hopefully these other Gefen Hashalom wines will also reach the U.S. market before too long.
Weis’ first wine was a dry Riesling — the “Nik Weis, St. Urbans-Hof, Gefen Hashalom, Saarfeilser, Dry Mosel Riesling, 2014.” Back in June 2015, a mere 50 cases of this 2014 dry Mosel Riesling hit the U.S. (10,000 bottles were produced). It was an unannounced special order item, so remained almost entirely unknown and hard to find until late September 2016, when the Taste Wine Company of New York held a public tasting. A kosher wine consumer posted notice of that tasting to a social media kosher wine group. Suddenly the wine garnered significant positive attention and interest, and since there were a mere 50 cases, it disappeared quickly.
As it happens, the 2014 made for an unusually soft introduction of Mosel Riesling to the kosher market.
“I must say,” Weis informed me matter-of-factly, “that our first vintage 2014 of the kosher wine did not turn out to my full satisfaction. The wine is not what I wanted it to be.” I press him for details. “2014 was a difficult vintage to make a kosher wine in the Mosel,” he says simply.
Due to uncooperative weather, vineyard conditions were less than ideal and grape selection at harvest proved a real challenge, and a certain amount of oxidized juice resulted — “it was not to the benefit of the wine.” Being new to kashrut, he also encountered some inevitable logistical issues in figuring out how to make it all work. “The 2014 was more of a trial run,” he added. “It is not what I wanted it to be.”
By contrast, he was quick to note, “the 2015 Vintage of Gefen Hashalom is much, much better! The weather in 2015 was perfect.” It made for a “quite relaxing, quite easy-going [experience], and perfect to do things like, you know, making a kosher wine.” Without further ado…
Nik Weis, “Gefen Hashalom,” Wiltinger, Saar Riesling (Mosel, Germany) 2015 (9.5 percent alcohol by volume; $25; imported by HB Wine Merchants, which handle his non-kosher wines as well): This light-yellow colored, low-alcohol, wonderfully quaffable beauty offers fine, pure expressions of floral and mineral aromatics, leading on the palate towards a brilliant tension — high-wire balancing act-like — between the fruity sweetness (delicate tropical, citrus, and stone fruits), the subtle yet smoky minerality and the taut intensity of the acid. There is some residual carbon dioxide that adds a subtle yet lively freshness to the mouthfeel, and all of this is supported by the loving cushion of natural residual sugar. Though the natural residual sugar is perceptible, this is off-dry, rather than sweet, and would make a fine accompaniment to hot and spicy cuisine. Indeed, this is a delicate, vibrant, complex and really lovely and rewarding example of village-level Mosel.
“Stephen Reinhardt, the German wines expert with Robert Parker’s The Wine Advocate and author of The Finest Wines of Germany told me in an email that 2015 “was a great vintage here” and “Nik Weis has produced a very good to excellent range.” Indeed, notes Reinhardt, this kosher Gefen Hashalom Riesling is “light and juicy, well structured and very elegant” and though “still young” it is “lush and in perfect balance” and “will benefit from further bottle age.” (His formal tasting note will eventually be published in The Wine Advocate).”