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A Coming-of-Age Story in Spain
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A Coming-of-Age Story in Spain

Over the past 15 years, the quality of Spanish kosher wines has improved dramatically.

Fifteen years ago, when I started writing about kosher wine for this paper, the second story I submitted was a review of the growing handful of kosher wines from Spain. At the time, kosher wines were only produced at six Spanish wineries — some of which have grown significantly since then and some of which have disappeared. Today, with more than a dozen wineries producing roughly three dozen different wines, the time seems right to check back in.

It’s clear to me that the quality of Spanish kosher wines has significantly improved. Back then, according to my notes, most of the Spanish wines I tasted were simple, entry-level wines, but today there are a growing number of kosher Spanish wines with real depth and complexity.

The Producers

Much of the kosher wine from Spain is made in limited production runs at non-kosher wineries, often at the behest of a kosher wine distributer. Some of these wines are produced by large-scale producers — such as Sherry giant Tio Pepe and Freixenet, Spain’s leading sparkling wine producer — and others by boutique producers such as Pio Del Ramo Vineyards, which produces a kosher white wine from Verdejo grapes, and the Nexus winery, which produces a kosher tempranillo under the Ribera del Duero appellation. However, there are two producers that are far more focused on kosher wine.

Elvi Winery is Spain’s only wholly kosher wine producer (the term “winery” may be misleading, as Elvi wines are produced in facilities located in a number of different wine-producing regions). Owned by Moises and Anna Cohen, Elvi (the name is a combination of a Hebrew word for God and the Catalan word for wine) has been producing kosher wines since 2003. Moises grew up in Morocco before moving to Israel as a student, and then continued his studies in Spain, which is where he met (and eventually married) Anna, an art student from Toulouse. Before opening Elvi, Moises had become a viticulture consultant to some of Spain’s up and coming wineries. The Cohens settled in Monsant, where they own the Clos Mesorah Winery (where they produce Elvis Winery’s flagship wine).

This garnet-colored tempranillo is made at one of the leading wineries in an up-and-coming wine region in the north of Spain.

Also located in Monsant is Capçanes, perhaps the first winery to produce kosher wine in Spain in centuries. The winery is unique among European kosher wine producers: not only does it consistently produce some of the best kosher wine available, but it’s because of its kosher wine that the winery developed a world-class reputation.

Capçanes, which was founded in 1933 by five families as a cooperative winery, first produced bulk wine and later, after 1975 Bourbon Restoration, when market conditions changed, the winery sold unfermented fruit to other wineries.   

According to Jürgen Wagner, who leads the winemaking team at Capçanes, by the mid-1990s that model was no longer working. “The customers we had who had bought our grapes and our bulk wine started to buy their own land in the mountains, and it was just a question of time until they would not need us anymore. … [So] in 1994 and 1995 the president of our company, Francesco Blanc, met with a rich Jew from the community in Paris, who put him in contact with the rabbi in Barcelona. In those days there was no kosher wine made in Spain
. . . and the community needed wine.”

Converting to kosher wine production was an expensive proposition, as the concrete vats the winery had previously used could not be made kosher. “Only stainless steel was approved by the rabbi to do the kosher,” explains Wagner. “It was a big investment, and in those days it was the first time anyone in the village had ever come in contact with the Jewish culture. So it was a real challenge to convince the Catholic Catalan farmers to invest their own money in another religion in order to become independent of grape and bulk-wine sales.”

When the second vintage (1996) of the Capçanes’ kosher wine was praised by José Peñin, Spain’s most influential wine writer, who gave the wine a rating of 95 (the second highest score he awarded in 1997), Capçanes’ recovery was truly underway. Today, Capçanes produces almost 50 different wines, seven of which are kosher.

The Grapes

From roughly 1880 to 1980, much of the Spanish wine industry was struggling, first with the devastation of the phylloxera infestations that killed much of the native rootstock, then with the havoc caused by the Spanish Civil War, and finally with reduction of international trade caused by Franco’s decades of rule. However, unlike many developing and redeveloping wine regions, Spain, by and large, continued to focus on native varietals, instead of replanting with better-known grapes, such as Cabernet and Chardonnay, in the hope of improving export marketability.

While many of Spain’s red varietals such as tempranillo, grenacha (garnacha), and Cariñena (Carignan, also known as Samsó in Catalunya) are well known today, the white varietals are far less recognized. Macabeo, xarel-lo and Parellada, the three grapes that are used to produce Spain’s popular Cava sparkling wine, are hardly cultivated outside of Spain. Other white grapes, such as Albariño and Verdejo, are perhaps even more obscure, and for some kosher producers that obscurity is part of their allure.    

“I want to challenge” the consumer, explains Ari Lockspeiser of AY wines, a company that produces limited runs of kosher wines at environmentally-conscious wineries in the U.S. and abroad. When explaining why he decided to produce a kosher Verdejo at Pio Del Ramo Vineyards in Spain, Lockspeiser says, “Pio’s wine shot out of the glass at me when I tried it … [and] a unique [wine] like Verdejo fills an open spot in the kosher market.”

The Future

As I noted back in my 2005 column, “Wine guru Robert Parker recently predicted that in 15 years ‘Spain will be the star’ of the wine world.” While Spain arguably is not yet the star that Parker had predicted, as the quality of Spanish wines — and kosher Spanish wines — continues to grow, its day is not far off.

The Wines 

The following is a selection of Spanish kosher wines listed by wine growing region:

Catalunya,
including Montsant:

Capçanes, La Flor del Flor de Primavera, Garnacha, Montsant, 2015: This is one of Capçanes’ two flagship kosher varietal wines. Made from 100 percent grenache grapes grown on up to 100-year-old vines in mountainside vineyards, this full-bodied, garnet-colored wine is elegant but powerful. Look for a rich bouquet of plums, cherries, blackberries, cassis, rosemary, eucalyptus, aged tobacco, oak, pencil shavings and just a whiff of mocha. The flavor has elements of cherries, blackberries, mocha, tobacco and toasted almonds, with mineral notes, herbal highlights and a gentle woody background. Well structured with satiny tannins, this wine should drink well for another decade. Score A

Capçanes, La Flor del Flor de Primavera, Samsó, Montsant, 2015: Made from Carignan grapes on vines up to a century in age, this dark-garnet, full-bodied wine is a real powerhouse. The nose is complex with notes of cranberries, blackberries, brandied-cherries, anise, lavender, citrus, oak and field greens. Look for flavors of cherries, cranberries, licorice root, citrus and herb de province, with a nice level of oak running throughout. There is a delightful note of brandied cherries that starts mid-palate and continues through the finish. Also look for notes of coffee and chicory on the finish. This wine needs a bit more time. Best 2022-2035.

Score A

Capcanes, Peraj Ha’abib Flor de Primavera, Montsant, 2016: Made of 50 percent grenache, 30 percent carignan and 20 percent cabernet sauvignon, all aged for one year in French oak, this is the wine that changed Capçanes’ fortune all those years ago. Dark-garnet and full-bodied, look for a bouquet of cherries, cranberries, red and black currants, boysenberries, anise, oak, pencil shavings, grains of paradise and brown spice with just a whiff of cured meats. The flavor starts with flavors of cherries and Seville oranges at the front of the palate, moving towards notes of herbs and boysenberries mid-palate, ending with notes of crème de cassis, forest floor and pastrami on the finish. Best 2022-2032.

Score A/A-

Clos Mesorah, Montsant, 2015: This is Elvi’s flagship wine.  Garnet-colored, with a medium-to-full body, this elegant wine has a woodsy nose with elements of oak, brier, alder smoke, tobacco, cherries, cassis and cranberries. Look for flavors of cherries, cassis, raspberries, cedar and oak with an herbal tinge and an intriguing note of pastis mid-palate. With well-integrated tannins and a balanced structure, this wine is ready to drink now until 2027, and perhaps longer.

Score A-/B+

Capçanes, Peraj Ha’abib, Pinot Noir, Catalunya, 2017: With a ruby-to-garnet color and a medium body, this refreshing pinot noir has flavors and aromas of cherries, blackberries, plums, rosemary, violets and smoke with a hint of black pepper. Drink within the next four years.  Score B+.

Capçanes, Peraj Petita, Dolç, Montsant: This rich, full-bodied, fortified, port-like dessert wine is made from 85 percent grenache and 15 percent carignan and aged for one year in French oak. Look for flavors and aromas of stewed figs and cherries, chocolate and treacle with a liqueur-like note mid-palate and lingering flavors of chocolate and fresh cherries on the finish. With enough tannin and acidity to balance the wine’s sweetness, this well-structured wine should drink well for another five years, and perhaps longer. Score B+

Cava:

Freixenet, Excelencia, Kosher Edition, Brut, Cava (non-vintage): Made using the traditional Champagne method by Spain’s largest producer of sparkling wines, this medium-bodied, dry, refreshing sparkler has a rich moose of tiny bubbles. Look for flavors and aromas of apples, heather, cantaloupe and kiwi with an earthy, yeasty undertone. Like the other cavas reviewed in this article, it has a price point of about $20, making it (and its fellows) a good value choice for a kosher sparkling wine. Score B+

Elvi, Brut Cava (non-vintage): Made using the traditional method and aged for at least nine months in- bottle before being disgorged, the medium-bodied, bright straw-colored sparkler has an abundance of lively, tiny bubbles. The nose is redolent of citrus, apples, quince and yeasty bread and the flavor has elements of cantaloupe, orange and butter.

Score B+

En Fuego Brut, Cava, Reserva (non-vintage): Made from a cuvee of macabeo, xarel·lo and parellada grapes, this dark straw-colored, medium-bodied cava has a nose of apples, hay, honey, yeasty bread and cream. Look for flavors of Meyer lemon and tangerine, with honeyed notes and a yeasty finish. Just off dry, this sparkler is slightly sweeter than the other cavas reviewed here. Score B/B+

Jerez:

Tio Pepe, Kosher Edition, Fino Sherry, Jerez (non-vintage): Made by Sherry giant Tio Pepe in the young, dry Fino style, this light-bodied, fortified, bone-dry wine has a wonderfully earthy bouquet and flavors of almonds, pears, apples, Key limes and mangos. Look for notes of sea brine. It has a nice level of acid and a truly desiccated finish. Score B+

Rias Baixas:

Ramon Cardova, Albariño, Rias Baixas, 2018: This crisp, light-bodied, straw-colored wine is made from 100 percent albariño grapes grown on the Atlantic Coast just above Portugal. Look for flavors and aromas of kumquat, honeydew, honeysuckle, grapefruit and cantaloupe. Drink within the next six to eight months. Score B

Ribera del Duero:

Nexus one, Kosher Edition, Ribera del Duero, 2018: Made at one of the leading wineries in an up-and -coming wine region in the north of Spain, this garnet-colored, medium-to-full bodied tempranillo has a lot to offer. Look for flavors and aromas of cherries, rhubarb, raspberries and field greens, with hints of crème de framboise and honeysuckle. Well- structured, with a moderate amount of rustic tannins, the wine is enjoyable now but could use another six to nine months in the cellar and should then drink well for another four to five years. Score B+.

Rioja:

Elvi, Herienza, Rioja, Crianza, 2016: Barrel- aged for two years, this medium-to-full bodied wine is made from 100 percent tempranillo. It has a spicy nose with elements of cherries, cedar, cardamom and cloves. The flavor is dominated by cherries, with hints of raspberries and a gentle note of spice on the finish. Drink now-2023. Score B/B+

Ramon Cardova, Rioja, Crianza, 2016: The bright garnet-colored, medium-to-full bodied tempranillo has a bouquet of cherries, pipe tobacco, cloves and smoke. Look for flavors of cherries, currants, raspberries, tobacco, chocolate and endives. Rustic in style, with chunky tannins, this wine is ready to drink now and for the next three years.Score B/B+

Ramon Cardova, Rioja, 2017: This Rioja wine has been produced for more than 15 years and is consistently a good, value-priced red. Garnet-colored and medium-bodied, this rustic wine had flavors and aromas of cherries and raspberries, with a light note of dark chocolate. Best now until 2024. Score B/B+

Ramon Cardova, Garnacha, Rioja, 2015: While the vast majority of grapes cultivated in the Rioja region are tempranillo, there are also a small amount of grenache grapes grown there. Ruby-colored, with a light-to-medium body, this very quaffable wine has flavors and aromas of cherries and strawberries with hints of fennel and herbs on the finish. This vintage is approaching the end of its drinking window. Consume within the next six months. Score B

Tierra de Castilla:

Pio del Ramo, Verdejo, Joven, Terra de Castilla, 2018: Straw-colored and light-bodied, this wine was made from verdejo grapes that were harvested at night and fermented at a low temperature. The wine has a bouquet of green apple, thyme, Meyer lemon, honey and oak. The flavor starts with apples and pears, with notes of browned butter and oak mid-palate. The flavor of grapefruit dominates the finish. Crisp, dry, and refreshing, this wine should be consumed within the next year.  Score B+. 

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