Italy is the source of an astounding diversity of wines, with something suitable for every meal and every occasion, yet only a small glimpse of this world is available to kosher consumers. While there are nearly 100 different kosher Italian wines here in the U.S., most of them represent “budget” or “entry-level” export brands, though most are pleasant and some are positively tasty.
Apart from the exports of two fully kosher Italian wineries there are only a handful of kosher Italian wines available in the U.S. that one might call serious and authentic. That is, wines that reflect actual Italian tastes and that were crafted to wash down Italy’s “deeply satisfying vernacular food,” as Hugh Johnson, the world’s best-selling win writer, once memorably put it.
With expectations suitably adjusted, however, there are some lovely kosher Italian wines to be found, and consumers would do well to explore the available brands to determine for themselves which are most enjoyable.
The single most successful kosher Italian wine brand, and the one that blazed the trail for all the others to follow, is Bartenura.
“When we thought the market was ready for dry kosher wines back in the late-1970s,” recalled Nathan Herzog of the Royal Wine Corp., the world’s largest producer, importer and distributor of kosher wines, “we went first to Italy, and then later to France.”
The idea was to have dry kosher wines that were on par with the popular non-kosher dry table wines of that period — so Italy’s famously food-friendly wines were a natural starting point. “Our first dry kosher imports,” says Herzog, “were the 1978 Bartenura Valpolicella and the Bartenura Soave.”
The brand was named for Rabbi Ovadiah ben Avraham of Bertinoro, a 15th-century Italian rabbi best known for his popular commentary on the Mishnah, commonly known as simply “The Bartenura.” The name is easy to recall and familiar to its target audience; it is a name that carries nominally positive, particularly Jewish, associations.
Royal’s Bartenura line sold well, and competitors emerged. Rashi, one competitor, was named after the 11th-century French biblical commentator Rabbi Shlomo Itzchaki, popularly known by the acronym “Rashi.” Royal acquired the Rashi brand in the late-1980s, and it was under the Rashi label that kosher Moscato d’Asti first hit the U.S. market with “just a few thousand cases a year,” according to Herzog.
Eventually, Royal began selling a Moscato under its Bartenura brand, too. In the late-1990s, Royal had the idea of changing the packaging from the more traditional green-tinted bottle, which the Rashi brand still uses, to the now internationally recognized, and much copied, “blue bottle.”
As is now well-known, the “blue bottle” developed a strong following not only in the Jewish market, but also in the African-American community. It soon also became a favorite of several famous hip-hop and rap artists. Royal seized the opportunity to promote the wine, and as a result the blue-bottled Bartenura Moscato became perhaps the best-selling Italian Moscato in the world. Exact figures are not public, but according to Herzog, sales of Bartenura’s Moscato are heading towards a half-million cases annually.
Even outside of the “blue bottle,” Bartenura has become a mainstream brand, and an international one — exported to 32 countries, including France, Israel, Spain, Russia, China and throughout South America. As the Bartenura brand has been growing over the last four decades, the main winery that has been supplying the wines for many of these years, Gruppo Araldica, has grown in tandem. “The volume of kosher wines is now so large,” notes Herzog, “that a part of their greatly expanded and updated winery [Araldica Vini Piemontesi in Castel Boglione, in the province of Asti, Piedmont] “has been sectioned off as kosher year-round.”
The wines of Bartenura and its associated Ovadia Bartenura brand are also sourced from two other Italian wineries: the Guicciardini family-run Castelo di Poppiano (in Montespertoli, Province of Florence, Tuscany) and Beni di Batasiolo (in La Morra, province of Cuneo, Piedmont). Bartenura currently has 19 different wines in its portfolio.
Another popular brand is the dependable Cantina del Borgo Reale, imported by Allied Importers USA.
Launched in 2001, the Borgo Reale wines are produced and sourced from Giordano Vini S.p.A. (in Diano d’Alba, province of Cuneo, Piedmont). As Shai Ghermezian of Allied recalls, “we heard that they were able to make kosher wine and mevushal wine, so we approached them to supply wines for us.” The label “Borgo Reale” was chosen to make the wines easier to identify for consumers not used to Italian wines.
According to Renée Borgmann, export manager of Giordano Vini S.p.A (via the parent company, Group Italian Wine Brands S.p.A.), the company produces around 100,000 bottles a year of kosher wines (its total annual production, kosher and non-kosher together, is 25 million bottles). Borgmann notes that “the profile changes slightly” between Giordano’s kosher and non-kosher wines — though this has more to do with materials than with consumer preferences: “Shai’s rabbi [the mashgichim or kosher supervisor] comes down during harvesting and helps us in choosing the grapes and supervises the vinification.”
Borgo Reale currently has nine different wines in its portfolio — including the only kosher, but thankfully excellent, Brunello di Montalcino. Allied also imported the wonderful 2010 Tenuta Monchiero, Barolo, DOCG.
The next most visible Italian label in the kosher market, and perhaps Borgo Reale’s chief competitor, is Cantina Gabriele, imported by Victor Kosher Wines.
Unlike the other export brands, Cantina Gabriele began life as a kosher label for Italians, though the vast majority of it is now exported away. The wines are produced by Cantina Sant’Andrea, a family-run winery (in Borgo Vodice, province of Latina, Lazio), run by Gabriele Pandolfo, his wife Enza, and his son Andrea, the 3rd.
As Andrea Pandolfo explained, Cantina Gabriele was actually started by the Pandolfo’s for the Jewish community of Rome, at the behest of old family friends.
While the Pandolfo family is originally Sicilian, the family had relocated in 1880 to Tunisia, where it built a successful wine business, and had developed close Jewish friends there. Then in May 1964, Tunisian President Habib Bourguiba expropriated all foreign-owned lands, dispossessing mainly French and Italian immigrants. So the Pandolfos returned to Italy and started all over again.
“For many years we just worked to survive,” noted Pandolfo, but eventually the family business “came back to a good situation.” Later in 1998, Tunisian Jewish friends who had relocated to Rome reached out with a simple proposition: “they loved the quality of our non-kosher wines and asked us to try to make some good kosher wines for the Roman Jewish community.”
So the Pandolfos gave it a try. “We had the honor to make the first kosher harvest” under the “supervision of Rabbi Elio Toaff” the then-Chief Rabbi of Rome (Rabbi Toaff was chief rabbi from 1951 to 2002, the year he died at age 99). Over time, they began increasing their kosher production, exporting to Jewish communities around the world.
Cantina Sant’Andrea currently produces between 300,000-350,000 bottles of kosher wine under the Cantina Gabriele label, exporting to the U.S., the European Union and a little to Israel. Its total annual production, kosher and non-kosher, is about 1 million bottles. All 18 of the kosher Cantina Gabriele wines are imported to the U.S. by Victor Kosher Wines, with an additional three kosher wines under the “Victor” label.
Adding to the sheer volume, but thankfully also to the overall quality of kosher Italian wines in the U.S. market is the relatively new Contessa Annalisa brand imported by The River.
Here the model is given an interesting twist — the export brand is used for overall marketing, but the actual producers of the wine are proudly showcased clearly on the front label. Named for Annalisa Wilson, an Italian wine exporter who recently reconnected to her Jewish roots, Contessa Annalisa seeks out respected Italian producers to make kosher runs in two categories — the familiar and friendly varietals (Moscato, pinot grigio, montepulcino and the like), but then also higher end and less familiar Italian wines like the outstanding Gavi di Gavi 2016 ($16), made from 100 percent cortese, and produced by Marchese Luca Spinola (in Rovereto di Gavi, province of Alessandria, Piedmont). The River currently imports 13 Contessa Annalisa wines.
Another kosher Italian wine that merits special attention is the delicious Uva Montepulciano d’Abruzzo DOP 2013 — an authentic taste of Italy.
In some respects, Uva is more of a personal, commercial project than a wine brand, though a 2014 vintage was also produced, and another wine is planned. The Uva label is something of a dream investment opportunity for Dr. Israel Stein of Quincy, Mass. (Uva is Italian for grapes). As he put it, “I did it as something to satisfy my own desires and the opportunity to share it with somebody else.”
A lover of Italian wines who “hadn’t yet found anything kosher that really appealed,” Stein chanced upon Azienda Nicola Di Sipio, a small but modern winery in Ripa Teatina (province of Chieti, Abruzzo), at a wine tasting in Massachusetts. He liked what he tasted, and seized the opportunity—“I struck up a conversation” with Giulia Di Sipio, the owner and chief vintner. “I asked if she wanted to make kosher wine,” he says, “because I wanted a [kosher] wine that I can enjoy.”
Ms. Di Sipio had never even heard of “kosher,” but was interested. Stein partnered with Robert Rimberg, his nephew by marriage. They produced 10,000 bottles of the 2013 vintage, and another 10,000 of the 2014 vintage. The 2013 vintage is imported to the U.S. by Royal Wine.
Another brand, soon to return to the U.S. market, is Falesco. Established in 1979 by winemaking brothers Riccardo and Renzo Cotarella, Azienda Vinicola Falesco s.r.l. has two primary estates, one in Montefiascone, province of Viterbo, Lazio, and the other in Montecchio, province of Terni, Umbria. Falesco produced higher-end kosher wines under its own label in 2005, 2006 and 2008, and has also periodically produced easy-drinking and some middling-quality kosher wines for export under both its own and various private labels.
According to Dr. Ralph Madeb, president and CEO of M & M Importers (which recently became the exclusive U.S. importer of the IDS portfolio of kosher Grand Cru Classé wines), the next kosher vintage of high-end Falesco wines to reach the U.S. will be the 2014 vintage. “These will be the familiar Marciliano [a cabernet blend from Umbria IGT] and Montiano [merlot Lazio IGP] wines, and then also the Tellus Syrah [from Lazio IGP], which is new to the kosher world.” Though these are all international rather than Italian, varietals, Falesco has long been accorded top marks by kosher wine cognoscenti, both here and in Europe. The great Israeli wine writer Daniel Rogov had dubbed them “truly excellent” shortly before his death in 2011.
There are plenty of other kosher Italian wine options as well, including many that aim for the budget end of the spectrum, and some of these are rather nice wines for the money.
Some of the better choices to consider here are the lovely Decollio Prosecco DOC (available at Whole Foods Markets and some Trader Joe’s markets); the inexpensive yet tasty Sarah Bee Moscato (available at Trader Joe’s); the fun and very quaffable Pavolino wines from Veneto (imported by Worldwide Libations, LLC); and the Rambam Italian wines, imported by Happy Hearts Wine LLC, which offer 10 simple yet tasty sweet, semi-sweet and sparkling Italian wines. Also, worth noting is that the budget-friendly “To Life Box Wine by L’Chaim” from Ralph Mizraji, a Miami-based entrepreneur, will be returning again soon to the U.S. market — both boxed and in bottled.