Almost 20 years ago, in the summer of 1995, I walked out of a liquor store with an $11 purchase that was going to change my life. It was a bottle of Georges Duboeuf’s 1994 kosher Beaujolais Villages (the only French kosher vintage ever exported to the U.S.), and it was a perfect entry-level red. It was the wine that convinced me that there was more to kosher wine than Cream Concord, and it was French.
Mine is hardly a unique story. The modern kosher wine industry was really starting to take shape in the 1990s, with dozens of quality kosher table wines, most of them produced in France or California, becoming available to U.S. consumers. “The kosher wine industry copies the general wine industry,” explains Nathan Herzog, the executive vice president of sales and marketing at kosher wine giant Royal Wine Corp., which started importing kosher French wines in 1983. “When French wine is popular, kosher French wine is popular … [and] in the late ’80s and early ’90s the French were king.”
But, Herzog explained, there is an important “caveat” when it comes to understanding the kosher wine market — “and that is Israeli wines. When Israel really started producing [quality kosher] wines, about 20 years ago, people would say, ‘Why do I need French wines … when there are great Israeli wines.’”
By the mid-2000s, when, due to the Iraq war, French products generally became unpopular in the U.S. (the days when French fries had been redubbed “Freedom Fries”), Israeli wine had come to dominate the kosher wine market; this is a fact that USDA import statistics seemingly confirm — by 2005 the U.S. imported 1.3 million liters of Israeli wine, up from only 377,100 liters in 1995. (In 2014, the best year on record yet for Israeli wine imports, the U.S. imported 2.2 million liters.)
Yet in the last few years, after having largely disappeared from the market, the number of French kosher wines available in the U.S. is again on the rise.
“Wine is like fashion,” says Herzog, “and fashion changes. We’ve seen in the last three or four years a nice resurgence in interest in French [kosher] wines.” Royal Wine Corp. released three new kosher French wines in January, with more new French wines on the way later this year and next year.
Nor is Royal the only importer that has seen an increase in demand for kosher French wines.
William Mendel, the U.S. portfolio brand manager for the French-based Victor Kosher Wines, whose current portfolio contains 26 kosher French products, including two Champagnes and three Cognacs, is very excited about the current level of interest in his French imports. “We have a rosé, a Margaux, and a [Lalande de] Pomerol that we can’t keep on the shelves,” he says.
One of the newest importers of kosher French wines is Brooklyn’s Red Garden Inc., which in the last few years has started importing a number of kosher small production wines that had been produced for France’s domestic market. French imports have grown to represent approximately 20 percent of its portfolio.
Red Garden’s Mendel Unger suggests that, in part, the upsurge in kosher French wine sales happened because “people got a little bored with Israeli wines. They are always looking for something new … and today drinking French wine makes them feel more sophisticated.”
It’s not just the kosher wine companies that are betting on increased demand for kosher French wines. Last year, Champagne giant Vranken-Pommery Monopole reintroduced to the U.S. market its kosher Pommery Brut Royal Champagne, and for the first time is distributing itself through its U.S. subsidiary, Vranken-Pommery USA.
Due to a strong Israeli wine presence, French wines are not likely to dominate the kosher market again anytime soon. However, cheap oil (reducing transport prices) and the weak Euro, are likely to keep prices for French kosher wine prices reasonable. So with increased demand, it seems likely we’ll be seeing a lot more kosher French wine in the future. Who knows, maybe Georges Duboeuf will even start making kosher Beaujolais again.
The following are five new and noteworthy kosher French Wines:
Pommery, Brut Royal, Champagne, Kosher Edition, non-vintage: Recently reintroduced to the U.S. market, this dark straw-colored blend of one-third Chardonnay, one-third Pinot Noir and one-third Pinot Meunier, has a full body and a rich mousse of large, active bubbles. The lush bouquet is redolent of peaches, cream and toasted challah, with a whiff of wildflowers in the background. Look for flavors of toast, peaches, and cream in the front of the palate, straw and raspberries mid-palate, a long finish of Meyer lemons, and a lovely layer of chalky-earthiness running throughout.
Score A ($29.99. Available at Garnet Wines & Liquors, 929 Lexington Ave., Manhattan,  772-3212)
Les Lauriers, Des Domaines Edmond de Rothschild Montagne-Saint Emilion, Bordeaux, Kosher Edition, 2013: With a bright-garnet color, and a medium to full body, this very approachable Bordeaux has a nose of cassis and plums, with a hint of brier. Look for flavors of cherries, cassis, plumbs and crème de framboise, with a smoky, spicy note on the finish. With silky smooth tannins, this wine is drinking well now, and should continue to do so for another five years.
Score B+ ($26.99. Available at Beacon wine and Spirits, 2120 Broadway, Manhattan,  877-0028)
Pavillon de Léoville Poyferré, Saint Julien, Bordeaux, Kosher Edition, 2012: This second label of Léoville Poyferré is a dark garnet-colored, full-bodied wine, which has an earthy nose with elements of cassis, cranberries, spice, smoke and pencil shavings. Cranberries and cassis dominate the flavor with a nice mineral-rich earthiness mid palate, and a note of tobacco smoke on the finish. This wine could use another year or so to show its best, and then should be able to cellar until the end of the decade.
Score B+ ($53.99. Available online from Kosherwine.com,  567-4370)
Giersberger, Pinot Gris, Alsace, Kosher Edition, 2012: Made from the same grape variety that the Italians call Pinot Grigio, this dark-straw colored, light-to-medium bodied white wine, has a fruity nose redolent of pineapple, quince, apricots and lychees. Off-dry, but crisp, the wine is well structured with flavors of apricots, lychees and citrus, and a hint of spice. Drink within the next year.
Score B+ ($22.00. Available at FillerUp Kosher Wines, 174 W. Englewood Ave., Teaneck, N.J.,  862-1700)
Chateau du Rocher, Bordeaux, Kosher Edition, 2010: One of the least expensive wines in my tastings for this article, this wine is everything a budget Bordeaux should be. Garnet colored, with a medium to full body, the wine has a bouquet of cherries and cassis, with just a whiff of chocolate and tobacco smoke. Look for flavors of cherries and cassis, with hints of blackberries and crème de cassis. While not overly complex, this wine is well structured, with just a modicum of powdery tannins. Drink now-2018.
Score B+ ($18.99. Available at Suhag Wines & Liquor, 69-30 Main St., Flushing,  793-6629)
Wines are scored on an “A”–”F” scale where “A” is excellent, “B” is good, “C” is flawed, “D” is very flawed, and “F” is undrinkable. Prices listed reflect the price at the retailer mentioned.