I was there at the end of an era.
On a Shabbat morning in the early summer of 2014, I found myself in Paris and (as usual) running a little late for shul. As I entered the historic Rue Pavée Synagogue in central Paris, I was struck by that fact that (unlike at most European synagogues) there was no visible security — no guard questioning me as a stranger — before I could enter. Small children were running in and out of the shul, playing. It many ways it seemed little different from my suburban American synagogue. Two weeks later, Paris, and much of France was hit by violent anti-Semitic protests and attacks. For too many French Jews, those little remaining pockets of normalcy, such as I had experienced at that Parisian shul, began to disappear.
“Twenty-five years ago the availability of kosher wine in France was much smaller … [and] we did not have the same technical ability to make wine exactly the same as non-kosher wine [producers].”
It is a sad irony that in the past few years, as the French Jewish community continues to grapple with its new realities and as record numbers of French Jews choose to emigrate to Israel and North America, the quality and variety of French kosher wine has never been better. (One kosher wine has even found its way into the cellars of France’s oldest restaurant, the Michelin-starred La Tour d’Argent).
According to Clarice Bokobsa, CEO of Bokobsa/Société Importation Exportation Vins et Alcools (SIEVA), a French producer, distributor and exporter of kosher wines, demand for kosher wine “is constantly on the rise. Twenty-five years ago the availability of kosher wine in France was much smaller … [and] we did not have the same technical ability to make wine exactly the same as non-kosher wine [producers].”
However as a broader variety of yeasts and fining agents are now available under kosher supervision, and as more wineries with better barrels and tanks are willing to produce kosher wines, “the quality of kosher wine is getting better and better and that is why people want more variety in kosher wine,” says Bokobsa. “Today you can find in French kosher wine almost the same [variety as in] non-kosher wine. There is not one appellation [winemaking region] in France that you do not find in kosher wines. Ninety-five percent of the French wine [regions] are represented in kosher wine.”
Wine enthusiasts are also finding a growing number of small, independent kosher wine producers in France, such as Christophe Bardeau in Bordeaux (whose winery, Domaine Roses Camille, we reviewed last year) and Frédéric David, of Vignobles David, a small producer working with organic vineyards in the Rhône valley.
David started producing kosher wine in 2005. “Some friends at the shul said, ‘Fred, we don’t have good wine, could you please make us a private cuvee?’ … I started with something like 8,000 bottles.”
David’s business has grown in the past few years, and he has even started producing a small amount of wine in Portugal. Exports, particularly to the U.S. and Canada, account for 85 percent of his business, and he has seen a spike in demand, for which he has two explanations: “First, the wine business is always moving on fashion. … The second reason is that the exchange rate for the dollar and euro is very close.”
“Some friends at the shul said, ‘Fred, we don’t have good wine, could you please make us a private cuvee?'”
Bokobsa has seen similar spikes in her exports to the U.S. “There was a big rise in demand [for exports to the U.S.] around 2008-2009, and we saw another one in 2015. … Basically what we think is we saw a rise in demand in 2008 because we had more big-name wines, and people became more interested; and two years ago because of the exchange rate for the euro, the prices for the U.S. became less expensive.”
When asked about the impact of the recent terrorism on their businesses, both David and Bokobsa said that there wasn’t a significant one. According to Bokobsa, “Our relationships with some of the wineries where we produce our kosher wines might even be a bit closer [since the terrorist attacks]. … They sent us a lot of messages of support. The only impact that we have had from terrorism and all the bad things that are happening in France is a decrease in the consumption of wine in [kosher] restaurants — people don’t go out so much — and an increase in the sales in the shops.”
David, who sells his wine in France through direct-to-consumer sales, notes that “just because there is terrorism does not mean people will not drink wine Friday night and Saturday. … I don’t know how terrorism affects me except in general fear.”
In the U.S., the demand for French kosher wine does not seem to have been negatively impacted by recent terrorism. Andrew Breskin, an importer of French kosher wines, who also runs LiquidKosher.com, an online kosher wine store based in San Diego that specializes in small-production, high-end kosher wines, notes that, “I still have the same people who won’t buy French wines no matter what. I have one client who won’t buy French wines because of something that happened in the ’70s with the French selling weapons to the Arabs.” However, says Breskin, “I have not experienced anyone telling me that ‘I was buying French wines, but now with everything going on, I’ve stopped buying.’”
Moving forward, with the shrinking French Jewish population and a growing international demand for French kosher wine, the industry is at a moment of flux. “The market in France is still growing, but by very little,” says Bokobsa. “The Jewish population in France is decreasing as many Jews are leaving from France. So growth is going to have to come from export.”
Currently, Bokobsa/SIEVA exports approximately 10 percent or its production (including most of its kosher Cognac) to the U.S., but Bokobsa says she is focusing on increasing that number. She has also started selling her products in Israel, and is looking to develop a market presence in Georgia, Russia and in Ukraine.”
Perhaps, though, the biggest challenge for the French kosher wine industry remains the cultivation of relationships with non-kosher wineries. Since almost all kosher wine in France is made in small custom batches at non-kosher wineries, it is difficult for kosher wine merchants to add wines from new wineries to their portfolios. Menahem Israelievitch, Royal Wine Corp.’s head winemaker for France and Spain, explains that “When we were looking for new wineries [to make kosher wines] it has always been very difficult and it remains very difficult … because if a winery sells all of their production [capability] anyway, they don’t need the kosher market.”
Regardless, the French kosher wine industry seems poised for continued growth despite the recent terrorism. However, as Frédéric David notes, “I think that the real effect of terrorism is that we won’t have any customers in France.”
Below are tasting notes for some recently released, or soon to be released, noteworthy French kosher wines:
- Domaine Roses Camille, Pomerol, 2012
There are very few kosher wines that are both so distinctive and so consistent from vintage to vintage that you can but take a sip with your eyes closed and say to yourself, “it must be that wine.” Domaine Roses Camille is such a wine. Still very youthful and tight, this 100 percent Merlot, a full-bodied wine that was aged in new French oak barrels, has a dark garnet color. Look for flavors and aromas of blackberry, cherry, raspberry, lavender, brier, porcini mushrooms, slightly unripe tomatoes, chicory, oak, cedar and pipe tobacco, with gentle notes of spice and a rich mineral-earthiness. While this wine shows great promise of thing to come with its searing tannins and acidity, opening it now is tantamount to infanticide (although if you must open it now, decant several hours before serving). Best 2023-2033 or perhaps longer.
($139. To be released soon.)
- Chateau Grand Puy Ducasse, Cru Classé en 1855, Pauillac, 2013
This fifth-growth Bordeaux is a classic Left Bank wine. Garnet colored and full bodied, this meaty yet elegant wine has flavors and aromas of cherries, currants, cassis and mellow oak, with hints of strawberries, blackberries and green edge. Approachable now, this wine could use another six months to a year in the cellar before it will start to show its best, and then should drink well to 2024.
($99.99. Available at Skyview Wine and Liquor, 5681 Riverdale Ave., Riverdale,  601-8222.)
- Domaine d’Ardhuy, Grand Vin de Bourgogne, Ladoix, 2014
With a medium to full body and a ruby color, this delightful burgundy has a lot to offer. Look for an herbal, flowery bouquet with notes of cherries, currants and rhubarb. Flavors of cherries and currants play against an earthy backbone, with a mild bit of spice on the finish. Well structured, with an abundance of powdery tannins, this wine is ready to drink from release until at least the end of the decade. One of the best kosher burgundies I’ve ever tasted.
($55. To be available soon, in very small quantities, at liquidkosher.com.)
- Pascal Bouchard, Chabils, la Classique, 2015
Made from 100 percent Chardonnay grown in the Chablis region of Burgundy, this light-straw-colored, medium-bodied wine is both elegant and restrained. The nose has elements of apples, gooseberries, Meyer lemons, hay and cream. The flavor is both subtle and complex with apples, quince and gooseberries at the front of the palate, cream and citrus mid-palate and a slightly astringent note on the finish. Drink within the two or three years.
($37.99. Available online from www.Kosherwine.com,  567-4370.)
- Domaine de Boissan, Selection Bokobsa, Gigondas, Grande Reserve, 2014
Made in a small appellation in the southern part of the Rhône Valley, this delightful blend of 80 percent grenache and 20 percent syrah has a medium body, garnet color and supple mouthfeel. Look for flavors and aromas of cherries, blueberries, black fruits, graphite, wild herbs, violets, milk chocolate and earth. Drink within the next two years.
($29.99. Available at Best Buy Liquors, 1613 Neptune Ave., Brooklyn,  265-4350.)
- Domaine Fontlaure, Rosé, Côtes de Provence, 2015
This light-peach-colored, light-bodied rosé, has a lightly floral bouquet, with a gentle peach aroma. Look for flavors of peaches, tangerines and apricots. Crisp, dry and refreshing, this wine should be consumed within a year of release and will make for delightful summertime sipping.
($20. To be released soon.)
*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 either the price at the retailer mentioned, or the likely retail price upon release.