A wine marked “Kosher” does not mean that the wine is free of additives, as some people have come to believe. It may or may not be additive-free, but the main thing that makes a wine Kosher is how it was handled.
For a wine to be Kosher, Gentiles must not have touched it at any stage while it is being made. It must be made only by Jews, and by Sabbath Observant (“Shomer Shabbos”) Jews at that. If a non-Jew does touch it, the wine must be boiled to make it Kosher again. Boiled wines are described as “mevushal.” They’re not actually boiled anymore: instead, they are flash-heated. Gentiles shouldn’t even open a bottle of non-boiled wine or pour non-boiled wine for observant Jews; that will make the wine “treif” (dirty) for them. It is fine, though, if boiled (“mevushal”) wine is handled by non-Jews. A wine’s being “mevushal” makes it different (sic), and therefore Gentiles can then open and pour this wine for observant Jews. The unboiled wine is referred to as “non-mevushal.”
Any grape can be used; most yeasts are fine. For Passover wines, grain yeasts cannot be used.
Much of Kosher wine is not considered high quality. In North America, Kosher wine has been largely made from Concord grapes. It was the only grape available to Jewish immigrants to make wine from. Concord grapes are very sour, so lots of sugar has to be added to make the wine palatable. Because of this, over the decades, Kosher wine came to be equated with sweet wine. Manischewitz is one of the best known brands. It’s not actually made by the Manischewitz food company (which owns the name) — they licensed the name for wine purposes to Widmer’s Wine Cellars of Naples, NY. Newer Kosher wine makers are trying to get away from the image of it being sugary swill, and are using other grapes.
Not all Israeli wine is Kosher.
The Martini and Prati Company, which makes Kosher wine, was allowed to stay open during Prohibition to make Kosher wine for religious purposes. The joke went that never had there been such a swell in the Jewish population in America as during Prohibition.
The first dry Kosher wine to be sold in America was Yarden sauvignon blanc from the Golan Heights Winery. It was bottled in 1983, and shipped for sale in the US in 1984.
In 1994, the Canandaigua Wine Company began producing dry chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon kosher wines for its Manischewitz line of wines. They bought the Manischewitz label from the Monarch Wine Company of Brooklyn in 1986.
Literature & Lore
“A seder without sweet Manischewitz would be like horseradish without tears, like a cantor without a voice, like a shul without a complaint, like a yenta without a big mouth, like Passover without Jews.” — Comedian Jackie Mason (1936 – )
Goldberg, Howard. Manischewitz Only Sweet? Not Anymore. New York Times. 23 March 1994.