Choosing Your Cups Wisely
Thu, 03/01/2012
Special To The Jewish Week

In the traditional Jewish liturgy, Passover is referred to as the “Festival of Matzah, the time of our freedom.” And during the seder, that ceremonial celebration of the Jewish people’s freedom, no single food is more symbolic of freedom than the four glasses of wine that are imbibed. While matzah is the “bread of affliction,” wine is the drink of free men.

So, not surprisingly, Passover is the busy season for those in the kosher wine trade. Indeed, during the month between Purim and Passover a large percentage of this year’s crop of new kosher wines will be introduced to the market; many wine merchants will sell more kosher wine during these four weeks than they will sell in the other 48 weeks of the year combined.

For those of us who write about kosher wine, this is the time of year when we get bombarded with that all too common question: “What wine should I serve at my seder?” It’s not an easy question to answer.

Selecting the appropriate wines for a seder poses some unique challenges that go far beyond trying to determine which wine will best compliment parsley dipped in salt water. Indeed, there many differing customs and halachic rulings regarding the four cups of wine served at the seder: There are those who will only drink red wine, while others will only drink “non-mevushal” (i.e., unpasteurized) wine, and then there are those who will only drink low-alcohol wines. Some, by custom, gulp down each cup rapidly while reclining, while others slowly sip each cup while sitting upright. Mindful of all of these considerations, what follows is just a bit of gentle advice for selecting your “seder wines.”

First, avoid really expensive wines. Whether you gulp or sip wine at the seder, there is likely to be far too much going on at your table for you to be able to take the time to appreciate all of the nuances of a complex, full-bodied wine. And if one has imbibed a few glasses of wine, it is not uncommon for the alcohol in the wine to start to numb the taste buds, making it difficult to fully appreciate any wine. For my own seders I generally try to select moderately priced wines that are well-balanced, easy to drink, and not overly complex.

It’s also a good idea to query your seder guests in advance as to their own wine preferences (sweet or dry, red or white). Try to keep these preferences in mind when you set out to purchase wine for your seder.

For the first cup I generally recommend serving a light-bodied wine. You have a long evening ahead of you, and you don’t want to fatigue yourself by starting out with a heavy, full-bodied wine.  For those who like dry white wines, a nice Sauvignon Blanc, a Pinot Grigio, or a dry Riesling would all be good choices. For those who like their whites a bit on the sweeter-side, consider a semi-dry Riesling or Gewürztraminer, or perhaps a Moscato d’Asti. For those who prefer dry red wines, consider one of the lighter-bodied Israeli Pinot Noirs, Zinfandels or Barberas, an Italian Sangiovese or Montepulciano, or a French Beaujolais served slightly chilled. Those seeking a sweet red wine should consider an Italian Malvasia. 

At many seders the wines served for the second and third cups are also the wines that are served with the meal. If this will be the case at your seder, you should consider your food menu when selecting these wines. In the most general terms, one should still probably avoid big, full-bodied wines and try some more medium-bodied wines. Those drinking dry whites might want to consider California Chardonnays, and Israeli or New Zeeland Viogniers. Those drinking dry reds should consider Israeli Syrahs and Spanish Riojas, Rhône Valley blends, and Italian Chiantis. And fans of sweet white wine may want to try a Vouvray, while sweet red drinkers should consider trying a Muscat Hamburg (also known as Black Muscat).

Regarding the fourth cup, assuming one’s stomach is still up for it, my advice is to serve a rich, sweet, full-bodied wine. Even those who regularly eschew sweet wines may want consider making an exception for this final cup of the seder. As the seder is a ceremonial celebration of freedom, I know of no better way to leave that celebration than with a sweet taste lingering in one’s mouth. For sweet white wines, try late harvest wines from California, ice wines from Israel and Austria, and Tokajis from Hungary. Those who would prefer a sweet red should consider trying a true Portuguese Port wine. 

In addition to wine, it is also a good idea to have grape juice on hand for the seder. Keep in mind that four glasses of table wine has roughly the same amount of alcohol as a third of a bottle of whiskey. So if at some point in the evening one’s stomach or head cannot handle more wine, there is no shame in switching to grape juice. 

My final piece of advice, and my most important one, is that you should make sure only to drink wines that you enjoy at your seder. So if the only wine you really like is Manischewitz Extra Heavy Malaga, ignore all of the above, and go out and buy a few bottles of the stuff.

So what wines will I be serving at my own seders? Below is my (highly idiosyncratic) list for the first night. I wish you all a very happy and healthy Passover.  ✦

Gamliel Kronemer’s Choices for the Four Cups

1st Cup

Bartenura, Pinot Grigio, Veneto, 2010: Light straw in color, and dry with just a hint of sweetness, this light-to-medium-bodied wine has flavors and aromas of cantaloupe, strawberries, and mango with floral elements and a hint of minerals.
Drink now-2013. Score B • $14.99

Skyview Wine and Liquors
5681 Riverdale Ave. (Riverdale) • (718) 601-8222

2nd Cup

Don Ernesto, Clarinet, Napa Valley, 2010: Bright garnet in color, this medium-bodied Zinfandel-based blend has flavors and aromas of cherries and cranberries, with notes of oak, pipe tobacco, and crème de framboise. Drink now-2014. Score B/B+ • $24.00

Direct from winery www.donernesto.com • (888) 424-2336

3rd Cup

Domaine Netofa (red table wine), Galilee, 2009: This medium-to-full-bodied, dark ruby-colored, rustic, Rhône-style blend of Syrah and Mourvedre has flavors and aromas of cherries, strawberries and cassis, with notes of allspice, mocha and black pepper. Drink within the next six months.
Drink now-2013. Score B+ • $24.99

Skyview Wine and Liquors
5681 Riverdale Ave. (Riverdale) • (718) 601-8222

4th Cup

Porto Cordovero, Fine Ruby Port, NV, Douro, Portugal:  Full-bodied and garnet in color, this delightful wine has a spicy nose with elements of stewed prunes and cherries, and a rich sweet flavor of prunes, Bing cherries and crème caramel, with a hint of cloves. Be warned, at 20 percent alcohol, this wine can really pack a punch. Score B+ • $27.99

Beacon Wine & Spirits

2120 Broadway (Manhattan) • (212) 877-0028

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.

To see additional Top Kosher wine lists and great wine articles, just click here.