The Fifth Question
Tue, 03/02/2010
Special To The Jewish Week

Ma nishtana halaylah hazeh mekol halailot? — Why is this night different from all other nights?” This question, asked at virtually every Passover seder the world over, has four traditional answers.  However, one could suggest a fifth answer: “On all other nights we are not required to drink more than one cup of wine, but tonight we must drink four cups.”   

So, not surprisingly, for those who work in the kosher wine trade, the lead-up to Passover is the busy season. Indeed, during this month between Purim and Passover a large percentage of this year’s crop of new kosher wines will be introduced to the market, and many wine merchants will sell more kosher wine during these four weeks than they will sell in all of 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 saltwater. Indeed, there are 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 have the custom of gulping down each cup rapidly while reclining, while others will 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.

My first piece of advice is to 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. Not to mention that after one has imbibed a few glasses of wine, it is not uncommon for the alcohol in the wine to begin numbing 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 also a good idea to query your seder guests in advance as to their own wine preferences. Invariably, at every seder there will be guests who prefer sweet wines to dry, and vice versa. It’s also not uncommon for there to be some guests who will only drink red wines or some who will only drink 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, Pinot Grigio, or 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 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 really consider your food when selecting these wines. In the most general terms, you should still probably avoid really big, full-bodied wines, but you may want to try some more medium-bodied wines. Those drinking dry whites might want to consider Californian Chardonnays, and Israeli or New Zealand Viogniers. Those drinking dry reds, should consider Israeli Syrahs, Californian Zinfandels, and Italian Chiantis. Sweet white wine drinkers may want to try a Vouvray, and sweet red drinkers should consider 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. The seder is essentially a ceremonial celebration of freedom, and 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 Hungry. 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 some 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 the most important, is that you should make sure that you only 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 preceding recommendations, and go out and buy a few bottles of the stuff.   

And so, after all this advice, what wines will I be serving at my own seders? Below is my list for the first night of Passover. Please keep in mind that this is an idiosyncratic list based on my own customs, preferences, bill of fare, and most importantly, what I happen to have in my cellar at the moment. 

I wish you all a very happy and healthy Passover.