The Kosher Flying Winemaker
This article originally appeared in Wines Israel magazine.
By Adam Montefiore.
Menahem Israelievitch is the flying winemaker of the kosher world. A Michel Rolland (the world’s most famous consultant winemaker) with a kippa if you like. He makes wine in three countries, mainly France but also Spain and Portugal, with a smile, a great nature, but also with a passionate desire to make the best kosher wine possible. I have noticed he has a special quality; he is never satisfied with doing the minimum when he can do the maximum. Not a bad attribute for a winemaker. He runs his empire, producing roughly 500,000 bottles a year for Royal Wine Europe, which is the French wine-making arm of the Royal Wine Corp./Kedem, which revolutionized kosher wine over the last 35 years. Much of Menahem’s work is from the car, and his cell phone is the dashboard through which he communicates, organizes, and makes wine at some of the most famous wineries there are. He has five regular workers and employs up to forty during harvest.
Menahem is squat, good looking, bearded and always smiling. There, I could have described Michel Rolland! He is the father of five and lives in Paris. His father, a classical musician of some note, was of Russian & Romanian origin and his mother from Morocco. He has 23 years’ experience in wine and started doing the most menial jobs, learning from the bottom up. Eventually he became his predecessor, Pierre Miodownik’s assistant. His wine knowledge and passion is allied with the administration precision of a yekke and an unforgiving work ethic. A great combination. Therefore, when Miodownik made Aliyah to Israel, he was the obvious candidate to succeed him.
Menahem Israelievitch (right) with Michel Rolland.
I have always claimed Israeli wineries, and wineries that specialize in kosher like Herzog Wine Cellars in California, make the finest kosher wines because of the sacrifices and compromises one has to make when making a kosher batch in a non-kosher winery. Many kosher wines I have tasted over the years were not the standard of their non-kosher counterparts. I assumed this was because the kosher crew of workers had to be booked in advance, the parcels of kosher wines would therefore have to identified in advance and harvested according to the religious workers availability. The wines would be then isolated under lock and key and again receive treatment based on staff availability, rather than when the winemaker desired.
Capcanes, the Spanish (or is it Catalonian?) winery actually proved my thesis wrong. The quality of their kosher wine made them decide to raise the standards of the whole winery, but the shelves in France are full of poorly made kosher wines, so my cynicism has some basis in truth.
Israelievitch slaughtered a few holy cows for me. Firstly, he said the kosher crew is employed and on call. If a harvest is delayed to get more sun on the grapes, his staff also wait to fit in with the vagaries of nature and the wishes of the particular winemaker. Even if time and waiting costs money. Secondly, he provides staff to punch down the cap in the fermenting tanks or top up the barrels exactly according to the regime set by the winemaking. The objective is that the sitting winemaker makes the wine in his way and the Jewish staff are there to exactly fulfill his wishes.
Israelievitch himself visits the wineries for the tastings. The formal making of the blends is made with the winemaking staff and the winemaking consultant (say the aforementioned Rolland or the equally well-known Eric Boissenot) and the kosher cuvée is part of the discussion. Otherwise he is traveling the country by train, plane or hired car, answering phone calls from the numerous wineries he works with, making their impossible requests possible. The phone may ring when he is the middle of something else: “Sorry, I forgot to contact you. Can you send someone tomorrow, we are doing barrel work.” As a facilitator, and project manager, ‘no’ is not in his vocabulary.
He is very businesslike and well organized, but what I loved about him was his passion for wine, immense knowledge and the excitement of a little child at tasting something good. As a wine guy I could relate to that, and I was relieved at the high standards set.
I asked wineries why on earth they would want to make kosher wines. Their answers ranged from “Well, it is good for business” (with a Gallic shrug as though to say, why are you asking, isn’t it obvious?), to “the idea appealed to me for religious reasons.” One said “why should I not make wine everyone can drink?” They were all clear on one thing: “the kosher wine is sold with my label and we stand by the quality.” The winemaker of Château Lascombes even said wistfully: “I think the kosher cuvée in this year (referring to the 2015) is better than the non-kosher one!”
The story of these great kosher wines is not apologetically hidden away in some Jewish wine ghetto. These are wineries celebrated around the world, loved by wine lovers and connoisseurs, and the making of a kosher wine is part of their project of excellence.
Take for instance, the Champagne House Drappier, founded in 1808, and now in its 8th generation. Located at Urville in the southern part of Champagne, the building goes back to the 12th century. This is a rarity in Champagne where family and individualistic wineries have been gobbled by the champagne conglomerates. I visited there and saw three generations of the family hosting visitors. It is not just a family owned winery, but a family run winery. Michel Drappier manages a business based on old fashioned ideals, and yet with a modern, pioneering regard and respect for the environment. They are traditional but innovative.
His children play a part. Charline helps marketing and hosting in the winery. The Brut Nature label is partly her work. Hugo is a trained winemaker and Antoine loves being in the vineyards, particularly working with the horses. The patriarch of the family André visits every day, though he is in his nineties. His heartwarming smile lights up any day. Even the mother, Sylvie, is hard at work. When I was there, they hosted 20 VIP visitors to a four-course lunch. Everything was homemade and prepared by her. When I thanked her, she answered, “Oh, it was nothing. Just a picnic!”
Drappier Champagnes may be characterized by a focus on Pinot Noir grapes, which grows particularly well in their own vineyards, and minimal sulphur content. (Both Michel & André are sulphur sensitive.) The Drappier Carte d’Or is made from Chardonnay & Pinot Noir. This is their standard cuvée representing quality and consistency. When launched in 1952, a sommelier said it had aromas of quince jelly, hence yellow was chosen as the color of the label. It has aromas of pear backed by brioche and is clean and refreshing with great acidity on the finish. The Drappier Brut Nature is 100% from Pinot Noir. It has no dosage (the usual addition after disgorgement to round off the final wine). It has delicate berry fruit, a touch of toast with notes of pear and apple, and lime on the finish. Great refreshing acidity, elegance and the very small bubbles. The wine oozes class. Both are kosher and reflect the quality standards of Champagne.
Then there is Château Malartic-Lagravière, a Grand Cru Classé in the Pessac-Léognan growing area of the Graves region, south of Bordeaux and dating from the 18th century. They are one of only six wineries to be classified for both red and white wines. In 1996 the winery was purchased by Alfred-Alexandre and Michele Bonnie, from Belgium. They installed very advanced winemaking facilities in 1997 which in those days was the talk of Bordeaux. They have been joined by other members of the family and began to follow sustainable viticulture. The octagonal space age winery is still very striking. The grand Château, beautiful gardens and manicured vineyards all reflect an impressive pursuit of excellence. I was hosted by the elegant and charming Veronique (the daughter) and her passionate and deeply knowledgeable husband Bruno. They have invested in quality and the improvements can be seen in the wines. This clearly a winery with its best days ahead of it!
They make some very fine wines. I tasted the 2016 (kosher) Château Malartic-Lagravière. It was rich, complex and satisfying, but with the soft tannins and good acidity that demand you take a second sip. The hallmark of a very good wine. It was made mainly from Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and a little Petit Verdot. It certainly was not apparent from any inferiority that I had to make allowances for it being kosher. Also look out for their Château Gazin Rocquencourt, which also makes a kosher cuvée.
Finally, last but not least, the Château Léoville-Poyferré, a deuxième cru classé, or 2nd Growth. The origin of Leoville goes back to the 17th century. It is situated in the Saint Julien appellation of the Haut Medoc in Bordeaux. In 1920 the Cuvelier family acquired the winery, and the current directeur general is Didier Cuvelier. They have a striking new vat house with conical tanks, allowing vinification by individual plots. The current management has taken the wine to a higher place than before. They have made kosher wine since 1999, so their commitment to this market is unwavering. It arguably the finest winery producing kosher wine and their cellar master Didier Thomann previously made kosher wine with the Rothschilds, so they know what it takes. Such is this winery’s attention to detail that they harvest by row, but leave the end part until later because it ripens more slowly. Thus they send the harvest team out again. What this means from a kosher perspective, was that the kosher wine is made up of the same components as the non-kosher wine and most of the different plots are represented in the blend. Menahem almost purring told me that even if the winery was 100% kosher, they would not make better kosher wine than they do now.
The Léoville-Poyferré 2015 was magnificent. Rich, ripe fruit aromas with a little spice, cedar wood and a long, lingering finish. It is a powerful wine, but its magic is that it also expresses elegance. Their second label, Pavillon de Léoville-Poyferré, is also very high quality, and represents better value.
This is an example of three famous wineries, with a rich heritage and a proven track record of quality, all choosing to make kosher wine. This they make with the same passion, expertise and attention to detail as with their well-regarded regular wines.
One interesting thing to me is the way kashrut in wine has changed over the years. In the 19th century there were no labels or Rabbinical supervision of kosher winemaking. Wines were sold and shipped in casks. My distinguished forbear, Sir Moses Montefiore, was strictly religious and drank a bottle of port every day. Probably he purchased a pipe of port (a barrel of approximately 550 liters) and kept it in his cellar, using a bottle (then rarely used) to bring the port from barrel to table. Yet there is no indication that the wine he purchased had a hechsher. David Ben-Gurion worked at Carmel in 1907 in the winemaking part of the winery and yet he was not religious. In fact, at Carmel Winery, a symbol for kashrut to the Jewish world, the workers in the winery were Jewish but did not have to be religious until the early 1980’s. This would be unbelievable to most people making kosher wine today. Furthermore Carmel shipped Palwin in barrels to be bottled in London well into the 1970’s! After the political party Shas was formed, the competitiveness in Kashrut increased and kashrut observance became notably stricter.
In Israel today, kosher winemaking facilities are isolated under lock and key, and guarded jealously by a mashgiach (religious supervisor). Some of the kosher winemaking facilities I had seen abroad were similar. Kosher barrels would be separated with the use of tarpaulins and padlocks, so there was no way anyone unauthorized would even come near the barrels.
What struck me visiting Drappier, Marlartic-Lagravière and Léoville-Poyferré was that the emphasis was on making high quality wine, which just happened to be kosher. The kosher barrels and tanks were laid out in the main body of the winery and were not hidden away with the exaggerated total separation attitude which we are used to in Israel. The kosher vessels could only be identified only by the reams of white tape on them with felt pen scrawl over it. In other words the kosher expressions were very much part of the wineries I visited.
Each of these wineries have different foibles and customs. Each make wine in their own way with their own priorities. Menahem Israelievitch’s job is to provide the kosher support services that allows each to make the wine they want and of the standard to justify bearing the winery label. His work is kadosh (holy), because it allows the kosher wine community to enjoy and experience wine from, for example, Bordeaux and Champagne, two of the world’s great wine regions. Y’shar Koach!
Adam Montefiore has advanced Israeli wines for over 30 years. He is referred to as the ambassador of Israeli wine. He is the wine writer of the Jerusalem Post.