500 years after the Inquisition, Spain has a vibrant kosher wine industry

MADRID – Located in the Priorat region of Spain, tucked away in the steep hills and lush mountains of the Tarragona province, 100 miles southwest of Barcelona, ​​is the Capçanes winery winery.

The cooperative winery, founded in 1933, has seen its reputation for high-end vintages grow steadily over the decades. And in 1995, he was approached with an unusual request: A Jewish family from Barcelona looking for wine of national origin asked if the winery would be willing to make one of Spain’s first kosher wines in hundreds of years.

Jews played an important role in the production of wine in Spanish-speaking lands for centuries, until they were expelled under the Inquisition of 1492. Despite the fact that the country, which has the largest wine-growing area in the world, has tried to cultivate his Jewish community in recent years. For decades, local Jews lacked a vibrant selection of locally produced kosher wine for, well, centuries.

But in recent years, a growing number of Jewish and non-Jewish winemakers have entered the Spanish kosher market, revitalizing the country’s lost-lost kosher wine lineage, from La Rioja to Catalonia via Ribera del Duero, Castilla-La Mancha. and Andalusia.

Simultaneously, public and private institutions such as the Network of Jewish Quarters of Spain and the Federation of Jewish Communities of Spain have launched an initiative “Sephardic Vineyards” to promote the trend.

The annual YACHATZ kosher wine exhibition

The decision to say yes in 1995 was the right one from a business point of view for Celler de Capçanes. It now sells its kosher wine worldwide from its base in the province of Tarragona, which many include on the lists of the highest quality wine-producing regions in the world.

“There are no Jews in the town, but the members of the Catholic cooperative invested their own funds to develop kosher wine,” said Jürgen Wagner, a non-Jewish winemaker and export manager for Celler de Capçanes. “And we treat it with the artisan nature of a millenary tradition, elaborated as it was done hundreds of years ago but with the care and knowledge of today”.

The winery’s decision to make kosher wine, which now accounts for about 5% of its total product, gave it the opportunity to restructure and modernize. Today it incorporates technology that allows it to select, separate and vinify small quantities of fruit under strict “Lo Mevushal” kosher standards, which means that it is only handled by Jewish workers and has not been pasteurized.

Celler de Capçanes’ flagship kosher product, the Primavera Flower, or Spring Flower, helped put it on the international kosher scene. The wine is made up of three grape varieties – 35% Cabernet Sauvignon, 35% Garnatxa Negra and 30% Samsó – and aged for 12 months in new and kosher French oak barrels of one year. The full-bodied red is very dark in color, with hints of black cherry and chocolate and a floral scent.

“For us, kosher wine has been key in the evolution of the winery,” said Wagner.

In Tarragona, the estate vineyards are planted on steep slopes, impossible to reach with machinery. The wines of the small region have two designations of origin from its two main wine-growing areas: Origen Montsant and Origen Priorat. It has become the heart of the new wave of kosher winemakers in Spain.

There is also the Clos Mesorah Estate WineryThe brainchild of Moisés Cohen, an agricultural engineer from Casablanca, and Anne Aletá, a historian and sommelier from Toulouse, who are business and life partners. In 1996, the couple bought an old vineyard in Priorat with the aim of bringing it back to life in a kosher way.

Unbeknownst to them, they were probably the first Sephardic Jewish family to own vineyard land in Spain in over 500 years, probably millennia, as Jews were not allowed to own or buy land in medieval Spain.

It would take until 2003, when Elvi Wines was launched on the estate, for the enterprising couple to go from being wine experts to non-kosher winemakers. But these days, its wines are made in six distinctive regions of Spain – La Mancha, Rioja, Alella, Cava, Priorat and Montsant – and can be found in more than 25 countries, even on the menus of several Michelin-starred restaurants.

The family business employs a philosophy of organic and spiritual agriculture.

“We are all deeply immersed in the kosher world. That is our way of approaching and understanding wine, ”said Aletá, who is now CEO of Elvi Wines. “We are very tradition oriented. For us, the rhythm of nature and the Jewish calendar is what we believe in. Monthly we follow the lunar cycle. We are committed to biodynamics and ecology ”.

The flagship product of Moisés and Anne is Clos Mesorah, a very rich and fruity red wine from Montsant that frequently scores high in international rankings for kosher wines. The striking wine label features a verse from the “Song of Songs” (“Shir Hashirim”), one of the Five Megillot, or scrolls, in the Tanakh, commonly associated with sexuality and marriage rituals in Judaism. The verse on the label changes from year to year.

For all of these kosher producers, the fruit is generally hand-picked, with no added yeast, filtration, colorants, mechanical manipulations, or chemical additives. Food additives of animal origin are strictly prohibited in kosher wines, however the use of eggs to clarify wine is often allowed under the Rule 1/60, or Bitul – an exception provided when the prohibited substance represents 1/60 or less of the total volume of the food.

The production is supervised by certifiers from the Orthodox Union of the United States, the Kashrut Federation of London or the Local Rabbis of Chabad Lubavitch of Barcelona. One of the most obvious challenges winemakers face each year is time: in Spain, the harvest of red wine grapes begins in early September and often falls during the Jewish holiday season each year. If winemakers don’t plan far in advance, it all results in a disastrous production season.

However, not all Sephardic Jews currently producing wine in Spain have returned. Some never left.

That is true in the case of Miguel Fernández de Arcaya, CEO of Bodegas Fernández de Arcaya in Los Arcos, Navarra, heir to his family’s prized Jewish wine-making heritage. In 1492, Fernández de Arcaya’s ancestors fled to the Kingdom of Navarra, a part of present-day Spain where many Jews sought refuge to live a hidden Jewish life.

Miguel is in charge of preserving the method and history of his family’s medieval Sephardic kosher winemaking through Alate Kosher, a wine made following a long, rigorous and reserved process using ancestral biodynamic principles and centuries-old Iberian strains.

The result is a mouth-filling tempranillo, the most popular red variety in Spain, reminiscent of plum and ripe cherry on the nose with a touch of earthy tobacco.

“Kosher is purity, a wine without additives, made with natural and controlled processes,” said Fernández de Arcaya. “For us [the Sephardim], wine is a way of life and not a business. It has always been like this. We produce wine for this need, so that Sephardic Jews have our own product and can give 100% Orthodox wine. All in accordance with the religious observance of the Torah. ”

Aletá and Cohen see their work as a continuation of the Jewish connection to the physical land of Spain.

“We pass through this land and the vines will stay there. We are just one element within nature; part of biodiversity, ”Cohen said. “That is our contribution. That is ‘mesorah’, the Jewish tradition through the generations ”.


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