With growth in both quality and variety, Italy’s kosher redsare carving a new niche in the market.
By Gamliel Kronemer
When most consumers—kosher and non-kosher alike—think of kosher Italian wine, a three-word phrase often comes to mind: “the blue bottle.” Moscato is admittedly the bestselling Italian kosher wine, and Bartenura’s Moscato, in particular, has become one of the U.S.’s leading brands of imported moscato, with annual sales in excess of 400,000 cases, it is the first kosher wine to become an overall sector leader.
While there may be a lot of moscato about, there is a lot more today to kosher Italian wine, though many are unaware of it. In a very unscientific survey I performed (of a dozen kosher observant friends) asking about wine shopping practices, many mentioned buying moscato, prosecco (Italy’s affordable, dry sparkler) and pinot grigio.
Only one mentioned buying an “occasional bottle of Chianti.” Given all of Italy’s unique kosher offerings I was a bit disappointed—but not terribly surprised—by the outcome.
In the early 2000s and before, all of the kosher wines of Italy, both red and white, were made at large commercial wineries, at the behest of American or French importers, and almost solely for the export market. Daniel Rogov, the late, great wine critic for Ha’aretz once described kosher Italian wines as “distinctly second class when it came to quality or interest.”
However, in 2006, the quality of kosher Italian red wines slowly started to change. In that year, Falesco, the noted Umbrian winery, produced a small kosher run of their Marciliano (a rich and spicy cuvée of cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc with satiny tannins and big flavors of cherries, cassis and anise—more recent vintages are imported to the U.S. by M&M Importers of Brooklyn). It was the wine that opened my eyes to Italy.
This small release wine caught the attention of wine critics, but ultimately not many kosher consumers. In 2010 Tenuta Monchiero, an excellent kosher Barolo (I gave it a score of A/A- when I first tasted it) was produced for the export market, but as with the kosher wines from Falesco, its sales were disappointing.
In that same time frame, in 2008, a small Jewish-owned winery turned kosher and became Italy’s first fully kosher winery. Located in the picturesque Tuscany countryside, a few miles outside of Siena, with 37 acres of organically farmed vineyards, Terra di Seta was founded in 2001 by Daniele Della Seta—a scion of an ancient Roman-Jewish family who can trace his Roman roots back at least half of a millennium—and his wife, Maria Pellegrini, whose family has been producing wine in Tuscany for three generations.
When I first interviewed Della Seta in 2010, I asked him why he decided to focus on kosher wine, and he told me that “Italy is known worldwide for both the quality and variety of its wines. Each wine region in Italy, from north to south, has its own diverse style. I believe that both the number and quality of Italian kosher wines are not comparable with non-kosher Italian wines. I’m lucky to be in a place with a history of producing excellent wines … so I decided to represent my Jewish community through the production of a quintessentially Italian product, that’s unique to this area, Chianti Classico.”
A similar passion to produce something quintessentially Italian drives the owners of Italy’s second wholly kosher winery, Cantina Giuliano, which opened in 2015. Owned by Eli and Lara Gauthier, a Shabbat-observant married couple, Cantina Giuliano is located in Casciana Alta, a small village about 20 miles south of Pisa. The winery is housed in a building that had been in Lara’s family for generations, and in which Lara’s grandfather Giuliano (for whom the winery is named) had produced wine and olive oil.
Eli Gauthier told me that his goal in winemaking was to “try to get the flavor of here [Tuscany] … I want to work with people, with vine growers, who are passionate about this place. I am not interested in making an American, or an Israeli or a French [styled] wine … I want my wines to speak of this place.”
Between quality production from both of Italy’s kosher wineries, and a growing number of higher-end négociant kosher wines from quality producers, Italy has a lot to offer the kosher marketplace, and the marketplace is slowly starting to notice.
“Kosher Italian wines fill the same niche as Spanish wines [in the kosher marketplace],” noted Gabriel Geller, the director of marketing and wine education for Royal Wines. If one counts all of the small production kosher Italian wines, “there are more quality kosher Italian wines than there are kosher Spanish wines, and three or four years ago there was almost nothing from Italy to write home about.”
“Italy is a vast place of undiscovered wine for the kosher consumer,” said Ari Lockspeiser, a négociant and wine importer who brings in a few kosher Italian wines for the Cellar Lakewood wine shop (his négociant wines are sold via KosherWine.com). “I think that Italian wines still have enough fruit that the kosher consumer is cool with it, but [in] a little bit of a different style.”
One of the kosher wine importers that has really started to focus on “high-end” (roughly speaking, wines with a price point of $40 and up) Italian reds is The River Wine. According to owner Ami Nahari, “We had this dream of being a company that focused on higher-end and specialty wines, but [wine stores] kept on telling us, ‘We need moscato and pinot grigio.
Why don’t you have those basic items?’ … We decided to go into Italy because we needed to have these items, but we decided that once we were in Italy and had those connections, let’s do the things we always wanted to do, and provide the kosher world with wines we have not seen before.”
The River currently sells two high-end kosher wines—a Super Tuscan and an Amarone—with a third, Aglianico, just released, and another five wines either under contract or already in barrel. “Super Tuscan” is a term used to describe red wines from Tuscany made using non-native grapes, such as cabernet, merlot and syrah; Amarone is a labor intensive wine from Valpolicella, in the province of Verona, within the large Veneto region, made from partially dried grapes. “We are very excited about Italy,” said Nahari.
Not all of the new generation of Italian producers are focusing on higher-end wines. Gauthier said: “A big part of the business model I started [at Cantina Giuliano] was to try to make wines that are affordable. … My wines are not going to compete with something that cost[s] $45, because they cost $15 or $20. … This will come at the cost of quality sometimes, because you cannot make an exceptional wine that sells for $20, but you can make something that is very good, and very consistent.”
In the past few years sales of kosher Italian reds have consistently grown, and in a growing number of cases demand for kosher Italian wines has outpaced limited supplies. However, most of the producers and importers I spoke to believe that kosher Italian red wine will always be a niche product.
“My sales have been growing slowly but surely,” said Gauthier. “People are more interested in trying different things … but if you go into a [kosher] wine store in London or New York, [at the] end of the day people want Israeli cab.”
With Italian kosher reds in the ascendant it seems a good time to review them. However, many of the importers I contacted, such as The River, told me that they were out of stock of their current vintage, or that their new wines are still in Italy.
(When I originally reached out to Geller he wrote back that “you are a year too early.”) While I was not able to taste everything I wanted for this article I was able to taste a broad enough sampling to get a real sense of the marketplace. What follows are all the wines in my tastings that received a score of ‘B’ or better.
Terra di Seta, Assai, Chianti Classico, Gran Selezione, 2016: Made from 100% Sangiovese, this delightful Chanti was aged for 24 months in French oak. Garnet-colored and full-bodied, this wine has a bouquet that is still tight, with elements of cassis, cherries, oak and cherry brandy. Look for flavors of cherries, toasty oak and fennel. The wine had good structure, with an abundance of mouth-puckering tannins. Approachable now, this wine can really use some more time in the bottle. Best 2023-2027. Score A-.
Viniferia, Terra di Pietra, Cabernet Blend, Tuscany, 2018: Bright garnet in color, with an almost full body, this cuvée of 75% cabernet sauvignon, 15% merlot and 10% syrah was made for (and exclusively sold by) Cellar Lakewood—as was the Viniferia Super Tuscan—by Eli Gauthier of Cantina Giuliano. Barrel-fermented and aged for 18 months in French oak, his wine has a bouquet of toasty oak, lavender, cassis, cloves and blackberries. Look for flavors of cherries and blackberries at the front of the palate, moving toward a nice hint of carob mid-palate, notes of espresso and vanilla on the finish, all on an oaky background. Well-structured, with an abundance of well-integrated tannins, this wine is ready to drink now and for the next three years, and perhaps longer. Score A-/B+.
Terra di Seta, Chianti Classico, Reserva, Tuscany, 2016: Aged for 18 months in French oak, this garnet-colored, medium- to full-bodied wine was made from 100% hand-harvested sangiovese. The nose is redolent of cherries, strawberries and brier, with just a whiff of herbs in the background. The flavor has elements of cherries, cranberries and toasty oak, with a long note of espresso on the finish. Structured with an abundance of supple and well-integrated tannins, this wine is ready to drink now and for the next four years. Score B+.
Viniferia, Castel Luciano, Super Tuscan, Tuscany, 2018: This medium- to full-bodied Super Tuscan is composed of 50% merlot, 28% syrah and 22% cabernet sauvignon. Look for a nose of cherries, cassis, and baking spices, with a floral whiff and an intriguing note of huckleberries. The flavor is fruit forward, with the tastes of tart cherries, raspberries and orange zest, with an oaky, earthy finish. With lots of silky tannins, the wine is ready to drink. Best now-2025. Score B+ (Only available from Cellar Lakewood.)
Cantina Giuliano, Chianti, Primize, Tuscany 2019: This garnet-colored Chanti is composed of a blend of sangiovese, merlot and two lesser known Tuscan grapes, canaiolo and ciliegiolo. Aged for a year in a mixture of 75% stainless and 25% oak, this fruit-forward wine has flavors and aromas of cherries, cranberries and orange zest, with a whiff of wildflowers in the background. With a medium-to-full body and soft, well-integrated tannins, this wine is ready to drink now and for the next two or three years. B+/B.
Terra di Seta, Chianti Classico, Tuscany, 2019: A cuvée of 95% sangiovese and 5% cabernet sauvignon, this medium- to full-bodied, garnet-colored wine has a floral nose with whiffs of violets, cherries, oak and dark chocolate. The flavor moves from cherries in the front of the palate, to a touch of oak mid-palate, to a lightly herbal note on the finish. Drink within the next three years. Score B+/B.
Bartenura, Ovadia, Chianti, Colli Senesi, 2019: Made in the Colli Senesi appellation of southern Tuscany, this medium-bodied, garnet-colored wine has a bouquet redolent of cherries, fennel, and mint, with a whiff of the forest in summer. Look for flavors of cherry, currents and dark chocolate, with herbal hints towards the back of the palate. Rustic yet charming and imbued with powdery tannins, this wine should drink well from now until 2025. Score B.
Cantina Giuliano, Merlot, In Campagna, Tuscany, 2019: This is Cantina Guiliano’s entry-level red. Ruby- to garnet-colored and medium-bodied, this easy drinking, lively merlot has a nose dominated by violets with hints of brier cassis and oak. Look for flavors of plum and cassis, with a light, earthy background and an unctuous note on the finish. Drink within the next two years. Score B.
Cantine del Borgo Reale, Maturo, Cabernet Sauvignon, Puglia, 2017: Aged seven months in French oak this easy-to-drink, fruit-forward, medium-bodied cabernet has flavors and aromas of cherries, cranberries, plums and cassis, with a vegetal note, on a light oaky background. While enjoyable, this wine has a tad too much residual sugar. Drink within the next two years. Score B.
Bartenura, Vino Rosso d’Italia, Non-Vintage: The name of the ruby-colored, light-bodied wine means “red wine of Italy,” and when I reached out to the importer for more information, they would not tell me anything—not what grapes it is made from, not where in Italy the grapes were grown, nor how it is made. While I have made some guesses about this mystery wine, I think I shall refrain from printing them. Regardless, this rather simple but lively wine has flavors and aromas of cherries, strawberries and boysenberries, with the slightest hint of mocha on the finish. This would be a good wine for a picnic on a summer’s day. Score B.
Bartenura, Ovadia, Rosso di Montepulciano, 2019: This sangiovese-heavy blend is made from grapes grown in Montepulciano in southern Tuscany. Light garnet in color and medium-bodied, this wine is redolent of cherries and herbs de Provence. Look for flavors of cherries and coffee, with a hint of chocolate and a woodsy note. Drink within the next two years. Score B.
Cantine del Borgo Reale, Pinot Noir, Puglia, 2019: This ruby-colored, light-bodied, easy-drinking pinot noir has flavors and aromas of cherries, cassis and eucalyptus. Drink until 2023. Score B/B-.