Pasteur, Detente, Kosher Wine

Rabbi Nachum Rabinowitz

pesach-wine-insideWHEN MAKING KOSHER WINE PURCHASES in preparation for Pesach everyone makes certain to look for the OUP or OU Kosher for Passover designations on the label. Most kosher wine is kosher for Passover as well, but there are some rare exceptions, so it’s important to check each label carefully.

There is another designation that can be of vital importance to us as we make our holiday wine purchases. Some wine labels will indicate ‘mevushal’ and others will say ‘non-mevushal’. Literally translated, mevushal means that the wine has been cooked.

What Does that Really Mean and Why is it Important?

Of all kosher products, wine and grape juice are the only items where the simple handling (i.e. touching, opening, pouring, etc.) of the finished product is strictly restricted.

Historically, wine was widely used as a libation in religious (including pagan idol) worship. A biblical injunction forbids wine that was used in (even informal) idol worship. Consequently, the improper ‘handling’ of wine can render it prohibited.

Over concerns of intermarriage, our rabbis  broadened the restrictions on wine to anyone other than religiously faithful Jews. Wine being so central to fraternization and courting, the rationale is if you fraternize freely outside the faith, you will come to marry outside the faith as well. Unfortunately, history has proven the rabbis correct. Jewish communities which took a lax attitude towards the consumption of non-kosher wine were also the communities in which the rates of assimilation were highest.

As a result the halacha considers kosher wine to be a ‘controlled substance’.

Cooked Wine

The above regulations are limited only to the standard wines of the biblical statute, those that might have been used in idol worship. However, because cooked wine (yayin mevushal) was considered unusual (and also ineligible for religious worship) its handling was never restricted, not biblically nor,   today, rabbinically.

[Note: Cooking will not remove a pre-existing prohibition on the wine; it will only safeguard the wine, once it is cooked, from becoming forbidden by unsuitable treatment.]

Cooked wine is also halachically inferior for use in kiddush and the four cups that we drink at the Seder; unless it is of higher quality or preferred taste to the non-mevushal wine that is available.

Pasteurized Wine

Louis Pasteur is famous as the father of the pasteurization technique used in the modern food and beverage industries. Less known is that the 19th century French scientist was first commissioned by the French wine industry to develop systems to reduce spoilage that frequently afflicted its transported wines. It was only later that his techniques were applied to the dairy industry where it has become the universally accepted practice.

Today wine is rarely pasteurized. Wine’s alcohol content, together with proper handling and the addition of sulfites serve to inhibit the growth of negative bacteria that causes spoilage in other fruit juice-based products. Pasteurization of wine does however take place in the processing of many kosher wines – the objective is not product quality preservation, rather protection of the product’s kosher status.

Minimum Temperatures for Mevushal

What constitutes cooking to render wine conclusively ‘yayin mevushal’?

The OU, based on the decision of Rav Moshe Feinstein  (that halachic cooking is determined by the measurement of yad soledet – heat from which the hand will recoil), insists that wine be verifiably heated to a minimum 175°F (roughly 80°C). Standard pasteurization temperatures vary from application to application and sometimes do not meet that criterion – but all OU-certified pasteurized/mevushal wines do. Others postulate that the wine must be brought to boiling-like temperatures (>190°F) before the product may be considered mevushal.

Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach  and other Israeli poskim argued that since flash pasteurization (where heating is immediately followed by rapid cooling), does not markedly alter the flavor of the wine, unlike traditional cooking methods, it may not be considered mevushal. One should generally assume that OU mevushal wines are cooked with flash pasteurization.

Quality of Mevushal Wines

Most often flash pasteurization of kosher wines is performed at the end of the winemaking process just before bottling. There are a variety of opinions in the industry regarding how this affects the quality of the wine. Some argue that the pasteurization is hardly noticeable in the wine. Others insist they can easily differentiate between mevushal and non-mevushal wines. Many high-end kosher wines will not be mevushal because, it is argued, pasteurization will affect the aging potential of the wine.

Flash Détente

There is a relatively new technology called flash détente. Détente is a term usually associated with the easing of hostilities between nations. In this case the word is used to indicate the “instant relaxation” that it achieves for wine grapes and skins. This system flash cooks grapes with skins to near boiling temperatures and then quickly cools them in a vacuum chamber. This results in the explosion of the grape skins, with authentic popping sounds. The benefits of this process include the rapid extraction of the red skin color into the juice (usually requiring days of soaking with skins), increase sugar brix levels in the grape and the elimination of pyrazines (negative flavor notes found in the grapes). For kosher purposes, the boiling temperatures eminently achieve an early mevushal status of the grape must (from the Latin vinum mustum, “young wine”), even before the grape sugar is fermented into alcohol.

Pasteurized Grape Juice

With the exception of some fresh frozen products, shelf-stable grape juice must always be pasteurized to prevent spoilage. That would seem to qualify all grape juice as being yayin mevushal. However, because pasteurization can be effective at temperatures as low as 155°F one cannot assume that grape juice meets the halachic criteria for mevushal and is therefore safe to be handled without restriction. At the same time, because all shelf-stable and even refrigerated grape juice is pasteurized (albeit not at the minimum temperatures to insure mevushal status), one should also not consider them definitively non-mevushal either – and therefore preferable for Kiddush and the
four cups.

Grape Juice Concentrate

Concentrated grape juice is a very common ingredient in the beverage and food industries. It is often reconstituted into grape juice or is used to sweeten other foods and beverages. The OU is often asked how it can certify nationally distributed products that contain kosher-sensitive grape juice concentrate. The answer very simply is that the grape juice contained therein was manufactured by teams of OU supervisors, to meet the highest standards of kosher.

In all cases the industrial concentrating methods used involve boiling temperatures and beyond. Grape juice concentrate would therefore be considered mevushal according to all authorities.

Wine Brandy, Wine Vinegar & Cooking Wine

Grape brandies such as Cognac from France is a distilled grape wine and could not be considered kosher unless it was made especially as kosher with special supervision and handling. The distillation process of alcohol also involves heat at boiling temperatures and beyond. Here too all distilled brandy products are inevitably mevushal.

When the alcohol found in wine ferments into acetic acid the finished product is known as wine vinegar. Once the conversion of wine to vinegar is complete it is no longer halachically similar to wine  and is no longer susceptible to prohibition by unsuitable handling. As a matter of practicality, most kosher wine vinegar is fermented from kosher wine that was already deemed mevushal.

Cooking wines are frequently salted both to preserve the wine (usually used in small amounts over long periods of time) and to save on tariffs imposed on drinkable alcoholic beverages. The high sodium content in such wine renders it non-potable. That also serves to exclude that wine from the handling restrictions of other non-mevushal wines .

Not Just Another Beverage

In the privacy of our homes, shared with close friends and family, non-mevushal wines are just fine (and for kiddush even preferable). At public foodservice events (and even at home when non-Jewish employees are present) it is usually preferable to use mevushal wines.

[Of interest to wine aficionados: Combination lock wine bottle stoppers can be used to reseal and secure open bottles of non-mevushal wine. These are available at some specialty wine outlets.]

Kosher wine is not just an enjoyable drink; it is used to sanctify the Shabbat and Jewish festivals. You will similarly find it at a brit milah where a Jewish child is brought into G-d’s covenant and under the chupah of the Jewish wedding where the sanctity of the Jewish home is established. On Pesach we drink four cups of wine to commemorate our ancestor’s freedom from bondage and assumption of our elevated role as G-d’s chosen nation.

Sanctity is achieved via separation and spiritual transcendence. It is with these considerations that such special care is attended OU-certified grape-based processes. It is through the fruits of the vine that we can experience the Divine.