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


MADRID (JTA) — Located in the Priorat region of Spain, hidden in the steep hills and lush mountains of the Tarragona province, 100 miles southwest of Barcelona, sits the Celler de Capçanes winery. 

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

Jews played a significant role in producing wine in Spanish-speaking lands for centuries — until they were expelled under the Inquisition of 1492. Despite the fact that the country, which boasts the world’s largest viticultural area, has tried to cultivate its Jewish community in recent 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 stepped into the Spanish kosher market, revitalizing the country’s long-lost kosher wine lineage, from La Rioja to Catalonia through Ribera del Duero, Castilla-La Mancha and Andalusia.

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

The decision to say yes in 1995 proved to be savvy from a business standpoint for Celler de Capçanes. It now sells its kosher wine around the world from its base in the Tarragona province, which many include in lists of the top quality wine-producing regions in the world.

“There are no Jews in the village, yet the Catholic cooperative members invested their own funds to develop kosher wine,” said Jürgen Wagner, the non-Jewish oenologist and export manager at Celler de Capçanes. “And we treat it with the artisanal nature of a millennial tradition, crafted as it was made 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 a chance to restructure and modernize. Today it incorporates technology that allows it to select, separate and vinify small amounts of fruit under strict “Lo Mevushal” kosher standards, meaning it is only handled by Jewish workers and has not been pasteurized.

A Jewish employee works in the vineyard at the Celler de Capçanes winery in Monsant, Spain. (Courtesy of Celler de Capçanes)

Celler de Capçanes’ flagship kosher product — the Primavera Flower, or Spring Flower — helped put it on the international kosher scene. The wine is composed of three grape varieties — 35% cabernet sauvignon, 35% garnatxa negra and 30% samsó — and matured for 12 months in new and one-year-old kosher French oak barrels. The full-bodied red is very dark in color, with hints of black cherry and chocolate and a flowery scent.

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

In Tarragona, small estate vineyards are planted on steep slopes, impossible to reach by machinery. The small region’s wines have two appellations of origin from its two main wine-making areas: Origin Montsant and Origin Priorat. It has become the heart of Spain’s new wave of kosher winemakers.

Also located there is the Clos Mesorah Estate Winery, the brainchild of Moisés Cohen, an agricultural engineer from Casablanca, and Anne Aletá, a historian and sommelier from Toulouse, who are both business and life partners. In 1996, the couple bought an old vineyard in Priorat with the goal of bringing it back to blazing life — kosher style.

Unbeknownst to them, they were likely the first Sephardic Jewish family to own vineyard land in Spain in more than 500 years — most likely millennia, since Jews were not allowed to own or purchase land in medieval Spain.

Anne Aletá, left, and Moisés Cohen on their Clos Mesorah Estate Winery in 2018. (David Silverman/Getty Images)

It would take until 2003, when they launched Elvi Wines on the estate, for the entrepreneurial pair to progress from wine experts to non-kosher winemakers. But these days, their 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, including on the menus of several Michelin-starred restaurants.

The family-owned business employs an organic-meets-spiritual farming philosophy. 

“All of us are 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.” 

Moisés and Anne’s signature product is the Clos Mesorah, a very rich and fruity red wine from Montsant that frequently scores high in international kosher wine rankings. The wine’s eye-catching 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 wedding rituals in Judaism. The verse on the label changes from year to year.

For all of these kosher producers, the fruit is usually handpicked, with no added yeast, filtration, coloring agents, mechanical manipulations or chemical additives. Animal-derived food additives are strictly prohibited in kosher wines, yet the use of eggs to clear the wine is frequently permitted under the 1/60th rule, or Bitul — an exception provided when the prohibited substance accounts for 1/60 or less of the total volume of the food. 

The production is overseen by certifiers from the Orthodox Union in the United States, the Federation of Kashrut of London or the Local Rabbis of Chabad Lubavitch of Barcelona. One of the most evident challenges the winemakers have every year is timing: In Spain, the harvest of red wine grapes begins in early September and often falls during the Jewish High Holiday season each year. If winemakers don’t plan well in advance, it all results in a disastrous production season. 

A view of the Clos Mesorah Estate Winery in 2018. (David Silverman/Getty Images)

However, not all of the 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, Navarre, the heir to his family’s Jewish treasured winemaking heritage. In 1492, Fernández de Arcaya’s ancestors fled to the Kingdom of Navarre, a part of modern-day Spain where many Jews sought refuge in order to live a hidden Jewish life. 

Miguel is in charge of preserving his family’s medieval Sephardic kosher winemaking method and history through Alate Kosher, a wine created following a long, rigorous and secretive process using ancient biodynamic principles and century-old Iberian vines. 

The result is a mouth-filling tempranillo — the most popular red variety in Spain — that in the nose is reminiscent of plum and ripe cherry fruit with a hint of earthy tobacco. 

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

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

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

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