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Around the Jewish World for First Time in Five Centuries, Portugal Readies a Kosher Vintage

November 14, 2003
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In a corner of a noisy winery, Rabbi Elisha Salas stands on a scaffold checking three gleaming steel wine casks so large they reach the ceiling.

After adding some tannin to the fermenting liquid inside, Salas seals the openings with plastic wrap. He then takes a black magic marker and scribbles the Hebrew words for “Kosher for Passover” on the seals.

“I’m making sure that no one adds anything that is not natural or certified kosher,” Salas says. “If I come back and find the letters distorted, then I know something has happened.”

So far, however, everything is going to plan.

Vats No. 7, 8 and 9 in the Adega Cooperativa da Covilha contain the first known vintage of kosher Portuguese wine in more than five centuries.

The Adega is a cooperative of winegrowers in this part of northeastern Portugal, near the Spanish border. The Adega’s president, Rui Moreira, is proud to be part of the project to produce 60,000 liters of kosher wine in time for next Passover.

“I admire the Jewish people. They have been through a lot, and they have suffered a lot,” Moreira says.

He hopes that the availability of kosher Portuguese wine will make it easier for Jews to be Jewish in Portugal, he says.

But it’s not only altruism that drives Moreira. He sees kosher wine as a major business opportunity.

A tasting has been scheduled for later this month for prospective U.S. merchandisers, who Moreira hopes will export most of the 60,000 liters to the United States. He also hopes Jewish connections will help Covilha wines win recognition in the United States and other foreign markets.

“All this began because we wanted to serve the small Jewish communities in Portugal. But these wines are good for other people,” he says.

While the most famous Portuguese wines — such as the exquisite Barca Velha — come from the Douro region, Covilha lies in the lesser-known valley of Cova da Beira.

The valley lies 1,500 feet above sea level and produces rich ruby wines that are lighter than the Douros.

“We have very good wines and people are discovering us,” Moreira says.

But the new kosher wine also is a major opportunity for Jews in Belmonte, a town up the road from Covilha.

Belmonte’s Jews stem from a tiny community that preserved Judaism in secret after Portuguese king Manoel in 1496 ordered all Jews to convert to Christianity.

The community is now free to practice its faith openly, but many members of the community have left Belmonte in search of jobs and Jewish life elsewhere.

Salas notes that the arrangement provides work for Belmonte’s Jews, because a Jew must be present at all times in the winemaking process for wine to be considered kosher.

“A Jew has been present from the moment the grapes arrived from the vineyard,” says Salas, who was sent by the Israeli-based outreach organization Amishav to help the Belmonte community.

Many of Belmonte’s Jews, however, are not familiar with traditional Jewish practices.

Like many towns and villages near the mountainous Spanish-Portuguese border, Covilha also is thought to have a significant population of descendants of “New Christians,” descendants of Jews who converted under duress after a royal decree in the late-15th century.

Though Moreira is not Jewish, he frequently uses the words “we” and “our” when talking about Portuguese Jews.

Moreira notes that some of his ancestors bore surnames of plants and trees — which were adopted by many New Christians when they discarded Jewish-sounding names.

He goes over to a banner in his office that bears the official Covilha city emblem.

“You know what this is, of course,” he says, pointing to a blue star in the shape of a Star of David in the center of the white logo.

So it’s probably no surprise that Moreira has no problem with the strict requirements for making kosher wine.

“Not at all. It’s easy.” The Jews “come here and do everything,” he says, adding that at next year’s harvest he’s thinking of opening the winery earlier just for the kosher production.

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