(This column was published in The Washington Post on Wednesday, April 4, 2012.)
Wine is increasingly becoming part of our modern dining culture, a drink to be enjoyed regularly and not just on special occasions. That’s to be applauded from a wine writer’s perspective – after all, I’m recommending six new wines every week – but with Passover and Easter approaching this weekend, it’s fitting to remember the special significance wine enjoys in Judeo-Christian culture and ritual.
Wine’s symbolic significance is strongest in the Passover Seder, the ritual dinner observed in Jewish households around the world. The Passover holiday begins this year on April 6. During a Seder, each adult diner drinks four cups of wine, representing the redemption of the Israelites from slavery under the Egyptians. A fifth cup is reserved for the prophet Elijah in hopes he will visit during the celebration; representing future redemption, it is left unconsumed.
For observant Jews, the Passover wine must be kosher. This means it was produced under the supervision of observant rabbis and is acceptable for use in religious ceremonies. A wine’s kosher status is typically denoted by the letter U or K in a circle, with a P in superscript. It doesn’t have any significance in the actual production of the wine, except for “mevushal” wines, which are flash-pasteurized so they can be handled by non-observant folks and remain kosher.
Wine’s connection to Easter comes from the Last Supper, which may or may not have been a Seder, depending on which Gospel or which historical authority you prefer. Wine’s significance is clear, however, as representing the blood of Christ, and therefore echoing the redemptive qualities of the Seder wines. The Last Supper is re-enacted in the eucharist, or holy communion.
“Easter is the high point of our spiritual year, but every single Sunday is a mini-Easter, a reflection of that significance,” says Monsignor Bill Parent, pastor of Saint Peter’s Church in Waldorf, Md., and an oenophile who admits to perusing Wine Spectator when he tires of his ecclesiastical texts. (Yes, people still call him “Father Parent.” I asked.)
“Wine is integral to the eucharist,” he says. “We believe the eucharist is the presence of Jesus in our midst, so wine is absolutely essential to Catholic worship.”
This was news to me, having been raised Methodist, a radical, abstemious sect of Protestantism that substituted Welch’s grape juice for wine in the holy communion – and even then rationed it by the thimbleful.
But I had to wonder if wine’s significance to Easter hadn’t waned over the two millennia since the Last Supper. When I asked local wine distributors to propose appropriate vino for Passover and Easter, I received several suggestions for kosher wines, including a very nice sauvignon blanc from New Zealand with an Irish name. There was also a lovely red from Israel’s Ella Valley Vineyards, which according to the label is located in the area where David defeated Goliath. Not exactly a Passover story, but hard to beat.
What Easter suggestions did I get? Wines with “Rabbit” in their names.
Well, maybe humor is part of the joy of celebration. “Easter dinner is our happiest, most joyful meal of the year, as we emerge from the dark days of Lent,” Monsignor Parent advises. “We should enjoy it with our favorite beverage. The symbolism of wine is that is a joyful drink.” Then he adds, “In addition to it being the blood of Christ.”
Here are three recommended wines for Passover and three for Easter. The Passover wines had two firm criteria – they must be labeled as kosher for Passover, and they must be delicious. The Easter wines really only had the latter criteria – I chose them because they should pair well with traditional Easter dinners based on ham or lamb.
Ella Valley Vineyards “EverRed” 2007
3 Stars GREAT VALUE
Judean Hills, Israel, $26
This blend of merlot and cabernet sauvignon could pass as a good cru Bordeaux. It tastes a bit fusty and reluctant at first, but give it an hour – I recommend decanting – and it reveals a lovely core of fruit such as black currant and plums, robed in wood to lend it structure and spice. Classy, delicious wine.
O’Dwyers Creek Sauvignon Blanc 2010
Marlborough, New Zealand, $16
An Irish kosher wine from New Zealand? Go figure. No matter, this is tasty sauvignon blanc, with a good deal of the aggressive grassiness that New Zealand has come to be known for with this grape, but with good tropical fruit flavors underneath to give it heft and interest.
Cantine Gabriele Montepulciano d’Abruzzo 2008
This is a delightful red from central Italy, slightly earthy, packing lots of dark fruit flavors with good acidity to help make it food-friendly. This may be the ideal Seder wine, because it will make your diners (and Elijah) happy without hijacking the conversation.
Puriri Hills 2006 Reserve
Clevedon, New Zealand, $40
New Zealand is known for its lamb, but not so much for its red wines made from Bordeaux grape varieties. This delicious example is a blend of merlot, carmenere and cabernet franc. It features lush dark fruit flavors accented by mint and spice, with a hint of earth. Decant at least an hour ahead to allow the flavors to develop.
Dr. H. Thanisch Bernkasteler Badstube Riesling Kabinett 2010
Mosel, Germany, $24
This is a lovely off-dry Riesling that will pair nicely with just about anything, but especially an Easter ham.
Rabbit Ridge Sangiovese “Brunello Clone” 2010
Paso Robles, California, $20
California Sangiovese has not exactly been a success story, but this example offers the dried cherry and cocoa flavors characteristic of the grape along with a robust fruit-forward structure and ripeness that speaks of the New World. “Brunello Clone” refers to the particular clone sangiovese grosso that is grown near the town of Montalcino in southern Tuscany, and forms the basis of the famed Brunello wines.