Can You Say Gewürztraminer?

I don’t know why Gewürztraminer is not more popular as a grape variety around the world. It is such a beautiful, perfumey wine. Most commentators cite the name [pronounced gay VERTS traw meen her]; claiming it’s long and intimidating to say, especially by beginners in public settings. Perhaps. I’m guessing tequila isn’t any picnic for first time pronouncers either. But the Mexican firewater still gets plenty of action. And people say they’re going to serve hors d’oeuvres (sic) all the time. I’ll bet there aren’t five wine writers in America who can employ the phrase hors d’oeuvre in a column without first looking up the spelling ~ he said, gently replacing his dictionary on the shelf.

Gewürztraminer on the Vine

No, I suspect Gewürztraminer suffers from the same image problem in America that Riesling does: insufficient machismo. People think of it as girly wine. I probably didn’t help much calling it perfumed. How unfortunate. Gewürztraminer really is the ideal wine for so many dining circumstances. If you’re confident enough in your own sexuality to wear pastel colored shirts, you ought to consider adding Gewürz to your repertoire.

‘Traminer’ implies the grape comes from the German town of Tramin. ‘Gewürz’ is usually translated as spicy, although that phrase can use some elaboration. It refers more to the aromatic (perfumed) character than it does to any ginger/nutmeg smell or to any capsaicin pepper-like nuances. The aroma of Gewürztraminer is similar to rose petals, or to several types of melon. Experts call it floral as opposed to fruity in an attempt to differentiate it from the aroma of Riesling. The nose is due in no small part to a terpene called linalool, a compound Gewürz shares with Muscat and with Riesling. In fact difference in varietal aroma between those grapes is largely due to variations in the concentration of linalool. The fragrance of Gewürztraminer comes with a phenolic, slightly oily mouth-feel, which to me elicits the phrase plasticizer. Imagine sucking on a Barbie doll’s toes. Or think of the new car smell.

This plasticizer quality is not one of my personal favorites, but it does deserve deeper examination. Aficionados often conflate that character with minerality. Alsace is considered to be the region most frequently associated with Gewürztraminer, and Alsace is also famous for its mineral gout de terroir (taste of the earth or place). The most prestigious vineyards in Alsace, source of their most expensive wines, seem to produce the most pronounced, most obvious mineral character in those wines. I don’t think minerality and phenolic mouth-feel are the same thing, but I do think many people confuse the two.

Moreover, there are clear, historical culinary precedents in Alsace which would logically lead to a preference for wines with strong mineral flavors.Alsace(i.e. the French – German border) is a cold, northern European climate. Prior to the late 1800’s food stuffs would need to be preserved from their short Summers for consumption throughout their long Winters. That means charcuterie: salted and smoked meats, vegetables in brine or vinegar. If you were going to design a wine to drink for eight months each year with pickles, patés, sausages and sauerkraut, what would it be? Alsace has a lot of experience, and a worldwide reputation, in precisely this matter.

The Great German Shepherd

The phrase ‘Alsatian-style’ does not mean the way large canines like to make love. It implies Rieslings, Muscats, and/or Gewürztraminers made bone dry ~ all the better to match with food. Most people assume a Gewürztraminer from California will have several percentage points of residual sugar. That doesn’t have to be the case, although it is more likely to be true at giant-sized wineries, like Fetzer. It all has to do with capturing the distinctly Gewürz nose in each bottle. Alsace has a cool climate, especially in the Fall as Winter approaches. Cool weather means the harvest window, during which the distinctive smell is most obvious in the grapes, will be 10-12 days long in Alsace. Hotter weather in California makes the window much narrower, maybe only two to three days. The owners of small CA wineries can walk in their vineyard each morning, and (when the smell is at a peak) call their friends to come pick the next day. Big vineyards can’t do that ~ you don’t find Mexican harvest crews in the Yellow Pages.

So big California wineries often perform some skin-soak, prior to pressing and fermentation, in order to help extract linalool from the mucilaginous layer between the pulp and the skin. Skin-soak can make wine slightly bitter. Leaving a little residual sugar helps hide bitterness. Unbeknownst to most people, Gewürz grapes are not white; they’re slightly red colored. A little bit of ‘pinking’ can be observed in these wines if they are examined closely under good light (not dissimilar to Pinot Gris).

The reason I feel Gewürztraminer is so amazingly useful at the Left Coast dinner table is because it has such an affinity for the spices used extensively in south Asian cooking. It is absolutely essential for the myriad cuisines of India, where serious practitioners will heat their spices before grinding them fresh into each dish. The lifted, flowery aspects of Gewürz are ideal with fragrances such as cloves, cinnamon, mint, or citrus rind. The minerality of dry Gewürz meshes neatly with the earthiness of tumeric, coriander, or galangal. Curry and garam masala are such robust flavors, pungently scented, everyone assumes they need red wines with considerable oomph. A reasonable assumption. Hence a surprise that Gewürztraminer is, many times, the better answer.

 

Here are some fine examples of wines with which to launch your own investigations

 

CA Central Coast ~ The cool, maritime climate of California’s coastal valleys from Monterey through Santa Barbara offer excellent opportunities to produce top quality Gewürz. Claiborne & Churchill is a small winery in San Luis Obispo’s Edna Valley run by German professors at Cal Poly (Clay Thompson and Frederika Churchill). They have two decades of strong track record making wonderful Alsatian-style Gewürztraminers and Rieslings. Fogarty is a winery on Skyline Blvd high on the ridge west of Stanford University to which pioneering heart surgeon Thomas Fogarty brings Gewürz grapes from the Ventana Vyd in Monterey County’s Salinas Valley. The wine is technically dry, very impressive, and remarkably consistent from vintage to vintage.

CA Anderson Valley ~ On the ocean side of the coastal ridge in Mendocino County, Anderson Valley has long been known as a centerpiece for CA Gewürz. Navarro Vyd is my nominee for best direct-to-consumer mail marketing program in the American wine industry. They are masters of this varietal. A number of other wineries in Anderson Valley also do well with it ~ Lazy Creek is a particularly reliable example.

British Columbia~ The Okanagan Valley of British Columbia includes some of the northernmost fine wine producing vineyards on the planet. Despite the promises of NAFTA, few of these wines find their way into the USA. A visit to either Okanagan Valley or to Vancouver, however, is well worth anyone’s effort. Look for Quails Gate, Grey Monk, or Kalala Gewürz. A respectable, consistent example made by a large company, thus more likely to be available in the US, is Sumac Ridge.

Finger Lakes New York ~ One of several very colorful personalities in the American wine industry in upstate New York was a Russian plant geneticist named Konstantin Frank. He almost single-handedly shoe-horned vinifera (read European) grapes into a region dominated by Labrusca (read Concord) and French-American hybrids. Of course he was a little nutso. Aren’t all the colorful personalities? He used to tell people hybrids were poison. Dr. Frank has been gone many years now, but his heirs make a very nice Gewürz at the family estate. And the Finger Lakes are no backwater. The viticultural research station at Geneva is justifiably world-famous. As is Cornell’s Hotel School at Ithaca.

Oregon~ Pinot Gris gets much more attention from Oregon wineries than Gewürztraminer does: nearly 3,000 acres vs. 200. But occasionally an Oregon winery will distinguish itself from their competitors with a well-made Gewürz. Such is the case with Brandborg from Umpqua Valley in the southern half of the state.

Alsace~ Alsatian Gewürztraminer is the classic, which is not necessarily the same as being the most pleasant. Certainly Alsatian examples demonstrate the minerality concept better than any other region, and that feature alone can have a certain functional utility. Trimbach is a widely distributed, and very reliable, brand that’s not exorbitantly expensive. More money will get you greater concentration of flavor, more intense aroma, and often a little bit of residual sugar. Those features can be very impressive when matched to a particularly robust curry. Try Zind-Humbrecht from their Wintzenheim Vyd.

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  • Mkennedy331

    BAck in the ’80s you came to DC and brought a 77 Phelp’s Gewurtz. The nose of that wine was like a rose. AMAZING! Before that I was told that you either love or hate Gewurtz. Since my wine guide didn’t like it I thought I didn’t either. What a mistake. I continue to search for a wine like the Phelp’s. Thanks for the memories.

  • http://www.facebook.com/bettykaufmanwine Betty Kaufman

    Wonderful article. What a great write up on Gewurz. I’m going to share it on Fb. Thanks!