“G” Is for Gewürztraminer

(Originally published February 2004)

Way back in the mists of time Hanes had the good fortune to sample a wine which opened his eyes to the unique complexities of aged white wine. The wine in question was a 12 year old bottle of Gewürztraminer from an Alsatian producer named Schlumberger. It had a wonderful appearance of liquid gold and a nose full of earth, mushroom and nuts, the type of scents Hanes had never thought possible in a white wine. It had a viscous texture and filled the mouth with dried apricots and apples, grilled nuts and that crazy mushroom flavor. Hanes went back and bought three more bottles, the first time he had ever been impressed enough to make such a large purchase of a single wine. Boy, those were the days!

It was some time before another white grape supplanted Gewürztraminer in Hanes's adoring eyes. These days Hanes doesn't get to enjoy this varietal as much as he should but the fondness of recalling that one wine is as strong now as it was then. So, let us sing the praises of the majestic Gewürztraminer grape!

Gewürztraminer actually has a fairly confusing history and has gotten around a lot. On the whole today, it is most well known as an Alsatian wine and it's the ones from Alsace (a French region bordering Germany which has strong Germanic influences) which you are most likely to find in stores or restaurants. There still seems to be some question as to the grape's initial place of origin but it can be attributed with some confidence to the town of Tramin (also known as Terlano) in Italy's northern region of Alto Adige. Hence the name. Duh. "Gewürz" is a German prefix which means spicy and was affixed to the Traminer root to indicate its strong, distinct perfume. Traminer was grown in the Tramin area as far back as the 11th century.

So, just when we're getting used to knowing the grape as Gewürztraminer, now it's just Traminer? The confusion is just beginning. The Gewürztraminer grape mutates a lot so it's more like there is a family of Traminer siblings than a single Gewürztraminer grape (a situation somewhat like Sangiovese). In its home of Alto Adige and other northern Italian areas (Friuli, Trentino, etc.) its various "siblings" are known (with some overlap) as Traminer Aromatico, Termeno Aromatico, Traminer Rosé or Traminer Rosa. No wonder Alsace has the marketing edge -- they use just one damn name. For what it's worth, the name Gewürztraminer wasn't even officially recognized in France until 1973 although traditional use of the name goes back to the 19th century.

In Germany (mainly Pfalz and Baden) and Austria the grape is mostly called Gewürztraminer but also Traminer or Roter Traminer. Around France it was called Traminer Musqué or Traminer Parfumé but that has thankfully mostly ceased. The word is also out that the grape Savignin which is used to make Vin Jaune in France's Jura region is actually Traminer. In most of the new world the name Gewürztraminer rules the roost and the vine stock is primarily from Alsace.

The quintessential descriptor for Gewürztraminer is lychee nut (aka litchee or litchi -- there's as many names for this nut as there are for Gewürztraminer!). If you don't know what lychee nuts taste like, buy a Gewürztraminer. Besides the earth and mushroom flavors, you often find ginger or clove spices, wet rose petals, orange blossoms and orange/tangerine citrus. The fruit is usually peach, pear or mango. There can be a distinct bitter edge to Gewürztraminers, bringing the nuttiness more to the fore.

Gewürztraminer can be made from bone dry to dessert wine level sweet in style, depending on vinification, region and the grape clone. Because of this it is best to not develop a final opinion on Gewürztraminer until you have tasted a broad range of wines. Gewürztraminer grapes have thick skins and thus can ripen to a level where high sugar content is achieved. So, it is a naturally sweeter type of wine. This is especially so as Gewürztraminer is generally a low acid wine. The trick, then, is to pick the grapes early enough for elevated acidity but late enough for full physiological ripeness and flavor intensity. Who knew there was so much involved in picking grapes? For the reasons just discussed, Gewürztraminer does best in colder climates where there is less danger of overripe, flabby grapes.

With dry table wine versions, Alsatian Gewürztraminer runs the broadest spectrum and "house style" will determine the level of final dryness to sweetness. Taken broadly as a group, the German versions are on the drier side and the Austrian versions sweeter. Those from northern Italy tend to be drier as well as lighter in body.

In Alsace the dessert level wines are called Vendange Tardive or Sélection de Grains Nobles. In Germany or Austria these will be Beerenauslese (BA) or Trockenbeerenauslese (TBA) or in some rare cases an Eiswein may be made. Gewürztraminer is a fairly high alcohol white wine too so you get some bang for your drinking buck regardless of whether it's done as a table wine or dessert wine.

Gewürztraminer is growing a reputation in New Zealand and has a toehold in some regions as diverse as Australia, Spain, Israel and Canada. Here in the United States it is most prevalent in Oregon, Washington and New York as well as certain areas of California, particularly Anderson Valley in Mendocino.

Given its unique characteristics, Gewürztraminer can be tough to pair with foods. The most obvious choice are spicy Asian cuisines such as Thai food or Indian curries as the sweet fullness of the wine provides good counterpoint. Alsatian dishes such as choucroute are no-brainers. It's also tasty with holiday meals such as turkey, baked ham, pork tenderloin and the usual trimmings. For cheese pairings Boursin, Meunster, Caraway, Chevre or Armenian string cheeses are good calls.

Hanes is not trying to convince you to drink Gewürztraminer 24/7. Blame your psychiatrist for that. What he is saying is that it makes for a great "change of pace" grape and that not indulging in its bounties on a semi-regular basis will eventually lead to sciatica or sleep apnea. You heard it here first.