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Gewürztraminer

photo of Gewürztraminer by Tim Ramey. Gewürztraminer is one of the most pungent wine varietals, easy for even the beginning taster to recognize by its heady, aromatic scent. While the French have achieved the greatest success with this grape and its name may be German, the history of Gewürztraminer began in Italy's Tyrollean Alps, near the village of Termeno (Tramin) in Alto Adige.

Since the Middle Ages, the parent variety traminer has grown there, although it may have originated in the Pfalz region of Germany. It also is grown widely throughout Eastern Europe, but neither abundantly nor very successfully. With hardly any of the characteristics of its spicy offspring, traminer berries are pale green and make much less interesting or appealing wine, hardly scented at all.

Like pinot noir, however, traminer vines do have a propensity to mutate. One of these mutations, a few centuries ago near Termeno, resulted in a vine that produces pinkish-brown, spotted-skinned berries with pinkish pulp, and which fashions very distinctive and heady wine.

The French began calling this prized clone traminer musqué, traminer parfumé, or traminer aromatique; the Germans roter traminer; and the Italians traminer rosé, traminer rosso, or termener aromatico. In the late 19th century, the Alsatians began calling this vine gewürztraminer, although it wasn't until 1973 that this name was officially sanctioned. Wine texts often report that "gewürz" translates from German as "spicy", but an alternate translation has more sensory relevance: the more likely contextual meaning is "perfumed".

Alsace has achieved the most success with Gewürztraminer. Although it makes up 20% of the vines there, second only to Riesling at 23%, some producers give Gewürztraminer less priority than other varieties and make accordingly dull wines. Those houses that pay specific attention to and take particular pride in their Gewürztraminer include Léon Beyer, Schlumberger, and Zind-Humbrecht.

Often under other names, traminer vineyards are planted in Austria and Germany (Roter Traminer), as well as countries in Eastern Europe, including Bulgaria (Mala Dinka), the former Czechoslovakia (Drumin, Pinat Cervena, or Livora), Hungary (Tramini), and Romania (Rusa), in addition to Russia, Moldava, and the Ukraine. There are also small plantings in Switzerland, Spain, Luxembourg, and Italy. Many versions of the wines either too limited in yield, or the styles either too indistinct and light or overly oily and bitter to gain much attention outside their provincial locales.

While the gewürztraminer vine is prized for its wine, it can be despised for its viticultural difficulty. It buds early in the Spring, so it is particularly susceptible to damage from frost; even without this threat, it is prone to poor fruit set. Gewürztraminer also has weak defenses against viral vine infections. Even healthy vines are not very productive, with small clusters, so there is a great temptation for growers to over-crop, which results in dilute, lightweight wine.

The dark pink color of the skin and pulp of ripe gewürztraminer grapes results in wines colored from light to dark golden yellow with a copper tone, depending upon the fruit ripeness. The berries, with their thick and tough skins, can attain high sugar levels of amazing concentration. Alcohol levels, therefore, can get quite high in dry versions. Conversely, low acidity and high pH in Gewürztraminer can be problematic. Close monitoring and precise harvest timing are critical. Early picking retains acid, but without long "hang time" distinctive varietal character fails to develop. Pleasant results are nearly impossible in warm climates where ripening is too fast-paced.

At the Colmar viticultural station in Alsace and at Geisenheim in Germany work is underway developing clones that bud and ripen later, produce larger fruit clusters, with more consistent and greater production levels and that are virus-free. The challenge is to gain these improvements in economy while retaining gewürztraminer's unique character and intensity.

Gewürztraminer is highly perfumed and quite full-bodied, more so than all other white wine grapes, with the exception of Viognier. In fact, the combination of Gewürztraminer's strong, heady, perfumed scent, exotic lychee-nut flavor and heavy-oily texture can be overwhelming and tiring to many palates. There is also a slight tendency to bitterness that seems exacerbated by ripeness, so a light touch is needed at the wine press. Many makers finish their Gewürztraminer with a spot of residual sugar. Gewürztraminer can be made into an excellent dessert wine, in fact.

The most frequently encountered (but not exclusive) smell and/or flavor elements found in Gewürztraminer-based wines include:

*Typical Gewürztraminer Smell and/or Flavor Descriptors
*Typicity depends upon individual tasting ability and experience and is also affected by terroir and seasonal conditions, as well as viticultural and enological techniques. This list therefore is merely suggestive and neither comprehensive nor exclusive.

Varietal Aromas/Flavors:

Processing Bouquets/Flavors:

Floral: rose petal, gardenia, honeysuckle

Late Harvest: Botrytis, honey, sweet cabbage

Fruity: lychee1, grapefruit, peach, mango

Mineral: petroleum, terpene, diesel

Aggressive: perfume, spice

Oak: (atypical)

Gewürztraminer wines are an excellent match for fresh fruit and cheeses (especially Alsatian Münster) and a good complement to many simple fish and chicken dishes, especially recipes that include capsaicin (hot pepper) spices, oriental five spice, or even curry.

Due to limited popularity and viticultural and production difficulties, gewürztraminer acreage has remained relatively static in most world appellations for several years. Encouraging signs of new success come from fairly recent plantings in New Zealand 4 (apparently since 1990, NZ Gewürztraminer acreage has see-sawed from a low of 210 to as much as 540 acres) and the Pacific Northwest 2 (Oregon total 192 acres; Washington, 632 ac).

California growers had both traminer and gewürztraminer, indiscriminately known as Red Traminer, planted in the 1870's. Charles Krug in Napa and Jacob Gundlach in Sonoma became well-known producers. Over a century later, the variety became popular and acreage peaked at just over 4,700; since, total plantings have declined by half.

The nominees for Best Supporting Appellation in California Gewürztraminer 3 (1,475 average total California acreage, 1999-2009) are: Anderson Valley, Mendocino County (~298 ac), Monterey County (~716 ac), Russian River Valley, and Sonoma County (~175 ac). California wineries that have consistently produced outstanding results are so few that they bear mentioning: Navarro grows Gewürztraminer in Anderson Valley, Mendocino, and makes stellar and award-winning wines in both dry and dessert styles. Breggo, a relative newcomer to Anderson Valley, has also consistently produced outstanding Gewürztraminers since their initial 2006 vintage. Thomas Fogarty makes an excellent dry style from Monterey County grapes. Fetzer makes a lightly-sweet version that is always serviceable, reasonably-priced and, occasionally, an excellent example.

by Jim LaMar


Notes
1 According to a study at Cornell University, by Terry E. Acree and P.K. Ong, fresh lychee fruit and Gewürztraminer grapes share several aromatic volatile compounds (primarily terpenes and esters) within their chemical structures, including cis-rose oxide (roses), beta-damascenone, linalool, furaneol, ethyl hexanoate, and geraniol (also common to roses). BACK

2 According to the NZ Winegrowers Institute, as reported by Martin Gillion, Editor / Publisher WineNZ magazine. BACK

3 Oregon and Washington plantings according to the USDA 2006 Grape Acreage Reports (posted February, 2007). BACK

4 California plantings according to the USDA Grape Acreage Report 2007 (published April, 2008). BACK


RESOURCES
1. Jancis Robinson (ed), Oxford Companion to Wine, 3rd Edition, (Oxford University Press: London) 2006

2. Benjamin Lewin, Wine Myths and Reality, (Vendage Press: Dover, DE) 2010

3. Jancis Robinson (ed), Jancis Robinson's Guide to Wine Grapes, (Oxford University Press: New York) 1996

4. L. Peter Christensen, Nick K. Dokoozlian, M. Andrew Walker, James A Wolpert, et all. Wine Grape Varieties in California (University of California, Agricultural and Natural Resources Publications: Oakland) 2003

5. Charles Sullivan, A Companion to California Wine: An Encyclopedia of Wine and Winemaking from the Mission Period to the Present (University of California Press: Berkeley) 1998

6. Steven Spurrier & Michel Dovaz, Academie du Vin, Complete Wine Course (G.P. Putnam & Sons, New York) 1983

 

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