As we begin to prepare for the family gathering and festivities of Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays, many of us reminisce of the era where we went to the market or the liquor store to select the perfect wine. The wine selected for the occasion in the days of old was predominantly Gewürztraminer. Today one has difficulty finding this wine as the holiday dinners have made way for greater latitude of wines that are being selected and enjoyed, including sparkling, whites and reds
Gewürztraminer is a varietal that is very easy to recognize with its dominant and robust, aromatic scent and beautiful flavor that makes it a crowd pleaser. Gewürztraminer in German means "Spice or perfumed Traminer" and was originally from the Alsace region of France. This grape variety is a mutation of the Savagnin Blanc, also named Traminer, in South Tyrol in northern Italy. The history of the Traminer grape family is complicated. In ancient times, this green-skinned grape got its name from the village of Tramin which is a German speaking commune located in the heart of Alto Adige. Tramin is symbolized with the Gothic Parish church signified by an 86 meter tower. This masonry tower is the highest free standing in all of South Tyrol. Tramin is rich in tradition and the farmers share a common philosophical viewpoint of hard work and creativity to produce spectacular Gewürztraminer wines from this unique terroir.
The origin was finally discovered by Pierre Galet, a famous ampelographer who felt that the Traminer grape was identical to the Savagnin Blanc (not Sauvignon Blanc) which is used to produce Vin Jaune in Jura France. Though similar in many characteristics, the Traminer grapes lacked any type of scent. This was a puzzle until it was discovered that Traminer vines mutate. One such mutation centuries ago occurred near Tramin/Termeno producing a grape that had a pinkish brown, spotted-skinned berry with a pinkish pulp that was very aromatic. This type of situation also occurs with Pinot Noirs. That is why there are so many Pinot Noir clones that create infinite flavor profiles.
The Germans and French explored many different names for this Traminer grape until finally, in 20th century, the Alsatians named the vine Gewürztraminer and in 1973, it was officially sanctioned. 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. This may be why the popularity that existed 20-30 years ago has decreased. A few wineries, such as Leon Beyer, Schlumberger, and Zind-Humbrecht still take great pride and produce fantastic Gewürztraminers.
Gewürztraminer vines are a challenge as they bud early and are susceptible to damage from frost. Gewurztraminer also has weak defenses against viral vine infections. Even healthy vines are not very productive, as they produce small clusters, and growers often over-crop, producing dilute, lightweight wine. Thick berries with tough skins, do attain high sugar levels which in turn produce high alcohol levels. These Gewurztraminers can also produce very dry wines. Monitoring and precise harvesting are crucial with this grape. Early picking retains acid, but without long "hang time" distinctive varietal aromatic character is lost. Warm climates where ripening is too fast also creates difficulties in producing a good wine. Work is being done at Colmar viticultural station in Alsace and at Geisenheim in Germany to develop new clones that will ripen later, produce larger fruit clusters, with more consistent and greater production levels.
Gewurztraminer wines are highly perfumed and fragrant along with being full bodied. The combination of the strong, perfumed scent, exotic lychee-nut flavor and heavy, thick mouth feel can be overwhelming to many palates. Gewurztraminer can also be made into excellent dessert wine.
Though we had a small group at GOTN, we had some outstanding examples from France and California.
2014 Hursch - Anderson Valley, California
Nose: Sweet, floral, musty/petrol, sandalwood, orange, grapefruit & lychee
Palate: Citrus finish, dried grapefruit peel, nutty
Charles Sparr (since 1634) - Alsace, France
Nose: Subtle perfume rose petals (very light)
Palate: Sweet, light tropical fruits, creamy, pear & nice acid balance
2014 Emile Beyer (since 1580) - Alsace, France
Nose: Clean, subtle sweetness
Palate: Sweet, petrol, creamy, peach, apricot & stone fruit
2011 Vi De Gel Vino Dulce De Gewurztraminer - Gramona, Spain