​Gewürztraminer: the Asian Spice Wine

davies wakefield

gewürztraminer: the asian spice wine—davies wakefield—april 2020

One of the reasons I like writing about wine is that it triggers so many wonderful memories of my life. I've been fortunate or maybe lucky. After an adult lifetime of enjoying wine, I still have a functioning liver and most of my brain cells. My interactions with Gewürztraminer are no exception. My first Gewürztraminer was a 1978 Sterling Vineyards Napa Valley example. I bought it at a newly opened wine store in Urbana, Illinois during the fourth year of my marriage. My wife and I had an expanded interest in food and cooking after watching Julia Childs PBS TV show, “The French Chef." We were exposed to a new variety of Asian spices including ginger, Szechuan peppercorns, lemongrass, miso, star anise and fish sauce and I had started to think about matching the wine to whatever we were eating. The wine shop owner gave me the pat answer that Gewürztraminer would be the right match for Asian cooking, but beyond that he didn't know much about the grape or why it was grown in Napa Valley. Since that time, I have learned a lot about this intriguing grape that makes it a wine worth seeking out.

The famous dialogue from the movie Sideways when Miles explains to Maya why he likes Pinot Noir. What Miles says could easily apply to Gewürztraminer.

“I don't know. It's a hard grape to grow. As you know. It's thin-skinned, temperamental, ripens early. It's not a survivor like Cabernet that can grow anywhere and thrive even when neglected. Pinot needs constant care and attention and, in fact, can only grow in specific little tucked-away corners of the world. And only the most patient and nurturing growers can do it, really can tap into Pinot's most fragile, delicate qualities. Only when someone has taken the time to truly understand its potential can Pinot be coaxed into its fullest expression. And when that happens, its flavors are the most haunting and brilliant and subtle and thrilling and ancient on the planet."

Gewürztraminer is no longer grown in Napa Valley. In fact, it is only grown in a few vineyards in California that have the right location and vintners with the farming skills to handle this grape. Navarro and Husch Vineyards in the Anderson Valley in frigid Mendocino County have been growing Gewürztraminer since 1974. Banyan winery in cool Monterey County and Gundlach Bundschu on the Sonoma Coast are the other two. There are some areas in coastal Oregon and the cooler areas of the Okanagan Valley in British Columbia that produce this delicious wine. My college roommate Roger recommended Quails Gate Winery in West Kelowna BC on the west side of Okanagan Lake. But the real pros that grow some of the best Gewürztraminer are located in Alsace France and at the Herbert Weimer winery on the west side of Seneca Lake in upstate New York. There are few places on earth that are suited to this grape and even fewer vintners that can handle the Gewürztraminer's temperamental nature.

The genes (DNA) that make up Gewürztraminer are, to say the least, flexible, some say unstable. Wikipedia lists almost 120 varietal names that are synonymous with Gewürztraminer. It easily crosses with other varieties including Sauvignon Blanc and Muller Thurgau. Gewürztraminer is unruly—tends to sprawl and overproduce. It is thought to have been propagated as a mutation of the Traminer grape in the Northern Italy Tyrol region of the Italian Alps near the city of Termeno (or Tramin) around the end of the first millennium. Speculation is that the variety ended up in Alsace through Palz in Germany in the 16th century. It was in Alsace that Gewürztraminer found its natural home where the grape could fully express its potential. But even in Alsace the grape grows best in the southern end of Alsace where the Vosges Mountains are higher, creating a drier microclimate for late ripening varieties like Gewürztraminer.

The name Gewürztraminer literally means “Spice Traminer" or “Perfumed Traminer" The aromatic profile is what makes the grapes reputation as difficult to grow. The grape skins contain phenols called terpenes. Terpenes underlie the powerful smells of things like turpentine, citronella and geranium. Without them Gewürztraminer would smell like most any other white wine. It has been described variously as exuberant, macho, flamboyant, baroque, stunning and always distinctive, Gewürztraminer is a pink skinned muskedmutation of the Traminer grape. It is a late ripening grape that under the wrong circumstances can shoot the sugar level and hence the alcohol content up into the 14.5% level. In Alsace the late harvest can also lead to Botrytis or “noble rot" which produces some of the finest dessert wines in the world. They are called “sèlecion de grains nobles". The high residual sugar in these late harvest wines masks the terpenes effectively, but a decent expression of the compounds is essential to the character of the regular bottlings. Unfortunately, the distance between character and caricature is distressingly short. This is where farming skills come into play. Successful vintners have ways of taming the terpenes. Domaine Albert Mann in Alsace looks for the skins to become “very fragile" before picking. The grapes are then pressed very slowly and gently to minimize extraction from the skins. Additionally, low temperature fermentation with ambient yeasts seems to work. Maintaining a level of residual sugar also masks the powerful off-putting smell of geraniums.

In California Ted Bennet of Navarro vineyards controls the development of terpenes by stripping off leaves on the west side of the vines to get more afternoon sun. He argues that terpenes are not the inevitable by-product of full ripeness, but instead are a function of sunlight on the grapes. The grower can get all the terpenes he wants without awaiting full ripeness by judicious leaf pulling. In any event it is the skill and attention to detail in the very tiny microclimates that result in outstanding Gewürztraminer.

Another winery worth mentioning is Hermann J. Weimer Vineyard on the west side of Seneca Lake in the Finger Lakes region of New York. Weimer came from the Bernkastel region of Mosel in Germany in the 1960s. Hermann was a skilled grape vine graftsman who thought that the gravelly soils, the Finger Lakes and the cool climate of upstate New York would be ideal for growing viniferous varieties like Riesling, Chardonnay and Gewürztraminer. As an expert grafter he knew that grafting these varietals on American rootstock would lead to success. Hermann experimented with grafting different clones of the varietals he brought from Germany and now makes world-class wines. Indeed, Weimer winery has been one of Wine and Spirits Magazine's Top 100 wineries (Worldwide) for eight years running. In 2010 one of their Rieslings was a Top 100 wine of the year at Wine Spectator. Weimer is another grower whose horticultural skills made the difference between good and great wines. I have great admiration for successful farmers like Weimer, Ted Bennet at Navarro and Oliver Humbrecht of Zind Humbrecht because, as an organic farmer, I appreciate how difficult farming is.

Weimar's 2017 Gewürztraminer is 12.8 percent alcohol was $25 at Binnys in Chicago. The grapes were whole cluster pressed and cold fermented for at least three months. This one was highly rated; 93 points by James Suckling. The grapes are hand harvested and sorted which allows them to use less sulfur. Weimer uses indigenous yeasts as well to reduce the effects of terpenes. The result is vivid flowery aromas, a hint of fruit and the varietal spice that accompanies a long zesty finish. We had this with a pork belly braised with ginger, star anise and fish sauce. Wèi dào zhēn hǎo! Delicious and the best wine of the bunch.

The Zind Humbrecht Gewürztraminer Turckheim 2018 is 13 percent alcohol and $27 at Binnys. The Turckheim vineyard is at the opening of the large Munster Valley in the shadow of the Vosges Mountains, which guarantees a warm dry climate especially at harvest time. The Turckheim vineyards also have gravelly soils like the Weimer vineyards. Oliver Humbrecht says that “ripeness is never a problem here, but finding the right balance is the difficult part". The 3.7 grams/liter of residual sugar is enough to push the terpenes to the background. Exotic notes of rose petals, damp earth and lemongrass are followed by a fullness on the palate. I'm saving this wine for a whole steamed sea bass with julienned ginger and scallions with a soy dipping sauce.

The last wine is the Trimbach (regular bottling) 2016 Gewürztraminer with 14 percent alcohol and $24 at Binnys. Here the residual sugar was fully fermented which resulted in higher alcohol. This wine is completely dry and tasty. I would order this at a Japanese sushi restaurant to go with some Ahi sashimi (raw yellowfin tuna sliced thin with soy and wasabi) Pierre Trimbach is the 12th generation operating a Hugh Jonson four-star winery since 1626. Their wines are fermented in stainless and stored in large oak vats until bottled the following spring after the harvest.

But Gewürztraminer isn't just for Asian food. Up here in the Northwoods try it with wild boar or venison cooked with fruit. The Alsatians enjoy this wine with charcuterie and sauerkraut. And there's always Mexican food like carnitas or chiles rellenos. I'm glad I added to my menu back in 1978, maybe you should too.

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