More than any other grape va­ri­ety, the ex­otic gewurz­traminer never fails to make its mark

France - - Contents -

Do­minic Rip­pon ex­plores the fra­grant grape with some un­usual wines.

Awine lover’s first taste of gewurz­traminer is in many ways com­pa­ra­ble to a first kiss: you will prob­a­bly re­mem­ber where you were (and whom you were with) when it hap­pened. My own first ex­pe­ri­ence came many years ago while I was work­ing as a waiter in a res­tau­rant in Haute-savoie, where Al­sace gewurz­traminer was a sur­pris­ingly pop­u­lar choice among din­ers. It was one of those rare bot­tles left un­fin­ished at the end of the ser­vice; the wel­come spoils of an evening’s hard work. When the wine was shared out, it was like no other I had tasted. I had never even eaten a ly­chee, the trop­i­cal Asian fruit to which gewurz­traminer’s aro­mas are of­ten com­pared, so the wine’s in­tense per­fumes seemed to her­ald the open­ing of a brave new world, re­plete with ex­cit­ing pos­si­bil­i­ties.

Although gewurz­traminer makes white wines, it is a pink-skinned grape, the ori­gins of which are still a mys­tery. Its ex­u­ber­ant, ex­otic char­ac­ter be­lies its ori­gins as a cool-cli­mate Alpine va­ri­ety: an aro­matic mu­ta­tion of ei­ther a pink-skinned vari­ant of the an­cient traminer va­ri­ety, which can trace its history back 1,000 years to the Ger­man-speak­ing Ty­rolean vil­lage of Tramin, in north­ern Italy; or the closely re­lated sav­agnin va­ri­ety from France’s Jura, at the op­po­site end of the Alps. The word ‘gewürz’, which means ‘spice’ in Ger­man, may have been added when the mu­tated form of traminer was found to yield wines with spicier, more ex­otic aro­mas than its pro­gen­i­tor.

Wher­ever and when­ever gewurz­traminer was first pressed and made into wine, it even­tu­ally found its way down the River Rhine to what is now its French heart­land, in Al­sace, where it is the sec­ond-most planted grape. Gewurz­traminer is one of the four va­ri­eties – along with ries­ling, pinot gris and mus­cat – al­lowed in the pro­duc­tion of Al­sace Grand Cru wines. Its vines are finicky plants which bud early, mak­ing them sus­cep­ti­ble to spring frosts; and the grapes are late-ripen­ing, re­quir­ing long, re­li­ably warm grow­ing sea­sons. Gewurz­traminer grapes are nat­u­rally high in sugar but low in acid­ity, which can drop quickly with too much heat, while al­co­hol can also be­come ex­ces­sively high. If picked too early, how­ever, gewurz­traminer can be stripped of its defin­ing aro­matic qual­i­ties.

Al­sace is one of France’s most northerly vine­yards – a cool-cli­mate zone – but its sit­u­a­tion to the east of the Vos­ges moun­tains gives it a con­ti­nen­tal touch, with cold win­ters and ex­tended, sunny grow­ing sea­sons. In the Up­per Rhine dé­parte­ment, where gewurz­traminer reaches its apogee, the peaks of the Vos­ges moun­tains cre­ate a rain shadow, pro­tect­ing the vine­yards from the pre­vail­ing At­lantic weather, with the re­sult that Col­mar is the sec­ond dri­est city in France, af­ter Per­pig­nan.

As with many Al­sace wines, it can be dif­fi­cult to guess the sweet­ness of a bot­tle of gewurz­traminer be­fore you pull its cork, with­out an in­ti­mate knowl­edge of the es­tate that has pro­duced it. Bone-dry gewurz­traminer, as made by the renowned Trim­bach es­tate in Ribeauvillé, is some­thing of an ex­cep­tion; the rule is that the va­ri­ety pro­duces typ­i­cally off-dry to medium-sweet wines within the Al­sace ap­pel­la­tion. These wines show soft ly­chee and apri­cot aro­mas with ex­otic spices and pep­per on the palate. Sweeter wines are made in the late-har­vest, or ven­dange tar­dive, style, for which gewurz­traminer berries are left on their vines, some­times un­til the be­gin­ning of win­ter, to

de­hy­drate and shrivel un­til sugar and acid­ity reach a pin­na­cle of con­cen­tra­tion. These wines de­velop in­tense aro­mas of dried apri­cot and peach. Se­lec­tion des Grains Nobles wines are made only in years when the grapes are af­fected by no­ble rot, fur­ther shriv­el­ling the berries to make par­tic­u­larly lus­cious sweet­ies with de­li­ciously hon­eyed aro­mas.

Gewurz­traminer makes its finest, fullest and most com­plex wines when planted in those Grand Cru vine­yards in the Up­per Rhine best suited to the va­ri­ety. Grand Cru Brand, which rises above the vil­lage of Tur­ck­heim, grows gewurz­tramin­ers of par­tic­u­lar nerve and el­e­gance on its granitic soils; while the lime­stone slopes of Grand Cru Fursten­tum forge ex­otic nec­tars from sun-baked vines that face south to­wards Kientzheim and the Weiss Val­ley.

These wines re­main un­der­rated in their true vo­ca­tion, as part­ners for local and in­ter­na­tional cui­sine. Their abil­ity to pair with strong Al­sa­tian cheeses such as Mun­ster is well-known in France, as is the affin­ity of gewurz­traminer vendanges tar­dives for foie gras and fruit desserts. But the va­ri­ety’s abil­ity to match a broad range of Ori­en­tal cui­sine is per­haps its most im­pres­sive trick. From Thai to In­dian curry, via Chi­nese, Malaysian and In­done­sian fu­sion dishes, gewurz­traminer is of­ten the per­fect foil.

To the west of the Vos­ges Moun­tains, in Al­sace’s sis­ter re­gion, Lor­raine, gewurz­traminer is used as a sea­son­ing grape (in Ger­man ‘gewürz’ also means ‘condi­ment’). In the Moselle, it adds aro­matic com­plex­ity, but is not al­lowed as the main com­po­nent of this ap­pel­la­tion’s wines.

Out­side Al­sace, the French re­gion where gewurz­traminer is cre­at­ing the big­gest buzz is west­ern Langue­doc, par­tic­u­larly in the vine­yards near Li­moux, in the foothills of the Pyrénées. A few years ago, Gérard Ber­trand, the re­gion’s most am­bi­tious vi­gneron, planted the va­ri­ety in high-al­ti­tude vine­yards at Do­maine de l’aigle, in the Up­per Aude Val­ley. Although lo­cated in the south of France, the moun­tain­ous con­di­tions of these vine­yards re­sem­ble the sub-alpine slopes from which gewurz­traminer once hailed. The wines pro­duced are typ­i­cally drier than those from Al­sace, with nervy citrus flavours, but their aro­mas are rem­i­nis­cent of the ly­chee and apri­cot notes that make gewurz­traminer France’s most recog­nis­able – if not best-known – grape.

Do­minic Rip­pon has many years’ ex­pe­ri­ence in the wine trade, both in the UK and France, and now runs the wine mer­chant busi­ness Strictly Wine.

CLOCK­WISE FROM LEFT: The vine­yards of Am­mer­schwir in Al­sace; Brightly coloured tim­bered houses in Ribeauvil­léhome of the Trim­bach es­tate; Gewurzr­taminer grapes

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