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