Gewürztraminers make for lively and unusual wines. Stunning, unique, sensual, and spicy, the varietal has its origins in the Alto Adige region of Northeastern Italy. Located near Austria, the region surrounds the village of Tramin that gives the grape its name. Alto Adige whites tend to be lively and zesty, with a distinctly racy cast; in Italy, gewürztraminers are called either Traminer Aromatico (gewürz means spicy or aromatic in German) or just Traminer. In Austria, they can also be called Roter Traminer or Gelber Traminer (red and yellow, respectively). But, though Italy still makes some fine exemplars, gewürztraminerís best expressions now hail from Alsace.
Just as pinot noirs and chardonnays are associated first and foremost with Burgundy, gewürztraminers are the pride and joy of Alsace, which lies in the French Rhine valley, along the German border. Like the premier Burgundian varietals, gewürztraminers are now made around the world. Like pinot noir, they take quite an effort to get right. Both gewürztraminers and pinot noirs have extremely distinctive tastes, with nuances and subtleties, and both allow winemakers ample room for expression.
Gewürztraminers start with flowery notes on the nose ó some detect rose petals, but I smell honeysuckle. Theyíre fruity, but not necessarily sweet. In Alsatian vintages, minerals and litchi nuts predominate both up front and on the finish, with tropical fruit, minerals, grapefruit, musk, and other fragrant flowers in the middle. Gewürztraminers made in other parts of the world echo some of these qualities, while never quite capturing all of them, and they tend to be drier, without the Alsatian sweetness or pronounced tropical fruitiness. But no matter, because to my palate, all gewürztraminers ó usually pure and unblended ó taste pretty darned interesting.
These are excellent wines for both bland and spicy foods, as incongruous as that may seem. Their fruitiness cuts through Thai, Indian, and other Asian and Eastern spices; because they like to be chilled, theyíll refresh and cool your mouth. But turkey, a rather bland meat, is also well set off by the combination of fruit and dryness, and gewürztraminers have long been a Thanksgiving favorite of mine.
So these wines present contradictions and complexities, they pair well with a wide range of food, theyíre unique, unusual, seductive, and at their best silky-smooth. Then why arenít more folks drinking them?
The name may be one impediment. The fact that few Alsatian wines are expensive or marketed very well may be another. Itís possible that many wine people just havenít caught on yet. But Iím not the only wine writer willing to tout gewürztraminers, and more are bound to follow. Iím predicting a sharp rise in popularity for this quirky grape in the coming years.
For this column, I sampled gewürztraminers from around the world. Not surprisingly, one favorite comes from the Alto Adige in Italy, while another hails from New Zealand, which tends to be competitive in all the varietals it attempts. British Columbia makes some at least one nice ones. Oregon, Washington, and New York have all made eminently drinkable bottles. California has dozens, though they donít tend to sell very well. While none of the gewürztraminers from outside Alsace matches that regionís best in depth, complexity, or quality, even relatively average attempts still impress, and they accompany many cuisines excellently.
So if youíre feeling a bit spicy, or youíre eating spicy food, give gewürztraminers a go. This eccentric-tasting varietal may be hard to pronounce, but its wines are delightfully delicious and easy to drink.
1999 Lunare Gewürztraminer Cantina Terlano Alto Adige Italy. Blind, youíd guess Alsatian. This is deep, with all the usual taste suspects, including a dash of vanilla to go with the gingerbread, litchi, tropical fruit, and honeysuckle. For spicy mustard or a spicier Mediterranean fish dish. More expensive than many, but well worth it.
2001 Husch Gewürztraminer Anderson Valley (California). Almost too fruity, but so affordable! Itís perfect with well-spiced Indian dishes, like chicken vindaloo or a nice lamb biryani. Green apple, white peaches, and a fresh and efficacious finish. Weíll see more good efforts from Husch and the Anderson Valley.
2001 Finhorn Creek Gewürztraminer Okanagan Valley British Columbia. Go, Canada! A revelation at under $15, this could be my new house white for the summer. Light, fruity, refreshing, almost a hint of lemon zest, but still tropical. Some might consider it a pétillant (lightly sparkling wine), but I say itís just a mouthful of flavor that will wash down fish nicely.
2001 Spy Valley Gewürztraminer Marlborough New Zealand. There are those rose petals! Litchi, tropical fruit, Turkish delight, itís frighteningly good, again for spicy Thai fish or Indian dishes.
2000 Bargetto Gewürztraminer Monterey California. Sharp, tight, tingly, not overly fruity, but still has enough peach notes to flatter spicy foods and shellfish. Try it with kung pao delights of three.
2001 Chateau Ste. Michelle Gewurztraminer Washington. Washington loves these white varietals. If anything, they can come out a bit hot ó shallow and quick, with too much fruit. This is a recidivist, but it delivers on the finish. For me itís good with pizza, fried oysters, or Cajun food.
David Marglin can be reached at email@example.com