Gewurztraminer

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  • Monday 21 February 2011

Show off or showstopper?

The caricature is easy enough to draw. Big, blowsy, vulgar, a kind of drag queen among white grapes, flouncing out of the bottle and into the glass in a show-time shower of rose petals, lychees and face cream. If it’s dry, it can be very high in alcohol; if it’s sweet, it can be mawkish. Easy to spot in a blind tasting – but would you want it for dinner?

Gewurztraminer – the ü is an option for those who want to write correct German, though it’s not used in Alsace – is the wine world’s equivalent of a peaty whisky such as Laphroaig, or yeast-extract spreads like Marmite; it’s either loved or loathed. I love it, providing, of course, that it’s good Gewurz.

The variety’s family is one of Europe’s most ancient and mysterious. There’s an Italian village called Termeno on the mountain road which took medieval travellers from Verona through the Alps via the Brenner Pass to Innsbruck and Munich; as 97% of the village speaks German, they call it Tramin. A ‘Traminer’ grape was noted here around the turn
of the first millennium, though whether that was the same variety as today’s Traminer is uncertain. Via DNA profiling, we now know that Traminer and Pinot are the closest of kin: one is a parent of the other, though we don’t yet know which is the chicken and which the egg. We also know that Traminer is identical to the Jura’s Savagnin. All of which is oddly unsatisfactory, since these relationships appear bizarre in flavour terms.

Traminer’s grapes are white. Ripe Gewurztraminer grapes are a lilac colour. The latter is, in fact, a mutation of the former, so from a genetic viewpoint Gewurztraminer, Traminer and Savagnin are all the same cultivar. There’s another pink mutation, too, called Red Traminer or Savagnin Rose (Klevener de Heiligenstein in Alsace): it’s less aromatic. The name ‘Gewürztraminer’ first appears in the late 19th century in Alsace – at a time of Prussian domination,
hence its German spelling. The mutation was well-acclimatised by then; it’s thought to have occurred in Alsace in the 18th century. By 2009, it occupied 18.8% of Alsace’s vineyards (2,803 hectares) – by far the largest plantings in the world, though Germany, Austria, Australia, Washington and California have between 500ha and 800ha each (some of this is Red Traminer or Traminer itself).

A red among whites

It’s not an easy variety to grow – Olivier Humbrecht MW calls it ‘the most complicated’ of all the Alsace grapes. Problems at either flowering or veraison (the start of ripening) can mean berries of wildly differing ripeness levels within one bunch at harvest. It needs pulses of warmth, and cooler periods in summer. Maybe that’s why it flourishes in Alsace – a high-latitude region blessed with a climate of more clemency than it has any right to expect, thanks to the rainshadow effect of the Vosges mountains.

Finding the right moment to pick it is vital: ‘It’s neutral if you pick too soon,’ says Philippe Zinck, ‘and fat and overblown if you pick too late.’ Humbrecht recalls, ‘My father Léonard used to say that once it is ripe, you need to wait for up to a
month before it is actually ready to harvest. It needs time to get beyond bottled perfume to being a real wine.’ The fact that growers often have to wait for perfect ripeness in Gewurztraminer is helped by the fact that the grapes have thick skins; they thin and refine as the season progresses. What Gewurz can never be, though, is a light, crisp dry white.
Herein lies the secret to one of the things I love so much about it: its revolutionary nature.

Let me explain. ‘Acidity?’ said Etienne Hugel, as we stood amid his Gewurztraminer vines in the grand cru of Sporen. He smiled quizzically. ‘Well, itis what it is.’ Which isn’t much: the variety has the lowest natural acidity levels of any in Alsace, and indeed any worldwide. Moreover it doesn’t begin to acquire its full aromatic spectrum until it passes
13% potential alcohol, and any dense Gewurz from low-yielding vines will usually crest 14% in finished alcohol too, providing fermentation has been carried through to approximate dryness.

The mix of low acidity and high alcohol causes anguish in some parts of the wine world (notably Australia) but unless you are prepared to accept and celebrate that, you’ve no business growing Gewurztraminer. Early-picked or acidified Gewurz is either dull or disgusting. Its balance comes not from acidity, but from a unique blend of faint bitterness (thanks to those thick skins), varying levels of sweetness, the ability to express mineral flavours and to incorporate botrytis flavours, and the fact that it often has a structuring tannic presence. You might almost say it’s a red among
whites. It provides the kind of palate satisfaction which normally only red wines can provide.

Recipe for success

Is there a formula for great Gewurztraminer? Let’s start with modest yields, which in Alsace means 40–60 hectolitres per hectare, and unquestionably lower than the 80+hl/ha which the law laxly allows. It should ideally be made from vines propagated from old-vine selections, not clones. The two main Alsace clones from the 1970s (47 and 48) were
‘catastrophic’, says Humbrecht. ‘The plants are too fertile, the grapes and bunches too big, and the wine has a vulgar, confected taste.’ Gewurz likes a propitiously sunny site, with its roots ideally in cool, marly clay soils based on limestone – ‘it needs lots of sun and warmth, but it also needs to ripen as slowly as possible,’ says Humbrecht. Gewurztraminer grown in granite is good but atypical – what Philippe Blanck calls ‘anti-Gewurz’. Once picked (by hand, with sorting), it needs gentle, slow pressing, no skin contact and a warmer fermentation than for other Alsace grapes; the avant-garde tend to use wild yeasts, though this means fermentations stop when they will, leaving varying levels of residual sugar. Enough of the winemaking though, what of the wine? Detractors claim the grape’s strong traits dominate, but the idea that Gewurztraminer is only capable of reflecting varietal character and not terroir is false. For Pascal Batot at Dopff Au Moulin,Gewurz is ‘second-best after Riesling for expressing terroir’. Humbrecht goes further. ‘Riesling is expressively discreet, so is easy to dominate by using terroir. To dominate a Gewurz, the terroir must not only be great but also cultivated in a way that enables it to contain the exuberance of the variety and give it structure, despite the richness. If it isn’t well grown, or is picked too soon, it has a character of such power it crushes everything else.’

Unique and exotic

As the tasting notes below show, Gewurz doesn’t have to be a stew of rose petals and lychee: it can express a huge range of other allusions, too, such as apple, pear, pepper, violet and truffle. It can be magnificently textured as well as profoundly and provocatively aromatic. Age will mitigate its obvious varietal characters, as does botrytis. It offers a wide range of intriguing food combinations, providing sweetness levels are known from the outset, and its adaptability with Asian cuisines must make it a useful grape for the future in warmer cool-climate locations around the world – providing growers are ready to embrace that ‘revolutionary’ character.

And, of course, it will remain Alsace’s calling card. ‘The great thing about Gewurztraminer,’ says Pierre-Etienne Dopff, ‘is that it gets people to try Alsace. It’s our front door.’ Fellow producer Félix Meyer adds: ‘It’s the only variety where Alsace is the world leader. We have to work at it. We have to defend it. You won’t find wines like this anywhere
else on earth.

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