One of the interesting things happening with German wine is the increasing numbers of non-Riesling wines making their way into the export market. American wine drinkers are increasingly learning names such as Weissburgunder and Sylvaner. Many novice wine drinkers expect Gewurztraminer to number among them, given its solidly Teutonic name, but to find the real spiritual home of this extravagant grape one needs to head west across the border into Alsace. It’s a favorite of mine come autumn, when it gets colder but I’m not yet ready to admit the arrival of red wine weather.
Gewurztraminer has aroma to spare, and in Alsace in can be a heady experience. They can be overwhelming on the nose, but that extreme generosity need not be simple or one-note. Stone and tropical fruits; almond, marzipan, or cherry stone; and floral, rose petal aromas all come together harmoniously in the best examples. The wines have palate weight to match that intensity, and it can take the right vineyard and the right winemaker to avoid an oily texture or giving in to flabbiness. The grape’s low acidity is no help in this regard, but some producers draw a touch of phenols from the grape to lend a bitterness that dries out the wine’s finish when acidity has perhaps failed to do so. Gewurztraminer is a pink-skinned grape, too, and some producers are exploiting skin contact for a bit of tannin, which can also assist in keeping the wines firm and fresh. It’s a balancing act, and one’s palate can be forgiven for being flummoxed by a wine, so apparently sweet in its aromas and round in its texture ending with a touch of bitterness.
Gewurztraminer’s structural differences make it pair differently than many white wines, where acid is usually the most important characteristic driving pairing decisions. In fact, its weight makes it pair more like a low-tannin red wine. It’s often recommended with spicy dishes, in part because of the power of suggestion: “gewürz” means “spice” in German. It can work well in these circumstances as long as the wine isn’t too laden with those bittering elements I mentioned; those can come across as harsh with some spicy dishes. I personally find it complements autumn vegetables like squash and pumpkin, or in a Latin American context, plantains. It’s also my go-to with avocado; it matches the fruit’s buttery texture very well.
While Alsace sets the standard for Gewurztraminer, as French regions are wont to do, a few other spots in the world have made the grape a prominent part of their offerings. Italy’s Alto Adige is often said to be the possible birthplace of the grape, but more recent research suggests it was only brought to the area in the nineteenth century, and that the second half of the its name does not in fact derive from the town of Tramin. Gewuztraminer, or in Italian, Traminer Aromatico, is more-or-less the Alto Adige’s signature variety within the broader Italian market.
The New World has not entirely ignored Gewurztraminer, and it has found a home in California’s Anderson Valley (Gewurztraminer seems to favor homes whose names begin with the letter “A”). While Alsace tends to let grapes hang and ripen deeper into autumn, both Alto Adige and Anderson Valley tend to go for an earlier harvest that will better preserve at least some of its acidity. While these are not necessarily lesser wines in any way, that more restrained approach can make them more suitable for wine drinkers who might be taken aback by Gewurztraminer’s extravagant ways.
Some Recommended Producers:
Alsace: I’m confining myself to the table wine styles of Gewurztraminer here, but Alsace also produces great late harvest and botrytis versions as well.
Barmès-Buecher: This small winery’s Gewurztraminers have been favorites of mine for well over a decade. They manage to showcase the roundness and aromatic complexity of the grape in a reliably elegant package. Their focus on the grape is highlighted in their three Grand Cru examples from the Hengst, Steingrubler, and Pfersigberg vineyards.
Trimbach: Trimbach’s dedication to dryness – not always guaranteed in Alsatian wines – makes for firm, focused Gewuztraminers. The Cuvée des Seigneurs de Ribeaupierre is powerful, sourced from vineyards with limestone soils that some say help maintain acidity in the grape.
Dirler-Cadé: The entry level Gewurztraminer wines are fairly restrained, but Dirler-Cadé’s Grand Crus – Saering, Kessler, Kitterlé, and Spiegel – sometimes push the needle in terms of richness while still remaining balanced, clean, and suitable for the table.
Paul Blanck: Paul Blanck’s wines are classical and poised across their entire range. Their Furstentum Vieilles Vignes Gewurztraminer can be quite rich, and often shows a flint, mineral quality that pokes through amongst the exotic fruits.
Schlumberger: While Schlumberger only offers three examples of Gewurztraminer – the Les Princes Abbés and two Grand Crus, Kitterlé and Kessler – they are not afterthoughts. The house style is firm and dry, and I often find an appealing almond, cherry stone, or marzipan core in the wines.
Cantine Tramin: Given the cellar’s name and location – it is, in fact, the local cooperative – it’s no surprise that Gewurztraminer is a specialty here. The wines span a range from lighter, fresher expressions to more powerful wines.
Hofstätter: The range here includes several great examples of Gewurztraminer, generally favoring a full, dry style and a floral, mineral expression.
Elena Walch: The single vineyard “Kastelaz” Gewuztraminer is another convincingly mineral example, dry and firm, and the “Concerto Grosso” is its more opulent sibling.
Navarro: One of the classic California Gewurztraminers, dry, firm, and light, but not lacking in roundness and texture.
Handley: Typically acid-driven, at least in the context of Gewurztraminer; firm and dry.