Gewurtztraminer: A Mouthful, Of Good Wine

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Gewürztraminer is an increasingly popular grape variety, known for making distinctively aromatic white wines.

Affectionately called “gewurtz,” meaning “spicy” or “perfumed,” it is a genetic variant of the green traminer grape, which was known to exist since 1000 A.D. in the south Tyrolean (Alto Adige) village of Tramin. As the grape migrated to Alsace and onward into the developing wine world, in the 1870s the name is first known to have appeared with the “gewurtz” prefix, describing a rose colored deviation from the original traminer; a more highly spiced aromatic clone that gets its extra oomph from more tannic pigments in the skins.

Gewurtz is commonly described as having aromas of rosebuds, cloves, passionfruit and lychees. When tasting it blind, I always look for a peculiarly sappy, slightly bitter aftertaste to distinguish it from other aromatic white wines.

Besides its intriguingly flavorful qualities, gewurtz is versatile as it adapts well to being vinified either sweet or dry; still or sparkling. At its best when grown in a cool climate, it goes flabby when the fruit is over-ripe, and dull when over-cropped.

Considered to be a relative of the savagnin blanc grape (not to be confused with sauvignon blanc) of the Jura (and possibly of viognier in the Rhone Valley), it exists in varying potencies, with many different names, from Spain to Slovakia.

I recently followed my curiosity for this grape to an international Gewürztraminer symposium held on May 22 and 23 in an ancient castle overlooking Tramin, in Alto Adige. There, surrounded by the alpine slopes where viticulture has defined the lives of villagers since medieval times, I was able to taste a wide range of both local and international gewurtz wines, well-paired to local culinary treats, most notably, the region’s famous spec, a spiced bacon served with everything. Bacon, bacon, bacon!

Now, having been to the place of its birth, I like to think metaphorically of its dueling harsh/soft qualities like the frescoed walls of Tramin’s Romanesque church of St. Jakob, where fish-tailed mermen fight birdlike siren-creatures, while the twelve apostles pray for harmony above the grotesques and the damned. Included in the cavalcade of sinners depicted in these 12th century frescoes are lusty party-goers, feasting as if their lives depended on it. At the nearby chapel of Hocheppan, a fresco depicting a woman gorging on a dumpling further validates the centuries of enthusiasm for wine and food pairings authentic to that dramatic region.

One of my fellow symposium attendees helped me better understand this cultural heritage of Alto Adige, an autonomous region of Italy where most of the population has Austrian roots and speaks German, saying, “Here, we work like Germans but live like Italians.”

In fact, with the effects of global warming, Tramin’s climate has become so warm in the growing season that the gewurtz from Alto Adige are stridently high in alcohol. 15.5-percent alcohol is common, even with a touch of residual sugar.

These wines are delicious, but huge. As demonstrated in a walk-about tasting dinner in Tramin, where three sample Gewürztraminer wines were paired with a different course at each of four different restaurants in the village, the Alto Adige iteration of gewurtz can easily take on asparagus, veal, spinach dumplings and (need I say it?) speck.

Samples of gewurtz from Alsace and Chile were far more mild-mannered, lower in alcohol but also finished with more residual sugar, making them seem wimpy next to the muscular Tyrolean samples. Ever gracious, one of the sommeliers from Alto Adige defended the lighter Chilean wine as being a better match for a delicate smoked trout dumpling.

On Long Island, The Lenz Winery’s winemaker Eric Fry has been vinifying a bone-dry gewurtz since 1989. Although Long Island is at a lower latitude than Alto Adige, it’s cooler here in summer, and the Long Island Gewürztraminers are thus usually lower in alcohol than those of northern Italy. The Lenz vines yield tiny amounts of pink fruit that is hand-picked to protect the fragile tannins. Fermented cold, this is one of Lenz’s most distinctive and sought-after wines.

Anthony Nappa’s Spezia (Italian for “spice”) is another dry Long Island gewurtz that’s more similar to those from Alto Adige. It pushes the limits of flavor with a punchy 14.6-percent alcohol, the result of having been picked late, after the fruit had been attacked by noble rot, thereby concentrating the sugar in the berries and yielding more alcohol. This punchy wine calls for an equally punchy cheese, or maybe—you guessed it—bacon!

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