Virgin Wines: Gewurztraminer
From its tongue-twisting name to its strangely compelling aroma, there is nothing bland or ordinary about wines made from this unique grape. If you've previously shied away from the unfamiliar then why not jump in with both feet and give this spicy little number a try?
A Disputed Land
The small mountainous region of Alsace in North Eastern France is where Gewurztraminer grows best. Alsace sits right on the border with Germany and the language, culture and style of wines is very different to the rest of France as it has a heavy Germanic influence. Gewurztraminer is grown significantly on both sides of the border, but wines made in Alsace tend to be oilier, thicker and sweeter than their German equivalents.
Alsace is the driest area in France, owing to being sheltered by the Vosges Mountains and so the winters are dry and cold, but there are long warm autumns and hot summers, perfect for growing grapes, especially contrary ones like Gewurztraminer.
Difficult to Pronounce, Easy to Drink
The complicated name literally means spicy or perfumed wine and this is a reference to how Gewurztraminer smells. It's like rose-perfumed spice, lychees and cashew nuts, sometimes with a hint of peaches and ginger. If you've never smelt lychees go to your local supermarket and give some a sniff. That's what Gewurztraminer smells like.
Gewurztraminer is naturally sweet so the wines are normally on the off-dry side. However, dry wines can also be found in Alsace, and these are known as Trimbach wines. Its natural sweetness makes it ideal for dessert wines too so keep your eyes peeled for these. They will be labelled Vendange Tardive, which means late harvest, or Selection de Grains Nobles, which are dessert wines made from grapes affected by Botrytis or Noble Rot.
Other than Alsace and Germany, Gewurztraminer is grown in many other places in the world. There are some very good wines being produced in the slightly cooler areas of Australia as well as in New Zealand and these can be less pricey than their Alsatian cousins, as well as lighter and dryer.
Canada does not immediately spring to mind as a great wine-growing nation, but the southerly Niagara peninsula is on the same latitude as France, and produces some decent wine, including Gewurztraminer. The finger lakes of New York State have also become home to this fragrant grape.
There is some evidence to suggest that Gewurztraminer originally comes from Italy's Tyrollean Alps, near the village of Termeno (Tramin) and it's still grown there today. Italian Gewurztraminer is drier and lighter than those from Alsace. Since the 1990s Israel has adopted Gewurztraminer to its wineries and some lovely light semi-dry floral wines are now being produced.
Whatever style you prefer, whatever country you choose, Gewurztraminer will always be one of the most interesting wines to drink.
Even though Gewurztraminer is loved for its spicy wines, winemakers shake their heads over it because of the fact that it is fiendishly difficult to cultivate. It grows vigorously, but picks up all the pests and diseases in the vineyard, it hates chalky soil, and it's hard to strike a balance between sugars and acid in the grapes. It's susceptible to frosts because it puts out buds early. Grapes are few and small, and it ripens late and unevenly. Gewurztraminer is a devil in the vineyard, but an angel in the mouth.
Gewurztraminer with Food
The heavily perfumed Gewurztraminer stands up to spice. Try it with Asian food or anything that contains hot pepper sauce. It also matches very well with oily wild game, especially smoked salmon. The local cheese of Alsace is a delicious cows cheese washed in brine called Munster. Try it with a good Gewurztraminer and you'll never touch cheddar again.