Gewürztraminer is the grape variety that makes one of the wine world's most effulgent and warming wines. When it is well made, it is a serious wine indeed, with an obvious voluptuousness and brazenness. To make this seem less high-brow, I'll call it the Mae West of wine. As you might expect with such a wine, drinkers tend to have polarized reactions to it, though the reaction to the wine doesn't tend to break down along gender lines.
Gewürztraminer (guh-VURTZ-TRA-mee-ner, pronounced this way because it...) is a pink-berried mutation of the Traminer (TRA-mee-ner) grape variety. It earned the gewürz (which literally means "spiced" in German) modifier thanks to its heady perfume, which is so exuberant that it alone provides enough information to identify the wine blind.
The Qualities of the Wine
The basic character of Gewürztraminer is generally broken into two styles: one defined by spiced aromas and opulence, and the other by a floral fragrance and a slightly reserved essence. In both cases, one may detect aromas akin to litchi nuts, rose petals, and/or grapefruit and honey, and when it is bone-dry it can smell strongly of bacon fat. It often tastes of litchi nuts as well, but in the depths of its golden hue many flavors lurk, and since varietal stereotyping makes me uncomfortable anyway, I'll just say that whatever flavors it presents, they are so bold that one can easily grow weary of the flavor profile of a run-of-the-mill Gewurz. However, a Gewürztraminer from a Grand Cru in Alsace can be fabulously complex, continuously evolving, and capable of mid-term aging (20 years or so, but, with a couple of exceptions, I fail to see why one would wait so long). Over the course of a decade in the bottle, the spice quality of a great Gewürztraminer intensifies to such a degree that simply opening a bottle has made my kitchen smell as though I just pulled some gingerbread out of the oven.
If you are a lover of wines of finesse, then perhaps Gewürztraminer is not for you. However, many a finesse-driven Gewurz exists, largely from vintages that are not "hyped" by the growers or wine press--i.e., cooler vintages that didn't necessarily ripen the other varieties grown in the region. These wines are lovely and seductive but more demure and more versatile (with food or without) than bigger, bolder Gewürztraminers.
Speaking of food...
Food and Wine Harmony
Gewurztraminer is generally quite food friendly, so long as the food your are serving with it is also strongly-flavored. This makes it a good companion during the holidays, when many disparate flavors come together at a Thanksgiving or Christmas feast. It is also the classic (and best) pairing for French Muenster (not the sandwich cheese from Wisconsin). In fact, if you don't like Gewurz, you may find that the wine makes more sense with Muenster.
It is commonly recommended with Indian and Thai food (especially curries), though I am not generally a proponent of this, as the flavors too often clash. This is not to say that I don't find Gewurz to be felicitous with spicy food, because I do generally like it with Cajun cuisine and a broad range of Chinese foods, including Sichuan and Hunan. It is best to experiment here, as it is unfair to Sichuan and Hunan cuisines to suggest that the wonderfully wide variety of flavors found in the foods of these regions go well--as a class--with Gewürztraminer, which is obviously not the case. It is also a great companion for dishes with a pronounced smokiness, or strong flavors of cinnamon, cloves, ginger, or soy.
Cheese: Époisse, Muenster (the French kind), Roquefort
Meats: Cornish Game Hen, Duck, Pâté (esp. if the Gewurz is off-dry), Pork (especially roast loin and ham), Prosciutto (esp. with melon), Turkey,
Fruits: Coconut, Litchi Nuts, Mango, Papaya
Vegetables: Acorn Squash, Butternut Squash, Sweet Potatoes, Sauerkraut, Grilled Vegetables
Dessert form of Gewürztraminer: this goes well with the same cheeses, but is also sensational with coconut desserts (huzzah for coconut creme pie!), as well as fruit desserts based on tropical fruits like mango and papaya.
You may safely stop here without missing anything. Should you want to learn a bit more, read on...
Hurdles to Making Great Gewürztraminer
It takes very little sunny and warm weather for Gewürztraminer to reach maturity on vine. It is therefore not the easiest variety for growing to make great wine, because it presents the inverse of the challenge associated with more famous wine grapes: it has a high level of natural sugar while its natural acids are rather low. The high grape sugar means that its alcoholic content is commonly over 13-14%, which limits its use with food to heartier cuisines. The low acid means that it can be quite flabby and unappealing unless a grower carefully employs vineyard practices that encourage acid:sugar balance. Good growers are capable of wrenching great wine from this quirky grape even in such blisteringly hot vintages as 2003. The Great Growers of Gewurztraminer (GGG, I guess...) often find enough acidity AND sugar in their grapes that they need to leave an appropriate level of residual sugar in the final wine, though I rarely find such wines taste overtly "sweet."
Gewürztraminer Around the World
There is no question that Alsace is the spiritual home of Gewürztraminer, as the preponderance of Gewurz is planted and made there. It is not a lucrative grape to grow, it is occasionally found from estates and growers who have an affection for it. It is grown to a limited extent in Germany, and does rear its head across eastern Europe, though it is fairly insignificant. It has become a relatively popular variety to grow in New Zealand and in some of the cooler pockets of California. It is in Oregon and Washington that it has made its New World home, with many dedicated growers, especially in Washington, crafting some exciting examples.
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