Gewürztraminer is a pungently aromatic grape, scented with lychees, rose petals and musky bath salts. It’s a variety that has long been thought of as ‘nanna’ wine, perfumed and often sweet, but the best expressions from Alsace are some of the world’s greatest wines, and cutting-edge makers in this country are fine-tuning it into exciting new expressions, both solo and as a part of blends.
Also known as
There is so much confusion about the parentage of the gewürztraminer grape as well as names that are thought to be synonyms (which probably refer to very similar though essentially different grapes) that it is difficult to be precise about alternative names. However, the name gewürztraminer is overwhelmingly used in the New World, and the most likely alternative a wine drinker will see is traminer aromatico – the Italian name for the variety. In this country, the abbreviation traminer has also been used interchangeably with gewürztraminer, even though the name is officially of another variety.
What gewürztraminer tastes like
One of the most distinctive grape varieties, gewürztraminer is often described as having aromas of lychee, musk, rose and orange-skinned citrus peel. It is pungently aromatic, and if ripened to extremes can become headily exotic (gewürz is spice in German, referring to its intense aromatics, rather than necessarily to actual spices). If picked early, acidity can provide a backbone, but once ripe, the palate will generally become quite soft, soapy and oily even, though not necessarily disagreeably so. It is not uncommon for gewürztraminer to have some residual sugar.
Vineyard & winemaking
A tricky viticultural prospect, gewürztraminer buds early, making it frost prone, and is highly susceptible to disease pressure. That last facet makes it an ideal candidate for botrytis infection, which is fine if that’s what you’re after, but challenging if not. The pink-skinned grapes accumulate sugar readily even in cooler climates, but acidity is challenging to retain, with the lack of it an accepted feature of riper wines. Those cooler conditions are essential for flavour development, balance and a modicum of acid retention. Picked earlier, gewürztraminer can still show its classic perfume, while retaining natural freshness, while botrytis-affected late-harvest sweet versions can be some of the world’s most intense and characterful wines, and many would say the pinnacle expression of the grape. The grape is also a phenolic one, with that grip standing in for acidity to a degree, but it can easily veer towards bitterness if not handled well, though residual sugar can also provide balance. Gewürztraminer is also sometimes blended, typically with its Alsatian companions, pinot gris and riesling.
Where is gewürztraminer grown?
France’s Alsace region is the most famous home for gewürztraminer, where it just trails riesling as the most planted grape. Its origins, however, are more likely a little further south-east in the Südtirol (in the Germanic northern Italian region of Alto Adige) where the traminer grape emerged (the village of Tramin taking naming rights). Traminer is prone to mutation, and at some point a version of traminer with pink skin appeared, followed by an aromatic (or musqué) version of it that saw gewürztraminer enter the picture. That grape since made its way to Alsace, where it reaches its greatest heights, both as mostly dry cru wines and intense sweet wines. The grape is also widely, if not heavily, planted across Europe, from Spain to Romania, as well as further east in Turkey.
Gewürztraminer around the world
Gewürztraminer is grown around the world, from many regions in the USA as well as in Argentina and Chile. It is also successfully grown in New Zealand, where the generally cool conditions are apt for the fickle vine. It is a grape that found an ardent champion in Nick Nobilo, who arguably has done more than any other New World maker in promoting the variety. In fact, Nobilo planted the country’s first vines in 1972, and launched his Gisborne-based Vinoptima label in 2000, with a sole focus on the grape – likely the world’s only dedicated specialist.
Gewürztraminer in Australia
Thought to have arrived in the 1830s Busby Collection, which formed the basis for Australia’s earliest viticulture, gewürztraminer didn’t establish a successful foothold. This was no doubt in part to it not performing well in warmer climates, which many of this country’s oldest regions are. However, it is notable that of the 850 or so hectares planted here, about 85 per cent are in the Riverina and Riverland, our most arid regions. Those grapes are mostly used in small doses to provide a subtle flavour boost to bulk wine (often traminer riesling), rather than being used for varietal expressions. There are scattered plantings in many other regions, but in very low concentrations. It was perhaps Delatite, in Victoria’s High Country, that drove gewürztraminer as a variety of merit in this country. With the first ‘Deadman’s Hill’ released in 1982, it became the touchstone for the variety, and for many it still is, though it is now joined by four other Delatite expressions, from sparkling to skin contact. And although gewürztraminer is not heavily planted, it’s general unpopularity over the last couple of decades has meant the fruit has been accessible to younger and more progressive makers, with the likes of Gary Mills (Jamsheed), Andrew Wardlaw (Edenflo), Jared Dixon (Jilly) and Taras and Amber Ochota (Ochota Barrels) spinning it into new and exciting expressions.
Photo of gewürztraminer grapes seen here, courtesy of Henschke.
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