Updated: May 19
Can we ever take seriously a wine that sounds like something you say when somebody sneezes? Or tastes, to some people, like Chanel No. 5?
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Gewürztraminer… as in Geh-VERTS-Trah-MEAN-er. Now that you can pronounce it, what is it? Great question; stay with me here. First, a true story–
Several decades ago, back when AndyS. and I shared a trackside dump of an apartment, we drank a lot of good wine (like the ‘78 La Tâche that I previously wrote about) but we also sought out good cheap stuff to keep on hand for casual sipping. One wine that briefly caught our fancy was “Refrigerator White,” a tongue-in-cheek novelty bottling by comedian Pat Paulsen. It was a blend of several white grapes and indeed a perfectly pleasant wine. But as I once remarked to Andy, it had “too much Gewürz;” that is, the proportion of Gewürztraminer in the mix overpowered the other varieties. For better or worse, varietally-correct “Gewürz” unabashedly bursts with its signature aromas and flavors and is not known for its subtlety. Several months later Andy and I were discussing potential girlfriends for each of us, and Andy blithely dismissed one of my suggestions out of hand. “What’s wrong with her?” I asked. “Too much Gewürz,” he wryly replied, and I knew exactly what he meant.
Comedian Pat Pausen penned one of my favorite wine descriptions EVER.
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And before we delve into Gewürztraminer’s specific characteristics, its best food matches, and where the finest versions are produced, here's a bit of fiction to show where it fits into my “wine as people” matrix that matches personality types to wines made from the major grape varieties–
You first met the gangly, freckle-faced redhead at the neighborhood bus stop in second grade. She was the only girl her age within a country mile, but she could catch frogs and bale hay and even shoot hoops just like all the boys. Around sixth grade she suddenly shot up taller yet, but you had caught part-way up to her in time for your awkward prom date… which was more or less set up by your parents and hers after church two weeks before. So you told yourselves and everyone else that you were attending as “just friends.”
THE PROM DRESS by Norman Rockwell, 1949
As you stood on a footstool and clumsily pinned her corsage, she worried aloud that she looked totally goofy in her fancy dress… but instead of disagreeing to make her feel better, you pointed out your black-rimmed shirt frills and two-tone polyester tux and you shared a good giggle. She relaxed after that, and you both had a lot more fun than you expected… especially when the two of you spontaneously struck silly faces for your official prom photos. And whereas another female of similar age and stature might have subconsciously slumped toward the level of her shorter dance partner, she energetically twirled around the gym floor fully upright, oblivious to all the eyes upon her as she towered above all but the boys varsity hoopsters. It wasn’t until that slow dance at the end that you felt the slightest internal stirrings, which you suppressed out of adolescent fear of the new and unfamiliar. At your class’s graduation reception you briefly eyed each other across the gaily-decorated fire house and shared a fleeting smile, but that was that… or so you thought.
She fit no one’s narrow notion of orthodox feminine charm– big-boned and twitchy like a lively mount, prone to unselfconscious guffaws at the mere hint of humor. And yet… and yet you knew in your heart that she was a very special person, even if it wasn't quite clear why. Two summers later you found yourselves working at the same lakeside burger joint. She seemed a little different– her features had sharpened while away at a college a hundred miles from yours, and without her clunky plastic glasses, her crystalline, blue-green eyes seemed to have enlarged. Now she calmly seized your gaze with hers whenever you conversed, and it made you breathe a little differently. When your lips finally met that August, you both sensed the sudden dissipation of tension that must have been secretly building since God knows when. You couldn't sleep for a couple of days.
Your summer income paid for a battered VW so you could see her on weekends. You replicated your funny prom faces for a few of your wedding pictures. You totally got each other and made each other laugh a lot in the life you happily built together. And neither of you ever gave a crap that she was the taller one.
On the way back from Ithaca after dropping off your youngest for orientation, you took the scenic route home to forestall the hard realization that you were suddenly empty-nesters. You stopped at one of the wineries along Seneca Lake, and then another and another. As you walked hand-in-hand up one winery’s stone walkway and paused to behold the overture of a late-summer sunset, you also took thoughtful measure of the woman beside you. With the two of you now at the doorstep of life’s autumn, it struck you that in her mid-forties she was more beautiful than ever, and now you had her all to yourself.
You felt very, very lucky.
You recalled reading a while back on DANNY’S TABLE about how wines are like people, and vice-versa. If so, what kind of wine was she, this statuesque and wonderfully unique companion of yours? Certainly not one of the Royal Sisterhood… none of those profiles quite described her. While she was deciding which ice wine to buy, you sipped your way through the other proffered samples in search of her œnological equivalent. You were about to give up and finally head home when you suddenly tasted something completely amazing– a small-production, single vineyard white with a funny name, a special bottling sold only at the winery. YES! This was it!
You took a second sip and glanced over at her, but she was already watching you, a tad perplexed. She was searching your features for an explanation as you seemed so excited about something that you were laughing to yourself like some mad fool. The mixture of love and concern in her big eyes and deepening dimples melted you anew… right as you suddenly realized that this six-foot tomboy next door, your quirky classmate and platonic prom date, your lover, soulmate, bride, the mother of your children… is a GEWÜRZTRAMINER!
You would’ve bought a whole case, but the tasting room's limit was six bottles per person. Now you’re anxious to get home and toast the next chapter of your life together.
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Yes, these really are WHITE wine grapes. Gewürztraminer is funny like that.
Gewürztraminer is a particularly aromatic genetic variant of the Traminer grape, which for centuries has been a staple variety in northern Italy (way northern, as in the alpine foothills, where German is more commonly spoken than Italian.) “Gewürz” translates to “spicy," but it doesn’t exactly mean “spicy” in the familiar English senses. To the Teutonic ear, “spicy” can suggest spritzy, or zingy, or simply flavorful... any number of things that stop well short of, say, the Scoville Units of a 5-star, mouth-on-fire version of General Tso’s Chicken.
But that didn’t stop self-described wine aficionados in the early stages of the American Wine Boom from recommending Gewürztraminer as the perfect pairing with Chinese food. I find this an arrogant and frankly stupid idea, for a number of reasons– One, saying “Chinese Food” is kind of like saying “European Food,” because the Chinese culinary canon is as varied as it is ancient, and it accordingly defies such broad generalization; Two, even if Gewürztraminer were truly “spicy” in plain English, that hardly means that it would pair well with spicy food; indeed, we drink cold beer with spicy hot chili and barbecue for a good reason, i.e., the sharp contrast; and Three, Gewürztraminer does indeed pair perfectly well with certain dishes in the European culinary mainstream– while it is far from the archetypical seafood white, I can think of no better glassful to enjoy with pâtés, sausages, duck confit, and all manner of smoked meats and fish.
And what, exactly, does Gewürztraminer taste like? While its name firmly suggests a Teutonic base of operation and influence, Gewürztraminer differs significantly from Germany’s prized Rieslings in that its acidity plummets precipitously as it approaches full ripeness, resulting in downright “gloppy” results from inattentive vineyard stewardship and/or poor cellarmastery. But when they get it right– wherever it is grown– the result is often both beautiful and quite distinct from every other white bottling.
In textbook trim, Gewürztraminer's signature plant kingdom flavors and aromas include lychee, rose water, and grapefruit rind. Its texture often waxes waxy, a consequence of the ratio of its rich fruitiness to that low-ish acidity. This makes it the opposite of Riesling, in a sense, and yet Gewürztraminer manages to similarly wear residual sweetness with aplomb. And in contrast to Riesling's lithe, ballerina-like elegance, Gewürztraminer's nearly complete lack of restraint not only betrays its identity from across the room but also drives away many an otherwise adventurous wine lover who might well regard it as a liquid horse's ass. Indeed, a friend once described it as akin to "drinking Chanel No. 5 straight from the bottle."
Okay, so it's not for everyone. (I personally LOVE it!)
Gewürztraminer has found a happy home in several growing areas. Its (arguably) finest manifestations are bottled in Alsace, the French region abutting the German border. Ironically for French wines, those of Alsace are strictly labeled by grape variety and yet tend to reek more strongly of their site-specific terroir and the region’s traditional wine-making style than of the grape variety. Make no mistake– you'll still I.D. Gewürztraminer right off the bat, but your palate will be simultaneously awash with Alsace's characteristic Old World vinousity that makes its wines so food-friendly.
In the New World, California does way too well (both qualitatively and financially) with Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc to really bother all that much with a white grape that few can remember or even pronounce… which is not a problem, because the minimal American thirst for Gewürztraminer is easily slaked not only by the Golden State’s paltry plantings but also those in Oregon, Washington State… and, of all places, New York’s Finger Lakes Region.
Ever since the earliest attempts at Finger Lakes Riesling by the region’s vinifera pioneer Dr. Konstantin Frank and the passage of NY’s Farm Winery Act of 1976, the noble Riesling grape has been thrust, justifiably or otherwise, to the forefront of upstate New York’s crusade for œnological respectability. However, ever since I returned to this region armed with my broad and deep experience as a professional wine geek, I have found myself drawn toward the conclusion that Gewürztraminer– rather than Riesling– is the European wine grape that performs best in the Finger Lakes. And while numerous examples of excellence abound, I feel compelled to report that Red Newt Cellars of Hector, NY stands out as a particularly wonderful and consistent producer of world-class Gewürztraminer.
It was a random visit to the Red Newt tasting room a few years ago that opened my eyes. Andrea and I delighted in sampling our way through their whole line-up, but it was their twin bottlings of single-vineyard Gewürztraminers– labeled as Sawmill Creek Vineyards and Curry Vineyards– that seized our attention and suggested that this just might just be Ground Zero for world-class versions of this finicky and idiosyncratic white variety. And, I surmised, if Red Newt can do it, surely others in the region could as well. So we tasted a few more over the next few months, and we found that other Finger Lakes producers at or near Red Newt’s level of excellence include Red Tail Ridge, Hermann J. Wiemer, Weis Vineyards, and Keuka Spring Winery.
Don’t let the 11-year-old vintage date fool you… I just (re)tasted– and bought–
this fabulous wine. It seems that great Gewürztraminer ages especially well...
just like our fictitious six-foot tomboy.
If you’ve never tried Gewürztraminer but want to after reading this, you might have to shop a little harder than usual. The aforementioned Finger Lakes bottlings might only be available online; in your favorite brick-and-mortar wine store, you’ll perhaps find Alsace bottlings from Trimbach, Domaine Weinbach, and/or Domaine Zind-Humbrecht. But if you live within, say, three or even four hours of Ithaca, NY, you are in range for a day trip– or weekend getaway– to one of the most beautiful wine regions on God’s Green Earth… and also a fabulous source of Gewürztraminer, one of the wine world’s most intriguing varieties.
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I recently took a road trip to RED NEWT CELLARS to re-taste their wines for this essay, and I came home with a mixed case of Rieslings and Gewürztraminers along with a lot of useful information from the assistant winemaker. In the ensuing tasting with my bride Andrea, Red Newt's basic 2021 Gewürztraminer paired magnificently with the Smoked Trout & Horseradish Spread that we featured in an earlier essay. For this iteration I replaced the sour cream with créme fraîche and a dash of Champagne vinegar. Truth be told, it was an improvement over the original recipe.
If you want a nice wine to pair with spicy and/or elaborately seasoned cuisine, I'm happy to recommend Pinot Blanc, which functions kind of like a perfectly-tailored white silk blouse that knows how to let your colorfully patterned scarf be the star of your ensemble. My favorite versions come from Alsace, where it grows beautifully right beside Gewürztraminer.
Back where I call home, we really did grow up catching frogs and baling hay. I'm proud to hail from Ontario, NY... just an hour north of the Finger Lakes region.
And finally, if you like Moscato, you'll probably LOVE Gewürztraminer; however, if you already LOVE Moscato, there might be no hope for you.