Image Credits: Jean Trimbach
A zingy, zesty wine that is loved by white wine enthusiasts the world over, Gewürztraminer has a history that can be traced right back to the middle ages.
The German-sounding name is something of a red herring for anyone interested in researching the history of the Gewürztraminer grape, as the grape’s origins actually lie in Italy, while Gewürztraminer white wine has actually been most successful in France. What is now known as the Gewürztraminer grape has grown in the Tyrolean Alpine region of Italy since the Middle Ages, when it was known as Traminer grape. In fact, Traminer is best seen as the ‘parent’ grape of Gewürztraminer, having mutated over the years to create the grape that we know and love today. The Traminer varietal was a paler, less interesting version of its fruity offspring, which today produces one of the most easily recognisable white wines on the market.
On discovering this mutant version of the Traminer grape, the wine-loving French gave the prized berry a number of new names – among them Traminer Aromatique, Traminer Parfumé and Traminer Musqué. The Italians, meanwhile, dubbed it Traminer Rosso, among other names. In the 19th Century, the German-speakers of the Alsace border region with France gave the Traminer name the prefix ‘gewürz’, meaning ‘spicy’, ‘perfumed’ or ‘aromatic’. Until today, it is the Alsace region that has had the most success in making Gewürztraminer wine, although the grape is a difficult one to cultivate and presents challenges to even the most experienced viticulturalist.
The grape buds early in the spring, putting it at risk of exposure to frost and the vine does not have strong immunity against viral infections. Even the strongest of Gewürztraminer grape vines will not produce particularly high yields and the grapes tend to grow in small clusters.
The grapes have thick, tough skins and typically have very high sugar levels, which need to be balanced with reasonably high acidity and pH levels if the wine is not to become overly sweet or undesirably high in alcohol. As low acidity and low PH levels are often associated with Gewürztraminer grapes, the vines need to be monitored under intense scrutiny, with close attention paid to exactly when is the right time to harvest the grapes. Picking the grapes early on helps to retain acidity, but picking too early can also mean that the grape has not been able to develop essential flavour characteristics. As a result of this tendency to high sugar levels, Gewürztraminer grapes do not flourish in warmer climates, which cause sugar levels to rise rapidly, resulting in some less-than-sensational wines.
As a result of these viticultural complications, those forward-thinking French and Germans in Alsace and at Geisenheim in Germany are currently working to develop a varietal of the Gewürztraminer grape that is slower to bud and to ripen, whilst producing larger clusters of berries and higher yields and being less susceptible to viruses. Of course, when something sounds too good to be true, it usually is and it should therefore come as no surprise that the viticultural experts have found it difficult to produce grapes that combine all these positive attributes without compromising the characteristic heady notes that have become synonymous with Gewürztraminer white wines.
When at their best, white wines produced from the Gewürztraminer grape will be heady, aromatic, almost spicy on the palate, with notes of exotic fruits such as lychees. Although its fans are more than enthusiastic about the uniquely characterful flavours and notes of Gewürztraminer white wines, some white wine drinkers find the sheer strength of flavour off-putting and it is true that some Gewürztraminer wines can have a tendency towards bitterness if not balanced effectively. To counteract this, some producers of Gewürztraminer white wine add residual sugar at the finish.
Those who like to keep things sweet might be interested to know that Gewürztraminer grapes can also make delicious dessert wines and this is an avenue that white wine producers are increasingly exploring.
Dessert wines aside, the sheer strength of flavour of the wine makes it a challenging one to pair with food and you’ll need to think carefully if you want to avoid overwhelming the flavours of the items you are serving it with. Strong cheeses and smoked salmon are a good match, making this a perfect choice of picnic wine. Alternatively, serve a good bottle of well-chilled Gewürztraminer white wine by itself with good company and you won’t go far wrong.