Wednesday, January 29, 2014

The noble grapes -- gewurztraminer?

(Revised July 28, 2009)

When I was growing up, my parents were interested enough in wine to drink a little on special occasions and at dinner out, and to collect a few books on the subject. One of my favorites was a 1982 edition of Michael Broadbent's Pocket Guide to Wine Tasting, first published in London in 1968. I used to glance at it as a teenager, and found it great, if rather snooty, fun. I'm sure the author did not mean to be snooty. It's just that all those pages of up-close photographs of wine meniscuses (meniscii?), and careful descriptions of color gradations from ruby to red to blackberry to plum, and what they all mean, seemed exactly what it would not help you to have in your pocket at your next wine tasting. They would help deeply experienced professionals, perhaps. My favorite page in the book was the reproduced, handwritten facsimile of real tasting notes from "October 22, 1981, David Peppercorn's 50th birthday dinner, London W.1," complete with guest list. (Fascinating. Who was Serena?) The party flowed with fabulous wines, ending with a '31 Quinta do Noval, "the Everest of Vintage Port." I'm glad.

Anyway, early in this thin, very closely-printed book, Broadbent provides a list of the major wine making grapes, from the ordinary to the superb, says flatly that only four even of the noble varieties are absolutely the leading noble varieties -- cabernet (sauvignon), riesling, pinot (noir), and chardonnay -- and then simply places an asterisk beside each other noble variety as he runs through all on the next several pages. Blink and you might miss chenin blanc's asterisk. Chasselas, directly above, doesn't get one. ("Neutral and prolific vine. White.")

He also gives an asterisk to gewurztraminer, or did in 1968. That makes it noble. Other authors do not agree. Karen MacNeil, in The Wine Bible (1998), does not. Jancis Robinson, in How To Taste (2000), says only that the grape is considered noble in its home, Alsace, though "rather tiring" even there. Why tiring? Why not noble without disputes and silences?

A grape is noble if it creates excellent wine practically anywhere, even moreso if it creates wine capable of bottle-aging. It would seem we have a problem with gewurztraminer, on both counts. The grape thrives in only a few cool but sunny and dry climates, which lets out very large parts of the wine world as potential producers of fine bottles of it. Alsace, in eastern France, is its preferred place, New Zealand a good second best. Even Alsace's examples of gewurztraminer do not age much beyond five years (so say Ron and Sharon Tyler Herbst in The New Wine Lover's Companion). After that, it loses any bracing acidity and develops an "oiliness" which no longer refreshes.

So what's good about this variety to begin with? Its powerful, floral, tropical aroma, followed by its unexpectedly dry taste. Wine writers have a hard time fully putting into words gewurztraminer's scent, and when you take in your first noseful of it, you'll likely agree it is remarkable. "Clouds of Yves Saint Laurent's Opium," "Giorgio of Beverly Hills," "lychee," "rose petals," "sumptuous," and "face cream" are a few epithets -- and these are all from one writer (Oz Clarke). I would add jasmine, pineapple, and orange blossom. Different people could add almost any lush, fresh scent descriptor pertaining to blowing tropical flowers and juice-dripping, sun-filled fruits, and be right about gewurztraminer.

Unfortunately, that scent seems to be at once the grape's glory and its handicap. Devotees of it want hibiscus, Shalimar, and mango bursting out of their glass; too much of that is precisely what strikes connoisseurs as tiring, "blowzy," even "embarrassing." But if gewurztraminer is grown and vinified to be subtler, it loses its raison d'etre. I have tasted California examples -- not from Alsace and therefore, of necessity, not the wine at its best -- and they seemed reminiscent only of ginger ale. Ginger is a spice and gewurz means spice or "perfumed," so perhaps even here the poor, half-noble thing is trying.

Another difficulty with gewurztraminer is that it is fussy in its growing requirements. Oz Clarke writes that because it buds early it can be harmed by late spring frosts, incidentally a hazard of nice cool climates. But, because it ripens at mid-season, any unusual early summer warmth will prompt it to reach hopelessly high sugar levels, resulting in a "flabby" wine lacking good acidity. Ideally it wants a perfect combination of steady sunshine and cool temperatures. It doesn't like too much rainfall, either. (The answer to this almost arithmetical problem, sun + cool climate + dry weather equals, always in all wine books, Alsace.) And, as with all grapes but particularly those asterisked noble ones, a winemaker wanting to produce a flavorful beverage must keep his vines' yield low. Too many grapes will all be bland and watery, while a well pruned vine will direct its strength into fewer but better berries. Gewurztraminer, finicky as it is concerning climate, surprisingly yields a lot when it is happy. So the careful grower faces high labor costs in keeping it under control -- all to eventually put out a wine that frankly didn't have much chance to do really well outside a few regions, and that, if it does well, has an "in your face" personality harder to sell compared to better known, tamer chardonnays and pinot grigios anyway. The result is, well, gewurztraminer. not widely grown because hard to grow well, hard to pronounce, for many people hard to like.

Yet, it endures. It seems to have originated in the Alto Adige region of northeastern Italy, specifically near the village of Tramin which gives it its name. Maybe. Historical records first mention Traminer around the year 1000 A.D., but is this our gewurztraminer, or is it an almost identical if slightly less perfumed twin properly called savagnin rose? Scientists who study grape genetics are not sure. Alsace has grown a "Traminer" since the middle ages, calling it either by that name or, after 1870, gewurztraminer too. Since 1973, though, Alsace has in turn dropped the name Traminer completely. This is to avoid confusion ... while just across the border Germany still uses both.

And wine writers still disagree on its nobility. Worthy of an asterisk? Michael Broadbent thought so. Too perfumed? Not age-worthy enough? Jancis Robinson and Karen MacNeil thought so. I find that, to begin exploring gewurztraminer, it's worthwhile just to try a $5 or $6 California bottle. It will at least be more interesting to drink with dinner than another thousandth pot of tea or, still duller, water or ginger ale. In time, try an Alsace version, and learn more. Oz Clarke recommends it as a good wine to pair with heavy duty foods, whether Alsace's own roast goose, onion tart, or smoked fish, or Chinese or Thai cuisine loaded with ginger, lemongrass, and coconut. In fact -- those are real party foods, aren't they -- host a party, where you introduce your friends to "luscious," "head spinning" gewurztraminer, and everybody practices saying the name. Don't be shy. Pronounce everything. Ge WURZ tra mee ner.

Oh, and don't be shy. Invite Serena. And me.

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