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Dry Gewurztraminer's Spicy Appeal
Alsace is a beautiful wine region tucked away in the northeastern corner of France that pokes eastward toward Germany just across the Rhine. For hundreds of years, Alsace and its northern neighbor Lorraine were coveted by both France and Germany, with the consequence that the region has been under the control of either France or Germany several times.
Being a "political football" has had the most impact on Alsace, where the population speaks both French and German, the half-timbered houses resemble those across the Rhine in the Black Forest and winemaking focuses on the varietals one usually associates with Germany. An important winemaking distinction, however, is that Alsatian Rieslings and Gewurztraminers are fermented much drier than their German counterparts so that they can be consumed with the vast variety of foods that make up the glorious cuisine of Alsace.
And when it comes to food -- both in terms of quality and quantity -- no other people on earth do better than the Alsatians. The cuisine of Alsace is replete with unabashedly flavorful gastronomic specialties such as choucroute (a heady casserole of sauerkraut, sausages, smoked ham, bacon, onions, white wine and juniper berries), cabbage in all its forms, onion tarts, "Baeckaoffa" (another casserole dish featuring pork shoulder, boneless lamb, herbs, onions and potatoes), snails Alsatian style baked in sweet butter, parsley and garlic, foie gras in a brioche crust and "Kougelhopf" (a dessert pastry in the form of a turban made with raisins, almonds and kirsch).
The World's Most Distinctive White Wine
Dry Rieslings and Gewurztraminers contribute mightily to the enjoyment of such dishes. As in Germany, Riesling is the most important wine in Alsace, but not far behind in popularity is Gewurztraminer, probably the world's most distinctive white table wine. For most wine drinkers, Gewurztraminer is a love/hate wine because its bold, exotic perfume reminiscent of cinnamon and cloves, litchi and rose petals, its full-bodied texture and prominent spicy flavors can be too extreme for some. The varietal possesses these characteristics regardless of where it is grown, but Alsatian vineyards produce by far the truest version of Gewurztraminer.
What makes Alsatian Gewurztraminer superior to all others? Primarily soil, hillside elevation and exposure, a perfect microclimate and older grapevines. After all, the Alsatians have been growing Gewurztraminer for hundreds of years, and know exactly where it thrives in the vineyard sites along the base of the Vosges Mountains.
We grow Gewurztraminer in California, too, but the varietal has never achieved the popularity enjoyed by Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc. The reason is that many California Gewurztraminers are made slightly sweet in order to mask the hint of bitterness that can sometimes show through when the wine is fermented dry. This style of Gewurz, with between 1.0 and about 3.5 percent residual sugar, is ideal for summer sipping and picnic fare, such as cold baked ham and potato salad. Fetzer Vineyards makes one of the best examples of this kind of off-dry Gewurz in massive quantities -- more than 160,000 cases a year, at $6 or less a bottle.
On the other hand, when Gewurztraminer is grown in a cool region, such as Mendocino County's Anderson Valley, and vinified by winemakers who have a true appreciation for the Alsatian dry style, the wine takes on almost noble characteristics, making it welcome at the fanciest tables graced with exquisite cuisine.
Gewurz Values from California
While Alsace Gewurz is the best one can obtain, prices seem to be increasing with every successive vintage. For example, Gewurztraminers from Domaine Zind Humbrecht, which is one of the very best Alsatian producers, were selling for about $10 a bottle just five years ago. Today, the price for the least expensive bottling is almost $20, and the vineyard-designated wines can fetch upwards of $30 a bottle. By comparison, the very best Gewurztraminers from California producers can be had for around $7 to $10.
Recently, the Vintners Club brought together twelve current-release Gewurztraminers mostly from California, but with one Alsatian included for reference. With the room filled with the wonderful perfume of so many aromatic wines, the panel's evaluation was an exceedingly pleasurable task. The results suggested that cool-climate California Gewurztraminer can be every bit as delicious as the Alsatian version, and a bargain at that.
The Alsatian "reference wine" finished in fourth place, behind two spectacular wines from the Anderson Valley and one from the Ventana Vineyard in Monterey County. Even better, the two Anderson Valley Gewurztraminers cost less than $10 a bottle, compared to the $16 price tag for the Alsatian.
If any of the California wines described below are particularly appealing, the best advice is to buy up now, since 1995 was a very low-yield harvest. In some cases, the Gewurztraminer crop was down by fifty percent and more, and many Gewurz producers, even in the Anderson Valley, were sent scrambling all over the state to find fruit. Some California producers even sought out grapes as far away as Oregon.
1994 Lazy Creek Gewurztraminer, Anderson Valley ($8.50)
Winemaker Hans Kobler is California's Gewurztraminer Master, regularly turning out wonderfully fragrant, full-bodied, spicy wines that are perfect examples of the varietal and benchmarks against which other California dry Gewurztraminers should be measured. His prices are extremely reasonable, but the wines may be somewhat difficult to find because production is small. However, the Gewurz is so good that it could serve as a reason to visit the Anderson Valley to purchase a case directly from the winery. Call ahead first for an appointment. Lazy Creek Vineyards (707) 895-3623.
The 1994 Lazy Creek Gewurztraminer offers forward, fragrant aromas of litchi and warm clove spice, with delicate, ripe pear fruit in the background along with a floral note reminiscent of carnations. On the palate, the wine shows an almost oily richness of texture that is characteristic of the best Alsatian Gewurztraminers, balanced by excellent acidity. The deep, spicy, apricot-citrus flavors are delicious and lead to a dry, spicy finish. Textbook Gewurztraminer.
1994 Thomas Fogarty Gewurztraminer, Ventana Vineyard, Monterey County ($12)
The nose takes a little time to develop, eventually showing peaches and apricots with a streak of citrus and orange rind, along with shy spice. Delicate, but with layered, complex flavors that more resemble Riesling, the wine offers off-dry sipping with enough backbone to go well with food.
1994 Husch Gewurztraminer, Anderson Valley ($9)
Another fine example of Anderson Valley Gewurz, the Husch has an even more complex nose than the Lazy Creek, exhibiting hazelnut, cinnamon, honeysuckle, apricot and citrus, plus a floral note of rose petals. Intensely varietal in character, the wine's flavors are deep and concentrated, focusing on lots of spice and ripe, juicy peach-green apple fruit. There's an oily-rich viscosity here similar to that of the Lazy Creek Gewurz, along with a taste of honey. Try the Husch with spicy seafood pastas, or Asian dishes such as curried prawns or ginger scallops. A real treat is pairing this wine with a dish of raspberries for dessert.
1991 Domaines Schlumberger Gewurztraminer, Fleur de Guebwiller, Alsace ($16)
This Alsatian Gewurz showed more earthiness than the California wines, both in the nose and flavors. The forward aromas offer grapefruit citrus, tropical fruit (pineapple and mandarin orange), plus apricot and mild spice. Nicely concentrated fruit on the palate resembling citrus and apricot was accompanied by an intriguing rose-petal note. Distinctive and delicious.
1994 Navarro Gewurztraminer, Anderson Valley ($9)
There's usually a friendly rivalry between Navarro and its neighbors just down the road, Lazy Creek and Husch, as to which winery will produce the year's best Gewurz. In some vintages, all of them produce the best, with distinctions based on one's own personal preference in style. Where the Lazy Creek and Husch versions show an oily-rich texture, the Navarro style, exhibited in this 1994 Gewurz, leans more to citrus and peach-like fruit buoyed by crisp acidity and accented with varietal clove spice. Very slightly hot in the finish. Navarro's wines may be difficult to find in the retail market, as they are sold primarily at the winery and by mail order. To get on the mailing list for the winery's eminently readable and informative mail-order catalog, call 1-800-537-9463.
1994 Geyser Peak Gewurztraminer, North Coast ($6)
Offering an appealing, complex nose of hazelnuts, shy spice, minerals and peachy fruit, the Geyser Peak comes off just a bit sweeter than most of the other wines in the tasting, but is nonetheless delicious and varietally correct with rich flavors that echo the aromas. Adequate acidity. A fine bargain for the price, this wine is best suited to sipping as an aperitif.
1993 Stonestreet Gewurztraminer, Anderson Valley ($13)
While the winery is located in the Alexander Valley, Stonestreet's winemaker Steve Test selected grapes from the Valley Foothill Vineyard in the Anderson Valley for this 1993 bottling. After a gentle crush and pressing, the juice was fermented in older French oak barrels to impart rich texture and a round character. Somewhere along the line, the wine picked up a noticeable buttery character in the aromas, suggesting malolactic fermentation. Otherwise, the nose also exhibits pleasant scents of nectarine, lime and rose petals. The buttery malolactic character comes across in the flavors, too, which resemble litchi and orange citrus.
1994 Handley Gewurztraminer, Anderson Valley ($9)
My own preference placed this wine much higher than the group ranking, just behind the third-place Husch. Wonderful scents of tangerine citrus, shy clove spice and minerals lead to a smooth, fleshy palate exhibiting ripe citrus-pear fruit that has a muscat-like quality, plus cloves and allspice, which eventually develops a hazelnut note. A delicious wine with good acidity.
1994 Joseph Phelps Gewurztraminer, California ($14)
Low-key aromas of spice and white-fleshed fruit (melon, apple, pear) eventually develop a delicate floral note as well. Similar small-scale flavors on the palate, with barely adequate acidity. The winery has done better with this varietal in the past.
1994 Kendall-Jackson Gewurztraminer, California ($10)
Pungent notes of green bean and asparagus eventually dissipate a bit, but linger long enough to affect the nose, which doesn't display much, if any, of the varietal's exotic perfume. One dimensional peachy fruit on the palate.
1994 Edmeades Gewurztraminer (barrel fermented), Anderson Valley ($10)
This wine was clearly "corked," meaning that a defective cork had imparted musty, wet cardboard smells into the wine, so that it's ranking in this tasting is not truly indicative of its quality. On tasting another bottle later with dinner the same evening, I found attractive, moderately spicy aromas focusing on apples and orange citrus, with an added dimension of vanillan oak derived from three months aging sur lie (on the lees) in small French oak barrels, 26 percent of which were new. Smooth, round and generous on the palate, the flavors echo the nose and are buoyed by good acidity. This second bottle would probably rank around the middle of the pack in this tasting.
1994 Alexander Valley Vineyards Gewurztraminer, California ($10)
It's difficult to say what the winemaker was getting at with this wine. According to information furnished by the winery, this wine was produced from grapes picked on September 1, 1994 and rushed to market on October 17, 1994. That haste resulted in strange aromas that resemble wet straw, pink lemonade and bubble gum. The flavors are equally bizarre.
Steve Pitcher is a freelance wine writer based in San Francisco. He is vice president of the Vintners Club and president of the San Francisco Bay Area Chapter of the German Wine Society.