Thursday, March 24, 2022

The spicy Traminer

Gewuerztraminer Grape,South Tyrol,Italy  gewurztraminer stock pictures, royalty-free photos & images
Gewurtraminer ready for picking

If there is a grape and wine that has it all, it would be Gewurztraminer.  Opulently aromatic, exotically flavored, broadly textured, Gewurztraminer is a naturally full flavored white wine with a character that doesn't seem to fit in today's market. 

The thing is, with one notable exception, the personality of Gewurztraminer runs against the grain of those people who want subtlety and dryness in their white wine.  

Born in northern Italy, near the village of Tramin, Gewurztraminer is a clone of the less aromatic Traminer. The new clone eventually came into its own in Germany, where it became known as the Spicy (Gewurz) Traminer, although some translations have it as "perfumed." 

In time, Gewurztraminer would spread throughout the wine world, taking root most notably in the Alsace region of France, but also New Zealand, Austria, the Alto Adige region of Italy, Germany and California.

Alsace and Geurztraminer

Mention Gewurztraminer in wine circles and Alsace is the most common reaction.  Makes sense since the region in eastern France is , by most standards, the best known (and arguably the best) Gewurz in the world. 

There are four main grapes in Alsace: Riesling, Pinot Gris (formerly called Tokay d'Alsace), Gewurztraminer and Muscat.  Each of the four is used to make dry and sweet wines. 

Dry Alsace Gewurztraminer is what defines the variety in the wine world.  For Gewurz lovers, the bouquet and elegant balance of the wine allows them to claim that Gewurztraminer is greater than Chardonnay.

Of course, there are those who rightfully say that dry is not the only way to go. Sweet styles, known as Vendange Tardive (VT), or late harvest, are made only from the four main grapes, with Gewurztraminer the most common since it attains high grape sugars easier than the other three grapes. Requirements for VT are strict and numerous, including informing the authorities before harvest of the intent to produce VT wine.

Botritised Geurztraimer

When grape sugars are higher than that required for VT, wines may qualify as  Selection de Grains Noble (SdGN), the last word referring to the presence of botrytis (the "noble rot"), which is not a requirement for Vendange Tardive. SdGN wines are always sweet.

Although some producers continue to make traditional dry wines, the trend in recent years has been toward white wines with, at least, the impression of sweetness. However, climate change has moved the needle back to a "drier" finish with little to no detectable residual sweetness. 

California and Gewurztraminer

Interest in California wine was growing fast in the late 1970s and early 1980s.  Blends with fanciful names were big in those days.  Beringer Vineyards had a white wine money-maker called Traubengold (gold raisin). The Traubengold flavor was kicked up a notch by Gewurztraminer.  But, more often than not, Gewurz dominated most blends.  

As a varietal, though, Gewurz had success in Mendocino County and other cool spots in California, such as the Monterey coastal vineyards. However, the story of California Gewurz would be hit and miss.  

The hits were (and are) mostly in Mendocino's Anderson Valley, from such noted wineries as Navarro and Lazy Creek.  The misses, and near misses, were in warmer places like the Napa Valley.  Louis Martini was the exception, selling a medium gold, highly aromatic wine called "Gewurz Traminer." 

Other Gewurztraminer

There's not an extensive amount of Gewurztraminer and Traminer grown in other placesTraminer is popular in parts of Germany and Austria and northern Italy.  Torres has had success with Vina Esmeralda, made from Traminer. And some Gewurztraminer is grown in Washington state and Oregon.

Making Gewurztraminer

Production of Alsace Gewurz is pretty straight forward: controlled cold ferments in stainless steel, native yeasts, no acid adjustment and no malolactic fermentation. The wines are matured in neutral vessels.  Oak flavor is not desired, so the wines are often kept in old oak vats coated on the interior with thick tartrates.  White wine that has not gone through a cold stabilization may precipitate tartrate crystals that collect on the bottom of the cork.

Tartrate crystals on a cork

Aside:  Tartrates are the harmless natural deposits of potassium salt of tartaric acid. The deposits coat the insides of barrels and vats with crystals that have been called "wine diamonds," and have been mistaken for glass shards. The purified form of wine tartrates is made into Cream of Tartar.

Tasting Gewurztraminer

Gewurz has an aromatic profile that includes such diverse things as crushed rose petals, lychee, honey, exotic spice, citrus peel and even an old descriptor like shaving lotion or facial cream, although the latter probably would not resonate with younger tasters.  

The fullness of the spicy Traminer is proof that what you taste is a confirmation of what you smell. 


Next blog: Oregon Pinot Gris

Note: There will not be a blog on April 1, 2022.  "Gerald D Boyd on Wine" returns on April 8, 2022.






Thursday, March 17, 2022

My Life in Wine Episode 27

The last episode of "My Like in Wine" (25 Feb) was about the joys and disappointments of winery touring and included a visit to Fetzer Vineyards and a tasting of Zinfandel with Barney Fetzer, then at a wine dinner in Denver, the adults got an evaluation of a Chardonnay from a young taster.  

Both occasions were learning experiences.  What follows are three episodes, from MLIW that further show there is always something new to learn about wine. 

                    Wooden Barrels in a cooperage, barrel workshop  cooperage stock pictures, royalty-free photos & images

How hard can it be?

Working with wood has always been a personal passion.  A carefully wrought chair or table can be an exquisite piece of art and rare woods that are transformed into objects that seem to be alive are a wonder.  Just the process of bringing to life the beauty of wood gets my juices flowing.

So, I didn't hesitate when an invitation came to attend the "College of the Oaks," held at Seguin Moreau Napa Cooperage, to learn how to build wine barrels and then to raise my own barrel. Not exactly the same as making fine furniture, but it was working with wood.

Select a stack of presawn oak staves, fit them together, knock on the hoops and viola!  How hard could it be?

Very hard.  Especially if you don't have arms like Dwayne Johnson and the disposition to work in an environment that resembles hell, with machinery clanging and open fires blazing non stop.  This was woodworking like I don't remember in high school wood shop, or anywhere else.   

"Take the staves from the rack, hold the iron working hoop with one hand, then stand the staves inside the hoop, one at a time, forming a circle," explained the cooper (who had upper arms like Dwayne Johnson) showing us how it should be done.  In no time, my left arm felt like it was ready to fall off, as I attempted to hold the hoop steady while lining up the staves. 

Eventually, I managed, with help from the cooper to raise my barrel to the stage where a finishing hoop is hammered in place, with a short-handle sledge and a heavy iron wedge.  

The barrel wasn't finished, but I was.  Still to come were drilling the bung hole, toasting the interior and inserting the heads.  But, at least, I now  understood  that things are never quite what they seem and never as easy as they appear.

Mastering the black glass tasting 

Professional wine tasters and spirits blenders use a device called a "black glass," to allow a proper evaluation of the liquid without being influenced by color.  In place of a clear tasting glass, tasters use an opaque glass that is either black or cobalt blue. 

     Winecellar  Cognac stock pictures, royalty-free photos & images

A number of years ago, I had written to Bernard Hine, director of Hine Cognac, expressing an interest in the art of Cognac tasting and blending.  So, he invited me to join him and Hine's master blender for an early morning tasting, when your taste buds and senses are the most acute.

There were a few ground rules I didn't expect: Do not eat breakfast or have coffee or tea, do not brush your teeth, do not us after shave or skin creams, do not use deodorants.  These guys were serious!

We gathered in a brightly lit white tasting room, with three sets of blue tasting glasses in a row on individual tables.  The glasses were capped with glass discs (I was at a similar tasting in Scotland where they capped the clear glasses with the bases of broken glasses), capturing the aromatics.

The task was to decide what was in each glass: colorless raw spirit, or various aged distillates that would be used in a finished blend.  I removed the glass cap from the first glass, put my nose into the glass, took a good sniff and immediately realized that without knowing the color and hue of the liquid (clear, light brown, yellow-brown), I didn't have a clue. 

Hine and his associate were intently smelling and tasting, while I stumbled through the remaining glasses, without forming any solid opinions.  It was clear to me that I didn't know as much about Cognac as I thought.  

Homework is important 

Followers of this blog may recognize the following anecdote, but in the interest of having a little advance knowledge to avoid being a complete neophyte, it bears repeating. 


On one of my visits to Australia, I met with Len Evans, at Rothbury Estate in the Hunter Valley.  At the time, the bigger-than-life Evans was one of Australia's legendary wine authorities, so I felt lucky to get a few minutes of his time.  Len Evans died in 2006.

Little did I know that in addition to the usual tour and tasting, Evans was about to spring one of his favorite Hunter Semillon tastings on me.  My knowledge of Semillon was limited and I had never developed much interest in the variety in California, but I was about to discover how much I didn't know, at least about Hunter Valley Semillon. 

Evans and I were seated at a table in the Rothbury cellar, with four glasses in front of each of us.  "These are four different Semillons and I'd like to hear which you think are oak-aged and which have no oak," Evans said.  

I look at, sniffed and tasted the wine in each glass and then proudly proclaimed they all had seen oak, numbers three and four the most. 

Evans let my words hang in the air for a pregnant moment and then rocked back in his chair with laughter and yelled, "No oak on any of the wines!"

Had I done my homework before visiting Rothbury, I would have known that unoaked mature Hunter Semillon, smells and tastes like it was fermented in oak, aged in oak, or both, and that Len Evans delights in playing the "Semillon trick" on unsuspecting writers.

The above three experiences, in my career as a wine writer, happened at different times over a period of 15 years and hopefully show that there is always something new to learn about wine. 

Next Blog: The spicy Traminer 

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Thursday, March 10, 2022

The Birthplace of Australian Wine


What a difference a few hundred years makes in a city.  It's 1791 in the Governor's garden in Sydney, New South Wales, Australia.  On one side of the garden are a few grape vines brought to the British outpost from vineyards in South Africa.

It's now 2022 and the site where that garden once stood is now an international hotel on Macquarie Street.  Today, that simple urban garden is recognized as the birthplace of Australian wine. 

Of course, saying that someplace or something was first can be challenged, but it is generally accepted that when James Cook sailed into Botany Bay in 1770, he was bringing various necessities, as well as comfort items, from home. 

Eventually, settlers moved inland from the coast, with their seeds, plants and vines, to claim their own piece of land and build a future in the Hunter Valley. Besides dealing with animals and reptiles they had never seen, the settlers had to deal with often hostile Aboriginals.  

Despite these hardships, the pioneers established a wine culture that would expand south and west to Victoria, Tasmania, South Australia and much later, Western Australia.  

The Hunter Valley ( known simply as "The Hunter" locally) today is divided into the Lower Hunter and the Upper Hunter.  Outside of Australia, the Hunter is perhaps the best known wine appellation in New South Wales.  But it produces less than 5% of the country's total crush. 

Weather not conducive to fine wine is the main reason The Hunter languishes behind other Australian wine regions such as the Barossa Valley.  High temperatures and humidity are the main culprits, so the search was on for more temperate zones at highly elevations and cooler conditions.

Cowra, Mudgee and Orange, in the Central Ranges, are west of The Hunter and  generally more temperate.  The Southern zone includes the Canberra wine zone within the Australian Capital Territory.  Both the Central Ranges and the Southern Zone produce far more wine than The Hunter. 

There are numerous books that cover The Hunter in detail, but we'll limit this brief survey to the Lower Hunter, Mudgee, Cowra and Orange.   

Lower Hunter:  In this region a few varieties, like Chardonnay, Semillon and Shiraz, seem to have adapted to the hot and humid weather.  Hunter Semillon has established a reputation for rich, honeyed nutty wines, but it takes bottle age to arrive at that stage.  Aged Hunter Semillon is known for fooling tasters into thinking the wine has been aged in oak, when few are.

Hunter Shiraz, starts out thin and astringent in youth, but with age is smooth and rich with a touch of spice.  It is a characteristic of youthful Hunter Shiraz that has affected sales for the unwary.

Look for these Lower Hunter wines:  Lindemans, Brokenwood, Tyrell's, Rothbury, Tulloch, Wyndham, Hungerford Hill, MGuigan Wines.

Mudgee: Located on the western side of the Great Dividing Range, Mudgee (which according to Aboriginal lore means "Nest in the Hills"), is marginally cooler and less humid than The Hunter, on the coastal side of range.

Mount Kosciuszko, New South Wales, Australia
Mount Kosziusko, Australia's highest mountain

Grape growing in Mudgee goes back to the late 19th century and for years the bulk of the grapes went east across the mountains for blends.  In the 1990s Orlando-Wyndham moved their operation from The Hunter to a new Mudgee winery in Montrose.  Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon are the main grapes. 

Besides Montrose, brands with a Mudgee appellation you might see include Rosemount, Robert Stein, Huntington Estate, Robert Oatley Vineyards and Lawson's Hill Estate.

Cowra: Vines were not planted on these rolling hills west of The Hunter until the 1970s.  Cowra is in a broad valley bracketed by the Great Diving Range and two rivers. Cowra is mainly white wine country, with Semillon, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc the principal grapes. Chardonnays are peachy and honeyed, with ripe fig notes and good acidity.  

There are few wineries in Cowra, as most of the grapes are sold for blending at larger wineries outside the area. Look for Wallington and Kalari.

The rolling vineyards of Orange

Orange: Due to a scattering of micro-climate areas and the upper slopes of Mount Canobolas, Orange is one of the cooler growing areas in New South Wales.  However, the area is a flyway for numerous birds, which cause problems in the vineyards and spring frosts can be a threat. 

The principal grapes are Chardonnay, Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon.  Chardonnay from Orange shows citrus and melon. Shiraz has noticeable red fruits and spice and Cabernet Sauvignon is more herbal and dark berries.

Much of the grapes are sold to wineries outside the area, but Bloodwood Estate, Ross Hill Wines, Highland Heritage and Armour Wines are Orange wineries sometimes seen in export.

While the current buying trend favors substantial red wines from South Australia  and Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from Victoria, the time couldn't be better to try the wines of New South Wales, the birthplace of Australian wine.


Next blog: My Life in Wine Episode 27

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Thursday, March 3, 2022

A Different Sauvignon Blanc

 "I think its fair to say that New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc changed the wine world by changing our ideas of what wine could be like, just as the Chardonnays of California and Australia did."  Oz Clarke, English wine writer

Consumer tastes have changed since Clarke made that claim, prompting me to ask: Is Marlborough (New Zealand) Sauvignon Blanc an anomaly?

In the early 1980s, when New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc hit U.S. wine shelves with a loud bang, the accepted standard for dry Sauvignon Blanc was either Bordeaux or the Loire Valley. 

California had only a passing interest with Sauvignon Blanc then, until Robert Mondavi released his Fume Blanc, a clever take on Loire Pouilly Blanc Fume.  The story goes that Mondavi Sauvignon Blanc wasn't selling, but when Mondavi changed the name to Fume Blanc, the wine flew off the shelves. 

Aside:  I've always been puzzled with the part of that story where sales went up after the name change.  Most Americans are mono-lingual and have an aversion for foreign words and names, especially French.  Fume Blanc is no easier to pronounce for Americans than Sauvignon Blanc, so why would the new name translate to increased sales?  A mote point, I guess, since Fume Blanc helped American wine drinkers discover a "new" white wine.

Interest in California Sauvignon Blanc grew slowly, post Mondavi, because consumers didn't know what to make of this white wine that didn't taste like Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc, Grey Riesling, or French Colombard.   

Then, New Zealand entered the wine scene.

Planting Marlborough

In 1973, New Zealand wine giant Montana (pronounced as Mawn-tawna by the Kiwis), planted the first vines in Marlborough, at the north end of the South Island.  Sauvignon Blanc was among the plantings, but it wasn't until later when the world first took notice of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc.


For the United States, Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc was unknown until Kevin Judd brought the wine to the World Vinifera Conference, in Seattle in 1996. The conference focus was on Sauvignon Blanc, so this Marlborough Sauvignon was an an attention-getting addition to the usual suspects from France and a few California wines.  

My first taste of Cloudy Bay Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc at the conference  and it was immediately evident to me that this was a different Sauvignon Blanc.  The tropical aromas were clean and fresh like guava and passion fruit, with underlying citrus notes.  It had bright and bracing acidity and only a trace of the base minerality of French Sauvignon Blanc. 

Reactions of others at the conference were similar and the buzz for this new and different Sauvignon Blanc predicted that the wine soon would be in demand across the country, while opening a floodgate for more Marlborough "Sauvies."

Before long, New Zealand Sauvignons were showing up in U.S. wine shops, from Nelson, the region west of Marlborough and from Canterbury/Waipara on the South Island. Marlborough vineyards are divided into two sub-regions.  The main area is the Waiaru Valley, with its pungent tropical fruit.  Awatere Valley Sauvignons are more herbaceous, with a hint of minerality.

Hawkes Bay, a warmer site for Sauvignon Blanc on the east side of the North Island joined the list, along with Gisborne, where Sauvignon Blanc had replaced Chardonnay as the most planted white grape.  

It seemed that American wine drinkers couldn't get enough of this new style of Sauvignon Blanc.  Then, interest tapered off.  So what happened?

The fall and rise

Conclusions from an informal survey I conducted indicated that people were tiring of the Marlborough style, with its monotone tropical fruit.  Some even said the wines lacked complexity and one glass was enough.  

So, I checked the listings at a large wine store in California.  Of the 201 Sauvignons in stock, 27 are from Marlborough, but there were nearly as many Loire and California Sauvignon Blancs.  

Further, lists more than 100 Sauvignon Blancs, many of them from Marlborough.  In November 2021, Wine-Searcher ran one of their "Best" articles, this time the "10 Best Sauvignon Blancs."  Five of the wines were from Austria, four from France and a lone Sauvignon (Lail Georgia) from California. Marlborough didn't make the cut.  

Then, four months later, Wine-Searcher published the 10 "Most Wanted Sauvignon Blancs."  Key word is "wanted," not "best." Five of the wines were French including Dagueneau Silex Pouilly Fume, $166; Marlborough had four, including Cloudy Bay, $30 Cloudy Bay Te Koko $52 and Kim Crawford, $16; Screaming Eagle was the California pick, at the ridiculous price of $6,212.

Why the disparity?  Brand loyalty for one thing. Once wine buyers find a wine they like, the tendency is to remain faithful to that brand.  And they continue to drink the wine they know, because it's easier to stay with what you know than it is to find something new.

                            View of Kim Crawford wines on display at the bar during the Daily Front Row & Lands' End Holiday Celebration on December 15, 2016 in New York City.

Consider Kim Crawford New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. Once a small struggling brand owned by the man who's name is on the label, Kim Crawford eventually sold his name, but the wine went on to become one of the largest and most recognized New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs...and at just $16! 

It would seem then that New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, especially those from Marlborough, set a new style for the wine, offering consumers a choice between the French Sauvignons from Bordeaux and the Loire Valley and the tropical-styled Sauvignon from New Zealand.

Next blog: The Birthplace of Australian Wine

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