Thursday, April 4, 2024

Spicy Traminer


The other day, I was sitting at my computer, staring at the screen, hoping for the inspiration I needed to start this post about Gewürztraminer.  But the only thing  happening was my memory kept slipping back to the Stone Age, when I was struggling through high school, in Folsom, Pennsylvania.

At my school, in the early 1950s, you had to "take a language" to graduate. So, for some reason that I still don't understand, I signed up for German, in my junior year. 

After graduating, I promised myself no more school, yet here I was fresh out of a U.S. Air Force tech school as a radio repairman, with an assignment to Germany for three years. 

But there was a problem. I didn't understand the ground-to-air receivers and transmitters I was asked to repair, so it didn't take long for me to realize that radio repairing wasn't for me. 

I did quickly realize that I was in a different culture, with a proud German people trying to recover from a war pressed on them by a crazed dictator. 

As a young American guy, life in a recovering Germany was exciting but challenging, although I did manage to discover "real" beer, and was fortuitously introduced to wine. 

What I didn't realize then was that life can give you unexpected gifts. For me, it was the two years of high-school German that helped me to better understand German wine.

My high school German teacher, Miss Stoner, had drilled into us that German is a building block language. Connect two words like, gewürz (spice) and traminer (grape), and you have one word: Gewürztraminer, a spicy traminer. 

I never became fluent in German, but I did learn the language of wine in German and French and Italian and Spanish. Listen to something long enough and eventually it becomes ingrained. The time I spent in German class proved valuable and today I can mostly follow an explanation in a vineyard or cellar when the language is not American English. 

What I learned about Gewüztraminer is that regardless of the grape's German heritage, it amounts to little more than 1% of vineyard acreage in Germany. The undisputed variety is Riesling, followed by Müller-Thurgau, Grauburgunder (Pinot Gris) and Weissburgunder (Pinot Blanc).  Loosely translated, the two grapes mean "grey (grape) from Burgundy" and "white (grape) from Burgundy."  

What's more, Gewürztraminer's glory days were not in the vineyards of Germany. Truth is, in the 1980s, German wineries dropped the dry-white ball and Alsatian winemakers recovered. German Gewürztraminers were getting sweeter while Alsace Gewurz was moving toward dry.  

Some German vintners reacted to this shift with trocken (dry) and halbtrocken (half-dry) wines, while others remained committed to sweeter wines.  But the move to drier wine applied mainly to Riesling. And the damage was already done as Germany lost the edge with dry Gewürz, to Alsace.

But not for long. The acceptance by winemakers worldwide that consumers wanted sweeter white wine, even while they talked dry, prompted Alsace wineries to move away from dry to perceptibly sweet whites, including Gewürztraminer. 

Predictably, wine drinkers complained that now Alsace white wine was becoming too sweet, so Alsatian and German winemakers swung the pendulum back to somewhere between dry and sweet. And, in America, the reaction was to describe this "new" wine style with the vague term,"off dry."

Today, Gewüztraminer has its devoted fans, but the highly aromatic wine is not near top of many white wine lists. Although Gewurztraminer's perfumed aroma is not quite in your face, you know a Gewürz when you smell it: citrus peel, bergamot, exotic spices, lychee, and a whole host of other things.

Gewurztraminer is a great choice just for casual sipping or with light meals. The exotic flavors are good with Indian and Chinese cuisine, ripe and pungent cheeses, caramelized onion quiche, smoked fish and roast chicken.

While Alsace and Germany are still making the best expressions of Gewürztraminer, it also can be found in cool regions like Austria, northern Italy, New Zealand, South Africa and cooler areas of California, such as Monterey and Mendocino.  


Next post: Nero and Nerello

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