Like Dolly Parton, gewürztraminer can only be described in hyperbole. Perfumed, buxom, heady and fruity, gewürztraminer doesn’t appeal to all. For starters, most of us cannot pronounce gewürztraminer, which is why the grape is often referred to simply as gewϋrz (pronounced guh-vurtz). Gewürz produces flamboyant wines with masses of fruit, which is sometimes mistaken for sweetness. While a few bottles of sweet, late harvest gewϋrz slip onto stage now and then, usually winemakers ferment this grape variety until the wine is fully dry.
Gewürztraminer is a buxom stage-queen overseeing a family of grapes that has natural esters, or fragrance compounds, that are reminiscent of flowers. These floral esters, called monoterpenes, give us impressions of rose, orange blossom or honeysuckle, and can also be found in Riesling, Pinot Gris, Viognier and Muscat. Monoterpene esters are at their most effusive in gewürztraminer, which is why it is a wine that some people love and others find too blowsy. All agree, however, gewϋrz is no wall flower. This wine is an extrovert full of personality: lychee, gingerbread, vanilla, grapefruit, smoke, spice and honeysuckle are just a few of the adjectives linked to the grape.
No one has yet established gewϋrz’s ancestral pedigree, but the variety first appeared in the Alto Aldige region of northern Italy during the middle ages, acquiring the stage-name Traminer, presumably taken from the nearby town of Tramin. Thriving in long, cool, but sunny growing seasons, the vine soon made its way into southern Germany’s Pfalz region where it acquired the gewϋrz suffix, which means spicy. Germany’s summers are all too brief for this light-seeking variety, so the vine ultimately settled in sunnier Alsace, the French wine region bordered by Germany’s Rhine River. With enormous body and low acidity, gewϋrz does not thrive in sweltering summer heat; instead gewϋrz yearns for long cool hours in pale-yellow sunlight to develop its flavors.
Because the word gewϋrz means spicy in German, this variety is often misleadingly described as spicy. Don’t be fooled. It has none of the white pepper spice of Austria’s flagship grape Grϋner Veltliner or the black pepper tickle of France’s Syrah. It is not clear what the Germans meant by affixing the word “spice” to the grape’s name, but it does come in handy as a reminder that gewϋrz is an excellent match with spicy food. Dishes with fruit accents or ginger are ideal, such as coconut-based curries or duck a l’orange.
Alsace produces the world’s greatest gewürztraminer, though the grape is grown in most wine regions, including California and New Zealand. Unfortunately, gewürztraminer rarely commands top price on shop shelves, so producers often pay little attention to this perfumed zinger. Producers in Alsace, such as Zind Humbrech, Hugel and Trimbach, have figured out how to rein in gewϋrz’s extroverted character and their finest wines have finesse, complexity and elegance. Perhaps behind her bright colors, big hair and exaggerated style, so does Dolly. And with regard to Gewurztraminer, surely she said it best, “I hope people realise that there is a brain underneath the hair and a heart underneath the boobs.”