A Spicy Personality

#223 – August 10, 2012

For this week’s topic I wanted to introduce a wine that is enjoying a recent resurgence, especially among Israeli winemakers –the flamboyant Gewürztraminer.  Besides being fun to pronounce (guh-verts-trah-mee-ner) and difficult to spell correctly (even without the delightfully sounding umlaut over the “ü”), the wine has a polarizing personality with some advocates loving the food pairing ability with tough-to-pair dishes and the wine’s uniqueness (I count myself in this camp) and others intensely disliking the residual sugar (most versions have), the distinct notes of lychee and rose petals, the somewhat oily texture and the wine’s lack of bracing acidity.

Gewurztraminer is native to France’s Alsace region, where it thrives in the colder climate but it has found success in many other parts of the world including New Zealand, which produces some of the best versions outside of Alsace, but also Australia, Canada, Germany, Italy, the United States and of course Israel.  I have been told by a number of critics in the know that truly great Gewürztraminer comes only from Alsace with the area’s terroir providing a complexity of flavor and finesse not found in versions from other parts of the world.  Unfortunately, while some kosher Alsatian Gewürztraminer wines have been OK (like the Willm 2008); none have been anything to write home about.

Nicknamed the “spicy wine” for its perfumed aromatics, eclectic spunky nose and extroverted flavors (as opposed to any inherent “spiciness”), besides its signature scent of lychees, the wine can include healthy doses of ginger, cloves, allspice and freshly black pepper in addition to more aromatic notes of roses, pears, honeysuckle, red grapefruit, apricot, citrus and stony minerals.  While many versions of the wine are slightly off-dry, even those that are bone-dry may have some perceived sweetness resulting from the abundant aromatics and fruit flavors.  Together with the aroma and flavors, most versions are relatively low in acidity (giving rise to the need for a bit of counteracting residual sugar) and full bodied, that without precision winemaking can result in a flabby wine, with a number of kosher versions falling prey to this problem.

Gewürztraminer fulfills wine’s known idiom of successfully pairing a wine to the dishes of its birthplace, pairing nicely with rich Alsatian dishes of foie gras, goose breast and smoked fish.  My favorite Gewürz (as the grape is colloquially known) pairing is lox!  Other successful pairings for this wine include spicy Asian dishes, choucroute garni and certain nutty cheeses.  It has been known to pair acceptably to sushi as well.  A cold glass of Gewürz makes an incredibly refreshing aperitif without any food necessary.

Gewürztraminer has been utilized in Israeli wines for over a decade in one format or another.  Until very recently, Gewürztraminer was mostly utilized in dessert wines such as the Yarden Heightswine, Carmel’s Late Harvest Sha’al, Tzora’s “Or”, Binyamina’s Late Harvest version and Gat Shomron’s delightful Icewine version (all recently reviewed, many in my Dessert Wine newsletter) or in blends such at Tzora’s Shoresh Blanc, Tulip’s White Tulip or Saslove’s Lavan (which contained 85%, 70% and 45% Gewürztraminer, respectively).  Other than the Yarden single varietal Gewurztraminer from the Golan Heights Winery which debuted with the 2002 vintage, there were very few varietal Gewürztraminer wines.  However, the last 2-3 years have seen a proliferation of varietal Gewürztraminer wines.  While they may not be comparable to the great [non-kosher] Alsace Gewürztraminer wines, they are certainly well-worthy of your attention and terrific wines in their own right (most tend to be pretty good bargains as well).

Binyamina, Reserve, Gewürztraminer, 2011:  Delightfully crisp and refreshing, this wine (bottled under a screw cap like many of Binyamina’s recent white releases) is made from 100% Gewürztraminer grapes and clocks in at 13% alcohol.  Plenty of tropical fruits, lychee, crushed rose petals fill the aromatic nose, together with hints of citrus and spice.  Much of the same follows on the medium bodied palate with hints of residual sugar matching nicely to the spiciness, which combine for a refreshing food friendliness backed by decent acidity.  Drink now or over the next 12 months.

Golan Heights Winery, Yarden, Gewürztraminer, 2011:  A longtime favorite of mine (but not a traditional Gewürztraminer) that never seems to get any love or recognition.  A crying shame since this is a well-made wine with plenty of rich notes of lychee, rosewater, tropical fruits, some honeysuckle and warm spices leading into a medium bodied palate of ripe guava, pineapple and more lychee together with some citrus and a hint of spice with enough acidity to keep the wine fresh and lively leading into a nice finish of more fruit and spice.  Drink now through 2013.

Gvaot, Gofna, Gewürztraminer, 2011:  After the interesting experiment with the 2010 vintage that combined 83% Chardonnay with 17% Gewürztraminer, Gvaot decided to go with a traditional varietal Gewürztraminer, riding the grapes rising popularity in Israel.  Eliminating the Chardonnay created a lighter wine without the aging potential of the 2010 blend but a significantly lighter, spicier and more refreshing summer wine.  Plenty of melon, pears and citrus to go with the traditional lychee and hazelnut notes on a nose that contains the faintest hint of eucalyptus and floral notes.  A medium bodied palate that is round and mouth filling has plenty of the same fruity notes but with a sufficiently acidic backbone to keep the wine light and fresh on your palate.  As with nearly everything else from Gvaot, this wine is well made and interesting besides being delicious.  Grab whatever you can find as with an extremely limited production of 650 bottles, this was likely gone before they started.

Lueria, Gewürztraminer, 2011:  Lueria is a relatively new winery whose owners (the Saida family) have been growing grapes around Meron for many of Israel’s wineries for years and, after seeing their grapes win awards and accolades for other wineries, decided to get into the winemaking game themselves and released their first vintage in 2006 (utilizing 15% of their harvest for their own wines).  A medium bodied wine made from 100% free-run Gewürztraminer grapes with plenty of tropical fruit, traditional lychee and spice along with a pleasing bitter citrus notes with much of the same of the same on the light and refreshing palate loaded with bracing acidity with a nice touch of residual sugar and 12.5% alcohol, making this a great picnic wine and just in time for the spring we are beginning to see around the corner.  Drink over the next 12 months or so.

Tishbi, Gewürztraminer, 2010:  A pleasant surprise for me, this was tasted in conjunction with my judging the Jewish Week’s Kosher Wine Guide.  A nicely aromatic nose of crushed rose petals, pineapple, red grapefruit, some honeysuckle, cloves and subtle lychees nose with a medium bodied and pleasingly acidic palate with more tropical fruit and hints of spice, this is a refreshing wine that, while not complex makes for a refreshing change of pace quaffer that is well priced and worth picking up a few bottles.