Okanagan Versus the Rest of the World Round Six: Gewürztraminer
Perfumed with heady aromas of lychee, peaches, roses, jasmine and exotic spice, the wines that the pink-skinned Gewürztraminer grape makes are unlike any of the other varieties we’ve covered so far in this series. As far as noble or classic grape varieties go, Gewürztraminer isn’t as widely planted or even as popular as the likes of the Pinots, Cabs or ubiquitous Chardonnay, but that doesn’t mean it’s any less delicious or versatile when it comes to serving it alongside food.
Gewürztraminer is lower in acid than many other white grapes, with an oily, even viscous texture courtesy of the fact it is naturally high in sugars. These substantial sugar levels also mean that although Gewürztraminer wines can range from dry to sweet, even dry versions will usually have a touch of residual sugar present in them. Some may wrinkle their noses at this, but that soupçon of sweet means that Gewürztraminer is a fantastic potential pairing with spicy dishes.
Like gold in the glass, the wine gets its richly colored hue from its pink skins. The skin color is a mutation, one of the things that sets it apart from the green Traminer grape, a variety with a long history which stretches back for centuries. Like the Pinot family of grapes, Traminer has a tendency towards genetic mutation. Over time, the decidedly less aromatic Traminer (also known as Savagnin) evolved into grapes with new characteristics: pink skin, more pronounced aromatic qualities, and so on. Gewürz was added as a prefix to Traminer from the German word for ‘spice’ in reference to the lovely, distinctive spice characteristics that many perceive on the palate after taking a sip of this wine.
The Okanagan Valley could easily become one of the New World’s greatest regions for Gewürztraminer. The Valley is perfectly suited to the needs of this cool climate grape; this variety needs cool growing conditions in order to stand a chance of retaining some acidity. Both Okanagan and Gewürztraminer’s native region, Alsace, have phenomenally complex soil makeup.
The best regions within the Valley for Gewürztraminer are the Golden Mile, Okanagan Falls, Summerland, Naramata/Penticton and Kelowna.
The Golden Mile is the second warmest subregion in Okanagan but depending on where vineyards are located, there are colder pockets where varieties like Gewürztraminer can flourish in spite of a more southerly latitude. The microclimates within Okanagan Falls vary substantially. Parts of the area are warmer and great for varieties like Merlot while the higher elevation parts of Okanagan Falls mean that this region is also completely suitable for grapes like Gewürztraminer, in addition to Riesling and Chardonnay. Vines in close proximity to Vaseux Lake also produce top quality white wines.
East oriented vineyards in Naramata/Penticton are perfect for Gewürztraminer cultivation; they remain that extra bit cool, helping to preserve the delicate balance of acidity in the grapes. Summerland, in particular, is notable for delectable bottlings. Moving up, Kelowna is the final stop on the Okanagan Gewürztraminer tour. Okanagan Lake helps moderate the climate of the Valley’s most northerly sub-region and keeps Kelowna cool – the perfect conditions for nurturing high-quality Gewürztraminer grapes. Be sure to keep an eye on Okanagan Gewürztraminer as the region continues to forge its place as a premium wine region.
Here’s the best of the bunch courtesy of the 2016 Best Of Varietal Awards:
Best of Gewürztraminer:
2015 Wild Goose Vineyards Mystic River Gewürztraminer
2015 Ruby Blues Winery Commune Gewürztraminer
2015 Thornhaven Estates Winery Gewürztraminer
2015 Red Rooster Winery Red Rooster Gewürztraminer
A quick side note: because of its naturally high sugar levels, Gewürztraminer is a no-brainer candidate for making into dessert wines. This grape makes some of the tastiest late harvest and ice wines around.
Tasting notes: Lychee, rose, yellow peach, grapefruit, citrus, crushed rocks.
Gewürztraminer is one of Alsace’s four noble grapes, along with Riesling, Muscat and Pinot Gris. This is the classic region for the pink-berried grape and where you’ll find the world’s highest concentration of Gewürztraminer vines. More than anywhere else, you’ll encounter both dry and sweet versions in Alsace. The late harvest vendange tardive and botrytis-affected sélection de grains nobles incarnations of Gewürztraminer are wonderfully complex. They exhibit honey, ginger, baking spice and smoke aromas – this is especially true of noble rot wines. Keep an eye out for Gewürztraminer from grand crus vineyards. Dry, sweet or somewhere in between, these are the best that Alsace has to offer.
Tasting notes: Melon, lychee, ripe peach, roses, smoke, ginger, honey.
There’s really only one region for Gewürztraminer in Italy: Trentino-Alto Adige. Not coincidentally, this is the home of the Traminer grape of which Gewürztraminer is a mutation. That grape gets its name from the village Tramin in Südtirol. Italian Gewürztraminer tends towards a lighter body, higher acid, and overall drier profile than equivalents in other parts of the world, but they are still tasty, interesting wines that are worth exploring.
Tasting notes: Canned peaches, melon, pear, roses.
Gewürztraminer is found in many of the same Californian regions that see banks of fog roll over their coastal vineyards: Mendocino, Monterey, Santa Barbara and even up in parts of Sonoma. Though not widely grown, there are some phenomenal examples made around the state. The best Gewürztraminer here are dry. With the recent droughts in California, you can expect ultra concentrated, intense wines, just be sure to be careful to avoid warm regions or producers who pick their Gewürztraminer late (no maker of fine wine would abuse their Gewürztraminer so cruelly).
Tasting notes: Lychee, grapefruit, melon, cinnamon, crushed rose petals.
Washington State is another outpost in the States for Gewürztraminer, albeit a small one. It can be a mixed bag; parts of the state are quite hot which can be a recipe for disaster for low acid grapes like Gewürztraminer. However, in cool subregions in colder vintages, Washington Gewürztraminer can be very good indeed. Yakima Valley is one place to look. In general, this Pacific Northwest locale has great value, so if you’re in the market for Gewürztraminer on a budget, Washington is the place to begin your search.
When it comes to pairing, Gewürztraminer is absolutely stunning with Asian cuisines such as Thai, Indian, and other ethnic foods. Poultry, pork, certain game meats and stronger cow’s milk cheeses are also fantastic with Gewürztraminer. The upfront aromatics of Gewürztraminer mean that the wines are able to stand up to heavily spiced fare and you won’t need to worry about the wine becoming lost amidst the dish’s flavours, a common problem if you were to serve a lesser wine with them. It may not share the same prestige as other noble varieties in the minds of the average wine drinker at the moment, but change is on the horizon. With its unique fragrance and ability to pair so well along challenging dishes, Gewürztraminer deserves a spot in your cellar or fridge. You definitely won’t regret it.