Gewurztraminer is Alsace’s trump card. It doesn’t matter whether it is grown on limestone or granite soils, whether it is used to make AOC Alsace, Grands Crus or Vendanges Tardives, Gewurztraminer is easily recognisable for its inimitable style. A naturally rounded wine, it enhances both French cuisine and Thai or Indian specialities. Its one drawback, however, is its tendency to ripen early which may well prove to be a pitfall as global warming clearly changes the face of vineyards.
Oozing exuberant rose notes and intense exotic aromas, Gewurztraminer imposes its hallmark style on first pour. Yet it has been known to baffle consumers. “Sometimes customers are convinced that they have bought a sweet Gewurztraminer and return the bottles to us when they realize it is not a sweet wine,” says an amused Samuel Tottoli, manager and partner of Domaine Armand Hurst. Often associated with late harvest and noble rot wines, which in reality represent only a miniscule part of Alsace wine production, the German-born grape variety yields dry white wines showing great finesse. To understand the success of Gewurztraminer, you need to revert back to its introduction to the region. Like Jura’s Savagnin and Savagnin Rose, better known as Klevener de Heiligenstein, it is the heir to a long line of Alsatian grape varieties: the Traminers. Oenologists believe that the first Gewurztraminer plants replaced the old Traminer from 1870 onwards. It is actually a mutation of Savagnin Rose whose distinguishing feature is its spiciness. It is this characteristic that gave it its name, “Gewurz”, which literally means spicy on the other side of the Rhine. Considered as one of the four noble grape varieties of Alsace, along with Pinot Gris, Riesling and Muscat, Gewurztraminer is not the most productive. Planted on dense soils of limestone, marl, granite and clayey sand, it is a low-cropping varietal. An early-ripener, it is recognisable for its pinkish fruit which retains its hallmark character, irrespective of the soils it grows on. There are thus significant markers common to all Gewurztraminers: its rose-driven nose, its aromas of tropical fruits ranging from mango to lychee and its spicy notes.
Carefully selected terroirs
But it would be wrong to deduce from this that there is no terroir effect for Gewurztraminer and winegrowers are mindful to select the right sites. Over the decades, they have carefully cherry-picked plots earmarked for growing the spicy Traminer. “Generations before us got their fingers burnt with Gewurztraminer, so we respect what they gave us!” says Mathieu Zoeller, who devotes 2.8 hectares to the cultivar on the 11 hectares he farms in Wolxheim. “It is a grape variety that does not tolerate very light soils. The terroir must be of good quality, otherwise the results are extremely bad”. Nothing is left to chance: estates refer to precise grapevine plans to avoid any blunders. “It would be a shame to plant Gewurztraminer in sites that are not noble”, confirms Christophe Adam, the cellar master at Bestheim. Some terroirs are not lacking in class, but are better suited to other grape varieties. “The Schlossberg grand cru, for example, is particularly well suited to Riesling. Some of our winegrowers had plots planted to Gewurztraminer. As soon as they come to renew their vines, we encourage them to opt for Riesling," he adds. “Conversely, the Mambourg grand cru is very successful for Gewurztraminer. Our goal is to uncover the quintessential qualities of each terroir through the grape variety”.
Each vineyard has a precise varietal map to avoid planting the variety in soils that are not suited to it
An increasingly pronounced terroir effect
Even when planted in selected vineyard sites, Gewurztraminer does not always express itself in the same way. At the Cave du Vieil Armand, the co-operative winegrowers have noticed a marked difference in wines from two different great growths. “In Ollwiller, the sandy soil produces Gewurztraminers driven by rose and lychee, which are not too spicy”, explains Noémie Boll, in charge of communication and marketing at the co-operative. “The Spiegel grand cru is completely different. It has a very fruity edge, with upfront mango aromas”. Mathieu Zoeller is based in Wolxheim, in the Bas-Rhin region of France. He produces three Gewurztraminer-based wines and has reached the same conclusion. The first one is fruity and not intended to display sense of place. With its aromas of lychee, rose and white peach, it offers up “pure Gewurztraminer varietal expression”, says the winegrower. “It is very fragrant and feels like you're biting into a bunch of grapes”. His second label, ‘Les Orchidées’, comes from a grand cru vineyard but is not declared as an appellation. Although the winemaking methods remain the same, lower yields, heavier, clayey soils and a later harvest combine to produce “more profound, broader wines with the rose petal aromas recurring”. His late harvest, the third bottling, is marked by notes of candied fruit and honey. “Concentration is not just about sugar. It is about acidity and aroma too. Rose essence is exuded and intensifies with age, but also spicy and peppery notes that are not found in the other wines”.
Global warming 1- Gewurztraminer 0
In addition to soil types, the differences must also be seen as the effects of global warming, which have become undeniable in recent years. “Terroir increasingly leaves its stamp on the wines," says Samuel Tottoli. “It now tends to gain the upper hand, even with an aromatic grape variety like Gewurztraminer ". As the manager of Domaine Armand Hurst, who produces Gewurztraminers within the Grand Cru Brand area, he has noticed that the grape variety is starting to show its limitations. “We have a very early-ripening vineyard site, which makes phenolic ripeness increasingly difficult to achieve. For about five years now, granite soils have shown themselves to be more suitable for Gewurztraminer. The grapes ripen earlier, which results in lighter, more elegant wines”. Mathieu Zoeller adds his viewpoint: “Gewurztraminer reacts very badly to global warming. 2015 was very dry, 2016 very wet and in 2017 there was more water stress. The vines did not like it, especially Gewurztraminer. It spontaneously goes into rest mode and stops producing grapes”. As a result, late harvests are becoming increasingly rare for the spicy Traminer. “We produce more of them from passerillage than botrytis”, admits Samuel Tottoli. At Bestheim, however, the change in weather patterns has not led to any major varietal reshuffles. “It's a risk we're taking. We could choose a less sensitive grape variety, but Gewurztraminer is still one of Alsace’s most iconic varieties. You can make such beautiful wines from it when nature puts its mind to it!” The company is focusing on grass cover to limit the effects of drought. Others, like the Cave du Vieil Armand, are beginning to question the issue. “Pinot gris is more resistant to change," says Noémie Boll. “Co-operative wine growers are increasingly being called upon to think twice when they renew their vineyards. After three challenging years, Gewurztraminer is starting to hold us back”.
With the change in temperatures, granite soils fare well
A demanding grape variety in the winery
Gewurztraminer is equally sensitive and demanding in the winery as it is in the vineyard. “It is a grape variety that can be fickle in the winery," says Mathieu Zoeller. “Fermentation can be tumultuous and start very high, which is particularly bad”. To prevent sugar from being transformed into alcohol too quickly, the winegrower uses temperature-controlled tanks. This is one of his rare interventions. “My basic premise is that the wines make themselves and that, if the grapes are healthy right from the word go, we are only here to keep an eye on them”. All of his wines – Alsace AOC, Grand Cru or late harvest – undergo the same treatment. At the Cave du Vieil Armand, Gewurztraminer is also always fermented in the same way. Only the yeasts change for the grands crus. A tack also taken by Christophe Adam: “Our way of working is quite similar from one wine to the next. Ageing on the lees varies in duration but, generally speaking, we reason depending on the wine”.
Characterful pairings for a variety with a strong personality
Once the winemaking process is complete, Gewurztraminer displays varying degrees of residual sugar. The image of a sweet wine common to the French perception of the varietal in fact hides dry whites, which lend themselves particularly well to pairings with Scandinavian-style herring or Thai curries. The spicy Traminer can also be sweet. It then becomes a wicked partner for strong cheeses such as Epoisses or Maroilles. There are also the Vendanges Tardives or late harvest and noble rot offerings, which can notch up 100 g of sugar per litre. Their alcohol content spirals to between 14 and 15.5° in the first instance, and over 18° in the second. These aroma-laden noble rot wines call for powerful cheeses, chocolate and fruit tarts. All of these characterful delicacies flatter the ego of a variety with its own unique style.
By Alexandra Reveillon – Photographs: Courtesy of the estates