There comes a time in the life of many white-wine drinkers when oak is not enough. Bold fruit flavor is required -- fruit of the type you don't find in chardonnay.
Gewurztraminer might just be what you're looking for. From France to Oregon to Australia, the hard-to-pronounce grape has been planted with high hopes -- and widely scattered results. But when a Gewurztraminer is truly on target, it can be one of the most fascinating of white wines.
The "gewurz" in Gewurztraminer (guh-VERTZ-truh-meener) means "spice" in German. And though it's hard to pin down exactly which spice you find in the flavor of the wine, one taste is all you need to know why it's considered one of the more flavorful varietals.
At its best, it offers a delightful interplay of different fruits, with hints of honey and the type of spices used for mulled wine in winter. Oak barrels are not needed to give it flavor. Where it's been tried, the results have been grotesque.
Jancis Robinson, in her classic book "Vine Grapes and Wines," leaves Gewurztraminer out of her list of nine "classic" varieties -- an omission some of its devotees would dispute. Rather, she lists it as a "major" variety along with such household names as aligote and Muscat Hamburg.
Robinson is correct. Although Gewurztraminer is certainly one of the best of the nonclassic varietals, it achieves sublime levels in only one place, the eastern French region of Alsace. Even there, only a few dedicated producers manage to make truly magnificent Gewurztraminers. For the very best, look to such producers as Zind-Humbrecht and Domaine Weinbach.
In Alsace, Gewurztraminer is generally made in a dry style, except for the finest vintages, when a small portion of the crop might be held back for semisweet wines (vendange tardive) or full-blown dessert wines (selections de grains nobles). The sweet wines can be exceptional, but it is the dry style that forms the basis for Gewurztraminer's reputation.
Gewurztraminer's track record outside Alsace is spotty, but not without success.
It occasionally yields impressive dry and sweet versions in Germany and Austria, but those wines are seldom seen in the United States.
In Australia and in most parts of California, the wines tend toward flabbiness and have to be made in a semisweet fashion to avoid bitterness. Most of them lack natural acidity or complexity and can be cloying. Skilled winemaking is required just to make a good wine, and nobody would mistake these New Age-y Gewurztraminers for Alsace wine.
There are some cooler growing areas in which Gewurztraminer shows promise as a dry wine. The Anderson Valley of Mendocino County, Calif., has yielded some impressive wines; some Oregon vineyards are showing promise. (And once upon a time, before it gave way to development, there was a patch of excellent Gewurztraminer vines in Western Maryland.)
In a recent tasting of nondessert Gewurztraminers from around the world, an Alsace wine clearly stood head and shoulders above the rest. But some of the American versions performed well, too. These were the best:
**1995 Trimbach Gewurztraminer, Alsace ($19). Oh, for the days not so long ago when this wine cost less than $10. Alas, that time is gone, but a fine vintage of Trimbach Gewurz is still a joy. Its crisp, dry flavors include nuances of lemon, orange, honey, tropical fruit and spices. While it was the oldest wine in the tasting, it was also the freshest. This superbly structured wine will keep improving long after the others are kaput.
**1996 Amity Oregon Dry Gewurztraminer ($12). This uncompromisingly dry wine offers Alsace-like flavors of mineral, spice, peach, pear, apple and melon to form a harmonious whole.
**1996 Handley Gewurztraminer, Anderson Valley ($14). A smidgen of white pepper gives an exotic touch to this dry, less overtly fruity Gewurztraminer. It's not classic, but it works. Try this baby with spicy Asian food.
**1996 Lazy Creek Gewurztraminer, Anderson Valley ($15). This dry wine comes reasonably close to Alsace style and structure. It offers ripe fruit flavors, a touch of honey and good acidity. Fully mature now, it's not a wine to keep.
**1997 Chateau Ste. Michelle Gewurztraminer, Columbia Valley ($9). This Washington state Gewurztraminer has just a touch of sweetness to it, but not enough to make it unfriendly to finer foods. It's a racy, well-made wine with plenty of peach, pear and spice.
**1997 Beringer Gewurztraminer ($8). This isn't the classic Alsace style, but if you don't mind a touch of sweetness, this well-made California product is a superb value. It offers generous orange, peach, honey and spice flavors -- with just enough acidity to stay in balance. Complex it's not.
**1996 Joseph Phelps Gewurztraminer, Anderson Valley ($16). This dry, ripe wine is well-made and offers appealing honey and spice flavors. But it's edging toward over-maturity, and needs to be drunk up. It's also a bit pricey.
This being a Gewurztraminer tasting, there were some dramatic disappointments. Careful consumers will want to avoid the insubstantial 1996 Pierre Sparr (Alsace); the dilute 1997 Frey (Mendocino); and the cloying 1996 Mark West (Russian River Valley).
Pub Date: 02/03/99