Gewürztraminer is one of the most pungent wine varietals, easy for even the beginning taster to
recognize by its heady, aromatic scent. While the French have achieved the greatest success with this
grape and its name may be German, the history of Gewürztraminer began in Italy's Tyrollean
Alps, near the village of Termeno (Tramin) in Alto Adige.
Since the Middle Ages, the parent variety traminer has grown there, although it may have
originated in the Pfalz region of Germany. It also is grown widely throughout Eastern Europe, but
neither abundantly nor very successfully. With hardly any of the characteristics of its spicy
offspring, traminer berries are pale green and make much less interesting or appealing wine, hardly
scented at all.
Like pinot noir, however, traminer vines do have a propensity to mutate. One of these mutations,
a few centuries ago near Termeno, resulted in a vine that produces pinkish-brown, spotted-skinned
berries with pinkish pulp, and which fashions very distinctive and heady wine.
The French began calling this prized clone traminer musqué, traminer parfumé,
or traminer aromatique; the Germans roter traminer; and the Italians traminer
rosé, traminer rosso, or termener aromatico. In the late 19th century, the
Alsatians began calling this vine gewürztraminer, although it wasn't until 1973 that
this name was officially sanctioned. Wine texts often report that "gewürz" translates from
German as "spicy", but an alternate translation has more sensory relevance: the more likely contextual
meaning is "perfumed".
Alsace has achieved the most success with Gewürztraminer. Although it makes up 20% of the vines
there, second only to Riesling at 23%, some producers give Gewürztraminer less priority than other
varieties and make accordingly dull wines. Those houses that pay specific attention to and take particular
pride in their Gewürztraminer include Léon Beyer, Schlumberger, and Zind-Humbrecht.
Often under other names, traminer vineyards are planted in Austria and Germany (Roter Traminer), as well
as countries in Eastern Europe, including Bulgaria (Mala Dinka), the former Czechoslovakia (Drumin,
Pinat Cervena, or Livora), Hungary (Tramini), and Romania (Rusa), in addition to
Russia, Moldava, and the Ukraine. There are also small plantings in Switzerland, Spain, Luxembourg, and Italy.
Many versions of the wines either too limited in yield, or the styles either too indistinct and light or overly
oily and bitter to gain much attention outside their provincial locales.
While the gewürztraminer vine is prized for its wine, it can be despised for its viticultural difficulty.
It buds early in the Spring, so it is particularly susceptible to damage from frost; even without this threat,
it is prone to poor fruit set. Gewürztraminer also has weak defenses against viral vine infections. Even
healthy vines are not very productive, with small clusters, so there is a great temptation for growers to
over-crop, which results in dilute, lightweight wine.
The dark pink color of the skin and pulp of ripe gewürztraminer grapes results in wines colored from light
to dark golden yellow with a copper tone, depending upon the fruit ripeness. The berries, with their thick and
tough skins, can attain high sugar levels of amazing concentration. Alcohol levels, therefore, can get quite high
in dry versions. Conversely, low acidity and high pH in Gewürztraminer can be problematic. Close monitoring
and precise harvest timing are critical. Early picking retains acid, but without long "hang time" distinctive varietal
character fails to develop. Pleasant results are nearly impossible in warm climates where ripening is too fast-paced.
At the Colmar viticultural station in Alsace and at Geisenheim in Germany work is underway developing clones that
bud and ripen later, produce larger fruit clusters, with more consistent and greater production levels and that are
virus-free. The challenge is to gain these improvements in economy while retaining gewürztraminer's unique
character and intensity.
Gewürztraminer is highly perfumed and quite full-bodied, more so than all other white wine grapes, with the
exception of Viognier. In fact, the combination of Gewürztraminer's strong, heady, perfumed scent, exotic
lychee-nut flavor and heavy-oily texture can be overwhelming and tiring to many palates. There is also a slight
tendency to bitterness that seems exacerbated by ripeness, so a light touch is needed at the wine press. Many
makers finish their Gewürztraminer with a spot of residual sugar. Gewürztraminer can be made into an
excellent dessert wine, in fact.
The most frequently encountered (but not exclusive) smell and/or flavor elements found in Gewürztraminer-based
Gewürztraminer Smell and/or Flavor Descriptors
depends upon individual tasting ability and experience and is also affected by terroir and seasonal conditions,
as well as viticultural and enological techniques. This list therefore is merely suggestive and neither
comprehensive nor exclusive.
Floral: rose petal, gardenia, honeysuckle
Late Harvest: Botrytis, honey, sweet cabbage
Fruity: lychee1, grapefruit, peach,
Mineral: petroleum, terpene, diesel
Aggressive: perfume, spice
Gewürztraminer wines are an excellent match for fresh fruit and cheeses (especially Alsatian Münster) and a good
complement to many simple fish and chicken dishes, especially recipes that include capsaicin (hot pepper) spices, oriental
five spice, or even curry.
Due to limited popularity and viticultural and production difficulties, gewürztraminer acreage has
remained relatively static in most world appellations for several years. Encouraging signs of
new success come from fairly recent plantings in New Zealand
(apparently since 1990, NZ Gewürztraminer acreage has see-sawed from a low of 210 to as much as 540 acres)
and the Pacific Northwest
(Oregon total 192 acres; Washington, 632 ac).
California growers had both traminer and gewürztraminer, indiscriminately known as Red Traminer, planted
in the 1870's. Charles Krug in Napa and Jacob Gundlach in Sonoma became well-known producers. Over a century
later, the variety became popular and acreage peaked at just over 4,700; since, total plantings have declined
The nominees for Best Supporting Appellation in California Gewürztraminer
(1,475 average total California acreage, 1999-2009) are: Anderson Valley, Mendocino County (~298 ac),
Monterey County (~716 ac), Russian River Valley, and Sonoma County (~175 ac). California wineries that have
consistently produced outstanding results are so few that they bear mentioning:
Navarro grows Gewürztraminer in Anderson Valley,
Mendocino, and makes stellar and award-winning wines in both dry and dessert styles.
Breggo, a relative newcomer to Anderson Valley, has also
consistently produced outstanding Gewürztraminers since their initial 2006 vintage.
Thomas Fogarty makes an excellent dry style from
Monterey County grapes. Fetzer produces always serviceable, reasonably-priced Gewürztraminer that is usually a benchmark example of the slightly sweet style.
1 According to a study at Cornell University, by Terry E. Acree and P.K. Ong, fresh lychee fruit and Gewürztraminer grapes share several aromatic volatile compounds (primarily terpenes and esters) within their chemical structures, including cis-rose oxide (roses), beta-damascenone, linalool, furaneol, ethyl hexanoate, and geraniol (also common to roses). BACK
2 According to the NZ
Winegrowers Institute, as reported by Martin Gillion, Editor
/ Publisher WineNZ
3 Oregon and Washington plantings according to the USDA 2006 Grape
Acreage Reports (posted February, 2007). BACK
4 California plantings according
to the USDA Grape Acreage Report 2007 (published April, 2008).
1. Jancis Robinson (ed), Oxford
Companion to Wine, 3rd Edition, (Oxford University Press: London) 2006
2. Benjamin Lewin, Wine Myths and Reality, (Vendage Press: Dover, DE) 2010
3. Jancis Robinson (ed), Jancis Robinson's Guide to Wine Grapes, (Oxford University Press: New York) 1996
4. L. Peter Christensen, Nick K. Dokoozlian, M. Andrew Walker, James A Wolpert, et all. Wine Grape Varieties in California (University of California, Agricultural and Natural Resources Publications: Oakland) 2003
5. Charles Sullivan, A Companion to California Wine: An Encyclopedia of Wine and Winemaking from the Mission Period to the Present (University of California Press: Berkeley) 1998
6. Steven Spurrier & Michel Dovaz, Academie du Vin, Complete Wine Course (G.P. Putnam & Sons, New York) 1983