Must-Have Wine of the Week: Gewürztraminer

Gewürztraminer has unquestionably been the most maligned and misunderstood white grape among wine consumers over the last decade. Even among wine enthusiasts and connoisseurs, it has been and arguably still is out of favor.

And yet, in my 30 years of wine drinking, the single most impressionable and unparalleled wine in my memory in terms of extraordinary complexity and compelling quality, basically the best white wine I have ever had to this very day is the 1976 Trimbach Cuvée des Seigneurs de Ribeaupierre.

We chose it off the encyclopedic wine list at Tan Dinh, the venerable two star Michelin contemporary Vietnamese restaurant in Faubourg Saint-Germain, Paris, back in 1999. It had been in bottle over 20 years by then and had developed in to an unctuously rich and honeyed yet seemingly dry wine (hold that thought 'dry') of mindboggling complexity and caressing texture and flavor profile that one would associate more with Le Montrachet than gewürztraminer.

It was drinking absolutely perfectly and showing no signs of fading moreover, possibly the best wine and cuisine pairing I have ever experienced, and according to my wife, a feat I have yet to surpass, which is a bit of worry for a wine and food writer!

So why is gewürztraminer so unfashionable and underappreciated? I would suggest largely because it is a wine that fundamentally requires a high degree of ripeness to attain its unique flavors and character, which generally means a certain amount of natural residual sugar is left in the wine after fermenting out, and subsequently relatively high alcohols, usually knocking around 14 percent plus.

It is interesting that Trimbach go to great lengths on their website (www.maison-trimbach.com) to describe the Cuvée des Seigneurs de Ribeaupierre as a "rich and powerful but dry gewürztraminer... can misleadingly seem slightly sweet... the roundness and viscosity can mask its typical dryness." And yet they clearly state in the wine fact sheet it has 19 g/l rs, that is grams per liter of residual sugar, which in the new world is definitely not dry.

Put it this way, bone dry is somewhere around 2 g/l rs to give you a starting point. However the degree of acidity plays a pivotal role in our perception of sweetness and can easily camouflage considerable levels of natural residual sugar, balancing the sweetness with freshness remarkably well up to 15 to 20 g/l rs.

The problem is, or was, that sweetness in wine was seen as totally unsophisticated by the cognoscenti and budding wine enthusiasts with a stigma of wine ignorance if seen to drinking something medium dry or off-dry. This is largely a hangup from the days of pedestrian Liebfraumilch and Piesporter, not to mention a number of scandals involving adulterating wine with ethylene glycol (automotive antifreeze) to sweeten artificially.

There have also been some pretty ordinary gewürztraminers made in this era as well, flabby, overripe and over-the-top, disjointed wines with nauseating aromas similar to hair oil. But that's all behind us now.

I am here to tell you sweetness is back in fashion and possibly more so in Asia than in any other wine market. The fact is that most Asian palates, and western palates, for that matter, like sugar. Indeed we are addicted sugar, possibly from birth. I am also a strong believer that as a generalization, the Asian palates enjoy a degree of fruitiness in their wine, as demonstrated in their strong preference for full-bodied reds.

Furthermore, we are all discovering that a certain level of residual sugar is decidedly harmonious with spicy, hotter cuisines and dishes, ameliorating and cooling the capsaicin heat of chili and heady spiciness, relieving the heat with heat in much the same manner that hot Chinese green tea is intrinsic to cooling one's 'heated' body. Just try gewürztraminers with Singapore chili or black pepper crab and you will see what I mean.

What's more, the spicier the dish, the better gewürztraminer copes as it is inherently spicy itself; gewürz meaning spiced or perfumed in German. A good gewürztraminer will have a pungent, heady perfume of Indian spices, lychee, roses or rosewater, and sometimes Turkish delight. It is a full-bodied, glycerol-textured wine, markedly more substantial than other whites and the combination of its exotic bouquet and viscosity can be a bit over the top for some, indeed palate tiring if there is not the requisite acidity to balance all this opulence.

Needing a markedly cool-climate yet extended ripening period, there are very few places in the world where gewürztraminer grows successfully, the undisputed capital being Alsace, France. There are some interesting wines made in Austria, Germany and other eastern European countries although not to be confused with the less aromatic and invariably inferior traminer grape.

Gewürztraminer has been a relatively poor performer in the new world, particularly in the Australian climate, lacking in character and acidity. There has been some success in Washington and Oregon in the United States. However; it is New Zealand with its southern extremes and decidedly cool-climate that is showing the most potential with commendable wines coming from the warmer yet maritime influenced regions of Hawkes Bay (e.g. Stonecroft www.stonecroft.co.nz) and Gisborne (e.g. Vinoptima Estate www.vinoptima.co.nz) on the East Coast of the North Island.

There have also been favorable results in Marlborough (e.g. Huia www.huia.net.nz) and Central Otago in the deep-south of the South Island, with its mountainous continental climate looking most promising, not only for gewürztraminer but the trio of noble aromatic white grapes, including riesling and pinot gris.

I recall trying a 1992 Rippon Gewürztraminer from Wanaka back in 2007, with Dean Shaw (Central Otago Wine Co.) who is obsessed with the variety, and Rudi Bauer (Quartz Reef), who had actually made this wine during his stint at Rippon. It looked brilliant, still holding together with over 10 year's bottle age, even if we weren't by this stage.

Clearly, there are synergies with Central Otago and the Alsace terrain and climate with long, warm, dry summer days with the acute diurnal temperature of very cool evenings - it can be 29 degrees Celsius up until 9.30pm then the sun disappears behind the mountains and the temperature immediately drops to 14 - and practically snap-freezes flavors and invigorating acidities.

Actually, I would go out on a limb and say that stylistically, there are more refreshingly vivacious, user-friendly gewürztraminers coming out of New Zealand than Alsace, now with an appealing accent on citrus fruits that give it a succulent mandarin, tangerine, pink grapefruit mid-palate and whilst having plenty of genuine varietal character in every respect, are less overt and I would suggest, will carve out a niche market all of their own.

A stunning example of gewürztraminer from Central Otago is Misha's Vineyard 2008, a new vineyard in the Bendigo sub-region with a jaw-dropping vista across Lake Dunstan to mountainous ranges from their sun-drenched northwest facing terraces stretching from 210 to 350 meters above sea level.

Even more extraordinary, it is their first vintage of gewürztraminer and one can only assume that the variety has found its nirvana here and I can only imagine the wines getting better with vine age and vineyard experience. Not that experience is an issue, as the winemaker is Olly Masters, one of New Zealand's most respected winemakers with a hand in Ata Rangi and Seresin Estate.

Interestingly, Master's has slow-fermented a proportion of the wine (14 percent) in older oak barrels using wild yeast, blending it with the main tank component which was inoculated and cool fermented, which certainly appears to have added a discernible degree of complexity.

By all accounts the vintage conditions were perfect in Central Otago in 2008 with a long, slow ripening period. Moreover, the yields were constrained to one bunch per vine cane to achieve a lower yield and concentration of fruit, and the wine certainly has all the right stats to prove it; 5.4 grams per liter tartaric acid to counterbalance 14 grams of per liter of sugar and a backbone of 14.4 percent alcohol all symmetrically tantalizingly the palate with an exotic fragrance that you could easily dab behinds the ears and outdo Channel.

My note for Misha's 'The Gallery' Gewürztraminer 2008:

Alluring perfume of ripe papaya, lychee and Turkish delight with pronounced citrus mélange of lime and blood orange, then overcome by pungent earthiness and Indian spices – lots of turmeric and yellow mustard seed aromas and turn of the peppermill giving way to discernible nuances of fresh thyme and subtle rose water building in sweetness with dark Manuka honey and palm sugar notes and a seductive hint of white truffle oil - all totally hedonistic. Oily, creamy textured palate entry with peaches and cream resemblance, certainly a cuddly viscosity yet kept lively by pink grapefruit and tangerine succulence with a background of earthy, herbal pungency - a classic gewürztraminer characteristic - along with apricot stones, scents of virgin olive oil and lingering spiciness. A wonderfully exotic and absorbing wine, all for a very user-friendly S$47.50 a bottle.

If I could quote the Trimbach website again, with a profound food pairing, "Gewürztraminer will match every World Cuisine where various tastes, spices and exoticism blend with happiness."

Make a point of visiting the vineyard's website as it is one of the best and most comprehensive I have ever seen, www.mishasvineyard.com

Available in:

Singapore: Rubicon Reserve Wines, Tel: 6837 8012 www.rubiconreservewines.com

Hong Kong: Jebsen Fine Wines, Tel : +852 2926 2240 www.jebsenfinewines.com

Japan: Tel: +81-3-3667-5450 www.masuki.jp/