Gewürztraminer – NZ versus France

I still remember the first Gewürztraminer I ever tasted. It was on Christmas Day by a river just below the Hunua Falls south of Auckland. We had a picnic there on the same day every year. My mother made a real Kiwi salad complete with hard-boiled eggs but without dressing of any sort. What she lacked in salad-making skills she more than made up with her signature dish – a freshly baked ham criss-crossed with cloves. We’d pack it straight from the oven into an insulated box so it was warm when served.

It was my job to catch an eel and smoke it using Manuka sawdust and dad’s rusty old smoker. Eels were easy to catch. I’d put a chunk of the cat’s gravy-beef on large hook and tether the line to a tree. There’d be an eel on it within 10 minutes. Unlike my brothers and sisters I didn’t swim in the river.

When I retrieved my line I’d caught a fairly large trout. There was brief discussion about the ethics of catching a trout with an eel line, and without a license, before the fish was cleaned and put in the smoker.

Someone had given my father a bottle of Hugel Gewürztraminer (tastings) from the Alsace region of France. I can still see its distinctive bright yellow label but I can’t remember the vintage. The wine was served chilled in chunky glasses. It was really for mum and dad but we were allowed to have a sip.

It had a wonderfully pungent aroma that reminded me of fresh grapes, white flowers and a spice I couldn’t identify. It was captivating. It rose out of the glass and enveloped the senses. Years later I read somewhere that a wine “had the scent of the hair of the Marsh King’s daughter”. That was a perfect description for the musky, haunting aroma of my dad’s wine.

When I taste a similarly concentrated Gewürztraminer today I become an eighteen year-old on a river bank. I can taste freshly smoked trout and hot baked ham. I hear childish laughter and the lazy drone of bees in wild flowers. Taste is a powerful marker.

71 wines reviewed

It’s a good thing I like Gewürztraminer. I received 71 wines in response to my request for samples.

Gewürztraminer is a pleasure to taste. Unlike Sauvignon Blanc and Riesling it is relatively low in acidity. After a day tasting young Sauvignon Blanc about the only thing I can manage is a cold beer. At the end of a day tasting Gewürztraminer I feel like a nice chilled glass of wine, although Gewürztraminer isn’t usually my first choice.

Gewürztraminer is so pungent and powerful that it is relatively easy to distinguish the good from the bad. I found a few great wines, many very good wines and very few poor examples.

Most of the wines reviewed were from New Zealand although I did receive a good number of very good wines from France, or more precisely, from the Alsace region in the north east of France where the country borders Germany.

It seems logical to review the wines of each country separately because they each make significantly different styles of Gewürztraminer.

French (Alsace) Gewurztraminer

As a young man I was lucky to be able to share my overseas experience (OE) with my wife. I was even luckier to remain married after spending 100% of our time together during a year of travelling. We spent two months of that time in France and visited all major wine regions. We stayed longer in Alsace than any other region for a variety of reasons. The wine was cheap, the food was very good (and cheap), the region is very beautiful and it provided a useful base for day trips into southern Germany.

In Alsace Gewürztraminer is the third most planted grape variety close behind Riesling and Pinot Blanc. In terms of prestige it is second only to Riesling.

What does Alsace Gewürztraminer taste like? In general terms it is more concentrated than the New Zealand equivalent. Like Kiwi Gewürztraminer it has plenty of floral flavours, typically white rose (often described as “Turkish Delight”) but it can also have a medley of exotic tropical fruit flavours and, most importantly, a strong spicy component that may resemble cloves or anise.

I once asked an Alsace winemaker what he thought of German wines. He replied “German wines are made in chemist’s shops”. When I asked a German winemaker what he thought of Alsace wines he said, “ach, zey have no control over zere winemaking”. That just about sums up the difference between these two winemaking cultures.

An unpredictable, and potentially annoying, feature of Alsace wines is a varying sweetness level. A few producers, such as Trimbach (tastings), make uncompromisingly dry wines. Most let the sugar level in the grapes at harvest determine sweetness. In a cool year with low sugars more dry wines are made while in warmer years the wines tend to be sweeter. Climate change has seen a progression of warmer vintages and sweeter wines. If you can only drink truly dry wines, I suggest you forget about drinking Alsace Gewürztraminer (or buy Trimbach).

Label information can give a clue to a wine’s sweetness. Wines made from late-harvested (and sweeter) grapes will usually display the term “Vendage Tardive” (literally “late harvest”). These tend to be sweeter, but not as sweet as Sélection de Grains Nobles (SGN) which indicates that a wine has been made from grapes affected by botrytis, also known as noble rot. SGN wines are almost always lusciously sweet.

I tasted two Vendage Tardive wines in this tasting. Both performed very well and are highly recommended. They are Rolly Gassmann 2000 Kappelweg de Rorschwihr Vendage Tardives Gewurztraminer Alsace $95 (tastings), and Rolly Gassmann 2001 Brandhurst de Bergheim Vendage Tardives Gewurztraminer Alsace $89 (tastings). They’re definitely in the “special occasion” price category but were described by the person who shared the leftovers as “a religious experience”.

Rolly Gassmann is an outstanding producer. Other less expensive wines by Gassmann also performed well in the tasting. Check our website for full details.

The driest of the dozen Alsace wines tasted was the Hugel 2006 Gewurztraminer Alsace $42 (tastings). This is very classy wine at a pretty reasonable price.

Best value Alsace Gewürztraminer was Willm 2007 Reserve Gewürztraminer (tastings) which is a bargain at $26. It is moderately sweet and quite fragrant with typical floral and spice flavours.

New Zealand’s best Gewürztraminer

If France makes the world’s best Gewürztraminer I think New Zealand is a pretty good contender for second place.

Gisborne was the birthplace of good Kiwi Gewurztraminer at the hands of Dennis Irwin of Matawhero Wines (tastings). One of my top Kiwi Gewurztraminers, Stonecroft 2008 (tastings), acknowledges Irwin’s contribution on its back label.

Good Gewürztraminer is now made in every New Zealand wine region – my top ten wines hail from seven out of the country’s eight wine regions. They are:

95 Vinoptima 2004 Gewürztraminer, Gisborne $54

Outstanding wine from the county’s only Gewürztraminer specialist – view on

93 Huia 2008 Gewürztraminer, Marlborough $27

Absolutely pure wine with delicacy and power – view on

93 Villa Maria 2008 Ihumatao Vineyard, Gewurztraminer Auckland $29.99

Wonderfully complex wine from a vineyard near Auckland airport – view on

93 Montana 2007 Patutahi Gewürztraminer, Gisborne $32.95

Flagship wine with a great pedigree – view on

93 Stonecroft 2008 Gewürztraminer, Hawke’s Bay $45

Consistently top wines from the Gimblett Gravels district – view on

92 Montana 2007 McGloughlin Block Gewürztraminer, Gisborne $23.95

Big, rich and creamy wine in a moderately sweet style – view on

90 Waimea 2008 Gewürztraminer, Nelson $21.90

Opulent and exotic wine with floral, spice and tree fruit flavours – view on

90 Hunter’s 2008 Gewürztraminer, Marlborough $22.90

Awarded the trophy for top Gewürztraminer at the Air NZ Awards – view on

90 Misha’s Vineyard 2008 Gewürztraminer, Central Otago $25.95

Elegant win – Central Otago’s best – view on

90 Greystone 2008 Gewürztraminer, Waipara $26

Moderately dry wine from a hot new Waipara winery – view on

Most New Zealand Gewürztraminer is priced between $20 and $30 with a few daring to go higher. In my tasting of 71 wines only nine wines are priced below $20. Six of those wines didn’t earn my minimum qualifying mark of 78 points. The seventh scored a very creditable 84 points. It is Villa Maria 2008 Private Bin Gewürztraminer (tastings) – my top value Gewürztraminer by a long margin. I don’t know how they do it but Villa Maria Private Bin Gewürztraminer is an absolute cracker every year and has earned my “best value” tag for some considerable time.

First published in Taste Magazine NZ – Feb 2009.

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