I love Gewurztraminer in much the same way as I love Turkish Delight … choose the right time and place to enjoy either and the experience will knock your socks off! If anyone tells me they don’t like Gewurztraminer I know they haven’t tasted the right wine at the right moment or with the perfect food match.

I recently visited my favourite Auckland Indian restaurant, Satya (the one on New North Road opposite the Ford dealership), armed with a bottle of well-chilled Lawson’s Dry Hills 2010 “The Pioneer” Gewurztraminer (tastings). It was a sultry summer evening and we were all suffering from crushing Auckland humidity. We ordered an entree of Dahi Puri, the restaurant’s signature dish, a delicately spicy medley of mashed potatoes and sweet tamarind chutney in a crunchy puri shell. I poured everyone a chilled glass of Gewurztraminer.

We savoured the Dahi Puri and Gewurztraminer in deafening silence, broken eventually with a chorus of “that was fantastic!” Two of our group confessed that they had never liked Gewurztraminer but admitted that the wine was one of the best they’d ever tasted. Everyone loved it as much as they loved the Dahi Puri. When a great dish and a great wine work together as well as they did that evening the result can be truly spectacular.

A unique wine

Gewurztraminer is perhaps the most pungently fruity wine available on wine shop shelves today. The Gewurztraminer grape belongs to a small family of grapes known as “aromatic varieties”. They include Muscat and Riesling, both notoriously fruity wines.

When fully ripe the Gewurztraminer grape has a distinctively floral character, particularly rose petal but also lavender. The wine is often described as being “perfumed” or of having an aroma resembling potpourri. Lychee and other exotic tropical fruits are often noted by wine tasters.

The ripest and most concentrated examples can have a distinctive spicy character that may resemble cloves or star anise plus a host of other spices.

The name of the grape literally means “spicy traminer” or “perfumed traminer”. The ancient grape, Tramin, was believed to have originated in the town of Tramin in northern Italy. At some point it mutated into the even more pungent red-skinned grape variety we know today.

Gewurztraminer is grown in France, Italy, Slovenia, Spain, Australia, Bulgaria, Croatia and Hungary as well as many New World countries including New Zealand and Chile. The variety performs best in cool climate regions and as a result is relatively unknown in Australia.

The world’s best Gewurztraminer is made in Alsace a region on the border of Germany in the north-east of France. It is the second most planted grape variety in Alsace after Riesling. Alsace Gewurztraminer can be dry but is more often at least slightly sweet with a small amount of very sweet dessert wines made from grapes that have been affected by the concentrating vineyard mould, botrytis.

In my view New Zealand makes the world’s second best Gewurztraminer. I’ve expressed that view before. To date it has never been challenged.

We make a range of different styles. Although good wine has been made in every one of the country’s eight regions wine styles tend to vary from region to region with riper, richer and more lush wines as you head north and finer, more delicate and restrained wines to the south. I don’t have a clear regional favourite although it is worth noting that nine out of my ten top wines were made from grapes grown in South Island regions (nearly 80% of the wines tasted were from South Island regions).

The other major style variation is sweetness. Bone-dry Gewurztraminers do exist but they are fairly rare. Gewurztraminer can often have a very slight trace of bitterness on the finish. That bitterness can easily be masked by leaving a little unfermented grape sugar in the wine. A touch of sweetness in Gewurztraminer also tends to amplify the wine’s flavour while adding a little extra weight. The challenge for winemakers is to make off-dry or medium-dry wine without allowing the wine to seem overtly sweet. It’s all about balance.

The sweetest wine in my top ten list just happens to be in number one place. The other nine wines are less overtly sweet although none can be described as being bone-dry.

What’s the perfect time to drink Gewurztraminer?

While Sauvignon Blanc, Rosé and Riesling are summer wines (think fresh and tangy) and Cabernet Merlot and Syrah are winter wines (think rich and hearty) Gewurztraminer, like Chardonnay, is a seasonal all-rounder.

In summer you can serve the wine really cold for an extra boost to its thirst-quenching qualities while in winter the weight and richness of Gewurztraminer (served less well-chilled) can offer a welcome break from a red wine diet while delivering enough flavour and power to handle the heartier foods typically enjoyed when it’s cold outside. Gewurztraminer is a classic match with strong cheeses such as Munster or even Limburger (or their Kiwi equivalents) – the sort of cheeses I might enjoy in front of a fire in deepest winter. Smoked cheese is also a good match.

It was once highly fashionable to offer guests a glass of sparkling wine before dinner. I prefer to give them a reasonably well-chilled (depending on the season) and slightly sweet Gewurztraminer – Spy Valley 2001 Envoy Gewurztraminer is a perfect choice of aperitif. It’s also good at the end of a meal with full-flavoured cheese.

Gewurztraminer is a reasonably food-fussy wine. It suits dishes that have a little sweetness (unless you are serving a dry Gewurztraminer) and are reasonably full flavoured to match this typically full-flavoured wine.

Lightly spiced Thai curries have the sort of subtle underlying sweetness and flavour intensity that makes them a perfect match for Gewurztraminer. My all-time favourite is vegetable and chick pea fritters in a green curry sauce. The wine goes well with Tandoori chicken, Tikka Masala, sweet and sour pork, pork with mustard, chicken teriyaki and, believe it or not, roasted asparagus.

Young or old?

Good New Zealand Gewurztraminer can benefit from a year or two in bottle to allow flavours to develop and integrate but, with few exceptions, it is not the sort of wine I would recommend keeping for more than a few years. Drink and enjoy it while it’s at its fruitiest best.

How much to buy a good one?

It’s difficult to make and profitably sell good Gewurztraminer for less than $20. My top ten wines retail between $20 and a little over $30 so you don’t have to pay a king’s ransom to buy the best. Avoid cheap Gewurztraminer unless it has been heavily discounted, is from a reputable producer and is a year or two old, perhaps three years at most. If possible try the wine before you buy, especially when buying in bulk. When you find the wine you love buy a year’s supply in one hit – you won’t regret it.

New Zealand’s Top Ten Gewurztraminers

1st Spy Valley 2011 Envoy Gewurztraminer, Marlborough $28.30

Wonderfully intense and luscious wine in a truly Alsace-like style. I loved this wine so much I (unwisely) drank the rest of the bottle that evening. – view on

2nd Villa Maria 2010 Ihumatao Vineyard Gewurztraminer, Auckland $31.99

Made from grapes grown in a volcanic cone near Auckland airport. Purity with power. An off/dry wine with classic rose petal and spice flavours. – view on

3rd Lawson’s Dry Hills 2010 The Pioneer Gewurztraminer, Marlborough $32

The legendary Gewurztraminer label has been among the country’s best for more than a decade. Silken-textured wine with lychee, Turkish delight and subtle anise flavours. – view on

4th Blackenbrook 2009 Gewurztraminer, Nelson $24

Richly textured wine with a medley of classic rose petal/potpourri and spice/ginger flavours and an incredibly lengthy finish. Made in a medium/dry style. – view on

5th Greystone 2011 Gewurztraminer, Waipara $28

One of the more exciting wines to emerge in recent years. Delicate but powerful flavours that define the variety. Beautifully balanced with the merest hint of sweetness. – view on

6th Johanesshof 2011 Gewurztraminer, Marlborough $29

Another highly decorated label (they also make a dry Gewurztraminer) in a medium style. Intense, fragrant wine that’s leaded with spicy flavours. – view on

7th Te Mania 2011 Gewurztraminer, Nelson $21.99

Big, full-flavoured Gewurztraminer with strong Turkish delight and ginger flavours. Impressive wine with character. – view on

8th Waimea 2011 Gewurztraminer, Nelson $23

Rich, fleshy wine with rose water, lychee and subtle spicy flavours. Nelson is punching well above its weight with three out of the top ten wines. – view on

9th Wither Hills 2010 Cellar Release Gewurztraminer, Marlborough $25

Delicately pungent wine with wild flower, potpourri and exotic fruit flavours. Ethereal and charming, subtle rather than full-flavoured. – view on

10th Forrest 2010 The Valleys Wairau Gewurztraminer, Marlborough $20

Moderately sweet wine in a fine-boned style with impressive purity plus a long and delicate finish. Floral and honey flavours with a suggestion of spice. – view on

First published in Taste Magazine NZ – Feb 2012.

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