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Gewurztraminer: Varietal Focus

Like the proverbial little girl with the curl, when it’s good, Gewürztraminer is very good; but when it’s bad, it’s awful. This noble white variety with the pinkish grapes can produce spectacular grapes when grown in the proper environment. Those grapes can be made into memorable, aromatic wines. Grown in the wrong environment, the grapes often produce the opposite results. Luckily, with the assistance of modern technology, there are more good times than bad these days.

Gewürztraminer is an easy wine to recognize with its full body, deep perfumey aroma of heavily scented roses and its exotic flavor of lychees and tropical fruit. There are times when these attributes are overpowering, and the wine seems to have too much of everything, but usually the pluses out- number the negatives.

Gewürztraminer has become the most widely-planted version of the Traminer family. Because of its pinkish color, the variety often translates into unique golden-colored wines and wines with a copper tinge. Growing this grape is not an easy task, except in the Alsatian region of France, where it flourishes. Its nature is to develop small bunches and not be very productive. Its early-budding leaves are vulnerable to frosts and it is particularly prone to viral diseases, but modern technology is working to overcome some of these problems. The viticultural station at Colmar, France is developing virus-free clones that should be available to world grape growers in the near future.

To develop quality Gewürztraminer grapes, a generally cool climate with daytime temperature range of 60–80° F (15.6–26.7° C) is needed. Evening temperatures in the 45–55° F (7.2–12.8° C) are ideal. Well-drained soil and average rainfall also contribute to ideal growing conditions.

Making a quality Gewürztraminer wine can be difficult unless the wine is in a positive acid-sugar balance before fermentation. Gewürztraminer has a tendency toward higher sugars and lower acids with high pH counts. These balances have to be monitored. High pH counts can cause a wine to taste flabby and flat and, unfortunately, some Gewürztraminers are made this way. Ideal sugar counts should be in the 19–23° Brix range and the acids should register between 0.6 to 0.9 percent. If the sugar and acids are in balance, the pH count is usually in line.

Growing regions

There is as much Traminer grown in Austria as there is in Germany, but not as much as in Alsace. The late-harvest versions of this grape are legendary and costly. The longevity for late-harvested Gewürztraminers is almost as long as it is for Rieslings.

Eastern Europe is also home to Gewürztraminer, but it carries different names than the one we are familiar with. In Hungary, for example, it is called Tramini, Drumin and Pinat Cervena. Most of the Gewürztraminer wines made in these regions are sweet. Their tastes are diluted and the wine is very light. In Russia, Ukraine and Moldavia, Gewürztraminer wines are used to spice up sparkling wines.

In the New World, most of the Gewürztraminer vineyards were planted in regions that are too warm to produce enough acid — unless the grapes are picked so early that the character of the variety is lost. Australia and New Zealand are the primary regions where the variety was planted in overly-warm climates and, as a result, the acreage in those countries is diminishing.

The Pacific Northwest of the United States has proven to be a very successful region for growing Gewürztram-iner. Some Washington and Oregon wineries have been producing excellent Gewürztraminer wines. The climatic conditions of these states seem well-suited to the development of the variety. Reports of outstanding table and late-harvest Gewürztraminer wines have come out of the Okanagan Valley region of British Columbia in Canada. Plantings of Gewürztraminer in New York State’s Long Island and Finger Lakes regions also seem to be doing well. California has had mixed results with Gewürztraminer, with the poorer grapes coming from regions that were too warm for the variety.

Gewürz juice and kits

Large quantities of California Gewürztraminer juice and concentrates are available to home winemakers through local wine supply stores and regional fruit distributors. I make some Gewürztraminer each year, and I usually buy Gewürztraminer juice and make the wine from the juice as that saves a lot of time and effort. This year I made a Gewürztraminer from a kit with excellent results. I hadn’t made a kit wine in years and wanted to see how far the technology had improved. The kit was a “Vino del Vida” wine kit (Spagnol’s Beer and Winemaking Supplies; Delta, British Columbia) that cost $48. This meant that my final yield of thirty 750 mL bottles cost me about $1.60 per bottle . . . a real bargain.

Most kit manufacturers make Gewürztraminer kits and the origin of the Gewürztraminer juice will vary depending upon the kit producer. South America, different countries in Europe and the U.S. are all suppliers of Gewürztraminer juices for kits. Gewürztraminer concentrates are also readily available and hail from the same geographic regions as do the kits. There are also stabilized Gewürz-traminer wine juices available from European, South American and U.S. producers. Fresh Gewürztraminer grapes are available primarily from California, Washington, Oregon, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and several regions of Canada. Additional plantings of Gewürztraminer can be found in many other states, but finding quality grapes may be difficult. In most regions, it might be more prudent to use stabilized Gewürztraminer juices, which are readily available through most winemaking supply dealers.

Wine from Gewürztraminer

Gewürztraminer can be made in many styles and for many purposes. It can range from dry, to sweet, to fortified to sparkling. It can also be used for blending. Most of the Alsatian versions are dry (trocken) or semi-dry (halb-trocken) and both types are good. Dry Gewürztraminer, with no residual sugar, is best served alongside Oriental or Indian cuisine, with which it matches up very well. The wide range of exotic flavors in the food complement the Gewürztraminer’s flavor and aroma. Sweeter versions, with three percent or more of residual sugar, are best served as a dessert wine with sweet pastries and fruit cream dishes. Slightly sweet Gewürztraminer — which weighs in at between one and a half to three percent of residual sugar — can be delightful with sweet, cream foods or some cream desserts. Sweeter versions are ideal for new wine drinkers who prefer this style at the outset of their tasting careers. I’ve tasted a fortified Gewürztraminer with eight percent sugar and 19 percent alcohol that was outstanding and much like a white Sauternes. I like it with one percent sugar in the final wine; that seems to take the edge off of it, and gives the wine a nice balance.

A sparkling Gewürztraminer won a gold medal in our amateur competition a few years back, and it seems that each year we have several Gewürz-traminer wines winning medals and citations. Many of the winemakers I spoke to about Gewürztraminer liked to drink and make the wine, but several stated that they feared growing the grape in the East and Northeast because it was a difficult grape to grow and the quantities were small.

Recommended yeast strains

RED STAR Côtes des Blancs, formerly known as Epernay 2, is a slow-fermenting, low-foaming yeast that brings out a lot of floral and fruity notes. It’s primarily used for “Germanic” style white wines. Use this strain with yeast nutrient (Yeastex or Fermaid) for best results.

Lalvin AC lowers acid perception in dry and off-dry white wines, while developing and maintaining fresh fruit and floral aromatics. It ferments at a moderate rate and is widely available in wine supply stores in the U.S.

Gewürztraminer recipes

For those who would like to make Gewürztraminer from a concentrate the instructions are outlined below. This is a tried-and-true recipe used by several of our local home winemakers with excellent results in making a dry (trocken) Gewürztraminer.

If you are able to acquire Gewürztraminer grapes, the winemaking procedure will be a little more complicated. You must decide whether you want to make a dry (trocken), semi-dry (halb-trocken) or sweet wine. You also will have the option of making a pinkish wine (leave the crushed skins and pulp in the must for a day or so, then press), or a regular white wine by pressing the juice off of the skins the same day you crush the grapes.

You want to retain the fruitiness of the variety, so don’t put the wine through malolactic fermentation. RED STAR Côtes des Blancs is the recommended yeast for making this wine from grapes. A yeast nutrient is recommended, as is pectic enzyme, which will help with the pressing of the juice.

Acid and sugar contents should be evaluated prior to fermenting. Ideal ranges for acid are between 0.6–0.9 percent, and for sugar content adjust to between 19–23° Brix. Make the wine dry (trocken) and then sweeten, if wanted, prior to bottling. To add authenticity to your Gewürztraminer, bottle the wine in tall, slender, German-type bottles.

Gewürztraminer is an excellent companion to many foods. I like dry Gewürztraminer with roast pork, pork chops, veal dishes, some Oriental and Indian dishes and soft cheeses. Semi-dry Gewürztraminer matches well with some Tex-Mex cuisine and sweet and sour Oriental dishes. Sweeter wines can be used as aperitifs and dessert wines with apple strudel, Black Forest cake and peach melba.

Dry Gewürztraminer Recipe

Yield: 5 U.S. gallons (19 L)

Ingredients

  • 1 can (96 oz./2.8 L) Gewürztraminer concentrate
  • 5.8 cans (16.3 L) water
  • 5 cups (1.1 kg) sugar
  • 3 teaspoons (8.8 g) yeast nutrient
  • 4 teaspoons (13.6 g) bentonite
  • 2 teaspoons (28.8 g) acid blend
  • 1 package (5 g) Red Star Côtes des Blancs yeast
  • 8 Campden tablets, or 1 tsp. (6.2 g) potassium metabisulfite powder

Step by step

  1. Clean and sanitize all of your winemaking equipment.
  2. Put the water, Gewürztraminer concentrate, sugar, yeast nutrient, bentonite and acid blend into a clean six- or seven-gallon (23–27 L) fermentation container. Stir well, making sure that all of the ingredients are dissolved.
  3. Dissolve the yeast into one cup (240 mL) of above mixture, then add this solution to the fermentation container and mix well. Place the fermenter in a cool, dry location. The container should be covered, but not sealed.
  4. Stir daily until the fermentation starts, then discontinue stirring.
  5. If there are no bubbles or gas (or any other evidence of fermentation) after three or four days, warm the container to about 75° F (24° C) until surface bubbles appear. Continue stirring the contents once a day. Remove the fermenter to a cool location as soon as fermentation starts.
  6. Fermentation is complete when bubbling stops and sediment forms in the bottom of the container. At this point, check the specific gravity with your hydrometer. It should read below 1.000.
  7. Allow the wine to settle out for one to two weeks after fermentation has run to completion. Do not disturb the wine during this settling period.
  8. Crush two Campden tablets to a powder , or measure out 1/8 teaspoon (0.7 g) of potassium metabisulfite powder, and add it to a sanitized five-gallon (19 L) glass carboy before racking. Repeat at each racking.
  9. Rack the wine. Siphon off the top clear wine into the sanitized five-gallon (19 L) carboy, being careful not to disturb the heavy

Gene Spaziani is author of “The Home Winemaker’s Companion” (Storey Books) and an award-winning home winemaker from Mystic, CT.