Dunne on Wine

Dunne on Wine: Is gewürztraminer too assertive for our tastes?

Lazy Creek Vineyards in Mendocino County turns out a focused, faithful and flavorful rendition of gewürztraminer.
Lazy Creek Vineyards in Mendocino County turns out a focused, faithful and flavorful rendition of gewürztraminer.

Earlier this spring, a newsletter from Berkeley wine merchant Kermit Lynch included a brief paean to gewürztraminer.

“Nothing else delivers the same amount of complexity and jaw-dropping wonderment – the soaring aromatics, the range of flavors, the endless finish,” wrote Dixon Brooke. “Given the adventurousness of American diners these days, gewürztraminer ought to be poised for a comeback.”

Gewürztraminer, adds Brooke, is an especially fitting accompaniment for Asian cuisines. “It is hard to imagine anything better with the abundance of exotic spices and the prevalence of spicy hot and sweet dishes.”

Whether gewürztraminer is on the cusp of a popular revival is anybody’s guess. For decades, conventional wisdom has maintained that the varietal doesn’t sell well in American restaurants and wine shops because “gewürztraminer” is difficult to pronounce. (Try “geh-vairtz-tra-mee-ner.”)

But that view doesn’t hold up, given that Americans have become quite comfortable at pronouncing “cabernet sauvignon” and “pinot noir,” so why not “gewürztraminer?”

More likely, Americans still largely suspect that white wines of Alsatian, Austrian and German heritage will be invariably sweet, which isn’t the case at all. Many gewürztraminers, whether from Europe, the United States or elsewhere, are bone dry.

But here’s another possible reason why gewürztraminer isn’t more popular among Americans: As Brooke suggests, no other white wine is as aggressive, tenacious, complex and rich as gewürztraminer. Difficult as it may be to imagine, gewürztraminer just might be too bold, pungent and unrelenting for the American palate.

That isn’t to say that gewürztraminers always are brassy, without refinement and grace. They can have that, too, but without sacrificing the floral notes, lush fruit and fringed spiciness that distinguish the wine.

I was reminded of the range and allure of gewürztraminer at the International Alsace Varietals Festival at Boonville in Mendocino County’s Anderson Valley in February.

About 30 of them were on the agenda, most of which were poured during the final grand tasting. Most were Californian, but Oregon, Alsace and the Finger Lakes district of New York state also were represented.

I was surprised by the total, especially from California, widely regarded as too warm for gewürztraminer, which shines most brightly when it is grown in cool climates. Many California farmers have bought into that view, relinquishing their vineyards of gewürztraminer to grape varieties more at ease with the state’s heat and aridity, and which, not coincidentally, command higher prices than gewürztraminer. Three decades ago, 4,591 of California’s vineyard acres were planted to gewürztraminer. Today, the total is less than half that.

The decline in California acreage devoted to gewürztraminer, however, has its upside: Growers and vintners are putting it in sites that are relatively cool by California standards, places like Santa Barbara, Mendocino and Monterey counties, where by history it will thrive best.

As I drifted from table to table in the Home Arts building on the Mendocino County Fairgrounds, I was struck by an unanticipated range in style and by the surprisingly high percentage of gewürztraminers to my liking. By and large, they were exuberant, prismatic, structured and balanced. The note of bitterness with which gewürztraminer often says goodbye on the palate often was masked with a kiss of sweetness.

Here are my favorites from that tasting:

▪ Brooks 2013 Columbia Gorge Oak Ridge Vineyard gewürztraminer ($20): Gorgeous ripe fruit running mostly to lychee and peach is hung on a lithe frame, adding up to one elegant and vivid take on gewürztraminer.

▪ Foris Vineyards Winery 2013 Rogue Valley Dry gewürztraminer ($14): This unexpectedly agile and concentrated rendition of dry gewürztraminer has a vein of minerality that Oregon’s other white wines often carry.

▪ Goldeneye Winery 2013 Anderson Valley Confluence Vineyard Estate gewürztraminer ($35): A sweetness appropriately brightened the wine’s apple and apricot highlights while the spice here makes for seamless harmony.

▪ Handley Cellars 2013 Anderson Valley gewürztraminer ($20): At Handley Cellars winemakers Milla Handley and Randy Schock treat the varietal as if it were the most significant release in their lineup. Grapes from three vineyards are fermented and aged to retain representative flavor and refreshing acidity while rounding out the mouthfeel. The result is an uncommonly composed gewürztraminer, floral in aroma and fruity and spicy in flavor. It was the most persistent interpretation of the varietal all day.

▪ Lamoreaux Landing Wine Cellars 2013 Finger Lakes Estate Semi-Dry gewürztraminer ($15): That “semi-dry” on the label suggests that the wine will be a little sweet. And it is, but barely, given that the high acidity that distinguishes wines out of the Finger Lakes offsets the sugar, leaving the wine lilting with fresh fruit. In build, this was one of the huskier gewürztraminers of the day, but its richness and complexity weren’t at all weighty or tiresome.

▪ Lazy Creek Vineyards 2013 Mendocino County Anderson Valley gewürztraminer ($22): Lazy Creek turns out a focused, faithful and flavorful rendition of gewürztraminer. It’s dry, wiry, concentrated and adaptable.

▪ Markus Wine Co. 2014 Lodi Mokelumne Glen Vineyards Nuvola gewürztraminer ($19): Here’s a gewürztraminer that shows that fidelity and class can be seized in the varietal even when the grapes aren’t grown in a cool region. Winemaker Markus Niggli is Swiss, and his take on gewürztraminer is purely European, meaning that the 2014 is dry, lean and crisp, its lines angular, its fruit understated, and its minerality and acidity pronounced. This isn’t a typically aggressive gewürztraminer, but speaks to the varietal’s more mannerly side. I didn’t taste this wine at Boonville, but subsequently enjoyed a bottle from a visit to Lodi.

▪ Navarro Vineyards and Winery 2013 Mendocino County Anderson Valley Dry gewürztraminer ($19.50). Navarro long ago set the standard for dry gewürztraminer in California – for 25 years every release has won at least one gold medal on the competition circuit – and this latest interpretation upholds that standing with straight-forward aroma and flavor, a lithe yet athletic structure and razory acidity.

▪ Pierre Sparr 2011 Alsace Mambourg Grand Cru gewürztraminer ($42): One of the richer gewürztraminers of the day, with a creamy texture, a pleasing sweetness and a textbook definition of the varietal in its aroma and flavor – rose petals for the former, pears and peaches for the latter.

▪ Stony Hill Vineyard 2013 Napa Valley gewürztraminer ($24): OK, so Napa Valley isn’t one of California’s cooler growing areas, especially up Spring Mountain way, home to Stony Hill. Nevertheless, the folks at Stony Hill long ago staked out a site pretty much ideal for gewürztraminer – high, rocky, facing northeast and cooled by breezes comforting even during the summer. Thus, the 2013 growing year yielded a gewürztraminer dry, medium-bodied, as aromatic as the rose garden at McKinley Park, punctuated with telltale spice, and fruity with suggestions of lychee and peach.

▪ Thomas Fogarty Winery & Vineyards 2012 Monterey gewürztraminer ($19): Early on, Thomas Fogarty developed a following for its hefty yet energetic gewürztraminers, and three decades later it hasn’t veered from that style. The 2012 is ripe, rich, balanced and developed, its fruit evoking echoes of apricot, lychee and peach, its spice ginger and clove.

Wine critic and competition judge Mike Dunne’s selections are based solely on open and blind tastings, judging at competitions, and visits to wine regions. He can be reached at mikedunne@winegigs.com.