Monday, March 21, 2016

Head-to-head wine tasting, Gewurztraminer: "The Furst" vs Paul Cluver.

Greetings, oenophiles! It's week 12 of my first big wine-education project of 2016 (inspired, to remind you, by a New Year's resolution to finally learn more about the subject), in which I'm trying the world's twenty most popular types of wine in chromatic order, from the darkest reds to the lightest whites. So far this year I've gotten through Syrah/Shiraz, Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Chianti (Sangiovese), Merlot, (Red) Zinfandel, Garnacha/Grenache, Beaujolais (Gamay), Cabernet Franc and White Zinfandel; and while technically the next wine on the intensity list to try is Chardonnay, I just got done trying one of the other most popular types of wine in the US, the White Zin previously mentioned, so I thought I'd take a break between the two and slip in a much more obscure wine that I've never tried before, Gewurztraminer.

And why is this obscure? After all, it's known as one of the 18 "noble" grapes first designated in the Renaissance, one of those fabled varietals that's been grown since at least the birth of Christ, and that was one of the founding grapes of the "fine wine" movement in France during the Roman Empire. But it's simply out of trendy popularity as of the exact times I'm writing; the Old World (i.e. European) version is delicate and sweet like perfume, which is not currently in style in our "bold reds all the time" age, and it's mostly known as a Germanic type of wine which is also currently out of fashion in the early 21st century. Now add the fact that, much like Pinot Noir, it's a fussy grape whose growth season can go randomly wrong in all kinds of ways (Gewurztraminer vines bud early, and thus are vulnerable to late frosts, and need dry summers with cold nights to ripen properly); and also add the fact that it's hardly grown anywhere anymore, constituting something like only 4 percent of all the wine made on the planet on any given year, and you can see why it's currently easy to overlook when at your local store.

That's too bad, though, because this is a perfect example of why Old World fans claim to like European wines so much; it's a beautifully subtle drink that's heavily influenced by the terrior surrounding it (including what kind of soil it was grown in, and literally what kinds of produce was in the field next to it), unique from most other whites because of being what's called an "aromatic" wine, meaning that it kind of smells like flowers and that you can tell that literally across the room from the bottle in question. Its traditional popularity is tied more to the geographical region of the Alps than it is to any political boundaries; so in other words, Gewurztraminer is mostly well-known in eastern France, southern Germany, Austria, Switzerland, the northern tip of Italy, and trailing off into the Balkan areas of Croatia and Slovenia, which used to be the extreme western border of Mesopotamia, the ancient region where wine was first invented 20,000 years ago, which is why this particular grape goes so far back in European winemaking history.

Out of all those areas, though, the one place in Europe most known for Gewurztraminer is the Alsace region of France; for those who don't know, this is the eastern tip of that country that butts up against Germany and Switzerland, a land that has exchanged ownership between France and Germany something like 50 times since the Roman era, and thus is this wonderfully perfect cultural blend between the two. That's where I picked up one of the bottles of tonight's tastings, from a winery known as Les Vignerons Reunis de Kientzheim-Kaysersberg; interestingly, the winery itself has no website or other online presence, and like New World wines markets itself through a trendy brand name ("The Furst") and a hipster label by visual artist Dan Steffan, and when a European winery does all this it's a pretty clear sign that they're not taken very seriously in the Old World country where they reside, and that they've decided to instead compete against New World brands for American dollars and mostly export sales. (With this in mind, it's also not surprising that, out of the twenty different types of Alsace Gewurztraminer wines being sold at my neighborhood Binny's, this was literally the only one under $20, with in fact most of the others going in the $75 to $100 range.)

Ah, but! One of the things I've been learning during my research this year is that white wines are much more susceptible to being changed in aroma and taste by the circumstances behind their growth than red wine is; so for at least the next two wines I try (this and Chardonnay), I thought it would be interesting to not only pick up a traditional Old World version but also a New World one from somewhere particularly hot and arid, just to see what kinds of changes I might discover between the two because of it. The New World version I picked up is in fact my second wine from South Africa -- a winery called Paul Cluver, located in a cooler region of the country called Elgin, with an estate that goes all the way back to the late Victorian Age. And I have to say, the cliche about American wine drinkers is true, that we automatically like a wine more when there's an interesting story behind the company that made it; a former beneficiary of apartheid, the enlightened current generation of Cluvers was one of the mentors of the very first black economic empowerment wine brand, Thandi Wines, who has also worked with the South African government to set aside half their large estate to serve as a UN-recognized biosphere (including wandering herds of wild antelope), complete with a 600-seat outdoor amphitheater on the grounds that hosts various popular South African musical groups all summer long. Wow, I want to visit this place!

The head-to-head tastings of these wines did indeed turn out to be remarkably different, so I will leave you today with the detailed tasting notes below. Next week is my tasting of the notoriously crappy Chardonnay, otherwise known as "butter bombs" because of California wineries' tendencies in the 1980s to literally float giant splintered chunks of oak in the juice as it was fermenting; so if you have a recommendation of a particularly great California Chardonnay for me to try, please do drop me a line at and let me know!

Les Vignerons Reunis de Kientzheim-Kaysersberg (no website)
“The Furst” Gewurztraminer, 2014
Schlossberg, Alsace, France
13.5% ABV

Look: A clear bright yellow with surprisingly strong legs.

Smell: Befitting its “aromatic wine” status, this has an intensity of smell that hits you all the way across the room when you first open the bottle. It's hard for me to place the aroma, probably because most people compare it to the lychee fruit and I've never had a lychee; it smells sort of weakly citrusy like a grapefruit, but also perfumed like a flower.

Taste: An interestingly unique taste I wasn't expecting; dry despite the perfumy smell, lighter on the tongue than I would've guessed, with the consistency of literally fruit juice and a pleasantly mysterious aspect I have a hard time identifying, almost as if maybe you juiced a watermelon and mixed it with grapes.

Gewurztraminer, 2013
Elgin, South Africa
12.0% ABV

Look: Another clear, bright yellow, this time with many bubbles almost like the head of a beer.

Smell: Like the other Gewurtztraminer, a strong aroma that carries across the room, but this time the much more traditional sour/savory smell I usually associate with New World reds like Malbec and Shiraz.

Taste: So incredibly different than the other Gewurtztraminer – bold, strongly reminiscent of passion fruit (think mango), with a thick consistency that leaves a coating in the mouth, and a powerfully strong oak aftertaste that I usually associate with Chardonnay.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Wine tasting: Sutter Home White Zinfandel, no year listed

An exciting week around here; I'm officially halfway through this first self-taught wine course of 2016* (which I'm doing, to remind you, as part of a New Year's resolution to get better educated about the subject), which means I'm now done with all the ten reds I'll be trying (including Syrah/Shiraz, Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Chianti/Sangiovese, Merlot, (Red) Zinfandel, Garnacha/Grenache, Gamay/Beaujolais, and Cabernet Franc), and am ready to start the ten whites that are left. Or, well, that's not strictly true; because first before I get to the white whites, I'm trying out a pink wine, also known as rosé wine, which yet other people refer to as blush wine.

(*And don't forget, my second self-taught course this year, lasting essentially the entire length of this coming summer, is to teach myself all there is to know specifically about French wines, so please do drop me a line at ilikejason [at] with any tips or advice you might have for me. And what will be my autumn tasting project? I'm still looking for suggestions on that too!)

Rosé wines don't come from a specific type of grape (there are rosé versions on the market of numerous reds I've already tried this year), but rather the way they're prepared; because for those who don't know, all grape juice starts out as white when first squeezed out of the fruit, and only becomes red because of it soaking with the grapes' dark skins during the fermentation process, meaning that you can achieve all kinds of different shades of red (and thus different intensities of flavor) depending on how long you let the juice and skins mingle. This is exactly, for example, what the small California family winery Sutter Home started doing with Zinfandel grape juice in the early 1970s, mostly to help intensify the flavor of the juice still left in the vats after dumping some of it, but with a local wine shop convincing the company to bottle up that early-removed juice as well and sell it to their hippie customers; it was first marketed by the company under the name Oeil de Perdrix, but then changed to "White" Zinfandel after complaints from the FDA about misleading advertising.

This would've been the end of the story, except that in 1976 Sutter Home's supply of White Zin experienced what's known as a "stuck fermentation," whereby all the yeast dies out before all the sugar's been completely converted into alcohol; but instead of the disaster they thought they had on their hands, one taste made them realize what a delightful concoction they had accidentally stumbled upon; and it was this super-sweet version that became a runaway hit with the public, eventually turning the small winery into a huge corporate behemoth that now sells tens of millions of cases every year, right at the same time that California's wine industry in general first started receiving worldwide attention, these two facts eventually becoming so cemented in the public mind that they're difficult now to separate them. And sure, you can complain (and many do) about all the downsides to this -- that it produced a cottage industry for super-cheap "alcoholic Kool-Aid" that did no favors to the wine world in general, a type of wine that has no subtlety or complexity and is mostly meant for quick drunkenness on hot summer days -- but if you're a beginner like me who is trying to celebrate the uniqueness that each different type of wine on the market brings to thoughtful tastings like the ones I'm doing in 2016, there's no reason to poo-poo White Zinfandel in particular, despite the rather negative reputation it's picked up over the years from people who are serious about their wine.

Usually with these tastings, I go down to my neighborhood Binny's and try to find something on the shelves that is both relatively cheap and that has a high posted score at places like Wine Spectator or Robert B. Parker; but this time I thought, what the hell, why not try the literal brand of White Zin from Sutter Home that made this such a huge success in the first place, which at $4.50 will also likely be the cheapest tasting I'll do all year. (And also note that at 8.5% ABV, this has roughly half the alcohol as most of the reds I've been tasting this year, yet another reason this kind of wine is so popular among casual drinkers at social events on warm days, which gets cut in half yet again if you mix it half-and-half with seltzer water [known as a "wine spritzer"], a hugely popular way to drink light wines like these.) My detailed notes are below, but in general I found this to be not nearly as bad as its reputation makes it out to be; I mean, make no mistake, it's as sweet as fruit punch and lacks any kind of subtlety at all, but it was certainly enjoyably quaffable in a way that made me nostalgic for my '70s childhood when my countercultural parents and all their friends would drink this by the gallon at summer picnics and barbecues. It's undeniable that there are a lot of better wines on the market besides this, but you shouldn't let that stop you from enjoying a nice bottle of White Zin on a warm August day.

White Zinfandel, no year listed
Napa Valley, California
8.5% ABV

Look: A light pink in color, with the consistency of water.

Smell: An almost sickly sweet aroma when sniffing a still glass, but that gets much more complex and darker after swirling it a bit. (I'm surprised by how different this is from one type of wine to the next; some smell the same no matter what you do to it, while others smell like a completely different wine right after vigorously aerating the glass.)

Taste: An almost entirely sweet taste in the mouth, strongly reminiscent of cherries and strawberries, with a light finish that makes your lips a little sticky afterwards. True to its reputation, there is absolutely no subtlety here; the taste is the same from lips to tongue to throat, with no distinct aftertaste at all. Basically like drinking alcoholic Kool-Aid, and it's easy to see why this caught on so big with people who are otherwise not really into wine (and why this was perfect for 1980s California in particular).

After a Full Glass: After an entire glass paired with a dinner of white fish and asparagus, I unfortunately found the sweetness of the wine to be overwhelming, much like trying to eat dinner and dessert at the exact same time. A good wine to drink by itself, but I don't recommend having it with a meal, or at the very least have it with something hot and spicy.