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 email@example.com and let me know!
Les Vignerons Reunis de Kientzheim-Kaysersberg (no website)
“The Furst” Gewurztraminer, 2014
Schlossberg, Alsace, France
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.
Elgin, South Africa
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.