It’s our most consistent variety, blessing us with rich aromatic and textured wines.
CAMDEN Estate was my first introduction to an Australian gewurztraminer in 1989, some 30 years ago. I still recall the intensity on the nose, its incredible perfume and the lusciousness on the palate. The 2ha of vines were planted by Norman Hanckel in 1974. I know the vines haven’t survived as the vineyard was grafted over to chardonnay. What a shame, but financially it was always doomed; you can sell 10 bottles of chardonnay to every one bottle of gewurztraminer.
It is a strange varietal. The name is difficult to pronounce and the aromas polarise people to either love it or hate it. The vine produces grapes that are pigmented a pink colour and it ripens with high sugar levels, with high extract but low acidity. So when made into wine it can be a bit tricky and needs a deft touch. You run the risk of it being too high in alcohol or you resign yourself to make an off dry style. Some dry examples can top 14 per cent alcohol which is a rarity for a white wine. The wine can lack acidity and appear flabby.
Should a classic gewurztraminer be dry? It depends on what you like. The trend is fairly dry at the moment, but when you smell those sweet floral and lychee notes then go on to taste a dry wine, it seems a letdown. However, think about the number of white varieties that can taste the same? When all you can come up with to describe the nose is “citrus,” then gewurztraminer can offer something distinctive and different. I get disappointed when my students don’t recognise it. How can you miss the aromas of garden roses, rosewater and lychee! As the wine increases in alcohol you might smell ginger, Turkish delight, cardamom, allspice or sandalwood. The Oxford Companion to Wine even mentions bacon fat, which I admit I’ve never found. All these spices explains the Germanic reference to spice (gewurz) in its name. The name gewurztraminer can carry an umlaut (ü) in the German spelling but not the French.
Gewurztraminer is the aromatic version of sauvignon rose and while it was first recorded in Germany the varietal’s home is in Alsace. In days gone by, the majority of Australian wines were labelled as traminer. The name traminer has a longer history than gewurztraminer as it originates from the village of Tramin in Italy’s Tyrol region and was first mentioned in the 13th century.
A group trip to Domaine Weinbach in Alsace in 2014 gave me more insight into the varietal, especially when we tasted through 10 different styles ranging from 19g/litre of residual sugar up to 200. I found the spice aromas came out in the warmer vintages such as 2015. We tried some older vintages and learnt from owner Catherine Faller that aged gewurztraminer goes well with lobster as well as with aged Comte cheese, while the richer Selection de Grains Nobles can be matched with blue cheese.
Australian gewurztraminer has become inventive. David Ritchie, managing director at Delatite Wines in Victoria’s High Country, knows a bit about the variety as his family has been growing it for some 50 years. “We do four or five styles starting with a sparkling wine and finishing up with a dessert wine,” Ritchie comments. He also mentions the latest venture in supplying the fruit for a gewurztraminer schnapps!
His Hell’s Window, a pinot gris, gewurztraminer, riesling blend is a natural wine that is growing in popularity each year. Ritchie explains how it is made: “we co-ferment the grapes together so the different skin colours looks amazing in the open top fermenters. Riesling adds the acidity, pinot gris brings colour and texture to the palate, and gewurztraminer adds aromatics. It spends time on skins and is bottled with some residual sugar which allows it to continue to ferment so the wine has a slight sparkle, is a touch cloudy and is dry to taste when you open it.”
Topper’s Mountain in the New England region of New South Wales has pushed the boundaries of what can be achieved with this variety. Its Gewurz skinC is similar to Hell’s Window. “In 2018 we decided to add a textural skin contact gewurz to our line-up,” comments owner Mark Kirkby. “The first version was fermented in barrel and on skins for 90 days, and it’s the added dimension of seeds and skin tannins that makes this an excellent food match with dishes that need some tannin such as duck and pork or fatty salmon.” He also makes a dry barrel fermented style using 100 per cent new oak. “We thought this could work because of all the power and fruit intensity gewurz has, and it would blend well with and not be overpowered by the oak.” Topper’s Mountain puts the variety at the top of its list of wines. “It’s our most consistent variety, blessing us with rich aromatic and textured wines,” reflects Kirkby.
Back in Victoria, Deadman’s Hill is Delatite’s benchmark gewurztraminer and is made from a mix of young vines and the original planting which are now 50 years old. Delatite strives for textures and structure in its wines which comes at the expense of aromatics, but when you have got such pungent aromas in gewurztraminer then that might not be a bad thing. “Aromas vary from year to year” Ritchie said. “Rather than lychee we get closer to musk and rose water. Our wines are not as intense as they use to be as in 2009 when we moved to 100 per cent wild yeasts ferments. What we now achieve are wines with better palate weight and structure.” Most of the white wines see skin contact, lees contact and time fermenting in old puncheon oak barrels.
Delatite Reserve Catherine’s Block is its sweet wine which can have a touch of botrytis, however, since changing over to being biodynamic there has been less occurrence. It normally has around 70 to 80g of residual sugar and it is not as intensely aromatic as the other wines, but has the ability to age.
Gewurztraminer vine produces small bunches and is low yielding and prone to spring frost. At Delatite they have noticed that the old vines can be susceptible to eutypa dieback/dead arm disease. It is more prone to uneven ripeness known as millerandage (hens and chickens) and downy mildew. But Ritchie says one of his worst fears is global warming as this threatens to decrease the already low levels of acidity the grape possesses. However, with wineries like Delatite and Topper’s Mountain pushing the boundaries on wine styles gewurztraminer has a bright future.