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Gewurztraminer and Pinot Gris: Bilingual Grapes

At The Table

By Jim Clarke
April 2007

Pinot Gris and Gewürztraminer: one has what is possibly the most distinctive nose in the world of wine, but is extremely unfashionable. The other is increasingly popular, especially under the Italianate name, Pinot Grigio, but often in a form that is best described as “innocuous.” What they have in common is an apparent preference for the borderlands of German-speaking Europe, where French and Italian winemaking tastes intermingles with Teutonic climates.

They also share a pinkish complexion while still on the vine; the color is in the skins, not the juice, so when the grapes are pressed they yield a white (albeit deeply colored) wine. The prefix “Gewürz” means “spice,” and has a strong suggestive quality; the wines do sometimes show some “spicy” aromas, but tropical fruit, mandarin, lychee, and rose notes are generally more typical. The Italians often prefer the name Traminer Aromatico, which certainly conveys the perfumed nose that is so characteristic of the grape. Pinot Gris is much less extroverted and fruity, sometimes showing no real fruit aromas at all. Honey, mineral, and baking spices are common, and some Pinot Gris reveals its parentage by showing a distinct (and delicious) mushroom or truffle note that one rarely associates with white wine.

South Tyrol, today known as Alto-Adige, is part of Italy, but the area passed back and forth between German-speaking and Italian-speaking rulers throughout the centuries, and its street signs and people are bilingual to this day. Traminer (“Termeno” in Italian) is the name of the village where Gewürztraminer was first identified. From Alto-Adige the grape spread up through Germany, eventually finding its most famous manifestation on the dry, cool slopes of Alsace.

Pinot Gris may have passed it on the way, heading in the other direction. A mutation of Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris spread from Burgundy to Alsace, Switzerland, and Germany, and then turned south into Italy. There Pinot Grigio has spread out past Alto-Adige to Friuli, Lombardy, and the Veneto, but back in France, it, like Gewürztraminer, stays focused on Alsace.

Alsace traded hands between France and Germany through the years, both nations coveting the valley’s agricultural potential. The Vosges Mountains protect the area from rain, so winegrowers comfortably leave the grapes on the vine relatively late into autumn, creating rich, opulent wines and sometimes going for late harvest or botrysized styles. Gewurztraminer – in Alsace, they do without the umlaut – can be an over-the-top grape, but the best of them are startlingly sophisticated. Barmés-Buecher produces a wide range of Gewurztraminer and “elegant” appears in my tasting notes for almost every one I tasted during a recent visit. The Steingrubler 2004, for example, offered a fantastic combination of maraschino liqueur, peach, marzipan, and violets – lots of complexity, but still focused and reserved, whereas the Hengst was more Rubenesque – full-figured and fleshy – with the same maraschino and stone fruit notes, but also touches of honey and rose petal. It was fuller and richer, but still classy. Zind-Humbrecht, Josmeyer, Albert Mann, and Trimbach also cultivate this sophisticated side of Gewurztraminer.

Pinot Gris in Alsace is also a rich wine; it can equal a California Chardonnay in weight and body, but is almost never aged in new oak, sparing it the vanilla or toasty notes of barrel-aging. Pinot Gris is done consistently well through Alsace, making solid table wines and dessert wines as well, as its thin skin makes it a good target for botrytis. Producers sometimes allow botrytis to make its way into the table wines as well, and the smoky intensity it adds suits the grape’s mouthfeel. Weinbach produces top-notch Pinot Gris, often showing off that mushroomy note; Domaine Schoffit’s wines and Ostertag’s Fronholz Pinot Gris do the same. Look for Zind-Humbrecht for a nutty, smokier Pinot Gris, while Trimbach, Albert Mann, and Lucien Albrecht lean toward a more tropical fruit style that may seem more familiar to New World wine drinkers.

The winemakers of Alto-Adige have different priorities and different conditions to cope with. Autumn rains are more common, and the Italian taste favors crispness and acidity over richness. Picking earlier accommodates both these factors, but sometimes at a cost to flavor. Gewurztraminer, however, can’t be held down; Italian versions may favor the floral aromas over the richer fruit tones, but there’s still no question what grape is in the glass. The biggest plus to the Italian style with Gewurz is the acidity; the grape tends to be naturally low on that account, but the Italians do their best to keep it lively and refreshing. Try the wines of Hofstätter, Tiefenbrunner, or Lageder for summery Gewurztraminer, or even the Nussbaumer Gewurztraminer from the Tramin cooperative, a single vineyard wine from the village that gave the grape its name.

Alto-Adige’s Pinot Grigios lean toward citrus fruits, pears and apples, and mineral notes, and some show a touch of almond as well. Since most of the area’s wineries make a number of different varietals, many of the names behind the area’s best Gewurztraminers also make quality Pinot Grigio. The Tramin cooperative actually makes two, including the single-vineyard Unterebner Pinot Grigio, which sees a bit of new oak, making it a good choice when you’re split between Pinot Grigio and Chardonnay drinkers.

At the table

Both Alsace and Alto-Adige have classic pairings for these two pink grapes. In Italy, Pinot Grigio is perfect with prosciutto, bresaola, and many salads, while Gewurztraminer works well with the region’s predilection for cumin and cinnamon. In both cases their crisp acidity helps them cut through the Austrian-influenced, richer pastas and gnocchis. Alsatian food can be even richer – German ingredients, French sauces – and the wines seek to match that weight. The Alsatians like either grape (preferably in a late harvest style) with their foie gras, and Pinot Gris goes perfectly with their traditional, meat-heavy stew, the baeckeoffe. Gewurztraminer and Munster is the classic wine and cheese combo of the area.

Less traditionally, Gewurz goes very well with avocados or spicy foods, whether Asian or Mexican; try the Tramin, for example, with a bowl of guacamole. Pinot Grigio’s lack of aromatics makes an excellent, fairly neutral palate-cleanser, so it’s a good choice when there’s a diversity of foods at the table.

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  • Alsatian Wines at the Table
  • Pinot Grigio and its Cousins
  • French Dessert Wines
  • Leo Hillinger


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