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‘Nightmare’ grapes can make for dreamy wines

Gewürztraminer grapes on the vine

Gewürztraminer grapes on the vine

THE origin of ginger remains a mystery. Depending on whom you talk to, it originated in the lush tropical jungles of south China or India. One of the earliest written accounts of ginger is in a four thousand year-old Chinese book in which the underground root’s medicinal qualities are examined in detail.

Numerous modern medical studies also suggest that ginger has beneficial therapeutic and preventative effects including pain reduction, alleviating symptoms of nausea and vomiting, preventing or suppressing motion sickness, cancer growth and heart disease. Further studies have found ginger to have anti-inflammatory and anti-diabetic properties.

Wine likewise contains many natural compounds that help to prevent and alleviate illnesses. One style of wine not only features a fine pairing affinity with ginger flavored dishes, but quite remarkably also shares many of its aromatic and taste qualities.

In China, few people know about Gewürztraminer wines and even fewer have tasted them. There are good reasons why. This is a funky grape with a difficult name. The name is decidedly German; the best examples come from Alsace, France and the grape originated in northern Italy. The ancient Traminer variety was first cultivated around the small town of Termeno in Alto Adige. Also referred to as Italy’s Tyrolean Alps, this is a bilingual region where German is as prevalent as Italian. The German name of Termeno is Tramin and thus the grape gained its name of Traminer approximately a millennium ago.

The Traminer family of grapes is quite prone to mutation and sometime in the late 19th century a highly fragrant example of the grape appeared on the scene that became know as Gewürztraminer, literally meaning “spice” or “perfumed” Traminer. Unlike its green-skinned genetic forbearer, the Gewürztraminer grape has a spotty, dark pink skin. Despite exhibiting intriguing potential to make excellent wines, the new grape has never achieve the popularity of other white varieties.

One problem was a superfluity of names including traminer musque, traminer parfume and traminer aromatique in France, traminer rosso and traminer aromatic in Italy and roter traminer in Germany. The term Gewürztraminer was first used around 1870, but it wasn’t until 1973 that the name was officially recognized by European wine authorities.

Gewürztraminer can also be a winemaker’s nightmare. Best cultivated in cooler climates, the vines bud very early, thereby making them vulnerable to frosts. Harvest dates are quite late and this exposes the mature fruit to autumn weather extremes. Gewürztraminer vines are also susceptible to pests and viral diseases. Naturally high in sugar and low in acidity, winemakers face the predicament of whether pick early and retain freshness while compromising the full development of aromas and flavors; or harvesting later and risking an oily, flabby and fruity wine that lacks freshness. So why would anyone cultivate this troublesome grape? Because when nature cooperates, in the hands of a skilled winemaker Gewürztraminer can make unique and sublimely beautiful white wines.

The best Gewürztraminer wines come from southern Alsace in northeastern France where styles range from bone dry to extremely sweet. The dry styles tend to be golden colored wines with powerful rose, ginger and other spice aromas and concentrated lychee and tropical fruit flavors.

The elegant yet also opulent character of dry Alsatian Gewürztraminer wines makes them ideal partners to rich seafood and white meat dishes, while their spicy traits mean they also pair nicely with well-spiced foods including Chinese, Indian and Thai dishes that feature an abundance of ginger.

On the other side of the Alsatian Gewürztraminer style spectrum are the Selection de Grains Nobles. These ultra sweet wines are among the headiest sweet wines in the world offering impressive viscosity with an oily-silky texture and powerful rose, honey and tropical fruit aromas and flavors. Sensations of ginger are also common. Excellent with goose or duck liver, they are also natural companions to ginger based desserts. You may also enjoy them as a contemplative digestif. Some recommended Alsatian producers with Gewürztraminer wines available in Shanghai are Hugel & Fils, Raymond Gassmann, Josmeyer, Trimbach, Weinbach and Zind-Humrecht.

The birthplace of Gewürztraminer not so surprisingly also produces some fine examples. The dry and aromatic Gewürztraminer wines from Alto Adige are fruity and structured wines that also pair quite nicely with Asian ginger dishes. Producers to look for include Sudtiroler, Colterenzio, Alois Lageder and Elena Walch.

Where to buy in Shanghai

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