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Feature Story

Subtle, Sumptuous Gewurztraminer

by Joshua Greene
September 19, 2018

Gewurztraminer at Clos Windsbuhl grows in muschelkalk, a fossil-rich clay-limestone soil.

If you rearrange the letters of gewurztraminer, you can come close to spelling “aggressive.” And if you open a bottle of most contemporary New World examples of the variety, you’ll find a wine that’s aggressively perfumed, maybe tannic, likely pungent and possibly all three.

Other than sometimes enjoying its quirky charms with Cantonese dishes, or with choucroute in Alsace, I tend to steer clear of the grape. Or did, until recently, and now I can’t get it out of my head.

The fork in the road came at Noreetuh, a restaurant in NYC’s East Village serving Hawaiian-French- Asian food. I’d recently tasted a lot of Alsace wines for this magazine, and several wines from Olivier Zind-Humbrecht stood out—including a gewurztraminer. When he came to New York this past spring, we agreed to meet for dinner at Noreetuh.

He arrived with a cache of 2016s, including the Clos Windsbuhl Gewurztraminer and the Rangen de Thann Clos St-Urbain Riesling. I expected to be wowed by the riesling, a wine from the far south of Alsace, from vines planted on a hillside of volcanic ash. It’s consistently one of the region’s greats.

What I didn’t expect was to fall in love with the gewurztraminer, right there in the company of Noreetuh’s tuna poke (granted, it’s pretty great poke, but still). It was the combination of freshness and amplitude that made the combination hard to resist.

Humbrecht acknowledged that gewurztraminer could be overly aggressive. “But I always say, don’t blame the grape or the vineyard. Blame the grower,” he told me. “It’s the job of the grower to choose the right plant material. And the clonal material for gewurztraminer is terrible. I had to rip out a thirteen-year-old vineyard because the clones were so bad.” He has since focused on his own massal selections as an important part of his biodynamic viticultural practice.

Clos Windsbuhl, he explained, grows in a fossil- rich, chalky limestone soil the locals call muschelkalk, some of it weathered into clay, a combination that’s particularly accommodating to vine roots as they search for nutrients. The vineyard rises up a steep hill in Hunawihr, where the southeastern exposure and the relatively high altitude (1,150 feet) combine to allow the fruit to ripen slowly.

Chef Chung Chow’s Tuna Poke at Noreetuh is an ideal match for a savory Alsace gewurztraminer. Chef Chung Chow’s Tuna Poke at Noreetuh is an ideal match for a savory Alsace gewurztraminer.
Humbrecht then told a story of meeting Xavier Florin, a disciple of Rudolf Steiner and noted biody- namic consultant, at a conference in Alsace in 2003. Humbrecht had been impressed by the elder’s “unbelievable energy and power.” There was a tree outside the room where they were talking. “He took my hand and said, ‘Olivier, what do you see there?’” Hum- brecht recalled. “A tree. ‘More?’ A lime tree. ‘Yes, but what do you see there? Don’t you see the stomach of the earth? Forget gravity. A tree and a plant is where the earth digests everything.’”

To Humbrecht’s point: The plants at Clos Windsbuhl, specifically the gewurztraminer vines he selected for that plot, seem to digest their soil in the most fascinating way, bearing fruit that ferments into something precise, subtle and sumptuous. It’s an argument for the right vine planted in the right place, rather than our propensity as a culture to plant the vine we like wherever we happen to be.

And Clos Windsbuhl was not a one-off. It was, in fact, one of a range of Alsace gewurztraminers that generated more enthusiasm among our tasting panelists than in the past. These were not the superextracted, off-dry style that Humbrecht, Josmeyer and others worked to popularize in the 1990s and 2000s.

Yes, they might have a touch of richness, but when they are focused on rich food (as in Alsace), or spicy food (as in China), they sing.

Alsace Gewurztraminer
Tasting Notes by Joshua Greene, W&S Alsace wine critic

Jean-Baptiste Adam 2016 Alsace Les Natures Gewurztraminer
Les Natures is Jean-Baptiste Adam’s estate range from biodynamically farmed grapes, the wines certified organic. It grows on a granite hillside, then ferments and ages in 100-year-old French oak casks, creating a wine of silken refinement that’s grand when first opened, and becomes increasingly fresh, shimmering and beautiful as it takes on air. (93 points, $27; The Sorting Table, Napa, CA)

Domaines Schlumberger 2015 Alsace Les Princes Abbés Gewurztraminer
An off-dry style, this wine feels sumptuous and velvety rather than sweet, its satin texture carrying flavors of fresh ginger and oranges. Layered and mouthfilling, this is lively and lasting. (91 points, $25; Maisons Marques & Domaines USA, Oakland, CA)

Pierre Sparr 2016 Alsace Grande Réserve Gewurztraminer
This wine’s rose scent might remind you of spring; it’s charming in its spicy intensity, tight and yet continually giving. The pale fruit is mostly about textural richness, which makes this an appealing match for cracked crab. (92 points, $20; Wilson Daniels, St. Helena, CA)

Trimbach 2012 Alsace Cuvée des Seigneurs de Ribeaupierre Gewurztraminer
Trimbach grows this fruit at a parcel in the Osterberg grand cru, where the vines average 40 years of age, planted on limestone over sandstone. It’s an ornate, traditional style of Alsace wine, with scents of ginger and toast, orange and lavender; its gentle texture feels relaxed while a current of tension drives the flavors underneath. (93 points, $48; Esprit du Vin, Syosset, NY)

Willm 2016 Alsace Cuvée Emile Willm Gewurztraminer
This wine’s sweetness accelerates its flavors of orange pith and green herbs, lasting on a honeyed fragrance. Sunny and fresh, the wine feels as plump as an oyster, and would be delicious with the bivalves warmed in heavy cream. (91 points, $18; Monsieur Touton Selection, NY)

Domaine Zind-Humbrecht 2015 Alsace Clos Windsbuhl Gewurztraminer
Due to its altitude, Clos Windsbuhl is one of the later-ripening sites in Hunawihr, yet its sunny, south-eastern exposure promotes development in the grapes. In the heat of the 2015 vintage, the site created a wine with beautiful richness underlined by a tight structure. The bold flavors pop with notes of sweet oranges and green herbs over hints of brioche. It’s a hedonistic, rocky, essential Alsace wine. (94 points, $80; Kobrand, Purchase, NY)

photo of Noreetuh's tuna poke by Evan Sung

This feature appears in the print edition of the Fall 2018.
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