The Grape Glossary: a guide to hip varietals
Back in my student days, when dollars were even more scarce for me than they are now as a journalist, I employed a frugal strategy at BYOB parties. Fearing that my hard-earned six-pack of beer would be filched by thirsty guests who'd prematurely drained their own supply, I would bring an unpopular brand certain to keep thieves off-limits. Molson Porter was my weapon of choice, as I recall. Nobody dared go near the dark brew in those days of flavourless blond lagers.
Had I been more in the mood for wine than beer all those years ago, I'd probably have brought gewürztraminer. Unpopular with the masses but cherished by an intrepid wine-geek minority, gewürztraminer is like fiery Thai food before it went mainstream in North America – exotic, bold, complex and spicy. Coincidentally, it also happens to pair magically with aromatic Thai and other Asian dishes.
The white grape – technically a genetic mutation of savagnin rather than a botanically distinct variety – finds its most compelling habitat in the Alsace region of northeast France, near the German border, where it yields wines of arresting opulence. Usually dry, but often so thick in texture and low in acidity as to convey a sweet impression, gewürztraminer's profile is unmistakable. Lychee fruit – or, if you've not had the pleasure, think of fresh table grapes – is front and centre, followed closely by a heady aroma of rose petal. The best, in my mind, also come with a suggestion of fresh ginger, perhaps the reason for the grape's name (gewürz is German for "spicy"). Nothing in the wine world comes closer to good perfume.
Like riesling, its Teutonic cousin, gewürztraminer makes superb sweet wine, too, from slightly off-dry to the vaunted late-harvest (or vendange tardive) dessert wines of Alsace to the pancake-syrup intensity of Canadian icewine. Even on the dry side of the gewürztraminer spectrum, Canada excels with this grape thanks to such reliable producers as Cave Spring in Niagara and Tinhorn Creek in British Columbia. Further afield, New Zealand examples, though harder to find, can be glorious (Spy Valley and Framingham are standouts).
Because of its punchy flavour, gewürztraminer can stand up to a range of foods without stumbling haplessly like so many other whites, including the classic Alsatian choucroute garnie (sausages and other salty meats with sauerkraut) with mustard, and medium to firm cheeses. It's also a splendid insider's alternative to sweet Sauternes dessert wine for foie gras or liver pâté. And, of course, if you're still bloating your stomach with lager when tucking into Indian or Thai food, you need to go on a dinner date with gewürztraminer.
The Flavour Principle by Lucy Waverman and Beppi Crosariol recently took home top prize for best general English cookbook at the Taste Canada Food Writing Awards. Published by HarperCollins.