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Saturday, April 19, 2014

Gewurztraminer the white, semi-dry wine. The best is the Gewurztraminer AOP (AOC) from the Alsace, France.

Behind the French Menu
Bryan Newman
Gewurztraminer AOC
Enter a Gewurtztraminer vineyard.
Photograph courtesy of  Christina B Castro.
I was introduced to the Gewurztraminer AOP (AOC), white wine from the Alsace some 30 (plus) years ago. Then, at a dinner in the Alsatian town of Mulhouse, my hosts served that semi-dry, incredibly floral wine and I was spellbound.  At that time, very few visitors to France had heard of Gewurztraminer, including yours truly, and practically no one would see a Gewurztraminer on a wine list unless they were in the Alsace. Here, I had been introduced to a white wine that was very different, full of flavor and scented like no other wine.

Domain Ostertag 2012 Gewurztraminer AOP label.
Photograph courtesy of Domain Ostertag.
Unlike most other French AOP wines, the AOP (AOC) wines of Alsace are named after the grape variety from which they are produced. Today Gewurztraminer wine, often just called a Gewurzt is produced in just about every wine producing country in the world. However, the best of the Alsatian Gewurztraminer AOP wines beats the best of the best from anywhere else. For some clarity on these AOP and AOC labels see my post: AOC and AOP on France's Foods and Wine labels?
The town of Mulhouse in France, where I was introduced to Gewurztraminer is close to the Swiss city of Basel and Basel holds many important exhibitions; the two towns are interlocked and even share the same airport.  I would come to know the area from Basel, Switzerland,  to Mulhouse and Colmar in the Alsace very well;  I spent ten or more days every year, for over twenty-five years, at exhibitions in Basel.  Following a day at the Basel exhibition friends, colleagues and customers would cross the border to dine in the Alsace, France; there we enjoyed excellent French cuisine and wonderful French wines including my favorite Alsatian white wine: Gewurztraminer.

The Gewurztraminer grape.
Photograph by Flezzr.
Basel is in Switzerland and borders both France and Germany. Both countries are just a 3 km (2 mile) drive from the center of the town. From the Swiss-French border to the City of Colmar in the Alsace it is less than one hour’s drive; between Colmar and Basle are tens if not hundreds of excellent French restaurants, large and small. There are many truly outstanding restaurants in Basel itself; however Basel is an expensive  city.

The City of Colmar, Alsace.
Photograph courtesy of by Emiliano.
Gewurztraminer AOP
When choosing a Gewurztraminer AOP or another regular Alsatian white wine, (not a Grand Cru or a sweet dessert wine) do not buy wines more than three years old  unless you have an expert to advise you. From my experience, most, Alsatian three-year-old AOP white wines will be no better than a two-year-old wine. Four or five-year-old white Alsatian wines are best when left in the wine shop.  Ordinary Gewurztraminer wines are great wines and very few are meant to be kept for years; drink them young.
Gewurztraminer Grand Cru
When Grand Cru is on the bottle of an Alsatian wine it indicates a separate appellation, that is a separate and unique growing area.  The vineyards with the right to produce Grand Cru wines are the home of the best of Alsatian wines. In 1975, the right to note Grand Cru on an Alsatian wine’s label was legalized after testing including taste tests,  other vineyards that applied later are tested, tasted, and some are added. When you buy a Grand Cru wine, then the name of the vineyard must be on the label. 

Gewurztraminer Grand Cru. 
Photograph courtesy of Marc van der Chijs.

I rarely buy a Gewurztraminer Grand Cru even though they do include the very very best as they are expensive.  I find excellent Gewurztraminer AOP wines, without the addition of the Grand Cru on the label.
Gewurztraminer Vendage Tardive (VT)  wines
 Vendage tardive wines are made with grapes that are left on the vine long past the usual  harvest date; as the grapes begin to dry out the sugars and flavors are concentrated resulting in the perfect grape for a sweet dessert wine. Open a bottle of a Gewurztraminer Vendage Tardive and the area around is filled with the scent of flowers. These wines may be offered as an aperitif or as a single glass to accompany certain dishes.
Gewürztraminer Sélection de Grains Nobles (SGN)
Sélection de Grains Noble  Alsatian wines are even sweeter than the vendange tardive wines and are the highest grade of the Alsatian dessert wines.  These wines are made when  the grapes, on the vine, have been infected by  a helpful fungus called  botrytis cinerea, (mostly known in English as the “noble rot”).  As long as the climate is not totally damp the fungus does its magic and concentrates the sugars and scent a few steps higher that the vendage tardive wines. The famous sweet Sauterne wines of Bordeaux are also produced with the aid of the “noble rot.”  When you buy any of these fabulous SGN  Alsatian dessert wines, remember this is a wine for sipping and smelling, not for quaffing.
Marc de Gewurztraminer
Marcs, like Italian Grappas, and similar brandies from other wine producing countries are made from grape skins, leaves, pulp and seeds that are left over from the production of wines. Originally, these leftovers were processed into very rough brandies that were given freely to the workers in the vineyards; they got drunk, and that took their minds off their poverty.   These cheap marcs and grappas were then slightly improved and then sold, cheaply, to the townspeople who could also get drunk cheaply and forget their problems.  Over the years, the methods of distillation improved and a second distillation produced a brandy that was smoother, tastier, and more fragrant, and could also be sold to more discerning customers. 
Today the better French Marcs and  Italian Grappas, with a 40 % alcohol content, are offered like other fine brandies  in the finest restaurants. A good Marc’s scent will tell you the type of grapes that were used and In the Alsace your digestif should be a Marc de Gewurztraminer
Vinaigre de Gewurztraminer:
Gewurztraminer vinegar adds its special scent and taste to sauces.  Vinaigrette  and other sauces made with vinegar bring that scent of flowers..

Gewurztraminer is often on the menu, not only the wine list:

 An Alsatian list of apéritifs may include:
 Un Verre de Gewurztraminer Vendanges Tardives - A glass of  sweet Gewurztraminer  late harvest wine.

Gewurtztraminer Vendage Tardive.
Photograph Courtesy of Sylvain Naudin.

Entrées on an Alsatian  Menu may Include:
Asperges Blanches d'Alsace et Écrevisses au Vinaigre de Gewurztraminer- White asparagus from the Alsace served with crayfish and flavored with a Gewurztraminer vinegar.  N.B. The white asparagus from the Alsace, in season,  is fabulous and during the season will be on nearly every restaurant menu. For more about asparagus see my post: Asparagus Green and White, and Ordering Asparagus. 
White and green asparagus.
Photograph courtesy of Thomas Nielsen.
Foie Gras de Canard “Maison”,  Gelée au Gewurztraminer et Pain de Campagne Toasté – Fattened duck liver prepared with the chef’s own recipe, served with a jelly made from the cooking juices flavored with Gewurztraminer and accompanied by toasted country bread.
On French menus “Maison” while also indicating a home  or implying “homemade” does not infer that the competition is buying their product in the local supermarket!  On a French menu “Maison” indicates a particular restaurant’s or chef’s take on a well-known dish.
Your main course on an Alsatian menu may include:
Dos de Maigre aux Effluves d'Epices Cuit sous vos Yeux Sauce Beurre Blanc au Gewurztraminer et son Risotto aux Champignons - A  thick cut of meagre  the fish, also called croaker, scented with spices;  all cooked in front of the diner in a Beurre Blanc sauce made with Gewurztraminer  wine and accompanied by a mushroom risotto. (Be careful using the word “maigre” as it also means lean).

Meagre in other languages: (Chinese (Mandarin) -鷹石首魚, 大西洋白姑魚 ), (Dutch – meagre), (Finish - Kotkakala ), (Greek – Κρανιός, kranios), (German – adlerfisch, umberfisch), (Hebrew - mousar, מוסר), (Italian – bocca d'oro, boccagialla, umbrina laccia), (Norwegian – Ørnefisk), (Russian - Горбыль серебристый). (Spanish- corbina, corvina, meager), (Turkish - Granyoz baligi).With thanks for assistance with translations to: Froese, R. and D. Pauly. Editors. 2014. FishBase. World Wide Web electronic publication., version (04/2014).


Escalope de Saumon Frais, Sauce Légère au Gewurztraminer – Fresh salmon served with a light Gewurztraminer flavored sauce.
Between the main course and the dessert an Alsatian menu may offer a sorbet:
Le Sorbet Citron Arrosé au Marc de Gewurztraminer – A lemon sorbet lightly flavored with a Marc de Gewurztraminer. 
An Alsatian dessert menu may offer:
Granité au Melon Rose et Gewurztraminer AOC Alsace Grand Cru  - A granite made with crushed frozen melon and rose water,flavored with a Gewurztraminer Grand Cru.  Granités were originally the French take on Italian granitas; in the beginning they were sugar, fruit and water served with crushed ice, a sludge.  Many guide books still translate a French granité  as a sludge in English.  However, the granités served in most French restaurants have moved on and are now very different to a sludge. 
Kougelhopf Glacé au Marc de Gewurztraminer, Coulis aux Fruits Rouge. This is a popular Alsatian dessert  where an ice-cream cake is made using the traditional engraved Kougelhopf  cake pan.  You will receive a slice of this ice-cream cake shaped like a regular Kougelhopf  cake.  In this menu listing the ice cream is flavored with a Marc de Gewurztraminer and accompanied by a puree of berries, strawberries and other red fruits. 

 Kougelhopf  with Alsatian Coffee by the side. 
Photograph Courtesy of Dauvit Alexander          
The kougelhopf cake, also called gugelhupf, kouglof and  other similar names  include cakes  that  today have a wide variety of recipes while the original was a  raisin-filled yeast bread  made in  the traditional engraved pan with a hole in the middle; these pans with their engravings have become collectors’ items.  As a child, I remember my Oma, my Austrian Grandmother making these cakes on the stove top; how she did that I cannot remember.  See the photo of traditional kougelhopf pans below:

Kougelhopf pans.
Photograph courtesy  of brangal
At the end of a meal Alsatian menus may offer an Alsatian coffee:
Café Alsacien – An Alsatian coffee; a shot of black espresso coffee served  with whipped cream and  a shot of Gewurztraminer Marc. This is very similar to  a café corretto in Italy.  It Italy when you order a corretto a shot of grappa is added, to the coffee, to “correct” it.
Exploring the Alsace
With friends and family who joined us after the annual Basel exhibition we would explore the Route de Vins d’Alsace. This Alsace wine road extends from the South, near the small town of Thann, 25 minutes from Mulhouse to the North of the Alsace, just past  Marlenheim, 24 minutes from Strasbourg for over 120 km (75 miles); however, that is as the crow flies,  but double that distance if you follow  the route on the map.  There are close to 100 towns and villages along the way, all with wine and tourism an important part of their economies.  We quickly learned the way to enjoy a weekend in the Alsatian wine country with the wine road as our guide was to take a single 5 km to maybe 10 km (3 to 6 mile) section.

The village of Eguisheim,
(Forty minutes from Basel and fifteen minutes from Colmar).
Photograph courtesy of  Tambako The Jaguar.
We would wander around  beautiful small towns and villages. There we could join in the wine tastings that sometimes seem to be set up every 20 meters and enjoy the beautiful houses, many with nesting storks on their roofs.  For lunch, we would have a traditional Alsatian tarte flambé and then wander or drive around  the beautiful countryside while discussing dinner. 

Storks nesting on a house in Turckheim.
(Twenty minutes from Colmar and one hour from Basel).
Photograph courtesy of Lynne Hand.
The best Alsatian wines.
 There are six Alsatian white wines that are not blends, all are excellent wines.  Of these six only one other unblended Alsatian wine can, I believe,  partner as  wide a range of dishes as Gewurztraminer; that wine is the Alsace’s semi-dry Pinot Gris, (previously called the Tokay Pinot Gris). One other blended wine meets the top rankings, and that is sparkling Crémant d'Alsace; when dry, this is a really  fabulous wine that goes with just about anything.  These wines will have to be the subject of separate posts. In the meantime, to read more about France’s sparkling Crémant wines see my post: Cremants are the best value in French sparkling wines.

I am not ignoring a whole group of Alsatian red wines as there is only one Alsatian red wine,  the  Pinot Noir AOC, and it really is a  dark rosé. If you order a steak in the Alsace, or any dish that requires a strong dry red wine then choose one from elsewhere in France.
The Gewurztraminer fete.

If you are in the Alsace at the end of July, then on the last Saturday and Sunday there is a Fête du Gewurztraminer, a Gewurztraminer fete, in and around the communes of Ribeauvillé and Riquewihr.   Ribeauvillé and Riquewihr, the small town and the village,  are about 20 minutes drive north of Colmar. You will find more information about their  communes and their wine fete's exact dates on their English language website at:
Visiting Basel
If you are visiting an exhibition in Basel explore the city with its walkable and “tramable” center. Basel has many excellent restaurants and has a beautifully restored and well-kept medieval old town center along with many pedestrian friendly roads.  Include in your exploration of the city all of Basel’s world-class museums, along with some smaller, but almost hidden gems.  Do not leave Basel without seeing the fabulous Beyeler Foundation Museum that opened in 1997 just over its municipal border in the neighboring town of Riehen.  There the Beyeler Foundation built a wonderful  building  (the architect was the Italian Renzo Piano)  to contain many  fabulous works of art by Cézanne, Van Gogh, Monet, Picasso,  Braque, Miró,  Kandinsky, Matisse and others.  An afternoon of viewing Basel’s museums will make you hungry, and many restaurants in Basel do offer wines from the Alsace.

A view from the Beyeler Foundation Museum.
Photograph courtesy of Fang-Yi LIN
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Bryan G. Newman
Behind the French Menu
Copyright 2010, 2014.
For more information on the book behind the blog contact Bryan Newman

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