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A Taste of Alsace : The Trimbach Gewurztraminer Stands Out Among White Wines

September 11, 1988|ROBERT LAWRENCE BALZER

IN MAY, we traveled to Alsace and drove the winding roads of the wine-producing valley between Ribeauville and the half-timbered houses of Riquewihr. The wine making in this region combines French and German influences, and while the technical finesse may be said to be Germanic, most Alsatian table wines are dry-finished with all sugars fermented in the French style.

We had lunch at a mountain chapel site with Bernard Trimbach, whose family has made wine here since 1626. Trimbach's are among the Alsatian wines most familiar to Americans, along with those of Hugel & Fils, growers since 1637.

As the country vegetable soup tureens were passed, Trimbach appeared with one of his great vineyard-designated prize wines, Riesling Cuvee Frederic Emile 1985 ($14.50). Swirling the bowl of the glass brought forth the flowery-clean bouquet, well-preserved through Trimbach's fermentation technology, which uses stainless-steel equipment. The expanded winery in Ribeauville, holds batteries of stainless-steel fermenters and, surprisingly, some big, handsome, 150-year-old oak casks, most of them with tartrate crystal linings to prevent wood-exchange with the wine. Even those, however, had plastic girdles around them, filled with cold water for cooling.

The wine I was looking forward to most, of all, the Trimbach Gewurztraminer "Cuvee des Seigneurs de Ribeaupierre 1985 ($15.50), arrived. The bouquet of this wine reinforces the memory standard for perfect Gewurztraminer. Its scent and taste suggest litchi nuts, the tropical fruit of Asia. Totally dry, but wonderfully aromatic, Trimbach Gewurztraminer has a separate nobility among white wines. (At this writing, the 1983, a vintage that wine writer Hugh Johnson describes as "outstanding in every way" is available in Southern California; 1985 is on the way. Both vintages are superb.)

If ever a wine needed missionaries to spread its message and appeal, it's Gewurztraminer. Both its name and the words used to describe it are stumbling blocks. The grape was brought, according to 17th-Century historians, by Roman soldiers eons ago. It was planted in the Italian Tyrolean Alps near the village of Tramin, then in Germany and Alsace. As German-speaking growers cloned the vines, they occasionally noticed some with grapes that developed an extraordinary taste and fragrance, which they called gewurz, or "spicy." This clone later was dubbed Gewurztraminer, the "spicy Traminer."

In international winespeak, "spicy," as in Gewurztraminer, has become a standard description. Unfortunately, "spicy" often summons to mind cinnamon, clove and allspice, all things this wine is not. Its bouquet scent is more like tropical flowers, pikake and plumeria . You owe yourself the experience of Trimbach Gewurztraminer. How to pronounce it? Gewurz is geh- VURTZ, and traminer, trah- MEE-nair. Just ask for the wine with the funny name.

Once you've climbed aboard the Gewurztraminer wagon, finding good examples becomes a rewarding adventure. There is, on the market, a Vendange Tardive Trimbach 1983 Gewurztraminer ($51.25) for very special occasions. It's rich, sweet and magnificent. Our Alsatian-American friend in Oakland, Jorge Rupf, distills a remarkable Marc de Gewurztraminer (St. George Spirits), an 80-proof wonderful eau de vie (374 milliliters $10.50).

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