You will surely find it unsurprising that I like tasting wine. It may indeed be more surprising that I haven’t tasted that many wine words in my notes. I have tasted merlot, certainly, and xynomavro, but no white grape varieties yet; I have also tasted retsina and claret; but I really am overdue to taste Gewürztraminer.

Wines, when well made, are full of character and layers, nuances, overtones, and other delights.* Some are more complex, and some are simpler. Words, of course, can have a fair amount in common with wines in that respect. But many wine words don’t present a whole lot up front. It takes getting to know merlot before you really appreciate it, for instance.

On the other hand, just as there are some wines that practically grab you by the neck and press your nose into their bosoms, there are some wine words that have a rather similar effect. By an interesting coincidence, three of the wines that are most up-front happen to have three of the names that are most up-front – and all three are written with the letter z.

The wine that will most aggressively throw you on the bed and cover you with red lipstick is zinfandel, and rest assured that I will one day taste zinfandel. Another very popular and friendly red wine is Shiraz (its more demure version, if just slightly, is called syrah). But the most in-your-face white (true white, not “white zinfandel,” which is a red wine with the skins taken out before fermentation), with what is also the most in-your-face name, is Gewürztraminer. You might say it’s the Measha Brueggergosman of wine words (and perhaps of wines, too).

First of all, it’s a freakin’ long word. Which is actually fitting, given that it’s a German word; German words can be long, and so can German wine names – you’ll get bottles that say things like Riesling Kabinett Erbacher Marcobrunn Domänenweingut Schloss Schönborn Rheingau (I did not make that up).

Of course, like most German sesquipedalia, Gewürztraminer is a compound; it comes from Gewürz, which means “spice” or “perfume”, and Traminer, which means “from Tramin” (Tramin being actually the Tyrolean town of Termeno, in northern Italy). It rather looks like two big pieces joined together with hitches and some kind of electric bond right at the rztr (just hear that jolt!).

And you can see the perfumy nose wafting up from the glass at the ü if you want. You might want to proceed both ways from the centre, in fact, and see that on the one side, past the centre join and its flanking vowels, you have w, and on the other m, which is like the w all emptied and inverted. Or perhaps it’s the whole min that transforms the w, for on the outside of either is an e.

There’s no reason to expect Anglophones to say this word just as though they were speaking German (though they can if they want), but it’s generally thought poor form to say the w as /w/ rather than /v/. The ü, of course, signifies a sound we no longer have in English, so you can either make the ür the same way as you say the end of Bloor (Toronto reference there) or you can slip the bonds of English phonotactics. If you say r the English way, you will thereafter find yourself with a rare double treat, two affricates in tight sequence – because /ts/ is an affricate (a stop that releases to a fricative), and the /t/ before /r/ palatalizes to be like what we say at the beginning and end of church. The German pronunciation – either one, the trilled or the guttural – deprives you of the second affricate, but, ah, frick it. Have another glass.

And then the word ends in irony. Irony? Yes, and not just because it’s a German name for a grape now thought of as quintessentially German but taken from a Italian place name (well, Italy now includes it). It’s that you finally get to the kinder part of the word and it’s “meaner”.

And what is wine itself like? It presents a golden hue to the eye, although its grapes are actually a shade of pink. Your nose and your palate will give you a full serving of such flavours and aromas as lychee and rose petals, and perhaps some peach as well. If you’re picking a wine to drink with pad thai, this is it. If you’re looking for good Gewürz, two of the best regions are Alsace and Ontario. Yes, that’s right, neither is in Germany – oh, Germany makes good Gewürz too, but really, some of the best I’ve ever had is made an hour’s drive from where I live. I have bottles from Calamus and Featherstone sitting less than a metre from the computer where I type this. (They’re not open, though. Ironically, I’m drinking Bordeaux as I write.)

*A person who should know better who wrote an otherwise interesting article for Slate recently ( declared that since mass spectrometers can’t “pick apart differentiating flavors of specific spices or flavors of earth in any wine,” such discerned differences must be imaginary – the critics who talk about “butterscotch” or “boysenberry” must just be imagining it on the basis of expectation. Aside from being frankly rude, condescending, and belittling, this discards a very large amount of suggestive data without taking a proper scientific look at it. Experts in blind tastings without indication of the various price levels of the wines can detect different levels of depth, nuance, and structure with considerable consistency, even as personal factors also of course come into play – wine being an aesthetic experience, and aesthetic experience being individual. It doesn’t even take much acquaintance with wine to be able to distinguish wines that develop and have nuances from ones that don’t and don’t. If I can taste a red wine and identify, on the basis of flavour nuances this author thinks are imaginary, the different grapes that have gone into it – something I have done successfully, and I’m not even an expert – it stands to reason that her reasoning is a bit wanting. She draws conclusions on the basis of what she thinks reasonable, but without taking a truly scientific approach, which would involve experiments with blind tastings – not exactly even an innovative approach with wines.

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5 responses to “Gewürztraminer

  1. A small correction: the German word is spelled Gewürz and its most common meaning is “spice”. When I was a visitor to Germany as a teenager, a long time ago, restaurants used to have a small bottle of “Gewürz” on every table (maybe this custom is still current?) in the way that inexpensive British restaurants of that era had bottles of Brown Sauce on every table. The small German bottles, which had spouts like Chinese restaurant soy sauce bottles, contained a mixture of spices to enliven even the most bland Bavarian fare.

    • Oh, bloody hell, I did a whole note with an incorrect spelling in my head, and of a word I actually see quite often. Now, that’s really embarrassing. I can only plead in my defence that Fionn MacCool’s, where I ate dinner, gave me and my wife a free pint of Guinness each, and my wife gave hers to me. I have some fixing to do!

      But re: the German meaning: it’s a bit broader than just “spice”, and Jancis Robinson, in the Oxford Companion to Wine, asserts that in its use with the grape, it is more the “perfume” side of the sense that earned it its place there.

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