A blog devoted to exploring wines made from unusual grape varieties and/or grown in unfamiliar regions all over the world. All wines are purchased by me from shops in the Boston metro area or directly from wineries that I have visited. If a reviewed bottle is a free sample, that fact is acknowledged prior to the bottle's review. I do not receive any compensation from any of the wineries, wine shops or companies that I mention on the blog.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Roter Traminer (Gewürztraminer) - Südsteiermark, Austria

Let me start off by saying that, yes, today's post is about Gewürztraminer and, no, I don't consider Gewürztraminer a Fringe Wine.  I'm writing about Gewürztraminer because the bottle of wine that I bought wasn't labeled Gewürztraminer, it was labeled Roter Traminer and, well, let's just back up a bit and work our way up to it.

When I was doing research for my two Savagnin posts, I discovered that Savagnin is also known as Traminer and that Gewürztraminer is a mutation of a pink-skinned mutation of Traminer known as Roter Traminer.  In yesterday's post on Malvasia Nera, we talked a little bit about the fact that almost all grapes that are cultivated for wine are not actually a single grape, but rather a number of grapes that have mutated to various extents, but which are all genetically similar enough that we consider them to belong to a single family that, usually, ends up marching under a single grape-name's banner.  There isn't really a single Cabernet Sauvignon grape, for example, but rather a variety of clonal variants that have differences in leaf shape, cluster morphology and climactic tolerances, but which all share enough similar DNA that we can consider them as a single grape.  Further, the wines produced from these clones are similar enough to one another that we have no problem thinking about all of them under a single heading and group them all as "Cabernet Sauvignon" without any real mental anguish about the whole thing.

Some grapes, like Pinot Noir, mutate a lot and there are a lot of clonal variants available.  There are fierce arguments between Pinot Noir growers and wine drinkers about the relative merits and demerits of different clones both in a general sense and in more terroir specific situations. Noted ampelographer Pierre Galet has indicated that there are at least 50 clones of Pinot Noir that are approved for use in France, as opposed to only about 25 for Cabernet Sauvignon, and it is thought that poor clonal selection may have contributed to the lackluster wines coming out of Burgundy in the 1970's and 80's.  Some of the clonal variants produced very large crops, but the quality of the juice and, by extension, of the wine was considered to be much inferior to other clones which did not produce as prolifically, but which made a higher quality wine.

Which brings up an interesting question for me: at what point has a vine differentiated itself enough from the original plant to be considered a new variety?  As mentioned in yesterday's post, the skin color of the grape seems to be an automatic factor, as we have no trouble conceptualizing Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris and Pinot Noir as separate grapes, even though their DNA is so closely matched as to be nearly identical to one another.  Red grapes, white grapes and pink grapes are very different visually and make very different wines, so there's no real controversy with setting that as a determining factor.  The case for differentiating Pinot Meunier is a little more complicated, as you can read about in my post on that grape here.  The mutation that caused Pinot Meunier was severe and it resulted in a chimerical plant whose genetic code is easily differentiated from the original Pinot Noir, even though the only real tell-tale sign at the macroscopic level is a downy coating on the leaves.  Though I'm sure a very experienced taster could do it, I would have an incredibly hard time differentiating between wines made from Pinot Meunier and Pinot Noir in a blind tasting environment.  For Meunier, the case for differentiation is more subtle than for the other Pinot family members, but the difference is observable at least at a microscopic level.

But we're not here to discuss the different limbs on the Pinot family tree, but rather to take a look at a family with a similar history, the Traminer famly.  Like the Pinot family, the Traminer family is very old and has been subject to a number of mutations throughout its history.  It is unclear which member of the Traminer family came first, but the smart money seems to be on White Traminer (Savagnin), as it has the largest number of clonal variants, which is usually an indication of a long history of cultivation.  The family is named for the village of Tramin in the Südtirol region of Trentino-Alto Adige in northern Italy, where the grape is thought to have originated.  It is thought to have moved north to Austria and Germany where, at some point, one of the vines mutated into a pink-skinned grape that came to be known as Roter Traminer, or "red traminer."  Later, this Roter Traminer mutated yet again, but this time the mutation didn't affect the color of the grape, but rather its aroma and taste profile.  Mutations like this are not unheard of and the specific name for them is a musqué mutation.

And here is where the confusion sets in.   All three of the major Traminer mutations are cultivated to some extent, but in Germany and Austria, the name on the bottle is no real help as to what is actually inside.  In the German speaking countries, white Traminer is simply called Weisser Traminer, unless you are in the Styria region of Austria where it is known as Gelber Traminer (which is, confusingly, also a synonym for Gewürztraminer in other regions of Austria), while in France, Savagnin is generally the accepted nomenclature.  It's with Roter Traminer and Gewürztraminer that the fun really starts, because in Germany and Austria, the members of the Traminer family are only differentiated by skin color so Roter Traminer and Gewürztraminer are considered to be the same grape.  The VIVC, which I use a lot to tease these puzzles out, is based in Germany and follows the same convention, considering the two grapes to be identical.  As a result, if you buy a bottle from Austria or Germany labeled Roter Traminer, you won't be able to tell whether what is in the bottle is Gewürztraminer or Roter Traminer.  The French do differentiate between the two grapes, using the Gewürztraminer name for the musqué most of the time, though occasionally using Savagnin Rosé Aromatique, and using the Savagnin Rosé or Klevener de Heiligenstein (in Alsace) names for Roter Traminer.

So we have a conundrum.  Is the musqué mutation a significant enough change to consider Roter Traminer and Gewürztraminer as two different grapes, or should Gewürztraminer merely be considered a clonal variant of Roter Traminer?  The French seem to favor the former approach, while the Germans and Austrians seem to prefer the latter.  If our sole criteria is skin color, then we would have to follow the German approach, as Roter Traminer and Gewürztraminer have the same pinkish skin color.  I have to say that this approach seems to be lacking, as it feels to me that if the wines made from each of the clonal variants are profoundly distinctive from one another, as seems to be the case here, then we should consider the grapes separately and individually.  The problem with that stance is that it's a slippery slope, and it may be difficult in some cases to tell what counts as profoundly distinctive.  The Brunello clone of Sangiovese is a good example, as it makes wines that are distinctive from other Sangiovese based wines, but it may be overstating the case to call them profoundly distinctive.

It's a difficult question, but unfortunately for me, it's not one that I have to answer for myself in this particular situation.  I found a bottle of the 2003 Lackner-Tinnacher Roter Traminer at Curtis Liquors for about $30 and bought it hoping that it would be made from the non-musqué version of the grape.  In the glass, the wine was a medium lemon gold color with some greenish tints.  As I lowered my nose into the glass, I knew immediately that what I had was undoubtedly Gewürztraminer.  The nose was very aromatic and flowery with rose petals, ripe peaches and honey.  On the palate the wine was on the fuller side of medium with medium acidity and a bit of residual sugar.  There were flavors of juicy, ripe peaches with honey and honeysuckle flower and a bitter rose petal kind of flavor on the finish.  Given that the wine was 8 years old, it was still very fresh and alive, which is a little unusual in my experience, as Gewürztraminer based wines tend to fall apart fairly quickly.  I tried my hardest to believe that it was plain old Roter Traminer and not Gewürztraminer, but there really is no denying the distinctive aroma profile.  I enjoyed this wine a lot and though it was a little on the pricey side, it was very well made and had a lot of complexity to it.  I hope one day to cross paths with a non-musqué Roter Traminer based wine for comparison's sake, and when I do, I'll still have a lot of things to think about.

I guess a question that some readers may have is whether the distinction is really even that important.  It's certainly important to me because the scope of this blog is laid out in a particular way and the exact grape or grapes that comprise a bottle of wine matter because it's a big part of how I determine what wines I'm going to discuss here.  But does it matter in a more general sense?  There's an anecdote about the late Joe Dressner of Louis/Dressner imports in which someone asks him exactly how much Grenache is used in a particular bottle and his response was "however much you want there to be."  The implication, of course, is that it hardly matters in a general sense what grapes are used to make the wine so long as the wine is good.  Which is true, of course, to an extent.  Is it really relevant how much Cabernet Sauvignon or Petit Verdot is in a bottle of Chateau Latour?  The wine stands or falls based on how good it is, and knowing the exact proportions of the blend is kind of irrelevant in deciding whether or not you enjoy the wine.

This isn't always the case, though, since you are not always afforded an opportunity to taste a wine before you buy it.  If you are a big fan of Grenache but don't like Syrah or Mourvedre (for whatever reason), knowing the proportions of the blend can help you decide whether you want to invest the money in trying a bottle you've not had before.  It gets even more important with varietally bottled wines, as the sole basis of your decision may be the name of the grape on the label.  I am always a fan of having as much information as possible on the bottle so that the consumer has as much information as he or she needs to make a decision on a purchase.  In this particular case, I don't know what Roter Traminer tastes like, but from what I've read, it's very different from Gewürztraminer and I do know that there are a lot of people who are not fans of Gewürztraminer's explosive perfume and somewhat bitter flavor.  Those consumers, even if they are very knowledgeable, may find themselves in the position of having to take a guess, as I did, and they may not be happy with the results.  Yes, there is always the option of talking to the seller, but in cases like this, it isn't always clear even to the very well informed staff member exactly what's in the bottle.

As mentioned above, I think that if there is a significant difference between how two different clonal variants taste and smell, there should be some distinction made so that the consumer can make a fully informed decision.  As you can probably tell from this post and others on the site, I don't believe in too much information and am a big believer in precision not for its own sake but for the sake of aiding decision-making in making what can be a costly decision.  We aim for this kind of precision, for better or for worse, in labeling many wines geographically, and I personally feel like the grape used to make the wine is as important as the piece of land where the grape was grown and would like to see the same kind of dedication to specificity employed in varietal labeling.

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