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Gewürztraminer: It's in your face

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Gewürztraminer: The grape's name is strange, the wine is strange and so is its presence. It's somewhat scarce, too, but it's hardly obscure. Most respectable wine shops and restaurant have a bottle.

Yet no one quite knows what to do with gewürztraminer. Or it sometimes seems everyone does, but there are so many divergent suggestions that you don't trust any of them. At a recent tasting group of wine professionals, one of the bottles on the crowded table was a gewürztraminer, and everyone regarded it as if it were an overbearing socialite who had crashed a book signing wearing too much perfume and gaudy jewelry. Everyone was polite, but no one knew what to say. A pause, a helpful shrug, and then: "Chinese food?"

Read about gewürztraminer and you find words like "flamboyant" and "exotic," plus the hallmark lychee-and-rose petals tasting note. Yet you also hear that gewürztraminer can be soapy, with a nose of kerosene, and finally that gewürztraminer "can pall after a while," as esteemed wine writer Jancis Robinson admits in her book How to Taste. But flip open the book to the "white grapes" section, and the first example isn't chardonnay or sauvignon blanc or even riesling. It's gewürztraminer.

It is "the most recognizable grape," Robinson writes, "by far the most distinctive and easiest to imprint on your palate memory for future recognition." Perhaps that's why it persists: The grape's unmistakable in-your-face aromatics make it impossible to ignore or forget. If you're new to white wine, you might want to begin with gewürztraminer. It's sort of like learning pop music by starting with Cher.

Like the party-crashing socialite (and Cher), gewürztraminer may be artificial. It's derived from the ancient traminer grape, indigenous to the area around the town of Tramin in the once politically disputed region of Alto Adige, in far northern Italy on the Austrian border. From these complicated roots came complicated genetic mutations, migrations and finally, in the 1870s, that complicated name whose etymology is telling: "Gewürz" is German for "spiced."

Gewürztraminer's stronghold is now Alsace, where it's the second-most-planted grape after riesling. Alsace is a Germanic borderland with France. Perhaps gewürztraminer's geographic marginality partly accounts for its fringy presence; meanwhile, the historic political instability of its main territories keeps it in our attentions. So does the essential nature of this often ostentatious wine—especially in Alsace, where it's usually rich, ripe and sometimes a touch sweet. Gewürztraminer can be unruly, too, hard to pair with food yet usually too much on its own—and frequently unwelcome.

But not always. Maybe, given its tropical-exotica character and its warming weight, gewürztraminer is most appropriate in the dead of winter. Baking-spice aromas such as clove and cardamom put the "gewürz" in gewürztraminer. (And with Chinese New Year approaching, the oft-recommended food pairing obtains. There's also that rose-petal association with Valentine's Day.)

It's not just our palates, though, that want gewürztraminer now. Our mood needs it, too. The holidays may be over, but the party doesn't have to end while the life of the party is still around.

WINE WITH SOUL. Much of the gewürztraminer on American shelves and wine lists is Alsatian, and as far as I'm concerned you can have it. A quick tip of the cap to Kenny Likitprakong's sunshine-light (and at $13, startlingly affordable) Banyan 2012 Gewürztraminer from Monterrey County, Calif. Then move on to gewürztraminer's Alto Adige homeland. Talk about scarce—numerous area wine distributors and Italian-wine importers had to scour their warehouses to find a bottle, a 2011 Pacherhof. This high-elevation, higher-toned wine was more mineral and blueblood than the usual stuff. We came home from a New Year's beach trip with nothing but king mackerel filets, and found a bare fridge save some leftover cranberry-orange relish my wife made on Christmas Day. It all worked—fish, sauce and wine—and the cranberries gave us an undeniable clue about what to drink next Thanksgiving, too. See you then, Cher.

This article appeared in print with the headline "The way we würz."

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