Still spicy by any other name

Traminer is a veteran grape of Australian winemaking, but hasn’t really won many modern fans, perhaps because its usual fate has been to make up undistinguished, sweetish white blends with Semillon in the Hunter or Riesling in the Barossa – as a varietal wine, it’s always been a curio.

Gewurztraminer – the prefix simply means spicy – has its home in the Alsace region, in France’s top right corner. The grape’s Germanic name came from centuries of seesawing cultural influence (which also cemented the place of pork and cabbage in the regional cuisine).

In the past decade, a few Australian winemakers have started to produce wines of undeniable zest and elegance, using the Alsace style as a model and gaining commercial inspiration from the proliferation of the grape in New Zealand.

Penfolds added Gewurztraminer to its Cellar Reserve range for the first time in 2005, and immediately produced a stunner of a wine that is still showing its class, according to those lucky enough to have kept some. The 2010 version repeated the trick, coming in at number seven of the Adelaide Review Hot 100 SA Wines and sending the judges into raptures of lyrical metaphor.

The achievement is all the more remarkable when you consider that Australians haven’t even been working with the classic Gewurztraminer clone. Traminer has a cluster of genetic strains – one is Savagnin Blanc, the white grape planted in error as the Spanish variety Albarino – and Gewurztraminer is another. Thanks to a hiccup in Australian ampelography (vine identification), it seems that we don’t actually have any of it.

While the quantity of production is dwarfed by the other whites in the Cellar Reserve range, Penfolds winemaker Kym Schroeter says it is fun to make. He also enjoys the advantage of working with fruit from Eden Valley vines that were planted some 40 years ago.

Schroeter, who comes from a Barossa family tree heavily laden with winemakers, says the winemaking approach splits the fruit at crushing: the free run juice is dispatched to a conventional ferment in stainless steel, while the pressings, which incorporate the skins and solids, go straight to barrel, where they have the benefit of a wild ferment, producing some “feral, crazy” characters.

In June, as bottling approaches, Schroeter starts blending on the bench to see how much of the pressings will go back into the stainless steel ferment to achieve balance. He has high expectations of the wine: “I want texture on the palate, a good mouthfeel, and it’s got to have lifted aromatics – that real spicy, potpourri lift – and a good length of flavour.

“Sometimes all of the pressings go in, sometimes it’s 50 percent, depending on how the vintage has come up. In 2010 the whole lot went in. The final wine had a high residual sugar of around 10 grams, but didn’t taste overly sweet because of the strong fruit flavours.”

Growing the grape has its finicky aspects too: while it flourishes in a cool climate setting, it still needs plenty of sun to hit its straps. If the fruit is picked too early or if conditions are too cool and grey, as was the case in the miserable vintage of 2011, the all-important spicy characters can fail to materialise. Given low baume and losses to bunch rot, the 2011 vintage was scrapped.

But, says Schroeter, the 2012 already looks like a return to prize-winning form: ”It’s the best white year I’ve seen since 2005 certainly, if not since I’ve been in the whites.”

If he’s right, it’s likely to repay cellaring as well as immediate drinking. And even though the 2012 Penfolds vintage will be labelled simply ‘Traminer’, anticipation will be running high.

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