Friday, October 22, 2010

Gewürztraminer Is Trying To Break My Heart

Gewurztraminer is a heartbreaker.  In fact, it’s the biggest heartbreak grape.  There, I’ve said it, at risk of starting a squabble. 

Many of my colleagues would argue that Pinot noir is the more nefarious heartbreaker—and they’d have good reason.  Like no other grape, it’s delicate and fussy—no, really.  Pinot carefully raised in the vineyard, gently processed, lovingly tended in the winery, and aged in posh French barrels, can unexpectedly turn on you without a backward glance.   It can sail along for months, cheerfully exuding aromas of cherries and violets with just a hint of forest floor, then throw a hissy fit after a racking or a filtration it didn’t appreciate.  Suddenly, this Pinot, which was once an ethereal beauty, becomes a thin and weedy hag of a wine. 

This ugliness doesn’t last forever, thankfully, but while your Pinot takes its time deciding whether or not it’s ready to forgive you, a lot of hand-wringing and hair-graying happens.  As winemakers, we strive for an impossible balance in Pinot noir.  We try to create a wine which is flavorful yet subtle, pure yet earthy, muscular yet delicate.  It’s this balance that makes great Pinot noir spectacular.  When making Pinot, we glimpse perfection and then it slips away, it reappears, and then may or may not stay.  Eventually, the wine declares itself on one side of the line or the other:  the ideal attained, or just missed. 

Chasing Pinot Perfection can make a winemaker fear losing his nerve, or maybe his mind.  And yet, we are really talking about a difference of degrees.  En fin de compte, in the case of Pinot noir, we’re talking about the difference between delicious and sublime.  While it’s a cruel thing to attain near perfection, with Gewurztraminer, it’s a far graver situation.  In the case of Gewurz, it’s all or nothing.  

Gewurztraminer plays the same psychotic game of hide-and-seek with us that Pinot noir does, but it starts doing so in the vineyard.  Early on, the grapes turn rosy pink and look delicious long before they taste like anything.  We start asking, “Will we have Gewurz this year?” And we will ask that question a few dozen times over the course of the growing season.

In case you don’t know, we don’t release a Gewurztraminer every year.  Sometimes we go for a period of several years without producing a Gewurz.  Why?  Well, we make our Gewurz in a high-alcohol, low-acid style.  The texture is supple and the flavors are sumptuous.  This style is somewhat outré, but it works magnificently because of its onslaught of lychee and rose petal aromas.  Occasionally, there is a bit of nectarine, and there’s always some sort of hydrocarbon aroma (my mom calls it Kerosene wine).  If we were making an easy, breezy white quaffer, we could use any old Gewurztraminer grapes, but to achieve what we crave, we can’t get away with using grapes that are less than extremely ripe. Wispy suggestions of melon and citrus just wouldn’t do in a wine made in this style—this wine only makes sense when driven by an overload of fruit and floral aromas.  It’s meant to be a heady, hedonistic indulgence.   Trying to decide whether or not our grapes can produce the aromas we need in our wine is a torment. 

Please understand that the winemaking staff here at Fox Run has an abnormal love of Gewurztraminer.  We extol it.  We lust after it.  We stroll in the vineyard and dream of making and drinking the stuff.  We taste the grapes and debate whether or not we’re seeing Lychee.   Most wines synthesize their flavors during fermentation.  In the case of Gewurz, we get a preview of the flavor profile in the grapes.   Flavors in the grape skins will be in the finished wine, but if the flavors aren’t there to start with, guess what….  Insipid Gewurz is out of the question.  So, we walk, and taste, and hope and deliberate. 

“Will we have Gewurz this year?” 
“Definitely—I’m already seeing Lychee!”
“Afraid not, we’re not getting enough flavor.”
“Wait, maybe—let’s not make our minds up just yet.”
“Will we have Gewurz this year?”
“We’ll have to see.”

Patience is a virtue I’m hoping to acquire one day. 
In the event that the grapes do acquire enough flavor to merit being picked separately and treated to the ensuing laborious process of crushing, chilling, skin-contacting (you remember where all those flavors lie, right?), then finally pressing, racking, and inoculating, we find out that other hungry critters have been waiting and watching, too.  The deer and the turkeys quickly eat the ripening grapes off the vines as they reach peak maturity.  Now we battle whether or not we’ll have enough ripe grapes to make a reasonable volume of wine. 

            “Hmmm, doesn’t look good.  We’ll have to see.”

In the event that sufficient ripe grapes are picked to make a reasonable volume of wine, we have demonic flavor fluctuations ahead.  All wines go through phases—pleasant and not-so-pleasant on their way to completion, but none so volatile as Gewurz.  One day it’s full of lychee and apricot, the next day it’s nothing but silage.  Up and down, we ride            the sigmoid curve, praying we’ll land on an upturn and cursing the descents. 
“Wow, that’s gorgeous!”
            “Where has all the flavor gone?”
            “Will we have Gewurz this year?”

The misery continues through the winter, through the spring, time finally resolving the question around May or June.

                        “Do we have Gewurz?  Do we have to blend it away?”

Unlike Pinot noir, Gewurz is spectacular or bland.  In the latter case, it is a fine though innocuous addition to any number of blends, but can’t be its own wine.  When it’s spectacular, however, wow - what a wine.

Now you, dear reader, can join in the torment.  This lovely warm summer produced truly ripe fruit, at least in terms of sugar accumulation.  Flavor development in the Gewurz, for some evil reason, was lagging.  We debated and despaired, and finally, we found a sliver of hope:  lychee at last appeared in the past few weeks.  Would it be enough?  Did it come early enough to perfume the wine?  Would there be enough grapes left if we let them hang for just a bit longer?  After suffering all summer long, we have picked our small quantity of Gewurztraminer.  We crushed it yesterday afternoon.  Peter Bell, Peter Howe and Kelby are pressing it as I write this.  Today, there is plenty of flavor, but don’t get too comfortable yet—the question is nowhere near settled.  Now the nail-biting really begins.   We’ll keep you apprised.   Will there be Gewurz this year?  Please let the answer be “Yes”!

Hoping and wishing,
--Tricia, Assistant Winemaker

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