By November of 2005, winemakers and growers in Alsace, France, were selecting individual grapes from bunches of Riesling, Pinot Gris, Muscat, and Gewurztraminer for their “Late Harvest” wines, known as “Vendanges Tardives.” The quality was to be exceptional. A rainy April with very high temperatures through July caused the vines to grow healthily. August became “unseasonably low,” says the Conseil Interprofessionnel des Vins d’Alsace, which “preserved very satisfactory levels of acidity.” By September, the sun returned, and October’s “low rainfall, misty mornings and sunny afternoons” set the stage for the growth of botrytis – noble rot.
A joyous thing is happening in Alsace, which adopted biodynamics in the 1920s. Ninety-two percent of its wines are white. According to the Conseil Interprofessionnel des Vins d’Alsace, the Vosges mountains to the west not only separate Alsace from mainland France but also shelter it from oceanic influence, limiting rainfall and exposing vines to long, protracted sunshine. In an area of such uniqueness, the wines tell their own tale. For example, Gewurztraminer from Germany can be quite sweet and unusually aromatic, but in Alsace grapes which seem sweet are fermented much drier. This means that a Gewurztraminer can be unusually aromatic, sweet, and refreshing. Even a “Late Harvest.”
Recently, at a dinner outside of Charlottesville, Virginia, I uncorked a bottle of 2005 J. Fritsch Gewurztraminer “Vendanges Tardives” ($50; Margaux & Company Imports). I poured, we all sat, and then the eyes lit up. The experience of a wine so aromatically beautiful, seductively round (combining sweetness and ripeness), and yet refreshing had not gone unnoticed. In this case, a wine’s “sweetness” has no bearing on its ability to be considered great. The guests at that table were able to break down their tendency to classify wine as either “sweet” or “dry”: they were drinking great wine. I note:
Violets, dripping pear, lychee and kiwi fruit. Crisp apple underneath citrus zest. Seductive as Gewurztraminer can be. Weighty front-of-the-palate that slips away lightly. The finish leaves you in remembrance of this grape’s name: “spicy Traminer.”
A note on the producer, courtesy the importer: Joseph Fritsch is a small, sustainable producer from Kientzheim. Fifty percent of his vines are planted in the grand cru vineyards of Schlossberg, Furstentum and Lieu dit Altenburg. He is not only a winemaker (“enologist”) but also a vine grower (“vigneron”; roughly half of the wine produced in Alsace is not made by the growers themselves).
His wine tells of family history (his family has been vignerons for generations), the uniqueness of Alsace, and the joy of Gewurztraminer in a fantastic vintage.