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Gewurztraminer in Alsace and elsewhere, the Germans spell it Gewürztraminer. It competes with Sauvignon Blanc as the beginner's grape - the one that is easiest for a newcomer to wine to recognise. With Sauvignon Blanc it's all about that unforgettable smell and a virtual absence of colour. With Gewurztraminer, it's all about another unforgettable smell and one of the deepest colours of any white wine.

This last is because, like Pinot Gris/Pinot Grigio, the skin of a Gewurztraminer grape is actually pink, not pale green, so it is not surprising that pigments remain in the wine to give it a deep golden, sometimes copper colour.

As for Gewurztraminer's aroma, the first thing to say is that it is extremely powerful. If a sample of Gewurztraminer does not have much smell then it was probably made from shockingly over-produced grapes. Then the smell is heady, for Gewurztraminer the wine is usually high in alcohol - the grape (and wine) ripens easily. Its exact character is probably most accurately likened to the smell of lychees - that exotic, tropically-laden scent - with a fair measure of pungent rose petals and, in some of the most concentrated examples, a savoury element that some have likened to bacon fat. Sounds a strange combination? It is certainly a potentially combustive mixture, not a wine to take second place to food.

Lazy tasters tend to describe the distinctive smell of Gewurztraminer as spicy because the word Gewurz means "spicy" in German, but in fact there is no single spice that is particularly like the smell of Gewurztraminer. Here, "spicy" was being used as a synonym for "aromatic". Some less fastidious producers blend in a bit of Muscat to give overcropped Gewurztraminer a bit more aroma.

There was a time when it was accepted wisdom that Gewurztraminer went well with vaguely Asian, vaguely spiced food. But that was when western knowledge of the many hundreds of Asian cuisines was extremely limited. Today we understand a bit more, and I think probably realise that it's no good simply prescribing one grape variety for a whole, particularly vast continent. The French counsel drinking Gewurztraminer with particularly - agriculturally - stinky soft cheese such as Munster, Maroilles or Livarot.

The original, green-berried, not-particularly-aromatic forebear of Gewurztraminer is generally known as Traminer, which is also known in the Jura as Savagnin Blanc. Like many grape varieties however (Chardonnay included) an aromatic (aromatico in Italian, musqué in French) version evolved, in this case an aromatic version of the pink- berried mutation, which came to be known variously as Traminer Aromatico or, in German, Gewurztraminer and sometimes Roter Traminer.

As Gewurztraminer builds up particularly high sugar levels, its acid levels can fall dangerously low. If some particularly ripe Gewurztraminers have a fault it is that they are unappetisingly low in acidity, so malolactic fermentation of this variety is rare. As Gewurztraminer ages it can rapidly become oily and, if extreme care has not been taken to avoid excessive extraction of phenolics from its deeply coloured skins, it can also be slightly bitter on the finish.

Alsace in eastern France is Gewurztraminer's most significant home ground (even though the plants grown there today were probably originally imported from Germany's Pfalz region across the Rhine). It performs best on the heavier, clay soils of Alsace's Haut-Rhin departement, and can quite easily attain the sort of ripeness needed for expensive late harvest bottlings labelled Vendange Tardive and Sélection de Grains Nobles.

Earlier picked Alsace Gewurztraminer should be pungent yet dry and powerful enough to accompany savoury food. Too often however the wine can be rather vapid and given perfume by a proportion of Muscat in the blend. Léon Beyer, Zind Humbrecht, Muré, Schlumberger and Cattin are some of those producers who try hardest with their Gewurztraminers.

Germany has only a fraction as much (Roter) Traminer planted, mainly in Baden and Pfalz, where the wines produced vary between slightly lighter-bodied answers to Alsace Gewurztraminer and sometimes heavy, even oily versions. These, as Gewurztraminer in general, are not designed for ageing more than a very few years. (Time in bottle rarely concentrates that characteristic aroma but more usually dissipates it.)

Austria has almost as much Traminer planted as Germany with the most successful, aromatic and lively examples coming mainly from Styria in the far south east. It is planted all over eastern and central Europe, called variously Mala Dinka (Bulgaria), Rusa (Romania), Traminac (Slovenia) and Tramini (Hungary, particularly on the rich soils round Lake Balaton).

Torres of Catalunya has long grown Gewurztraminer for its full-bodied, aromatic Viña Esmeralda but perhaps the most delicate version is that of Viñas del Vero grown in the high altitude vineyards of Somontano in the north of Spain.

In Italy some fine Traminer Aromatico is produced in Alto Adige, although many of the wines lack real concentration and are much lighter bodied and higher in acidity than their counterparts in Alsace.

Gewurztraminer ripens so quickly that it needs to be planted somewhere relatively cool if it is to develop any discernible perfume. This rules out many New World wine regions but some interesting examples have been produced in South Australia's Clare Valley, New Zealand's east coast, the cool new wine regions of Chile's deep south and in cooler corners of North America.

It is clear that the Pacific Northwest is well suited to the variety but it is just not fashionable enough to maintain its slender hold on vineyard there in any significant fashion. Canada and New York state have a little planted and Navarro of Anderson Valley in northern California bravely keep making rare but delicious examples.

While it is difficult to imagine an overwhelming craze for Gewurztraminer which would see Chardonnay vines, for example, giving way to this full-bodied, scented alternative to any great extent, the wine world without Gewurztraminer would be a very much poorer place.

By Jancis Robinson

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