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Sniffing out wines that smell like roses
By John H. Isacs

The physical and aromatic beauty of roses has inspired poets, philosophers and lovers since time immemorial. Perhaps no other flower is so beloved and associated with romantic emotions and ideals as our beloved rose.

But what about roses in your glass? No, I don’t mean the actual flower, but rather aromas similar to the fragrance of a freshly cut rose.

The way we receive, perceive and process aromas starts with our olfactory receptor neurons in the nasal cavities that receive stimulus and transmit them to our lower brain for processing.

The lower brain then interfaces with higher brain functioning areas to translate these signals to sensations of pleasure, memory, romance, and so on.

The number of aromatic compounds that commonly stimulate our senses is quite vast, but those that we associate with roses are predominantly Cis-rose oxide compounds that are found in some grape varieties, lychee fruit and, of course, roses.

Citronellol, linalool and d-limonene compounds may also be interpreted as rose scents. That’s the basic science behind sensations of roses in a glass, but which wines actually smell like roses?

The noble Italian red wine varieties Sangiovese and Nebbiolo often exhibit elegant, rose-like floral aromas. You may also experience subtle perfumes of rose in young Gamay and Pinot Noir reds from Burgundy and elsewhere.

However, in the wine world the unquestioned king of the roses is Gewurztraminer.

Confusing new grape

This is a funny grape with a funny name. The name is German, the best examples come from Alsace, France, and the grape most likely originated in northern Italy.

The ancient Traminer variety is believed to have been first cultivated around the small town of Termeno in the northern Italian region of Alto Adige. Also referred to as Italy’s Tyrollean Alps, this is a bilingual region where German is as prevalent as Italian.

Just look at the labels of wines from this region, you’ll see more German than Italian. The German name of Termeno is Tramin and hence the grape gained its name of Traminer about a millennium ago.

The Traminer family of grapes is prone to mutation and sometime in the late 19th century, a highly fragrant example of the grape appeared on the scene; it became known as Gewurztraminer, literally “spice” or “perfumed” Traminer.

Unlike its green-skinned genetic father, the Gewurztraminer grape has a spotty, dark pink skin. Despite showing great potential, the new grape was not widely adapted until relatively recently.

Part of the problem was a confusing plethora of different names, including traminer musque, traminer parfume and traminer aromatique in France, traminer rosso and traminer aromatic in Italy, and roter traminer in Germany.

Though the word Gewurztraminer first appeared in 1870, it wasn’t until 1973 that this name was officially sanctioned by European wine authorities.

Difficult child

Another factor that has limited the popularity of Gewurztraminer is that it’s a viticultural nightmare. The vines bud very early, making them vulnerable to frosts, while ideal harvest dates are quite late.

The vines are also quite susceptible to pests and viral diseases.

Naturally high in sugar and low in acidity, winemakers face the dilemma of picking early to retain freshness while compromising the full development of aromas and flavors or harvesting later and risking an oily, overly fruity wine that’s woefully deficient in acidity.

So why would anyone cultivate this troublesome grape? Because when everything goes right, it makes one of the world’s greatest and most unique white wines.


The best Gewurztraminer wines are unquestionably from southern Alsace where styles range from bone dry to extremely sweet.

The dry wines as typified by the producer Trimbach are golden colored wines with powerful rose and spice aromas and concentrated lychee and tropical fruit flavors, with generous spicy sensations developing in a long complex finish.

The distinctive qualities of a dry Alsatian Gewurztraminer wine make them the easiest wines to identify in a blind tasting.

Their elegant and opulent character make them ideal partners to rich seafood and white meat dishes, while their spicy traits mean they also pair well with well-spiced foods including many Indian and Thai dishes.

On the other side of the Alsatian Gewurztraminer-style spectrum are the noble rot Selection de Grains Nobles.

These ultra-sweet wines are among the headiest sweet wines in the world, offering great viscosity with an oily-silky texture and powerful rose, honey and tropical fruit aromas and flavors.

Excellent with goose or duck liver and sweets, then are recommended as contemplative wines served by themselves after dinner.

Some of the best wine producers in Alsace with wines here in Shanghai are Hugel & Fils, Trimbach, Weinbach and Zind-Humrecht.

Other regions

The Alto Adige region of Italy produces fine dry and aromatic Gewurztraminer wines with some of the best examples coming from the prize-winning producers Colterenzio, Alois Lageder and Elena Walch.

Germany makes some very good dry Gewurztraminer wines but they generally lack the depth and richness of their Alsatian cousins.

In the New World, New Zealand Gewurztraminers stand out as they offer the greatest complexity and typificity (wine word referring to being typical to the variety or region).

Two of my favorite Kiwi producers are Forrest Estates in Marlborough and Misha’s Vineyard in Central Otago. Navarro and Thomas Fogarty Gewurztraminer wines from California are also recommended.

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