Let's Lose the Würz

Corporations and ad agencies spend years and millions coming up with names for new consumer products. Nobody knows if the effort and expense really pay off, but there's no question that names make a difference. Hardly anybody ate canned tuna as long as it was called horse mackerel, and squid really didn't move until the menus started calling it calamari. Nomenclature's a big factor in the wine world, too. Many experts believe that merlot's long domination of the American red-wine market is due to the fact that it's easy to say, while many monolingual drinkers avoid ordering cabernet sauvignon because they think their pronunciation will bring a curl to the waiter's lip. If this really hurts cab sales, what does it do to Gewürztraminer, one of the world's most immediately agreeable, easiest-going, most undemanding wines? Every time the average American sees an umlaut (except in Blue Öyster Cult, of course), paralysis of the tongue ensues, and the eye desperately scans the wine list for relief. Maybe this would be tolerable if there were something useful, even poetic, about the word Gewürztraminer; but even in German, it's not very descriptive: Würzen means to season, and a Gewürz is something that seasons, i.e., a spice. Yet I don't believe the typical wine taster would find Gewürztraminer particularly spicy. The real distinction setting these grapes apart is a floral, almost musky aroma, which, if allowed to get out of hand in the winery, can be almost revolting. The aroma also can make Gewürztraminer taste "sweet," even when nearly bone-dry—another strike against it for would-be sophisticates. But in well-made examples from cool regions like France's Alsace or New Zealand's North Island, the bouquet is just an agreeable overtone to a crisp, refreshing, and quaffable wine, one that tolerates chilling better than most. Perhaps the most idiotic aspect of the Gewürztraminer name is that the "Gewürz" part is not just inaccurate but unnecessary. The grape appears first in the historical record in the village of Termino in the Italian Tyrol. In those days, there were white, blue, and pinkish varieties of Termino grapes, and somehow the pink ones got stuck with the "Gewürz" prefix. But hardly anyone makes wine out of the white and blue varieties anymore, so who needs the prefix? Not the Australians; they just call the grape "traminer," and we should thank them for setting a sensible example. (Unfortunately, they also grow the grape in some of the most unsuitably hot areas in their hot continent, which makes for very bad wine, indeed.) Despite the heat, Eastern Washington produces some first-rate traminer. Try Chateau Ste. Michelle's current (2004) bottling: You won't find a more agreeable white wine for just $9, equally delicious on its own or with spicy, creamy foods to set it off.

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