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Tale of Two Gewürztraminers from Harvest Moon

Recently, I sampled two wines from Harvest Moon, a small family winery in Sonoma County’s Russian River Valley, that demonstrate how Gewürztraminers that are sweet is a decision, not a destiny.

Lately I’ve mentioned a few varietal wines to friends and colleagues who wrinkled their noses in response, and exclaimed, “Oh, that’s too sweet!” Often associated with Riesling and Gewürztraminer, this sentiment seems to be as ubiquitous as it is dead wrong.

First, let’s step back and review the winemaking process. During the growing season, grapes transform from hard, acidic and bitter green berries into the honey-sweet fruit that wine is made from.

And they are really sweet — a lot sweeter than table grapes and most other fresh fruits, too. During fermentation, yeast cells make the most of their brief careers, turning as much sugar into alcohol and carbon dioxide as they can.

There is no particular type of grape that is naturally predisposed to stopping the yeast from doing their job. In general, there are two reasons that a wine does not finish dry: In late harvest wines, the workload (sugar content) is simply too much for the yeast to cope with, and they quit before they’ve finished the job, drowning their failure in alcohol.

Alternatively, a winemaker stops the fermentation by adjusting the temperature, filtering the wine, and/or killing off the yeast with sulfur. (Less talked about are the products invented by winery supply labs to make the wine taste sweet without added sugar).

In Gewürztraminer’s home turf of Alsace, France (which historically has shared joint custody of the grape with Germany), it’s made in both dry and late-harvest, sweet styles. So there’s nothing unconventional about Harvest Moon Estate & Winery’s dry Gewürztraminer — it just runs counter to the off-dry or sweet stereotype that Americans may have of the wine.

Taste the difference:

Grapes for Harvest Moon’s 2013 Estate Dry Gewürztraminer ($24) are grown just a few strides away from the crush pad, on vines planted by the Pitts family in the 1970s.

The wine’s aroma hints at Gewürztraminer’s famed spice, but instead of sweet spices think herbs and menthol, eucalyptus, with a hint of vanilla. Partly barrel-aged, showing a leesy richness that dominates the green melon and mixed breakfast juice flavors of pineapple, orange and grape, it’s reminiscent of some of the richer, more exotic Sauvignon Blancs or an Albariño, perhaps, than Chardonnay. And yet it’s refreshing, and unmistakably Gewürz. Have this as an aperitif, and with cheese and fruit.

Harvest Moon’s 2013 Ice-Style Gewürztraminer Dessert Wine ($36) was made from grapes picked at a moderate 23 Brix. Then, since they’d have a hard time getting grapes to freeze on the vine in the Russian River Valley, they were frozen in a commercial freezing facility and pressed to extract only the sweetest liquid.

With 13.8 grams of residual sugar per liter, which is not a heck of a lot as “stickies” go, it’s got an aroma of honeyed fruit and sweet-smelling flowering vines. Gone is the melon and herb, as the sweet Gewürz character moves to the foreground. Appease your sweet tooth after a meal with a small glass of this, instead of dessert.

Find more info about Sonoma County wineries here.

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