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robert camuto: letter from europe

Mining Gewürztraminer for Greatness

An Italian co-op takes a misunderstood grape to new heights—aging it in an abandoned silver mine
Photo by: Robert Camuto
Cantina Tramin winemaker Willi Stürz is making Gewürztraminers for the long haul.

Posted: Jun 26, 2017 10:00am ET

Termeno is a Tyrolean wine dream.

This postcard-perfect town, commonly known by its old Austrian name, Tramin (pop. 3,400), is a collection of traditional Alpine houses and cobblestone streets that rise up from the Adige river valley in far northeastern Italy. Steep terraced vineyards climb 1,000 feet to conifer forests at the edge of the Dolomite mountains.  

About 60 miles south of the Austrian border, Tramin/Termeno is believed to have lent its name to Gewürztraminer, an aromatic variety often ignored in the U.S. because of the bad rep created by cloyingly sweet German versions that flooded the States decades ago.

It's also one of the few places (after France's Alsace) where Gewürztraminer gets its due respect.

"It's a very old grape with a lot of history," says Willi Stürz, 49, the winemaker at Cantina Tramin, a nearly 120-year-old cooperative that contracts grapes from about 150 families with combined vineyards totaling more than 600 acres.

Termeno is not all Gewürztraminer. Red varieties Lagrein, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Schiava are planted on lower slopes. White Pinot Bianco, Pinot Grigio, Chardonnay and Müller Thurgau grow up above.  

But Gewürztraminer dominates the middle altitudes—about 950 to 1,700 feet—in Dolomitic limestone soils.

And Italians love the stuff.

Stürz, a tall, Teutonic, blue-eyed Termeno native, signed on as winemaker in 1991, and has helped lead the Gewürztraminer renaissance.

He led replanting of vineyards, from high-yielding Schiava to a range of quality varieties; he encouraged lower yields, paying higher prices for quality grapes; and he encouraged the planting of the best Gewürztraminer clones from Alto Adige (with more aromatics) and from Alsace (with more structure).

"For me the combination of the two is ideal," he says.

Cantina Tramin, which today produces more than 30 wines, has achieved some stellar successes, including its high-end Gewürztraminers.

The flagship dry Cantina Tramin Gewürztraminer Alto Adige Nussbaumer (2013, 91 points, $40) is produced using whole-bunch fermentation from a selection of about 40 acres of the cooperative's best vineyards.

The winery also makes a sweet botrytized version called Terminum (2012, 91 points, $65 for a half-bottle), using the Roman name for the town.   

Nearly a decade ago, Stürz wanted to take Nussbaumer to another level. "We saw the aging potential of Nussbaumer and the possibility to do something special."  

His idea was to make a late-harvest Gewürztraminer that would age years in bottle before release.

"With Gewürztraminer, the more it ages, the more finesse and elegance comes out," he says. "The wine seems more fresh, and more salty … it becomes like a late-harvest Riesling."

His problem was that the 1970s-era co-op—accustomed to quickly releasing its wines—didn't have space to age thousands of bottles.

So Stürz and his team looked elsewhere. "We were searching for a place where a wine would have its tranquility and stability."

After taking a family field trip 50 miles north to the abandoned Monteneve silver mine (now a museum that recounts the 800-year mining history that ended in the 1980s), he was inspired: Why couldn't wine be stored in the old mine? 

Working together with the mine director, Stürz found what he was looking for: a gallery deep in the mountain accessible by a still-functional small electric train. The conditions are perfect for cellaring—a steady 52° F with 90 percent humidity—and at 6,500 feet in altitude, Stürz figured, the mine's lower atmospheric pressure would allow for slower aging.

With the 2009 vintage, the co-op made a late-harvest Gewürztraminer from two well-exposed old vineyards totaling a mere 2 acres. A year later, the production of 100 cases was trucked to the mine, where it stayed for seven years. Every year since, they've brought another vintage. Another prestige winemaker from Termeno, Elena Walch, followed suit by also aging small quantities of a pair of whites in the mine.

This spring, with the melting of the winter snows that blocked access to the upper mine, the co-op team pulled out the first vintage. In May, the co-op released its Epokale 2009 at a U.S. retail price of more than $90 a bottle.

I had a chance to taste from a rare bottle with Stürz. It was sweet, with plenty of fresh acidity and the aromatic complexity of good Tramin Gewürztraminer.

I doubt one wine can erase a grape's bad rap, but it can only help. In Termeno, as Stürz puts it, "It opens a new world of wine types for us." 

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