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Gewürztraminer is the Melon of Wines
Reframing cantaloupe and Alsatian whites.
Melons started to appear in my local farmers market this past weekend. For me, the seasonal arrival of cantaloupe and honeydew is a cheerful one, a key indicator that summer is now in full swing. But I realize not everyone shares my enthusiasm for melons.
In fact, I’m often shocked by how many folks seem to hate melons. I regularly find myself encountering people, both in real life and on social media, who turn aggressive at the mere thought of a cantaloupe or honeydew.
Honeydew, for sure, gets most of the hostility—best illustrated by the running honeydew gag in BoJack Horseman. Though cantaloupe also gets its share of shade. (“Why does Cantaloupe think, every time he gets invited to a party, he can bring along his dumb friend Honeydew? You don’t get a plus-one, Cantaloupe!”)
My guess is that too many people have eaten out-of-season melons, chopped carelessly, used as filler in terrible fruit salads at breakfast buffets, conference-room spreads, and grab-and-go convenience stores. I get it. But the hate still surprises me.
For me, cantaloupe is integral in one of the finest sweet-and-salty food combos in the world: prosciutto e melone. Melon haters, do yourself a favor and enjoy a truly ripe summer cantaloupe wrapped in real Prosciutto San Daniele. I love this combination so much that I’ve taken it a step further, making a melon-prosciutto risotto (recipe below). Yes, it’s a little strange. But I’ve made plenty of other fruit risottos (and written about them). Think of the cantaloupe like you would a tomato—and remember that the tomato itself did not appear in an Italian pasta recipe until 1839, centuries after people had been enjoying macaroni.
Anyway, when it comes to pairing melon and cured ham, you need a wine that’s also a little strange. Maybe even a divisive wine that, like melon, invokes a strong love-hate reaction. For this, I recommend gewürztraminer from Alsace, France.
I’ve said this before, but yes, gewürztraminer can be both overpowering and lacking in subtlety. In my book, I described gewürztraminer thus:
Everyone had that one buddy who was, you know, a little too much. You know the type: He’s loud, wears a little too much cologne, shows a little too much chest hair, wears a flashy watch and maybe a gold chain, tips people from a wad of dollar bills. When you’re out with this guy, he can be cringe-inducing, and he’s difficult to mix with certain friends, some of whom despise him. However—and it never ceases to amaze me—he still manages to charm over a surprising number of people with his overbearing act. Plenty of people simply love the guy. I often think of gewürztraminer as sort of like this buddy.
There is nothing like its flamboyant aromas and flavors of rose, lychee, nutmeg, clove—and always melon. When the residual sugar is kept to a whisper and the alcohol is held in balance, with enough fresh acidity and some chalky minerality, gewürztraminer can be amazing.
Over melon and prosciutto the other night, it suddenly hit me: Alsatian gewürztraminer is the melon of wines.
“I love this,” said my tasting companion after I opened the fantastic 2020 Zind-Humbrecht Gewurztraminer. “But I cannot imagine a single person outside the wine world who would drink this.”
Sadly, this is the modern dilemma of white wine from Alsace, particularly my beloved gewürztraminer. Eric Asimov, the New York Times’ wine critic, seems to be a kindred spirit. He mourns the current state of Alsatian whites in a recent Wine School column: “Whatever the reason, the wines of Alsace slipped from the American consciousness.”
Asimov talks about how, when he came of age as a wine drinker in the 1980s, white wines from Alsace had a serious presence. That changed over the following decades as the wines grew “more voluptuous” and sweeter. “These newer wines were a problem because they were not labeled sweet,” Asimov writes. “It was an unpleasant surprise to pour a wine you expected to be dry and find instead something sweet and unbalanced.”
If they’re considered at all, Alsatian wines are seen as dowdy, out of step with the fashions of a younger generation that prefers dry, high-acid, natural wine. That’s a shame. Benchmark producers such as Trimbach, Zind-Humbrecht, and Hugel still make consistently delicious riesling, pinot gris, and pinot blanc (along with gewürztraminer). Though if you like cool, modern, cartoony labels you will be out of luck, since all three wineries stick with a stolid, old-school, primary-yellow label.
A few months ago at La Dive Bouteille, the natural wine fair in the Loire, I loved the surprising wines from Les Vins Pirouettes, a collective of 14 growers in Alsace who are either organic or biodynamic and made by renowned winemaker Christian Binner. Have you ever tasted a natural (and bone dry) gewürztraminer? Well, look for the collective’s unique, eye-opening Saveurs de Raphael, which you can find for under $17. Tasting those wines suggested that things in Alsace can be different.
This winter, I also saw the news that, beginning with the 2021 harvest, all Alsace wines will be required to have a standardized sweetness guide on the label. “This new regulation is a great step forward for the wine industry as it will bring even more clarity, transparency, and credibility to the purchase or recommendation of Alsace wines,” read the appellation’s press release.
Producers have the option of labelling dry (sec), medium-dry (demi-sec), “mellow” (moelleux), or sweet (doux) based on EU standards. Most important for me is that “dry” wines can only have 4 g/l or less of residual sugar. That’s solid transparency.
A problem, on the other hand, is that producers can still choose to skip listing residual sugar and opt instead to use a visual scale to show sweetness. Like many others, I find these sweetness scales to be mostly useless. Just tell me the residual sugar and I can figure it out for myself, thanks.
I’ve tasted through a bunch of Alsace wines lately. Certainly, I found a lot to like. These were big, ripe, fleshy whites—and I kept finding those melon notes across the spectrum, no matter the grape variety. At the same, I was disquieted by how sweet and round so much of it was. I kept thinking: Who would enjoy these wines? Was the pinot blanc better than what I tasted across the German border in Pfalz? Would I recommend the rieslings over the best of what I love in Rheinhessen or Wachau or even the Finger Lakes? I kept coming back to the gewürztraminer as Alsace’s unique calling card.
You can see the lack of consumer demand Asimov describes. Many shops still reliably stock a few bottles of Hugel, Trimbach, and/or Zind-Humbrecht, but the diminished presence is clear.
I occasionally play a game at local liquor stores that I call Vintage Alsace Archaeology. Because those yellow labels never change, store owners regularly stash previous Alsace vintages in the bin along with the more recent releases—presumably to trick customers to buy “old wine.” But the joke is often on them, because you can often find random, nicely-aged vintages that will be scanned at the same price as the current SKU.
One memorable evening, as I rummaged around a South Jersey wine shop’s Alsace shelves, I found two extraordinary bottles collecting dust. The first, a 2004 Domaine Zind-Humbrecht ‘Clos Windsbuhl’ Pinot Gris was one of the most sensual wines, and certainly the best pinot gris/pinot grigio/grauburgunders I’ve ever tasted: rich, curvy, golden, with incredible smoky-salty notes, like a grilled peach dunked into the ocean. The second was 2001 Pierre Sparr Riesling Schoenenbourg, one of Alsace’s grand cru. It was riesling that had probably been wild and rambunctious with lots of acidity and sweetness in youth. But, after many years in the bottle, it had mellowed, with aromas of campfire and notes of honey and apple peel, still clinging to its brightness and snappy, smoky finish. It was like drinking one of those last mild, sunny days of fall. Their yellowing price tags read $23.99 and $20.99, respectively. I will always remember these bottles. They’ve become part of my personal wine-drinking history.
I want people to enjoy that same sense of discovery. I feel like no wine journey is totally complete until you’ve connected with an odd bottle of Alsatian white.
Now, melon-and-prosciutto risotto isn’t the only pairing for gewürztraminer. (We already covered pairing “absolutes” last week, didn’t we?) It can work in any number of unlikely pairing situations. Peanut sauce or fish sauce? Yep. Tandoori or tikka masala? Check. Smoked salmon? Uh huh. Stinky cheese? Of course. If pressed, I would even recommend gewürztraminer for the entire 3,000-calorie Thanksgiving dinner, with its mashup of colliding flavors.
But melon-prosciutto and gewürztraminer—that’s something special. Just give it a try, haters!
All About Alsace
A full-volume gewürztraminer and I’m here for it. Incredibly floral nose—gardenia, tropical flowers, fancy soap, and deeply fruity on the palate—fresh summer melon, litchi, papaya—yet finishing dry and spicy. Benchmark dry gewürztraminer.
“Both aromatic and extrovert with floral and spicy notes,” says the bottle, which may be the most relevant label notes I’ve ever read. To that, I would add, aromas of rose and honeydew, flavors or cantaloupe and mango, and a lively finish of nutmeg and grapefruit zest.
Great example of maximal gewurz here, with aromas of rose and litchi. Very ripe, with big melon and warm citrus flavors.
The sole Alsatian riesling of my recent tastings that I would highly recommend. Super petrol nose, attractive candlewax opening up to new pool toy. Notes of mint, fennel, warm citrus, and (of course) melon, with great lively acidity.
Natural gewürztraminer? Yep. Beautiful, delicious, and bone dry.
Melon + Prosciutto Risotto
This risotto is a take on the classic pairing of melon and cured ham. The cantaloupe cooks down like the flesh of a tomato. The resulting flavors are rich, creamy, and complex.
6 cups vegetable broth (preferably homemade but store-bought works)
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
3 shallots, diced
1 clove garlic, minced
Flesh of half cantaloupe, coarsely grated
1 1/2 cups Carnaroli, Vialone Nano, or Arborio rice
1/2 cup dry white wine
1/4 cup crème fraîche
2 ounces prosciutto, chopped
Fresh-cracked black pepper
Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, freshly grated
Heat the broth in a medium saucepan over medium heat.
Melt the butter in a large sauté pan or skillet over medium heat. Add the shallots and garlic and cook for 1 to 2 minutes, then add the cantaloupe and cook for 6 to 8 minutes, stirring, until it breaks down.
Stir in the rice. Once the grains are coated, let the mixture cook for a full minute, then add the wine and cook, stirring, until it has evaporated.
Add a ladleful of the broth (about 1/2 cup) and cook, stirring, until the liquid has been absorbed. Continue adding the broth gradually, a ladleful at a time, stirring until each addition has been absorbed. Be patient, as this process will take at least 20-25 minutes. Season with salt to taste as you go along (keeping in mind that you'll be adding prosciutto).
Once the rice is tender and finished (you might not need to use all the broth), turn off the heat. Stir in the crème fraîche and prosciutto.
Divide among individual bowls or plates (serves 4). Top with cracked black pepper and the cheese. Serve immediately, alongside an Alsatian white.