Thursday, October 27, 2011

Orange: The Fourth Color

From a strictly contemporary viewpoint, you could say that “orange” wines were tailor-made for the wine hipster cognoscenti: Rare, not inexpensive, “difficult,” and demanding. The fascination with these wines in the U.S. can safely be attributed to one man, Levi Dalton, who held the first-ever orange wine dinner in midsummer 2009 at the now-legendary (and now-defunct) Convivio in New York City. You can read Thor Iverson's take on that historic event here. (Iverson can be long-winded, but always in an entertaining and informative way. Stay with him, and learn.)

Since that first tasting, there have been a few more around the country, but not many. The conservative consensus estimate is less than a dozen. So when Les Doss and Kathy Taylor announced an orange wine tasting at Vinsite, some of us were pretty jazzed about it--especially having it here in little ole Asheville.

From an historical viewpoint, “orange” wines have a very practical origin. Saša Radikon, son of Stanko, grandson of Franz Mikulus, explains: “In 1995 we started making white wines with lengthy periods of skin contact. This was a technique that my grandfather used because he wanted to preserve his wine for a whole year. Before my father started selling our wines, my grandfather would make wine for the whole family from our vines, but this was for personal consumption only and it had to last an entire year until the next vintage.” [from an interview with the late Joe Dressner].

Lengthy skin-contact, of course, is what makes red wines red. It seems to make white wines orange, and hence the name. Leaving the wines on the skins (maceration) for weeks and months makes white wines last longer because the skins are a source of tannins, which act as anti-oxidants. There is a catch: While lengthy maceration protects the wine from oxidizing over the long term, the process itself actually increases oxidation during fermentation. Consequently, the wines all have a distinctive oxidative tang that can come across as sherry-like or cider-like. Yet another catch: While the wines are built to last, especially after they've been opened, they typically need hours and hours of exposure to air to become palatable. The wines at the Visite tasting were all opened and double-decanted four hours ahead of time; some of them would probably benefit from two or three times as much exposure to air.

Got all that? Good. On to the wines:

Coenobium Rusticum Bianco 2009: Made from a blend of malvasia, grechetto, trebbiano toscano, and verdicchio, fermented in stainless steel tanks, and left on the skins for 15 days. Aromas of raisins, sassafras, and roasted nuts, followed by a palate of all kinds of dried fruits, the barest hint of melon, and big, bold tannins. For background on the Cistercian nuns who make these wines, read Alder Yarrow's excellent backgrounder. It is worth noting that the appellation for this wine is Lazio, a region north of Rome known mostly for “Est! Est! Est!”--a wine whose name is far more distinctive than what's in the bottle.

Denavolo Dinavolo Vino da Tavola 2007: This wine is a personal project of Giulio Armani, best known for his work at La Stoppa, a producer of high-end wines, mostly from French grapes, in the village of Piacenza near Bologne. The Denavolo vineyards in Emilia (another not very distinguished wine region) are at 1,500 feet, an exceptionally high elevation for the area, and are biodynamically farmed. As is the case at La Stoppa, Armani is working with some unusual grape varieties. The Dinavolo blend is 25% malvasia di candia aromatica, 25% marsanne, 25% ortugo, and 25% “yet unknown varietals.” These are 28-year-old vines. The wine is naturally fermented in stainless steel tanks over 7-14 days on the skins, with vigorous pumping-over for the first few days. No SO₂ is added, and the finished wine is unfiltered. The nose offered a strong note of apricot, and also of camphor (“Vicks Vapo-Rub!” said one taster. We agreed.) There were floral notes and what our colleague Cara Freije called “vitamins.” The palate resists any kind of conventional description; there were some dark, spicy, fruity notes, and a whole lot of tannins.

Paolo Bea Arboreus Bianco 2004: This is the very first vintage of this wine, made from trebbiano spoletino, a high-end version of Italy's ubiquitous workhorse white grape, grown on 125-year-old vines. The vines are trained high (“Arboreus” is from the Italian word for “tree”) and artichokes are grown beneath them. The wine spends 16 days on its skins, and is aged for four years after that. We tasted bottle #0394 of 1,066 produced. Of all the wines tasted, this was the most conventional in style, with very agreeable notes of apple, pear, and orange zest (“An orange wine that tastes of orange!” was heard at the table), followed by notes of fermented soy, some deep, dark, dried honey character, a slight vinegary note, and a bit of salinity at the finish. For background on the Bea family and their winery, visit their website, which is chock-full of useful information (just like their wine labels).

Radikon Oslavje Bianco 2003: This was made from a blend of chardonnay, pinot grigio and sauvignon blanc, grown on the Radikon family's 26-acre property in Oslavia, a small Italian town right at the border with Slovenia. Cara Freije's notes on this wine were far more evocative than my own, so here they are: “Of all the wines, this had the most vinegary quality; it reminded me of a gueuze [a style of Belgian lambic ale known for its dry, cidery, musty, sour, acetic/lactic acid flavors], and even looked like one—kind of cloudy. Did you ever eat a cantaloupe that was just past its prime? Still sweet, but with an extra funk to it? This had some of that, also.”

Gravner Breg Anfora Bianco 2003: Josko Gravner (neighbor of Stanko Radikon) made a splash in the wine world in 2001 when he reached back thousands of years to revive the technique of fermenting his wines in amphorae (very, very large terra-cotta vases). In the style of the ancients, he lines the amphorae with beeswax, then buries them in the ground up to their necks, where the wine remains on its skins for months, before being transferred to oak barrels for two or more years of ageing. The Breg is a blend of Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio and Riesling Italico. It is the darkest of the wines at the tasting, showing a deep cherry color, closer to cognac than to wine. It has a nose like cognac, also, showing notes of roasted nuts and caramel. There is also a kind of peaty quality, reminiscent of Scotch whisky. The palate continues these impressions, with some dried honey notes and the barest hint of maraschino cherry.

There were 23 particpants in the tasting, which had been advertised a couple weeks in advance and sold out quickly. The wines came from several different sources; special thanks to Mike Tiano of Haw River Wine Man, who brings in the Coenobium and Paolo Bea wines, and was on hand to provide insights into the world of orange. Special thanks also to Cara Freije of Wisdom Beverages, who generously shared her meticulous tasting notes. And thanks again to Les Doss, who seems at times to be single-handedly bringing Asheville into the wine vanguard.

photo by the Chef

A few thoughts: Orange wines, clearly, are never going to be very popular. They are idiosyncratic, to put it mildly. They require patience (many hours of decanter time before drinking) and some serious sensory open-mindedness. They simply are not comparable to conventional red, white, or rosé wines. They are various in aromas and flavors, although Cara points out that there is some commonality in that they all had aromas that promised sweetness, yet were dry (some to the point of astringency) on the palate. None of these wines are produced in great quantity; all of them are priced north of $30, some quite a bit more than that. There is also the matter of pairing these with food: What goes with a big tannic white? The Radikons like their wines with the local pork ragù; Levi Dalton made history by serving sea urchin pasta at his tasting. Perhaps it is best to say that the field is wide open to experimentation. And for all these obvious reservations, these wines hold a powerful attraction, too. Drinking them is an adventure, and some of us are looking for exactly that kind of experience. They have that wild, feral, untameable quality that makes you sit up and pay attention. They are alive, and they make you feel alive. Salud!


Levi with an i said...

Sounds like a very cool event. Bravo.

Levi Dalton

Javier Mateos said...

Very interesting tasting! we have a Radikon 2000 at home and I look forward to open it. My wife was recently visiting the Friuli region and his winery and she was amazed by the quality and specialty of these "orange" wines. We had also the chance to try the Aroboreus at the Bea winery (just near my wife's birthplace) and the rest of his wines and they are really different, "alive" as you perfectly describe them. You can see more abot this tasting (in spanish) in this post:
Best regards and thanks for your interesting description of the orange wines.