FIELD NOTES - Vol. 2. - Orange Wine I Can Get Behind
As the keeper of our wine portfolio, I cannot tell you how many times a year I receive calls asking whether we carry any “orange wines.” But when it comes to wine, the term “orange” can really mean a number of things, and often the inquirer isn’t even quite sure what they’re driving at. Most just know that “orange wine” has become de rigeur in the somm scene, and whatever that means, they have to have one.
Now the “orange wine” that most of these somms are referring to is white wine from a certain “non-interventionist” style of winemaking wherein white grapes are fermented in a ceramic or concrete vessel using only the naturally occurring yeasts, often with seeds and skins intact, for anywhere from days to months with little or no intervention or additives before bottling. This process creates a character of wine marked by distinct sour and nutty notes that are dramatically different from most white wines. While this style of amphorae winemaking has been around for thousands of years, the modern orange wine trend was most recently popularized in Italy by winemaker Josko Gravner in the late 1990’s. Since then, orange wines from producers like Movia in Slovenia, Sadie Family in South Africa and Abe Schoener’s Scholium Project in Suisun Valley CA have hit the market much to somms’ delight.
These wines can be extremely complex and interesting for true oenophiles who like to taste flavors that are unexpected and out of the ordinary: think juniper and jackfruit, dried orange rind and hazelnut. However, the flip side of the coin is that these wines can be borderline oxidized, carrying notes of bruised apple, linseed oil, wood varnish, and sourdough (credit: Madeline Puckette, Wine Folly.) To some, that’s enchanting but to the unprepared palate it can be a bit of a shock. In short, that can translate into returns from customers who didn’t know that a sherry-like mouthful of sourdough and wood varnish was to be expected. So while it’s fun to have one or two of these in the arsenal for the truly adventurous drinker, this isn’t what I advise most accounts to engage with unless they have the staff knowledge and confidence to thoroughly explain these wines to the customer prior to pouring them.
Happily, orange wine can also refer to an inviting and crowdpleasing white wine that has prolonged contact with a grape skin that imparts some orangey tinge of color and tannic mouthfeel. Pinot Gris is known in the United States as a white grape, but in actuality it happens to have a tinge of color in the skin (hence gris or “grey”) that, when left in contact with the wine for a few hours to a few days, can impart a beautiful coppery orange hue. In Italy, they refer to these “orange wines” as Ramato, taken from the Italian word “Rame” for copper. Up until the 1960’s, most Pinot Grigios from Italy were made in this style, until large producers began exporting the un-tinted style we’ve come to know and expect. But when the extra time is taken to make these wines in brief contact with their skins, the added textural component and beautiful color can really add something special to the crisp white wine experience. Below, two of my favorites in this style that are both intriguing and approachable for any wine drinker, novice and experienced alike.
The gorgeous coppery tone of this wine owes itself to Pinot Gris (80%) with extended skin contact combined with Muscat Ottonel (20%) fermented on skins in clay amphorae. This truly unique wine presents as aromatic and dry with notes of apricot and white cherry with a little nutmeg spice on the finish.
Attems Cupra Ramato Pinot Grigio
For this Ramato or “coppery” Pinot Grigio Ramato, the must remains in contact with the skins for 36 hours giving the wine a very distinctive salmon hue. Attems Cupra Ramato boasts a rich, fruity bouquet, and opens full and weighty on the palate, with notes of peach, cantaloupe and rose petal.