By Frank Cipparone
One thing you can count on with wine – styles come and go, grapes fall into and out of favor, consumer tastes change. Winemakers will reach for that next rung on the ladder even if it involves turning to production techniques that have been around for 5,000 years. Going back to the future is one more approach as everything old is becoming new again.
That certainly holds true for “orange” wines that bring to mind the catchy lead-in of the BBC’s “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” – “And now for something completely different.” An apt description for these newly revived trendsetters, along with quirky, challenging, puzzling.
A lot of confusion has arisen as to what exactly orange wine is. It’s not made from oranges the way blackberry, peach or other actual fruit wines are. Orange wine is all about the way white grapes are processed. Once pressed, the skins are usually separated from the juice in short order. Conversely, an orange wine treats white grapes like a red. The juice remains in contact with the skins, and sometimes the seeds, for a few days to over a year to develop tannin, aroma, depth and complexity. The result is neither red nor white but a wine whose color can range from lightly orange to copper or amber depending on how long and in what type of container it ages.
Generally, these wines are fuller and more robust than a white and have dry tannins like some reds. They can be slightly sour or have a tart cider-like buzz, along with intense flavors of nuts, green apples, and honeyed apricots and peaches. To be honest, they can take some getting used to. Like anything off-beat they can be a gas or leave you aghast.
These unique wines have a long history in Italy. Farmers in Friuli, Emilia-Romagna, and Liguria kept up the traditional practice of maceration (the term for skin contact) even as Italy’s wine industry modernized. The last 20 years have seen a resurgence of “ramato” (amber) wines. Spurred by a few visionary winemakers, others around Italy have come on board. Most orange wines are made organically and biodynamically with minimal human intervention. They’ve found a small but growing audience that values authenticity and craftsmanship.
As often happens, the orange renaissance arose from an oddly fortuitous accident. Josko Gravner, a winemaker on the Italian side of the border with Slovenia, had to decide what to do with the meager amount of grapes left after a devastating storm raced through the vineyards. To save what he could of the harvest he macerated Ribolla Gialla, a native white. It went well, so for a few years he continued the practice for up to two weeks in large wooden vats.
Intrigued by the possibilities, Gravner journeyed to Georgia on the Black Sea, the ancient birthplace of long-aged skin contact wine. There he learned about fermenting in large clay amphorae sealed with beeswax and stored in caves or underground for months or years. He was so impressed he came back to Friuli with 46 terra cotta amphorae for his cellar. In 2001 he extended the maceration time for making an “orange” Pinot Grigio and buried the large cylindrical containers for a year, after which he aged them in barrels for six more years and then three in bottle. The results were stunning.
Sadly, he discontinued his experiment with the 2011 vintage. Thankfully, the baton had already been passed to a new generation of Frilulano winemakers such as Stanko Radikon. In his small, 30-acre vineyard he refined the peasant methods used by his grandfather. He started with one week of skin contact but amped it up to three months to get the driest wine possible before aging it several years in barrel and bottle. All of Radikon’s vines are at least 50 years old. They yield fewer berries, but those that make the cut have more character and substance. The premium grapes are so carefully selected that a whole vine may produce just one bottle. Talk about quality control.
Orange wines are springing up from Veneto to Puglia, Emilia-Romagna to Pantelleria. Though it’s a small sampling, those I’ve had will either turn your head or leave you shaking it. But isn’t that the whole point of pushing your boundaries?
COS “Pithos Bianco” is subdued and smoky, a mildly salty Grecanico whose white and yellow peach and citrus flavors don’t jump out of the glass at you (Sicily).
Gazzetta “Bianco Castagno” from Lazio features Procanico macerated for a month and aged a year in old chestnut barrels.
Cote di Franze “Kame” Bianco di Ciro is earthy, bone dry and has sharp acidic edges and a gravelly texture. Strange but interesting (Calabria).
La Regnaie mixes Trebbiano with Malvasia in a tour de force of orange perfection. A wine of contrasts – lively yet smooth; distinct but subtle flavors; musky and pithy at the same time. The best of not just orange but any natural wines I’ve had (Tuscany).
Vino di Annna “Palmento” is an eccentric old school field blend of five Sicilian whites that is as basic as it gets, all purity, lightness and restraint.
Pierluigi Zampaglione “Don Chiosciotte” Fiano tilts at windmills with a mix of herbal and fruit flavors that are unconventional without being over the top (Campania).