white, red, rose & orange wine—davies wakefield—oct 2020
I've been reading about Orange wine for the last couple of years, but this year not only are major wine publications devoting a lot of columns to these wines, you and I can actually purchase these wines. I recently bought two highly rated Orange wines from a reliable wine store in the Chicago area. I won't name the store for reasons that will become clear. In the meantime, I think you should become familiar with the process that produces these wines because I sense that this is becoming a movement. And like most trends or fads this one might have much more room to grow.
Orange wines are, strictly speaking, wines made from white grapes fermented with their skins. White wines are made from white grapes that have been cold soaked or pressed and then stripped of the skins. Orange wines are white wines that have been made like red wines. Records and wine makers diaries show that skin fermenting white grapes was common in many parts of the old, pre-World War I Austro-Hungarian Empire. In other words, these are pre-technology wines. Pre-technology in my mind means before the Germans invented organic chemistry. Organic chemistry led to pesticides and herbicides that nearly destroyed the French regions of Burgundy and Bordeaux. It also led to human pesticides like nerve gas which is still being used today by amoral regimes like North Korea and modern Russia.
The Rachel Carson book Silent Spring published in 1962, two years before she died, led to a momentous populist backlash which fostered the formation of the EPA and the banning of the pesticide DDT. At the grass roots level, organic gardening and farming became mainstream and now dominate the produce departments in groceries and farmers markets. Wineries have abandoned the use of weed killers and bug sprays in favor of sheep and goats to control the weeds and chickens and other natural predators to take care of the insects. I don't know about you, but I now buy wine that is produced by organically certified producers.
Wineries in the past, especially in the 1980-2000 period, (California was the epicenter of this madness) used a variety of new technologies that I've written about, like fining, depth filtration, ultra-filtration, surface filtration, flotation, stabilization, hot stabilization, cold stabilization, Bentonite and Sulfur Dioxide addition. Then there's the use of wood chips to simulate the aging process of wine aged in oak barrels. All these techniques destroyed the soul of the wine, producing lifeless, insipid crap that wouldn't age more than a year or two. The inevitable revolt by consumers led to a movement away from this way of making wine toward what are now referred to as “natural" wines.
Between the nightmares of organic chemistry and the misguided technologies to handle the wine during and after fermentation, the ground under the wine industry was beginning to liquefy and was fertilized with new ideas that weren't really new but more of a return to pre-industrial techniques. It brought to mind the Arts and Craft Movement of 1880-1920 that rebeled against the debasement of decorative arts. It stood for craftsmanship and often used medieval, romantic or folk styles. Pugin's revival of Gothic Architecture is one good example that can still be seen in houses along Monroe Avenue near the Aldo Leopold School in Green Bay.
The wine industry had many revolutionaries in all parts of the world but one that I think epitomizes the beginning of the movement in the United States started with the conversation Joel Peterson had with Frank Tedeschi owner of the famous Tedeschi vineyards that produced great “mixed blacks" for Joseph Swan's legendary zinfandels. Joel was a young man in 1975 just getting into the business. He approached Frank and asked to buy some of his grapes. The squat five-foot-tall farmer told Joel to beat it before noticing the bottle Joel had. “What's that?" Joel told him it was one of his first wines and offered it. Frank looked at his watch and asked Joel to join his family for lunch. After consuming the bottle Frank said “Too much oak. Let's try some of my stuff." Frank went to the house and returned with a gallon jug. After a surprisingly great taste, the jug was finished off with lunch and Joel asked “How did you make this wine?" Frank pointed to plastic garbage cans leaning against the barn and replied that “In the old days, I used a wooden fermenter, but I'm too old to wash it out now. Those are my fermenters. I pick a bunch of grapes zin, pets, carignan, malveeza, sometimes a little valdigee. Sometimes I take the stems out; sometimes I don't. I put them through a hand crusher and into those cans. Then I go on vacation for a week. When I get back, I look in the cans. If it smells right and I can still see the skins, I push em down, mix it up and take another week's vacation. When I can't see the skins anymore, I dump it into my basket press and put it in a barrel. I leave there for six months, then I bottle it and drink it."
Frank Tedeschi's crude garbage can fermentations are the essence of Orange wine manufacturing and the beginnings of a return to old traditions of making wine. In most small wineries today, you won't see garbage cans, but you will notice a lot of egg-shaped concrete vessels that evoke pictures in old National Geographic magazines of sunken Greek Kyrenia trade ships with their cargo of amphorae littered across the floor of the Aegean Sea.
On the other side of the planet during this same period Slovenia, Georgia and Croatia and other members of the old USSR (United Soviet Socialist Republics) and Marshal Tito's Yugoslavia had been laboring since the end of the second World War producing wine for the Communist collectives. In case you don't know what a collective is, under communism a farmer works his fields and gives the crop to the local collective where it is supposedly distributed equitably. Because, under communism there is no capitalism, there was no capital to modernize the wineries of these SSR's; therefore, the wineries were using the only technology available to make wine. Locally produced pottery amphorae which were fired in wood fueled kilns were the way that these wineries survived. Essentially, they were producing wine the way the Romans did two thousand years ago. During the late 1970's and into the 80's especially under the Gorbachev regime, farmers were allowed to sell their wine for a profit, which encouraged experimentation. Idealistic vintners like Katja Kabaj whose family had grown grapes in the Goriska Brda region of Slovenia for generations became interested in new ideas when she serendipitously married French Enologist Jean Michel Morel.
Katja's first vintage was in 1993 and she and Jean Michel were drinking skin contact wines in 1997. By 2005 they were macerating all white varieties at least a few days. Having consistently produced a range of exemplary wines like this for about 15 years, they proved that it was not necessary to make the modern fruity styles so ubiquitous today. They make 60,000 to 100,000 bottles annually with 30% of production rendered to classical Bordeaux blends and the other 70% is made of white grapes varieties fermented on the skins.
All wines are fermented with native yeast and moved according to lunar cycles. Whites and reds undergo some amount of skin contact based on the variety and vintage according to Jean Michel, skin fermented white wines skin contact is based on not making extreme wines but wines that retain a freshness akin to eating a grape in the vineyard. In Slovenia which is in the foothills of the Italian Alps just over the border from Trieste; that famous city from the James Bond spy movie From Russia WithLove, the white varieties are similar to the grape types of the Alto Adige in Italy. Beli Pinot (Pinot Blanc) Sivi Pinot (Pinot Gris) and Rebula are all vinified with different skin contact times but all retain that freshness while exhibiting varietal typicity.
While this sounds great as I read from the wineries website, the end result that I tasted was horrible. The wines had an oxidized orange color and tasted bitter and vinegary, while these wines were given scores of 88 and 92 points by such tasting mavens as Wine & Spirits Magazine and James Suckling, the wines I purchased did not exhibit the qualities touted in their reviews. I am concluding that there may have been storage or transportation issues that led to the deterioration of the wines; think about an un refrigerated container of wine sitting on the dock for two weeks in Ljubljana Slovenia in 90-degree weather and you might be able to imagine the condition of this wine. I purchased these wines based on the high rating but in all fairness to the vintners and the wine store I bought them at, I think something happened to the wines en route. So, I will be on the lookout for further information and wines that will show the true colors, so to speak, of orange wines. I do think that extended contact with the skins of white wines is risky in that the skins tend to produce bitterness if left too long. I've had Rosé that had harsh bitterness because of extended skin contact. It isn't pleasant. In the meantime drink up the rest of that leftover summer Rosé with some roasted duck before winter sets in.