It's flowering in Napa vineyards.

It's flowering in Napa vineyards.

Friday, July 7, 2017

Red wines masquerading as whites.

Last year my wife and I enjoyed an excellent tour and tasting at Robert Sinskey Winery in Napa Valley.  They poured us their interpretations of the major red and white varietals, but it was Orgia,  their proprietary Pinot Gris based wine, which caught the attention of my taste buds. It was not only different from most Pinot Gris, but it was also quite unlike any other white I have experienced.

It had a Rosé-like, slight copper tint from the lightly pigmented Pinot Gris grape, which in and of itself is nothing unusual, but it had a persona that most white wines do not—the substance, weight and mouthfeel of a red wine.  Had I tasted it blindfolded, I would have clearly identified it as a red.  Moreover, and if I may borrow a phrase originally attributed to many Chardonnays, Orgia was “A red wine masquerading as a white.”  

The primary determinant that yields the above characteristics is extended skin contact (aka maceration), which is the standard color-extracting routine for red wine production, but not for whites. That italicized tidbit in the previous sentence should help veteran wine enthusiasts nail Orgia as belonging to that unique class of wines informally known as “Orange Wines.” 

Orange wine is an unfortunate and misleading descriptor (coined by British wine importer David Harvey), because  many will have an expectation that such wines are made from oranges. They are not.  

Depending on the white-skinned grape utilized, it can yield an amber, yellowish, or slightly orange color, but if something like the Pinot Gris is used, the appearance will be quite different.

Pinot Gris can range from a light copper tint all the way to the brownish red of a mature red wine. (Also, I have, through the advice and expertise of Back Room Wines in Napa Ca, sampled my way through Pinot Gris, Ribolla Gialla, and Vermentino, and each revealed their differences rather distinctively.)

Irrespective of the grape utilized, orange wines do share several underlying (though varying) characteristics that result from extended skin contact.  Rather than the overt, fruity/floral smoothness of a conventional white, the mouthfeel (texture) of prolonged skin contact delivers a gentle asperity.  Also, absent are the tropical hints of pineapples, grapefruit and white stone fruit, as they are now replaced by an intriguing, earthy minerality, including attention getting secondary aromas and flavors of honey, nuts, dried fruits, sherry and saline aspects.  

And given the above, the twin pillars of fine winemaking, complexity and structure, are clearly detectible in orange wines, more so than conventionally vinified whites.  However, and I must be candid about this, while those two elements typically appeal to veteran wine enthusiasts, they are not the least bit pleasing for newbies or less adventurous enthusiasts.  “It tastes good,” will not be their first observation.  As one Internet site has suggested, “Make sure you’re sitting down when you taste your first orange!” 

Finally, is all this just a short-term novelty, an emerging trend, or a return to the ancient practices of prolonged skin contact winemaking referenced in my Mar 16th article? 

For better or worse, to understand and be willing to accept orange wines, it takes curiosity, involvement, analysis and the willingness to suspend one’s idea of how white wines should look, smell and taste.  Once you let go, a whole new experience awaits you.


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