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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Orange wines: a genre with a large gray area

Orange wine is a style defined not by area or grapes, but by production technique — that leaves plenty of room for differences and for further exploration.

By Eric Asimov

To call a category of wine “orange” strikes some people as odd, as no wine is truly a shade of orange.

I think orange wine is a fine term. No white wine is actually white nor red wine red, yet we accept these phrases.

Alternative descriptors have been proposed for orange wines — white wines that are made using red wine techniques. Some would prefer to call them amber wines, while others like skin-contact wines, alluding to the production process rather than the color. Orange seems to have caught on a little better. So here, orange it will be.

But what does it mean to label a wine orange? At Wine School we have been drinking and thinking about orange wines over the past month. As several readers have pointed out, it’s an enormous and puzzling topic to try to cover in three bottles, as is our usual approach.

“Greatest strength of orange wines: You have no idea what to expect,” wrote one reader, VSB of San Francisco. “Greatest weakness of orange wines: You have no idea what to expect.”

“When you buy a Chablis, you have a pretty good idea of what you’ll get,” VSB continued. “An orange wine? How would you know?”

VSB was alluding to a quality referred to among wine professionals as typicity, taken from the French word typicité, referring to what one may typically expect from a particular wine like a Chablis. People may have different notions of Chablis’ typicity, and such arguments occur in wine seemingly every day. But nobody would argue that orange wines have typicity.

“Orange wines, just like any other ‘color’ of wines, really can’t be categorized or generalized,” Jason C. of New York rightly pointed out.

So why take on such a broad subject?

Our aim at Wine School is to achieve ease through exploration. The more sorts of wine we drink, the more comfortable we are in settling on our own tastes and preferences.

As a way of introducing the idea of orange wines, I chose three different examples. Unlike the bottles I would ordinarily select, they were not bound by geography or grape. The wines all happened to be Italian, but they came from different regions and were made with different varieties. Rather, the three simply coexist in this broad, unwieldy category.

The three bottles were: Montenidoli Vernaccia di San Gimignano Tradizionale 2019, COS Terre Siciliane Pithos Bianco 2020, and Monastero Suore Cistercensi Lazio Coenobium Ruscum 2019.

What they have in common is a production technique. Each of these white wines, to varying degrees, was made like a red wine. Unlike the typical modern white wine, in which the juice is whisked away from the skins shortly after the grapes are crushed or gently pressed, red wines are permitted to macerate with the skins, which contain pigment and tannins.

That’s how orange wines are made. Juice from the white grapes macerates with the skins as with red wines, absorbing tannins and pigment depending on the length of the maceration. According to the producers’ websites, the Montenidoli spent up to a week in contact with the skins, not long at all in the context of orange wines, where some extreme examples spend months mingling with the skins.

The Ruscum stayed on the skins for 15 days and the COS a month. I might have guessed the reverse, as the Ruscum was an amber color and the COS reddish but still somewhat pale. They both had distinct tannic rasps, but it’s hard to fully account for the differences. Other elements play a role, like the vessels in which the wines were fermented and aged. The COS was produced in amphorae and the Ruscum in steel and fiberglass vats.

I enjoyed all three of these wines. The Montenidoli, made entirely of vernaccia, was sort of an introductory example, the closest to a conventional white wine, with just a hint of color. But it did have discernible, if gentle, tannins, felt in its fine sandpapery texture. It tasted to me of dried flowers and orange zest.

The COS was made of grecanico, as garganega, the grape of Soave, is known in Sicily. I found it exceedingly fresh and energetic, floral and almost meadowy in its breezy fragrance. Compared with the Montenidoli, it was quite a bit more tannic.

So was the amber Ruscum, which was a blend of four grapes: trebbiano, malvasia, verdicchio and grechetto. It was herbal, spicy and peppery, with flavors of cloves and citrus zest. It seemed less fresh but equally delicious.

The Ruscum, by the way, is produced at a convent by Cistercian nuns, who in addition to vineyards have orchards and gardens, which they farm organically. They also sell products like jam, beer and chocolates.

I would say the reception for these wines was mixed. Some people, like Peter of Philadelphia, found the Montenidoli and COS not all that different from conventional white wines. Peter also tried an orange wine from Georgia, a Tevza Goruli Mtsvane, which spends five months or so in contact with the skins in qvevri, the traditional Georgian amphoralike vessels that are made of clay and buried in the earth. He found it far more unusual and captivating than the other two.

Frankly, I would love to devote a month in Wine School to drinking such Georgian wines. Sadly, they would be too difficult to find in many parts of the country. Nonetheless, I would urge anybody who is interested to explore these fascinating wines.

Although Peter found the COS unsurprising, it is often thought to be on the transgressive side. Olga Mosso of Germany recalled visiting a restaurant in Sicily where the owner warned her that the COS was a very different sort of wine that some people found odd. She ordered it all the same, and loved it.

I hope this introduction whets the appetite for further examination. I don’t drink orange wines frequently, but I have some that I love and others that did not move me. Yet I often find them compelling, particularly the more emphatic examples.

I know, though, that these wines are not for everyone. That’s as it should be. For some it will be one and done. For others, it may be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

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