Friday, October 16, 2009

What's All the Talk of Orange Wines?


To wine bloggers and to many of their ardent fans the hippest, coolest, and most desirable wines seem to be those that live under the big rock of wine critics. Inasmuch as it helps liberate our palates from the hegemonic lock of wine critics, I'd say more power to the wine web.

Lately, the most titillating talk in the wine blogosphere has been on orange wines. Eric Asimov, wine columnist of the New York Times and one of my favorite wine writers, appears to be the instigator in his posts here and here. Other popular wine bloggers have chimed in here, here, and also here. And most recently my favorite local wine blogger, Jon Bonné of the San Francisco Chronicle, could no longer resist, hence posted his thoughts on the subject here.

I don't like the term "orange wine". Amber I prefer. Orange is misleading and just plain wrong, but everyone seems to struggle to come up with a catchier alternative; hence, this name sticks maybe not just for the time being. A word of caution for those who are hearing about orange wine for the first time: I'm compelled to point out that it is certainly not this nor this.

I do love orange wines. The best ones I seek out for sure as they offer incomparable flavor surprise, combined with amazing texture, freshness, and complexity. Yet for wines that have spent an extended time immersed in their fruit, it's incongruous that orange wines aren't overtly fruity, most only have a hint of fruit. You really have to love minerality to enjoy these wines. And I do!

I can say without hesitation that Paolo Bea's 2007 Santa Chiara ($49 at Vineyard Gate) is most amazing. And both the Coenobium and Rusticum wines ($23 and $30, respectively, at Vineyard Gate) that Giampiero Bea crafts for the Trappiste nuns of the Monastero Suore Cistercensi are also incredible. All these wines are made with extended skin contact for a number of weeks, then are aged on the lees without temperature control for about a year--significantly more for the Santa Chiara.

Domestically, there are just a handful of winemakers dabbling in orange wine. However, with all the recent hype about it, I wouldn't be surprise if we see a growing trend, much like we did on rosé when the buzz spread.

Yet one orange wine from Oregon achieves almost cult status among the natural wine cognoscenti: Francis Tannahill's "Jack".

Sam Tannahill takes his time to make it and he doesn't release right away. Two years ago I received just a case of its 2004 debut release of which only 37 cases were produced. The winery sold out right away, much of it was hoarded by their distributors and merchants. It's a good sign that a wine is good when its distributors and merchants are keeping it for themselves, instead of selling to their customers.

After a two-year wait, the 2005 "Jack" finally got released earlier this year ($21 at Vineyard Gate). It's a blend of one-third each Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, and Chardonnay. Skin contact was done for about six months at low temperature, then it was aged for sixteen months in neutral barrel before being bottled unfiltered. Almost two years passed before Sam decided to released the 2005.

Why it took so long to release, I never really got a clear explanation. Either Sam was preoccupied about more pressing matters or he deemed it wasn't ready yet. Not that it really matters. This 2005 "Jack" is not only again terrific, but being an orange wine there is no rush to drink it--it can age for decades.

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