“Show me some skin!” That, at least, was the plea. Skin there was, and a lot of it. Flesh everywhere, on naked display in a steamy den of iniquity, itinerancy, and ice buckets.
Maybe I should explain.
All and sundry – or perhaps mostly just the sundry – gathered from far and wide at Convivio’s swanky Tudor City digs, under the glowering eyes of Ivan Lendl-look-alike (and, it must be admitted, ultra-talented restaurant wine dude) Levi Dalton, for food, frolic, and bitterness. The latter stemming from an intense, in-depth assessment of a wine so unusual that it required an entirely new color category – orange – to go along with the previously-sufficient red, white, and pink.
What is an orange wine? I’m not particularly glad you asked, because I have no better handle on the label than anyone else. In general, the idea is that it’s a white wine produced with the extended skin contact characteristic of reds, which (especially among the darker-skinned white varieties) does indeed produce deeper, more intense colors ranging from straw through strawberry, and also renders the wine noticeably tannic. The wines are usually (but not always) left in the un-clarified, overtly cloudy state that seems to result. And that, at the core, is that. There are other philosophical branches and fields of practice within the orange wine family, some of them quite populous…non-filtration, avoidance of sulfur, aging in custom-made amphorae, and so forth. The category as a whole also maintains a good deal of contact with the ever-growing “natural wine” movement, but in truth the orange wines would more correctly be accused of being throwbacks to a much, much older type of winemaking, and “natural”-ness is no requirement for the style.
For some, in fact, orange wines are anything but natural, no matter how historical a vinification they might represent. The transformation of a white wine into such a state, the argument goes, is as profound a manipulation as any. There’s merit to the argument, with only the caveat that the manipulation in question belongs to the class of grape-native cellar techniques that do not add or remove anything from the wine that doesn’t already exist in the grape, a distinction which, for some, makes a difference. The wines bear no relation to the truly transformational field known as molecular gastronomy, but they do share one thing in common with that realm: a direct and forceful challenge to one’s expectations of identity and typicity.
But no matter one’s philosophical view, the wines are different, and – naturally – divide opinions. Some cannot abide them. Others love them with a religious fervor. For both, the price – usually elevated in comparison to “normal” whites – is a limiting factor, but one surpassed by availability; there aren’t many of these wines to begin with, total production often ranges between limited and anecdotal, and thus they’re notoriously hard to find. Many enthusiastic wine drinkers will pass their entire drinking lifespan without encountering an orange wine. But for the seeker of vinous sensation, or at least of individuality, the opportunity to assemble and experience a (to my knowledge) unsurpassed collection of such wines in one place cannot reasonably be ignored.
It is often said, and widely believed, that the geographical heart of the orange wine movement is the Friulian/Slovenian border. There’s a certain truth to that, especially as its controversial father-figure – Josko Gravner – is located there, but the world of orange wines is a wider one these days. Italy still provides a majority of the names, but there’s also Slovenia and Croatia, and even France and California are now in the game.
But enough introduction. What about the wines?
One of the vexing issues with the orange wine cohort is finding amenable food pairings. The one ingredient on which everyone seems to agree is sea urchin – not exactly everyday fare for most – but the trick seems to be focusing on the structure and weight of the wines rather than a particular set of aromas. For example, the familiar tannin/fat counterpoint works as well here as it does with similarly-structured reds. Still, there’s a bit of a guessing game involved, and even the most inspired matches don’t necessarily meld with the wines, which are inherently cranky, iconoclastic, and less than enthusiastic about playing well with others.
For example, here’s what Convivio came up with. Despite the difficulties of the food/wine marriage, all of it was of uniform excellence. Did it enhance the wines? Sometimes, yes. Frequently, no. Yet I sincerely doubt any alternative choices would have improved matters. Such are the pitfalls of dining on the vinous edge.
olives, marinated mushrooms, several types of bruschetta, arancini
sliced yellowtail crudo, olivada, caper, pistachio
Mediterranean snapper, fava bean purée, cuttlefish, radish, mint, almond salad
Sardinian saffron gnocchetti, crab, sea urchin
grilled pork belly, house-made sausage, lentil salad, ricotta salata
There was also a valiant attempt to impose a certain order on the tasting, which succeeded about as well as the food/wine pairings. Again, there is no fault to be laid at the feet (or the mind) of anyone responsible; the wines are just too unpredictable, and react to each other in surprising ways, confounding even the most careful organization. More successful were thematic micro-groupings…for example, a series of wines made by the Bea family, or a comparison of older Gravner and Radikon in matched vintages…from which certain continuities of style and differences in approach could be identified. The most unfortunate outcome of the organizational effort, however, was that it kept Levi Dalton on his feet, serving and explaining, for the vast majority of a tasting that one would have hoped he could sit back and enjoy. Alas. Perhaps there will have to be a sequel.
The only other misstep, minor and soon corrected, was the temperature of some of the wines. The room was warm (and got warmer as the well-lubricated badinage escalated), so in an attempt to keep wines from overheating to unpalatability, ice buckets were employed. This was a fine idea, except that it meant many of the early wines were served chilled. This is almost always a mistake with orange wines for the same reason it’s problematic with structured reds: tannin overwhelms the wine, and complexities are muted. As the evening went on, this was corrected (another way in which our generous host was overworked), and even for the affected wines a little hand-warming of glasses soon brought the liquid into form.
The notes that follow are not presented in the order in which the wines were tasted. And – an important caveat – they’re much shorter than I’d prefer. My typical orange wine note is a lengthy paragraph, which seems justified for wines that defy convention and easy categorization, but given the format and the speed of new arrivals, there was simply not much time to spend with each wine, teasing out each hidden notion and ribald suggestion.
Cà de Noci 2007 “nottediluna” (Emilia-Romagna) – Stale paper with a bouquet of flowers in slow emergence. Acrid. This needs…I don’t know. But it needs something. And less of some other things. (7/09)
Cà de Noci 2006 “nottediluna” (Emilia-Romagna) – Lush pear and apricot. Almost buttery. Somewhat flamboyant, but its an appealing showmanship…flirtatious, yet classy. (7/09)
Cà de Noci 2005 “riserva dei fratelli” (Emilia-Romagna) – Sparkling, though it’s more of a slushy froth than a proper pétillance. Apple and acid, with light bitterness and a fresh finish. However, the nose is odd, and mostly absent. Some are moved to a tentative declaration of cork taint (oddly, all such are female), but the importer (who is present) says not. Still, he agrees that the wine seems off in some fashion. (7/09)
Casa Coste Piane 2006 Prosecco di Valdobbiadene “Tranquillo” (Veneto) – Dry as a desert, and rather desert-like in its lack of visible life. I liked this wine a lot more last month. (7/09)
Castello di Lispida 2002 “Amphora” Bianco (Veneto) – Rich, dark, dusted with cocoa, and luxuriant with the texture of cocoa butter. A very full and blossomy wine, and one that would easily fool many into thinking it’s a red in a true blind tasting. (7/09)
Castello di Lispida 2002 “Terralba” (Veneto) – Soft and pretty apricot flowers with a little kiss of sweet nectar. But then, the wine just sort of disappears. Where did it go? (7/09)
Clai Bijele Zemlje 2007 Malvazija “Sveti Jakov” (Istra) – Solid, by which I mean uniformly dense rather than well-executed. Plays at being interesting, but it lacks the depth to follow through on its initial promise. (7/09)
Cornelissen 2007 “MunJebel 4” Bianco (Sicily) – Pine, melting cedar candle, orange rind, and coal. There’s a medium-toned brown hum to the wine, but a sharp declension on the finish; with a little more linger, this could be a star. As it is, it’s merely fascinating, but the fascination is brief. I somewhat preferred a 3 (from 2006) tasted earlier this year. (7/09)
Damijan 2003 “Kaplja” (Collio) – Fat tangerine. Short and blowsy. It seems that some orange wines can’t avoid being victimized by this vintage, though there are exceptions. This isn’t one of them. (7/09)
Damijan 2004 “Kaplja” (Collio) – A lovely nose of ripe fruit, flowers, and confiture, but the palate is separated and disappointing. (7/09)
de Conciliis 2004 “Antece” (Campania) – Bitter almond soap with the texture of a whiteout blizzard, and a little sherried throughout. Simple and direct. (7/09)
Massa Vecchia 2005 Maremma Toscana Bianco (Tuscany) – A bit of a brett bomb, though eventually the wine starts to show things other than fetid stench, including a silky palate that glides and skates as if on the smoothest ice. A little more attention to hygiene, and this would be a beauty. (7/09)
Gravner 1997 Ribolla Gialla (Venezia Giulia) – Heavy, but it’s a good weight. Lush with mandarin-scented Madeleine, plus cotton candy whipped with tart threads. There’s a slightly bitter, Campari-esque note which seems like it should be an “off” character, yet the wine benefits from the counterpoint. This is aging very nicely, and while it doesn’t seem to be showing signs of decline, it’s very likely that I have no idea what those signs might be for this particular wine. (7/09)
Gravner 2000 Ribolla Gialla (Venezia Giulia) – Sweet yellow cherry with some oddities I can’t quite identify. Whatever’s going on, it’s tasty enough but a little distracting. Long. (7/09)
Gravner 2001 Ribolla Gialla “Amphora” (Venezia Giulia) – Slightly bitter, and this time the bitterness takes the form of vanilla, especially on the backpalate. Leafy. A sharp left turn from the pre-amphora ribollas. (7/09)
Gravner 2001 “Breg Amphora” (Venezia Giulia) – Bitter almond and apple, with tight layers of complexity and minerality pressed together like an Austrian pastry. There’s a swaggering confidence to this wine that few others of its type can pull off. Yet this is not to say that it’s better, necessarily, just that it’s more overtly self-assured. (7/09)
Hautes Terres de Comberousse 2001 “Cuvée Roucaillat” (Languedoc) – Fat, overly lactic, and kind of nasty. (7/09)
Kante 2006 Sauvignon Blanc (Carso) – The most identifiably-varietal wine in the room, and by a wide margin, though much of that is the familiarity of sauvignon. Is this actually a skin-contact white? It shows few of the characteristics of one, with its vibrant, zingy gooseberry, sharp-edged minerality, and lavish acidity. A good wine, but it seems out of place in this crowd. (7/09)
Angiolino Maule “La Biancara” 1996 “Taibane” (Veneto) – Soft. Strawberry, peach, and blood orange. This needs a lot more structure, which is something I didn’t think I’d be able to say about an orange wine. (7/09)
La Stoppa 2004 “Ageno” (Emilia-Romagna) – Dark metallic orange with a heady rush of deep minerality. Sophisticated and striking. Absolutely delicious. (7/09)
Monastero Suore Cistercensi S.O. Trappiste 2007 “Coenobium” (Lazio) – Simple grapefruit rind, with a light spicing dominated by white pepper. And is that celery? It’s like a stealth grüner veltliner has entered the room and is masquerading as a “baby” orange wine. This is initially fairly disappointing, but gains a measure of weight and texture with extended aeration. Unfortunately, I don’t have time to explore this in more detail. (7/09)
Monastero Suore Cistercensi S.O. Trappiste 2006 “Coenobium” (Lazio) – Bigger and fuller-bodied than the 2007, showing a blend of red and Rainier cherries. Round, yet there’s a washed-out quality to the finish, as if the wine rather clumsily gives its all right at the start, and has nothing left for the duration of the race. (7/09)
Monastero Suore Cistercensi S.O. Trappiste 2007 “Coenobium Rusticum” (Lazio) – Extremely tannic. Metal and charred orange, maybe even a bit of ash. Acid-dominated on the finish, which is extremely long. Tight and no fun. My last bottle of this was a stunner. What happened? (7/09)
Bea 2004 “Arboreus” (Umbria) – Sweet spice. Round, pretty, and very complete. This is the wine version of Miles’ In a Silent Way, and that’s high praise from me. (7/09)
Movia 2007 Ribolla Gialla “Lunar” (Goriška Brda) – Delish. I know it probably wants to be serious, but really it’s more like a Greek island beach party…albeit from several hundred years ago. No tropical umbrellas here. Very appealing, and in an immediate way. (7/09)
Radikon 2001 Ribolla Gialla (Venezia Giulia) – Tight, metal-jacketed plum. A bit hot, which is something I’ve not previously experienced from this wine. Somewhat indifferent. Perhaps an off bottle (or an off taster). (7/09)
Radikon 2003 “Jakot” (Venezia Giulia) – Some alcohol here, plus pear and raw, exposed metal. Fat. The heat lingers into the finish. (7/09)
Radikon 1997 Ribolla Gialla “Riserva Ivana” (Venezia Giulia) – Soft fullness and salty white soil. Seems more mild-mannered than it actually is…there’s a fair bit of complexity and depth…but the wine’s gentle in every aspect. There’s a very slight edge of heat creeping into the margins, but otherwise all is seamless. This isn’t aging so much as cohering, and in a very appealing way. (7/09)
Scholium Project 2006 “San Floriano del Collio” Rocky Hill (Sonoma Mountain) – The reddest of all the wines; this could easily pass for a dark rosé, rather than an orange wine, and at 16.9% alcohol it’s pushing what few boundaries remain. Par for the Scholium course, I guess. Grassy and greasy, yet with sharp-edged pistachios, some fatness, and (big surprise) noticeable alcohol. Anise, as well, plus maraschino cherries and rather intense minerality. In its less admirable moments, it also smells more than a bit like a fetid poire william eau de vie, but I don’t mean to be overly discouraging; I like this more than I’ve ever liked a Scholium Project wine (granted, the competition for this title has not been fierce). (7/09)
Vodopivec 2003 Vitovska (Venezia Giulia) – Big blood orange, juiced and pumped full of oxygen (by which I don’t mean oxidation, nor microbullage, but a breath-inducing vivacity), with a core of steel and walnuts on the finish. Powerful. (7/09)
Vodopivec 2004 Vitovska (Venezia Giulia) – Clementine and aluminum. Fat. Short. And disappointing. (7/09)
Vodopivec 2004 Vitovska “solo | MM4” (Collio Goriziano) – Direct and forceful, but to what end? The power seems in service of vanishingly little. Maybe it’s just shy, but this is a rather intense void at the moment. Perhaps it’s a singularity of some sort.
A black an orange hole? (7/09)
Wind Gap 2007 Pinot Gris (Russian River Valley) – Spicy pear with a slightly lactic note, but not enough to be unpleasant. Intense, big, long, and luscious. Way more interesting than anything the Scholium Project has produced. (7/09)
Zidarich 2005 Malvasia (Carso) – Full and spicy, but ends rather abruptly. Simple memories of walnut are all that linger. (7/09)
Zidarich 2005 Vitovska (Carso) – Mixed nuts. Very tannic, and edging towards desiccation. Simple, and in fact more than a little boring. (7/09)
After the orange lineup (during which I apparently skipped noting one wine, though I do remember end-of-evening confusion over an extra glass before me), there’s a bit of a reddish coda. Frankly, after the relentless surreality of this tasting, it’s like a return to “real wine”…not more natural or authentic, but at least recognizable ground. I can feel my palate sigh in relief, but what’s more striking is the way that the sensory realms of my brain sort of unclench, as if they’ve been operating in a state of high tension for the last few hours.
Cappellano 2005 Nebbiolo d’Alba (Piedmont) – Dusty red fruit, soft yet strong, with a nearly flawless texture. Absolutely classic nebbiolo, masterfully presented. (7/09)
Leroy 1983 Volnay (Burgundy) – Pretty. Very, very pretty. Showily so. And strikingly youthful; the structure’s resolved, but the fruit is still fairly primary and direct. I don’t quite know what to make of this, but admittedly my palate is completely exhausted at this point. (7/09)
My favorites of the tasting? The Arboreus, certainly, and the Ageno. The 2006 Cà de Noci, the 2002 Lispida (but not the Terralba), the Vodopivec 2003, and most of the Gravner lineup. And, it must be said, the Wind Gap, which was the most pleasant surprise of the night…especially considering my much dimmer opinion of the winemaker’s former project.
Disappointments? A few, most notably a couple of the Radikons, for which I cannot account (I’m normally a great admirer of the wines), and which I will thus chalk up to some brief weirdness in a food/wine, wine/wine, or wine/taster interaction. The other Cà de Nocis, both Zidarich bottlings…and I could go on, but won’t. Truth be told, a lot of these wines showed seams, lacks, and occasionally outright faults. However, I think there might be a reason for that performance. Read on.
Tasting a bunch of wines is always fun (unless they’re terrible, which these most definitely were not) but from the above-noted level of focus and direction, one does hope that there are lessons to be learned and conclusions to be drawn. And I think there are.
The claim has occasionally been made that the orange wine regimen, like oak or botrytis, so heavily marks the wines that it trumps varietal character, terroir, and even individuality. This set of wines shows that to be mostly nonsense; there’s plenty of diversity evident, and the wines are as different as one would expect them to be in any other context. Grapes do show, though perhaps not with the consistency exhibited in more typical wines. As for terroir, there is at least (in many cases) sub-regional continuity between these and more prosaic wines from their neighborhoods, though to say more than that would be to claim an illegitimate expertise. So why the caveat “mostly?” Because of the tannin, which in some (not all) of the wines enforces an identifiable structural similarity…a sort of pedal tone around which the other elements must work. When it plays a harmonious role, it’s the foundation on which the wine’s art and architecture are built. When it doesn’t, it’s the squawky drone of a wheezing, decrepit bagpipe.
Another much-asked question is whether or not orange wines age. There’s really not enough evidence here to say for sure. Certainly the few older wines present seem to have aged just fine, softening in the way one would expect tannic wines to soften. As the tannin melts, creamier textures emerge. That said, many of these wines very much rely on that tannin for counterpoint. Once it's gone, the result is a lushness almost entirely opposite the face these wines present in their youth. As with any aging process, opinions will differ on the stage at which the wines are most intriguing. The only tentative conclusion I feel safe drawing is that the curious can probably age the better of these wines without fear of precipitous decline. On the other hand, one may reasonably fear biological instability in those wines that avoid filtration, sulfur, and other methods of stabilization; while their structure is itself preservationist in nature, not all of the wines are entirely clean, or have avoided oxidation. I would not age the more natural wines absent a properly-controlled cellar.
Some of the wines I’ve always felt I loved were, in this context, less impressive than expected. Others performed above their pay grade. Perhaps surprising, perhaps not, but this is why one holds tastings…to learn just this sort of thing. I must also presume that, as in any quick-take tasting of a fair number of wines, concentration and intensity are more favorably received than they might be in isolation, The corollary conclusion that delicacy is inevitably devalued or even lost must also be considered. As ever, such tastings do not replicate the experience of a slow encounter with a single bottle.
Perhaps the most surprising conclusion, for me, is that I didn’t enjoy tasting these wines in this particular fashion nearly as much as I had hoped. The dinner, the tasting, the camaraderie…all were enormous fun, and definitely worth the participatory effort (though I will admit to a savage headache the next morning). But while I adore a lot of these wines in isolation, in concert my affection for them dimmed, and I was surprised how indifferent I was to the qualities of all but a few bottles. It could be that the accumulated negativity is a result of the rather overpowering and aggressive nature of the wines, which were more of a chore to slog through than I’d expected. Also, there was an extremely draining mental aspect; teasing out the complexities and the wildly individualistic essences of orange wines is a difficult enough task to begin with, but doing it as bottles fly past, food arrives, and tablemates chatter away is a perhaps insurmountable challenge to even the most intense attempt at concentration. I was tired at the end of this tasting, but mentally far more than physically, and even writing about the experience several days after the fact brings forth a clear physical sensation of sensory fatigue.
It would be intriguing to explore this matter further. But as I write this, my overriding emotion is that I’d like – or perhaps I need – a short break from orange wines. My curiosity has been somewhat over-satisfied, and my palate is suffering burn-in. In the end, it turns out that the scolds and the finger-waggers were right: it’s possible to show too much skin.