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Orange wine hits a wall

by Jon Bonné

There it is: the orange wine bitchslap.

This comes in the form of a piece from Richard Betts, sommelier, mezcalero and now Forbes contributor, who penned a piece, “Why Tecate Is Greater than Orange Wine,” in which he — quite rightly — points out that skin-fermented wines (whites made like reds and hence dubbed orange) need to go to a quiet corner for a spell. The orange wine fad, he asserts, has a massive flaw:

Mind you, I’m all for diversity in the wine space and when I say I’m excited for the orange wines to die, I don’t mean they need to disappear from the planet, nor are they all bad.  I do, however, look forward to the faddish / cultish following they’ve engendered in certain wine circles waning.  There are so many folks jumping up and down to be heard in the wine space today that it seems they’ll “like” something just to be different.  It’s like an arms race of ugly.  Who can like the wine with the most warts wins.  Lame.  Plus it calls into question the ability of these people to actually taste.

First, let’s acknowledge that this has been a while in coming.  The category of orange wine took off like a bullet around 2010, and for a short while it seemed like a glorious new chapter for wine diversity, like the long-overdue rise of rosé. I also need to note my utter complicity in that fad, having penned one of the earlier pieces in 2009 that proclaimed its arrival as “an ultimate reactionary drink.”

Certainly it has found a fashionable niche on wine lists. Bowls of Georgian wine at the Russian Hill wine bar Et Al? So hot right now — a declaration I never imagined I would write.

One concern nagged amid the hype, and over three years it has amplified to a wail: Many orange wines are not that good. David Lynch, of “Vino Italiano” and now of St. Vincent, offered Betts the same conclusion: “The fact of the matter is that about 50%-75% of all orange wines are straight-up oxidized, i.e. technically flawed.” (Whether they’re oxidized or flawed in a different way is a separate debate.) Bobby Stuckey of Boulder’s Frasca Food & Wine issued a similar complaint. These are two people who live and breathe Italian wine, particularly the wines of Friuli, where the modern orange movement was born. For them to throw orange wine in the dump bucket is strong stuff.

Honestly, it is hard to argue. Many recent California versions have been short of successful, which sounds like a harsh criticism except that the Italians aren’t faring much better. Even the ever-popular Coenobium, the “nun wine” made with the oversight of Umbrian talent Giampiero Bea, in recent vintages hasn’t been what once it was.

And at the risk of putting myself in the eternal disfavor of wine’s fashion police, it has been a long time since I found any charm in a wine from Josko Gravner, the iconoclastic Friulian whose grand experiments with amphorae started this whole thing. At $110 a bottle, that’s not OK.

Those are relatively tidy examples. Other wines are more seriously flawed: less oxidized than murky or beset with microbial flaws. Cerebral pleasures and rusticity are worth enjoying, but there are limits.

Not dead yet

Yet I can’t quite throw orange wine in the dead pool. The La Stoppa Ageno, from Elena Pantaleoni, is good as it ever was — although its tannins and occasional whiff of volatility might chase away skeptics.  Within Friuli, wines from the Carso, especially those of Sandi Skerk, are more dramatic and profound than ever.  And despite my earlier statement about California, there have been excellent skin-fermented efforts lately: the 2011 Pinot Gris from Wind Gap; the Prince In His Caves from Abe Schoener’s Scholium Project, which brought attention to California orange, and is more refined than ever; even the improbable Faufreluches, a skin-fermented Gewurztraminer from Matthew Rorick’s Forlorn Hope.

In fact, my column this Sunday includes a skin-fermented Vermentino from Ryme Cellars, a label that expresses the grape both in skin-fermented and regular versions. This one uses the technique  not as a way to create a deeply orange and often sherry-like wine; instead it uses a modest amount of soaking on grape skins as a subtle process to add texture and character, far short of a complete metamorphosis.

What of orange being a triumph of technique, rather than showing terroir? Levi Dalton, who as a wine director at New York restaurants Alto and Convivio became a key proponent of orange, doesn’t buy it.

“How many people are giving the wines the opportunity to do that? Red wines made from tannic grape varieties often don’t show much of their terroir when they are young, either. They show primary fruit and strong tannins. But we give them time,” he writes me. “Unfortunately, people open up recently released orange wines, serve them as they would a white, without the benefit of decanting, and they declare the wines to be terroir irrelevant. Not so.”

And the often high prices? Dalton points to the Coenobium — around $20 — as evidence that it need not always be the case. Beyond that, he points out that the very process of orange winemaking requires long aging and special vessels, like the clay amphorae that have become wine’s new fetish item. Hence why Paolo Vodopivec, one of the Carso contingent, had to go to Georgia, initially the only source for them, hire a translator, order the amphorae a year in advance “and was held up at gunpoint by the Georgian mafia when he went to pick them up,” Dalton says.

“Also there was no book explaining how to go about navigating any of this. He just had to figure it out. How cheap are we expecting him to sell the results for?”

In the years since my orange fever, I’ve realized that technique might be orange wine’s most useful contribution: to get a bit more from a grape without losing its sense of origin. Stuckey came to the same conclusion — that Italian producers like La Castellada and Foradori learned to incorporate the technique in order to highlight the grapes’ unique flavors rather than obscuring them. La Castellada, for instance, might soak a portion of its grapes for several days rather than months, then blend it with more conventionally pressed fruit.

Many  winemakers have taken these lessons to heart. They realize that a small dose of orangeism can have an impact without becoming a science experiment. In the past year, I’ve seen winemakers reach this conclusion not only in California or Italy, but in Austria, France and Germany. A wine like Schloss Gobelsburg’s Tradition — which in fact looks to the 19th century, when technology made skin maceration an inevitable part of white winemaking — shows the virtue of the practice without having to sacrifice terroir.

For decades, the belief in white wines was that you pressed the grapes as soon as possible, aiming for a wine that was clear and bright and as far from oxidation as possible.  If orange wines helped to rewrite the cellar rules — and helped white wines to be taken as seriously as red — then its contribution is more than worthwhile.

That still doesn’t absolve any of us for our faddishness. But the great orange wines will endure. And their legacy will have helped make all white wine better.

Jon Bonné is the wine editor of the San Francisco Chronicle, responsible for The Chronicle's wine and spirits coverage as well as the annual Top 100 Wines. He writes about wine, spirits and other libations throughout California and around the world.

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May 2023