“Is that a note of melon or is it a hint of Goodyear rubber?”
For the past few decades orange wine has been steadily gaining followers in the world of wine, while also an ever larger stream of dissenters. What is it about a skin contact white that has everyone in such a tizzy? Why is it so controversial to make a wine with white grapes that are treated just like red grapes?
For the uninitiated, red wines typically are fermented along with their skins, and sometimes even left to age with them for a period of a few weeks to even months. The fermenting juice extracts color and flavor from the skins of a red grape, giving the wine its color and a good deal of its tannin. For this reason, red wines generally need a little more time to ‘come around’ - in other words, for the tannins to soften enough to where they are pleasant to drink.
White grapes, on the other hand, are typically pressed as soon as they enter the winery, and the lightly-colored juice then ferments on its own. This world order has existed for thousands of years, in relative harmony, until bad boy orange came along.
"Orange wine has arrived to slap jaded palates around."
The first modern winemaker associated with the ancient practice of orange was Jose Gravner in Friuli, Italy, who revived the practice of its vinification in the early aughts (God bless the Italians). This wine has now reached cult status - you practically have to give away your first-born child just to get a bottle. More and more wineries across the world have followed suit, and the quality is all over the map.
As a wine buyer for Pico Restaurant I have tasted a good many orange wines, because our customers are requesting it more and more. A good portion of the orange wines I taste are pretty horrid - dirty, acrid, or just plain stinky - but that is to be expected. This is a new style of wine, and winemakers are still figuring it out.
One thing that has struck me about orange wines is that not every grape variety works. There has to be something interesting (and balanced) going on with the skins of those grapes, and all white grapes are not created equal. I have also learned that pick date (determining sugar and acid levels) and style of treatment in the winery are of equal importance. For example, you can’t pick a Sauvignon Blanc at 29 brix and make an orange wine, then age it in new oak for a year - the result would likely be a full assault on the senses.
"The fact that orange wine is challenging—that its appeal is more cerebral and gastronomic than carnal and epicurean—is central to its identity."
Enter Pinot Gris. A close cousin to Pinot Noir (hence the Pinot first name), it literally means ‘grey Pinot,’ just like Pinot Blanc means “White Pinot’ and Noir ‘dark.’ The Gris seems stuck about half way between being a red grape and a white grape. It’s skins, when ripe, seem almost translucent, like an opal gemstone. The flavors that emanate from those skins, I mused, might be equally mysterious and interesting. Turns out I was correct.
I didn’t do this without help and inspiration. I contacted my old friend Ryan Beauregard of Beauregard Vineyards, who made a Pinot Gris orange a few years back that was fabulous. (If you haven’t had any of Ryan’s wines, but the way, you are blowing it. He is making some of the most incredible wines in California.) Ryan told me the secret for him was to pick early. Well that’s easy, I said, Lane and I always do. After all they called her Low-Pick Lane for a reason. No, he said, I mean earlier. Like 21 brix max.
Hence Lumen Escence was born in the 2019 harvest. We called an early pick of Pinot Gris, at a time when most winemakers are just starting to pick for sparkling wine. We fermented 12 days on the skins, then pressed and barreled it down in neutral oak for seven months. We just bottled it a month ago, and I am proud to say that it is one of the better examples of orange wine I have ever tasted. Meyer lemon zest, grapefruit rind, persimmon, and a slightly saline minerality. Just a tinge of orange funk. Get yourself some and breathe deeply.
NOTE: Lumen Escence is currently available to wine club members ONLY. If there is any Escence left after wine club members place their orders, we will make it available to the general public at $40 per bottle. Don't want to wait? JOIN THE CLUB
NOTE 2: The above quotes are excerpts from a New Yorker article entitled "How the Orange-Wine Fad Became an Irresistible Assault on Pleasure," by Troy Patterson. READ IT HERE.
- Will Henry