Have you tried an orange-colored wine?
FINGER LAKES--Using a winemaking technique hundreds--if not thousands--of years old, several Finger Lakes wineries are creating a new set of flavor profiles using white grapes. The result is a complex amber or pale orange colored wine which has begun to capture the palates and culinary imaginations of many seasoned wine tasters.
Yet it's so little known by the general public that when Atwater Estate Vineyards planned and advertised a release party for this past Sunday, only two advance tickets were sold, prompting a cancellation of the event. Midweek, an online article about "Orange Wine" spurred interest and the winery suddenly began fielding many enquiries. So visitors last weekend were treated to a special tasting. Atwater Estate has limited quantities of 2015 skin-fermented Gewürztraminer and Chardonnay.
Heather Perko and Germaine Cofer, who'd put together a wine tour to celebrate Cofer's birthday, were among the tasters. Perko was taken by the bouquet of the Gewürztraminer, but after tasting the Chardonnay, decided she preferred it. "It doesn't have a big nose, but I really like the mouthfeel, the tropical citrus and the herbal notes."
"I love this!" Cofer said. "You can just close your eyes and sip it." Eyes closed, she, like many tasters, might think her glass contained a red wine. Orange wines are often served at the same slightly-below-room temperature as reds, and can pair with many of the same hearty foods.
"We've been dabbling with orange wines for almost a decade," says Atwater Estate Vineyards winemaker Vinny Aliperti. In an effort to "re-invent" Chardonnay, Aliperti has long taken some of his Chardonnay grapes and left them in contact with the skins and seeds for about a week of fermentation before pressing. Until recently, these batches were filtered and blended back into their traditional Chardonnay.
With the 2015 vintage, Aliperti and fellow Atwater Estates winemaker George Nosis skin-fermented small amounts of Gewürztraminer as well as Chardonnay, resulting in 25 and 35 cases of the orange versions respectively. Liking what they got, they significantly expanded their production in 2016, extending their orange wine batches to include Riesling and Vignoles. "We're trying to understand what kind of expression each varietal evokes," Aliperti says. "We're pretty optimistic about their potential."
"You're used to what a Chardonnay is supposed to taste like," Nosis says. "Then this is a whole different expression of the grape you don't normally get. It's a unique style. And these orange wines are fun!"
"Consumers are just getting to know them. Interest is not yet at the level of rosé--rosé is now taking off. But given enough time and enough exposure, consumers could really see the value of this style of wine."
The additional complexity of orange wines comes not from citrus but from the wine's contact with grape skins. Most classic white wines are made by pressing the just-harvested green-skinned grapes, a process that removes the skins and seeds, leaving the juice to be fermented into wine, which is racked and filtered several times before bottling. Nosis and Aliperti bottled their skin-fermented wines unfiltered, resulting in larger, richer flavors.
"They've got a little more attitude than you'd typically find in a white wine," Aliperti says. "They're not for the faint of heart. This particular style may seem a little foreign but I think customers with a curiosity about wine will appreciate it. And there's a whole food pairing--they tend to complement more pungent foods, things that are fried, fatty or salty, and have more aggressive flavors. It's an aggressive style of wine."
A few other Finger Lakes winemakers have also been producing orange wines. Steve Shaw of Shaw Vineyards in Himrod may have been the first to commercially produce and release these with his 2013 Gewürztraminer and Sauvignon Blanc wines. He sometimes calls them "Vin rustique" to note their time-honored origin. "It's an ancient winemaking technique, nothing new--except to the Finger Lakes," he says.
After studying how these were historically made, a process that once involved burying wine amphorae in soil up to their lids in order to control the fermentation temperature, Shaw evolved his own method which includes fermenting whole, uncrushed berries for more than a year before they're gently pressed. "For me it's very important they stay on the skins for a long time, not just a few days or a couple of weeks," he says.
He recommends enjoying these with roast turkey, some curry dishes and shellfish. "[These] are my three favorite pairings. There are others but those come to mind first as most enjoyable."
Because these wines often have more complexity than traditional whites, the winemakers strongly suggest letting the wine "open" after the cork is pulled. Their strong tannic structure is thought to increase their aging potential as well. Nosis notes the flavors can develop and change dramatically as these wines age, with more caramel flavors emerging while at the same time, there's far less of the fresh fruit-forward taste of traditional white wines. That bright amber/peachy/orange tint may also mellow and pale with age.
At this time, orange wines tend to be rarer and pricier than their traditional counterparts. But as they win a larger, more knowledgeable and enthusiastic audience, it's likely they'll find themselves on more wine lists at restaurants and in Finger Lakes wineries as more winemakers explore this approach.