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Wines of the Times: The Colors of Skins, Pips, and Stalks

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Welcome to Varying Hues, a column in which Wine Steward Maxwell Leer explores unsung, colorful wines from around the world.

The notion of clean-tasting and clear-looking white wine is a new one. In the history of wine, you will see more of the hazy, unfiltered, oxidative flavors in white wine than you do those produced in an anaerobic chamber, free of solid matter. This piece is devoted to a style of white wine commonly referred to as “orange wine,” or skin-fermented white wine.

The distinction between orange wine and white wine is this: in white wine, the grape skins, seeds and stems are removed from the free-run juice immediately and the juice sugars are then fermented in an oxygen-free stainless tank under pressure and temperature control typically through the action of pre-selected yeast strains. Orange wine, on the other hand, harvests the flavors of these vinous attributes, allowing them to macerate with the grape juice. Moreover, orange wine is typically aged in porous, neutral vessels (i.e. wood, cement, or anfora) with the lees (dead yeast cells) after fermentation to further embolden the wine with flavor, texture and color.

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Orange wine has a long tradition in the Old World (i.e. Europe). In Reggio-Emilia, Italy, there is Donati Camillo, whose brown (oxidative) Malvasia bubbles put forward a textural playfulness synthesizing the aromatics of apple cider with the bitter, herbaceous hops of a Northwest IPA. In Tarragona, Spain, Laureano Serres Mendall makes many shades of Macabeo and his unfiltered permutations of this Cava varietal (esp. ‘L’abuerador’) make Uni dance (sea urchin tootsie-rolls with this wine).

Skin-fermented white wine is experiencing a renaissance in New World (i.e. the rest of terrestrial earth outside of Europe), and there are tons of crafty individuals here in the U.S of A from Long Island to Napa Valley introducing compelling creations. Rather than simply run through the gamut of domestic wines in the Orange category, let’s have a chat with two California winemakers who are framing anew our experience with Sauvignon Blanc: a cultivar indigenous to the Loire Valley of France where it is known as ‘Sancerre.’

Jim Cowan of Cowan Cellars makes his 2010 'Isa' Sauvignon from Lake County (North of Santa Rosa) fruit and Kevin Kelley of Salinia makes his 2010 ‘Saffron Haze’ Sauvignon/Pinot Gris from Russian River fruit. Both winemakers employ wooden barrels for ageing. However, their use of Quercus petraea (French oak) and Robinia pseudoacacia (Acacia wood) demonstrates a departure from the vanillin-induced, buttery flavors of the wine world. Jim and Kevin are two of the State’s greatest contemporaries in the sport of skin-fermenting white wine. Here is what they’re up to with Sauvignon Blanc:

If you were asked to assign a color to your “white” wine, what would it be? Jim: Peach yellow. Kevin: On the beach: tangerine edging towards pink. In a dark dining room: very light burnt orange.

What do you like most about “white” wine fermented with skin contact? Jim: Fermentation on the skins gives the wine texture and considerable complexity. Kevin: No one will argue that the majority of a red wine’s character comes from the skins. Removing the skins is ignoring/removing this huge reservoir of character and personality.

What’s the most absurd thing anyone has said about your wine? Jim: Many people say it is not varietally correct (to skin-ferment Sauvignon Blanc) – they are right but that is something a skin fermented white wine will never be because the process subsumes varietal correctness. Kevin: “Wow! This is so cutting edge and innovative!” I don’t think that using winemaking techniques with 6,000+ years of history qualifies as either of those.

Do you use oak barrels? If yes, what kind and why? Jim: I do use four, five and six year-old oak barrels because they do allow the wine some oxygen exchange during ageing but impart almost no oak flavors. Kevin: The saffron haze only uses Acacia wood barrels because of the woods subtlety. I use barrels for ageing wine, not as an ingredient.

What do you like to eat with your “white” wine? Jim: Hard cheeses, roasted vegetables as well as salads with mayonnaise-based dressings; strongly flavored foods are a better match than delicate ones. Kevin: Saffron haze was named after memories of eating bouillabaisse; the delicacy of the mussels and monkfish, the floral pungency of saffron-infused fish stock all the way to the spice of the rouille. Still, for me, fish tacos work brilliantly.

Jim and Kevin’s Sauvignon Blanc’s carry secondary and tertiary complexities that are inimitable with food and offer something that most modern white wine is sorely lacking: texture. No gooseberry and green pepper here. Sorry! Why? Jim and Kevin don’t use selected strains of yeast such as Saccaromyces banaticus (common in New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc) to ferment the grape sugars. Further, this isn’t colloidal/aroma chemistry per se. It’s good old-fashioned winemaking without the cracked-out dippiness of Grandma Boone. For Jim and Kevin, wine flavor is not an additive; it is something brought to fruition from sound ethics and excellent raw material.

The oxidation or color-as-anathema camp in the white wine world has marginalized our exposure to the varying hues of orange wine. In a global wine community where industrial technology treats poorly farmed grapes with a series of manipulations to make their wines palatable, many pit colorful occurrences in white wine as a flaw. When first released, these colorful white wines boast a mouthy amount of tannin without the manly roughage of most skin-fermented red wines. But, cellar these wines a few years and bear witness to the melding of textures in the juice; discover flavor-gems blooming in the amber tones. To sample a smattering of skin- fermented white wines, go seek the advice of storeowner and wine-lover Jill Bernheimer of Domaine L.A. on Melrose. Jill will, with charming humility and a gracious intellect, guide you to examples both domestic and foreign, and definitively delicious.
·All Varying Hues Coverage [~ELA~]
— Maxwell Leer

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