The Inside Story from Italian Wine Merchants

Snowy Days and Winter Whites

Posted on | December 15, 2014 | Written by Janice Cable | No Comments

gravnerLike Olivia Pope, I do not stow my whites as winter comes. I may enjoy curling up on the couch with a glass of Brunello and a plate of cinghiale salami, but I have a hard time letting go of white wines. Winter, however, calls for a heftier white than what I’ll pour on a hot summer night. This is when skin-contact wines, or orange wines, make their entrance.

Stay with me here. “Skin contact” even sounds warm, and “orange” conjure the toasty glow of a fire. Orange wine is a style that I’m very fond of for myriad reasons. These wines sit in an unusual position; they come about when winemakers treat white wine grapes with the same kind of protocol that they treat red wine grapes. In this, they’re the inverse of rosé wines, which treat red grapes like white.

It’s not merely the weirdness of so-called orange wines that draws me to them, however. Weirdness is a factor; I’m drawn to the unusual and strange and the unconventional. It’s also that orange wines confound expectations. Everything about drinking a white wine tells you to expect a certain prescriptive set of sensations and flavors—even leaving room for a range of producer styles, grape varieties, vintage variations and regional differences.

Orange wines confound those expectations. There’s white wine freshness and red wine tannins. There’s white wine fruit—citrus, tropical, white-flesh or otherwise—and there’s red wine thrumming of earth, underbrush and wildness. There’s white wine scent and red wine weight. And on top of all of that sensory confusion, there are aspects that only orange wines have, a strange oxidative, sometimes caramelly, often funky-dirty-woodsy quality.

My very favorite skin-contact wines come from Josko Gravner. His Ribolla Anfora and Anfora Breg drink like liquid kaleidoscopes, shifting at every turn to reveal unexpected nuances of spice, of wood, of wildflowers, of seawater, or of ripe fruit. I’m also deeply fond of Radikon, who makes wines that hang in the mouth with a velvety heaviness. I’ve long been a fan of Paolo Bea and Giampiero Bea’s project Monestero Suore, and both of these Umbrian producers do great work with orange wines. And I’m very excited to try the Loire Valley’s Nicolas Joly, whose super-natural Chenin Blancs approach the holy grail standard: whites that drink like reds. All these wines show best when they’re decanted, just below room temperature, and served with food—qualities that make them perform very much like red wines.

And like red wines, these skin-contact wines warm you from the inside, help conversation sparkle, and make you linger before leaving to go into the cold.

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