The Inside Story from Italian Wine Merchants

The Haunting of Orange Wines

Posted on | November 16, 2015 | Written by Janice Cable | No Comments

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Paolo Bea’s range

Orange wines are a style that I’m very fond of for myriad reasons. Orange 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, and it’s why some people refer to these wines as “skin-contact” wines.

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, the unconventional and the, Bacchus help me, outside the box. 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.

Gravner's "orange" Ribolla Gialla

Gravner’s “orange” Ribolla Gialla

These are wines that know no boundaries (at least when they’re good—and the ones by Paolo Bea, his son Giampiero’s project Monastero Suore Cistercensi, Josko Gravner, Movia, Radikon and IWM’s other producers of long-macerating whites are excellent). Likewise, they know no season. They feel right on a winter night with a nice roasted chicken or pork loin. Moreover, orange wines are pretty much the provenance of natural winemakers, and being a longstanding advocate of wines that come from organic grapes, made with little intervention, this appeals to me.

I remember the first time I drank Paolo Bea Santa Chiara. It was at the 2011 ViniVeri wine festival, held the same weekend as the enormous and sprawling VinItaly. Sergio Esposito and I tasted through the line of Paolo Bea, and it was like a symphony; each wine built on the one we tasted before, one musical line picked up by another, complicated, intensified, and reinterpreted. It was a beautiful experience, even in the middle of the big hall, even with the migraine I was suffering at the time.

Drinking these wines over the past couple of years, I’m reminded of that song I felt as I first experienced Paolo Bea’s skin-contact wines. I heard it again when I had this 2012 Santa Chiara, and I heard it most recently when I drank this 2006 Gravner Ribolla Gialla Anfora, which is, by the way, like drinking salty velvet. Orange wines are like haunting songs, and some melodies, no matter how strange, no matter how unusual, never leave you.

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