Making Orange Wine Part 2: Grapes

Last month we looked at the process behind the production of natural wine with the estates of Gravner and Radikon. This week we study a pair of producers making orange wines that utilize varietal character.

What is in a Variety?

Wine is grapes. It’s other things too, but grapes first. If winemaking is an art, grapes are the material, italicized at the bottom of the museum tag.

A good wine should be emblematic of the grape variety from which it’s made. The ability to identify varietal characteristics in a wine points to and stresses these good features: clarity, precision, attention to detail, transparency, and more. It seems that these are difficult properties to attain using the process of extended skin contact, and so noteworthy when it does. But the explicit expression of varietal characteristics in a wine suggests something even more important; It points to the wisdom of the winemaker. First, in his or her ability to choose the optimal fruit for a given terrior, and second, for his or her ability to operationalize what a given variety has to offer. It points to the winemaker’s ability to use every possible tool at his disposal to make the best possible product.

Nestarec and Zerberos

The Nestarac estate, as well as the estate of Daniel Ramos at Zerberos, produce some intriguing contact wines that stand out for just this reason. Milan Nestarec’s wines have a slogan: made of grapes, nothing else. For the most part, that’s true. The Antika Tramin cuvée is made from the grape, Gewürztraminer.

From the Zerberos estate, there is the Sauvinon 2011, which is made with Sauvignon Blanc. Both wines are contact wines; both wines are emblematic of their varieties; and both wines are stand-out examples of what such wines can be.

Gewürztraminer

Grape varieties are like actors. Some are subtle, character actors that slip in and out of roles and personas. Others exhaust your attention with their bombast. A grape like Pinot Noir is a chameleon: it can be a lot of things. It is transparent and amenable to its context. Cabernet Sauvignon, for example, lacks this range but makes up for it in reliability. Pinot is like Peter Sellers or Meryl Streep in that it’s flexibility is what often makes it most exciting. Cabernet is like John Wayne — still good, but always John Wayne.

At the risk of overextending the metaphor, great vignerons are like great directors insofar as their selection of a grape variety is paramount to arriving at the wine they ultimately want to make. An amenable grape like Riesling can reflect and accentuate a vineyard’s microclimate or terrior the same way obtuse varieties like Malbec are primary to the experience of the wines they make up.

Gewürztraminer is standardly an example of the latter type. The varietal character of Gewürztraminer is primary to the experience of the wines it makes up. In other words, you know what you are getting.

In the case of Gewürztraminer, it is a highly aromatic, floral, sweet (but not too sweet), white wine grape. Particularly suited to cooler climates, resulting wines tend to have a strong, floral bouquet and spiced palate often accompanied by lychee fruit. There is a lanolin quality to Gewürztraminer that can impart a guest-soap quality to its smell and taste.

So, true to the bombastic set of varieties to which it properly belongs, Gewürztraminers can be totally off-putting or extremely impressive. When the concept of ‘hand-soap’ can be thought alongside a delicious glass of wine, certainly something singular and special is happening.

Sauvignon Blanc

For the grape most often associated with the tasting note, “cat pee”, the situation isn’t much different. Sauvignon Blanc comes from the French word for wild, sauvage. In Karen MacNeil’s Wine Bible, she describes Sauvignon Blanc as the following:

The polar opposite of chardonnay — where chardonnay is all buttery roundness, sauvignon blanc is taut, lithe, and herbal, with a keen stiletto of acidity that vibrates through the center of the wine. If chardonnay is Marilyn Monroe, sauvignon blanc is Jamie Lee Curtis.

All true, except that sometimes you order a Sauvignon Blanc and Gary Busey shows up. What makes Sauvignon Blanc one of the truly noble grapes is its ability to be its singular self in any number of different contexts.

The Wines

The 2011 Suavinon from Zerberos is Sauvignon Blanc before anything else — which is crazy for orange wine. Reading anything about wine with a significant amount of skin contact will tell you what your experience will confirm, namely that it’s an aggressive experience — a surprise. Recall your first taste of a contact wine or watch someone else struggle with his or her own. It is often an affront to what the experience of traditional wine has left you to expect. As opposed to using the grape purely as a vehicle, here Ramos uses the process of extended skin contact to accentuate the varietal characteristics of Sauvignon Blanc.

That isn’t to say that tasting the wine isn’t surprising. This is a loud, boisterous wine, the way the best Sauvignon Blanc can often be, the way the best orange wine can be. It’s part recognition and part explosive charm. Many of the savory characteristics are privileged here, like cooked onion and grassy herbs. The presence of tannin really structures the wine, making it perfect for a rich meal. The best way to describe this wine doubles as a succinct way of describing orange wine in general: Sauvinon 2011 is what Sauvignon Blanc would taste like if it were a red wine.

Nestarec’s Antika Traminer is another pleasant surprise. The color is a dark, opaque amber. It’s like an iced tea with some bright, orange highlights. It’s pretty in the light, but it leads one to expect something murky, reduced and disjointed. Not so. There is excellent brightness on the palate — dried fruit, especially apricot. There is some sweet, sugary spice that is emblematic of any good Gewürztraminer.

Some notes borders on the bad, scented candle quality I get on some lesser, orange wine, but here it simply compliments the variety. This is a fresher, friendlier manifestation of wine that is typified by the serious, complex, and austere. This is one of the brightest, lightest orange wines I’ve enjoyed — which is funny, considering how much skin contact the wine sees (~3 months), how cloudy it is in the glass, and how complex it registers on the nose. Impressive, different, and very Gewürztraminer.

Variety is a newer focus for consumers, but a new trend is starting to put soil in its hallowed place, even adorning bottles. In our next installment, we will take a look at how a vineyard’s soil functions to make certain orange wines stand out.


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