Monday, June 29, 2009

Naturally unnatural: orange wines

A vaporous collaboration with VLM, who let me drink almost all of the Radikon

I was sitting at my desk on a dark, cloudless spring night with a lamp shining indirect, yellowish light. I had a bottle on the glass desktop, next to the MacBook. The bottle was cool to the touch. The label was minimalistic, hand-drawn, and from the side peeked out the recognizable font of the LOUIS/DRESSNER importer label.

Opened and poured into a large stem, the wine shone ocher through the glass. I swirled and smelled. 2006 Cà de Noci "Notte di luna" has heady perfumes of spice, cardamom, orange peel, gingerbread. I sipped and felt it expand in my mouth, sending floods of complex quince and tannin over my palate. This is god wine.

Before last fall I had never had an "orange" wine, and did not even know they existed. That a disparate and geographically diverse handful of natural winemakers would choose to produce pungent, tannic skin-contact white wines in an unmistakable style, relying on barefoot crushing, on wild yeasts, and, for some of them, on amphorae, hadn't been part of my wine lexicon. Especially as there wasn't anyone doing it in France.

So, my first dalliance with Notte di luna was memorable, and I blogged about it at the time. But I didn't realize that what we had on our hands had been, for all of its remarkable uncommonness, of a style. Thus, I was still the novice several months later when, during a dinner, my friend SFJoe got out a skinny 500ml bottle with a blue label. I rolled my eyes, thinking he was once again slinging the sweet stuff, as he is wont to do. Wrong. And how.

2003 Radikon "Jakot" - A dry, bright wine with hidden depths. This hits your nose before you get anywhere near the glass. What I loved about the wine was its offhand, palate-flattering approach, which then spirals wildly into great length and complexity. It's both easy and tricky. Its name is a joke, too, being the backwards of Tokaj, which is its grape, but which it is not allowed to be called any more. This is a natural wine that is impudent, jokey, the fool, and foolishly good. (It also fools you by making you think it's light in alcohol; then you find yourself tipsy and realize that despite its balance, it carries 14% abv.)

The Radikon was both an epiphany and a spark in my mind: I wanted more of this. But "this" was both a particular and a category. If other wines out there could bring the heady category confusion of Cà de Noci and Radikon, I wanted to taste them, to test them.

One day, when it was raining really, really hard, it was time to open a Gravner, after having kicked off shoes so wet they could have been wrung out.

2002 Gravner Ribolla Gialla "Anfora" - A more austere wine, in comparison to the Radikon. Deep amber in color and with heft on the palate, it stretched out in dark slices of pain d'épice, but was as tight as a fist. Closed and stern, it was fascinating like someone who won't tell you what he's thinking. This needs far more time – years – but promises to be a gorgeous butterfly when it gets out of its cocoon. It'll have stories to tell. It'll spill the goods.

I had now sussed out what this orange wine phenomenon was all about, and was all knowing with another bottle – this I enjoyed less, and didn't retain the producer's name – quaffed at the restaurant Convivio over a plateful of crab and sea urchin malloreddus. Yet to my mind, I thought it was an Italian thing.

Flash forward.

Last night, Josh Raynolds came at me with a bottle bearing the brown-toned label of the California winery Wind Gap. I waved him away. "I've had their wine before!" I demurred, recalling a very even-handed (12.5% alcohol!) unoaked chardonnay about which I'd thought: Sure, but they can do this in France in their sleep.

Josh said, "But this is an orange wine."

I turned around (yes, I'd already turned my back on him and was retreating toward the last sip of a glass of Donati Malvaisa frizzante). He smiled wickedly and poured a healthy pour into my now emptied glass.

2008 Wind Gap Pinot Gris Here we go; clove and quince and thick delightfulness. "Look at that color," he observed. Slightly cloudy, it was deep. And as it opened and unfurled in the glass, I found those tastes again.

Those unnaturally natural orange wine tastes.

This post is part of the natural wine month series at saignée.


Director, Lab Outreach said...

Orange is the new crack.

One of the most interesting local (local meaning Oregon in this case) variations on the orange theme is from Sam Tannahill. He calls it JACK. Or Jack White. Depending on mood.

I've also found that these wines need a lot time in the cellar to really show. That '02 Gravner is probably still 5-6 years away from just starting to get good.

I tasted the '97 RG the other day. One of the first Gravner anfora wines -- made before he'd converted everything to clay. It was amazing to me how it had fleshed out, in contrast to the '02.

Lovely post. God wine indeed.


hazel said...

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