On a trip to Slovenia several years ago, I tasted a butterscotch-hued wine that blew my mind. I was visiting winemaker Branko Cotar,
in the sleepy village of Gorjansko, not three miles from the Adriatic
Sea. Though the Vitovska Grganja I was sipping looked (sort of) like a
white wine, it had the full-bodied, tannic taste of a red. In the depths
of his cobweb-filled cellar, Cotar, a burly man with an impressive
mustache, let me in on his secret: He'd made this wine by allowing the
grapes to macerate in their skins for two weeks, a technique that's
typically used only with red wines.
Skin-fermented whites were once the exclusive domain of Georgian, Italian, and Slovenian winemakers like Cotar, Gela Patalishvili, Stanko Radikon, Josko Gravner, and Ales Kristancic of Movia. But recently, American winemakers have begun experimenting with them, too. In California, Broc Cellars, Wind Gap, and the Scholium Project are making macerated whites; here in Oregon, where I live, Big Table Farm, Cameron, Johan Vineyards, and Antica Terra have all recently been playing with them as well. Virtually any white wine grape can be used: Pinot Gris, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Roussanne, Malvasia, Ortugo, Trebbiano, Ribolla Gialla, and so on.
And though these wines, frequently dubbed "orange wines" for their copper color, are an acquired taste--they have a funky nose and often a cider-like zing--they've caught on at restaurants, too. Michael Garofola, sommelier and manager at Portland's Genoa restaurant fell in love with skin-fermented whites when he tried Radikon's Oslavje at a dinner party. Now he makes sure there's always an orange wine on the tasting menu at Genoa, so he can introduce diners to them one glass at a time. (The Old World orange wines are not inexpensive, ranging from $63 for Monastero Suore Cisterencensi "Rusticum" '09 to $205 for Gravner's "Breg" '04, so it's best if diners know what they're in store for.) Last fall, Garofola organized a five-course "orange wine dinner" at Genoa with bottles from Movia, Radikon, and Gravner, among others. Because there's no protocol for what to pair with orange wines, Garofola says he just opened all five bottles at once and threw them on the table.
"There was a lot of debate about which was best with which foods," says Garofola. The dinner began with a savory baked romanesco broccoli custard with black truffles and spicy mustard greens and culminated with a braised pork belly and smoked tenderloin with braised cabbage, apples, and pickled mustard seed.
Guest David Speer, sommelier and owner of both Portland's Red Slate Wine and Ambonnay champagne bar, said the Gravner--which gets a whopping nine months of skin contact--went best with the pork. "The Gravner was the biggest and boldest and needed to have bold flavors around it," recalls Speer. The Radikon, on the other hand, was more versatile. "Over the course of the night the Radikon would shift and change. It worked almost with everything."
At Genoa, Garofola is currently pairing a Coenobium 2010 with an Insalata di Carota, cooked with alfalfa hay and topped with mascarpone.
At L'Apicio in New York City, sommelier Joe Campanale always has an orange wine by-the-glass. (He also has them on the menu at his two other restaurants, dell'Anima and Anfora.)
"If you have a dish that you'd normally want to pair with a light red or a rich white, an orange wine would be a good in-between," Campanale says. But because of its tannin-acid structure, he agrees with Garofola. "It does really well with pork."
Skin-fermented whites are not, however, universally acclaimed as alluring and profound. Some critics, in fact, complain that they're not only technically flawed but also an annoying fad. In a recent blog for Inside Scoop, Jon Bonné, the San Francisco Chronicle's wine editor, railed against orange wines ("less oxidized than murky or beset with microbial flaws") but then singled out a few he thinks are worth drinking: La Stoppa Ageno from Elena Pantoleoni and, in the U.S., the 2011 Pinot Gris from Wind Gap and the Prince in His Caves from Abe Schoener's Scholium Project. (Bonné found it "more refined than ever.")
But at restaurants like L'Apicio and Genoa, diners order them all the time. "We've always done well with them," says Campanale, who likes the theater of decanting orange wines. "The way they look is so impressive. And a lot of them do get better in the decanter."
For recipes from L'Apicio and Genoa, see BonAppetit.com.