The impetus for this posting started when my cousins sent me a bottle of 2011 Coenobium Ruscum, an Italian white blend of Malvasia, Trebbiano and Verdicchio made by the Monastic Order of Cistercian Nuns in Vitorchiano, Latium, Italy. Certainly this needed to be a special occasion wine, and this past Thanksgiving seemed the perfect time.
Not knowing quite what to expect in terms of food pairing, I decided to open the bottle as an apéritif before the big meal. I poured the wine into my glass, and it was a deep straw color. Two thoughts went through my head: “This is like a Sauternes,” and “Oh no – I waited too long to open this wonderful gift!”
Turns out I was wrong on both counts. This was what’s known as an “orange wine,” obviously so named for the color. Technically, orange wines are white wines … but they’re made like red wines. During pressing, white wines are typically pulled off of the skins as soon as possible so they don’t get any color or tannins from the skins. The opposite is the case with red wines, where you want both the color and tannin. Orange wines are white varietals left on the skins to extract both color and tannin. That makes orange wines odd birds in the wine world.
“Any wine with tannin will dry your tongue out, it’s almost an abruptness, and people just aren’t used to white wines having tannin,” explained Ali Rush Carcasden, a certified sommelier and owner of 15 Degrees C Wine Shop and Bar in Templeton. “When you think of white wine, you think acid, minerality, crispness, balance – not tannin.”
Obviously, this method of winemaking changes the characteristics of a varietal, and for Carscaden, “that’s the reason to do an orange wine – it adds depth and complexity to white wine.” She added that because of the tannins, orange wines are a great match with foods that have fattiness and creaminess such as cheeses and even rich meats.
Though orange wines date back thousands of years, they’re only recently enjoying a resurgence, but it’s far from widespread. These are confusing wines for consumers to wrap their palettes around, in part because your eyes tell you you’re going to be tasting something very different from what you taste, and because they do indeed change the varietal. When you order a regular Pinot Grigio, you can be fairly sure you’re going to get a certain set of flavor profiles. However, you could order five orange Pinot Grigios and they’re all going to be different depending on the winemakers and how long they decided to leave the wines on the skins.
That said, the process of making orange wines offers yet another tool for winemakers, perhaps even a way to carve out a new niche for their label. I doubt these wines are ever going to be flying out the door, but they provide a fun challenge for anyone looking to expand their palette and knowledge of wine.