Orange Wines

For thousands of years, before the days of filtering and fining and temperature-controlled fermentation, all wines enjoyed skin contact with juice, including whites, which were then neither white nor clear, and nothing like the majority that we enjoy today. In 2004, Christopher Tracy at Channing Daughters, keeping in line with the winery’s goal to produce wines that represent “our own place on earth,” brought this process to the Forks, releasing his first skin-fermented orange white wines, which were also the first on Long Island. Typically oxidized, tannic and amber in color, orange wines usually offer notes of orange pith. Tracy’s first 29 cases of Envelope (a blend of chardonnay, gewürztraminer and malvasia) sold out in less than 24 hours, and Meditazione (muscat, pinot grigio, tocai friulano, chardonnay and sauvignon blanc) was later followed by Ramato (100 percent pinot grigio) in 2008. “It has ancient roots,” says Tracy of the process, “and [it] creates a distinctive style that fulfills a specific place at the table and in the soul.”

At Shinn Vineyards, across the Peconic Bay, winemaker Anthony Nappa made a single varietal—2009 Shinn Skinfermented Chardonnay, but the 50 cases haven’t yet been released.  “The decision was made when the grapes came into the crush pad; they were very aromatic and acidic, perfect for orange wines.” However, Nappa adds, “with chardonnay skin contact, it’s harder to balance.” With a longer hang-time than sauvignon blanc, the grapes yield more sugar and ripe tannins but low acidity, which is a disadvantage for orange wines. “A lot of people force oxidation to reduce the tannins…that’s not done with this,” says Nappa of the ’09. “I wanted to force as much aromatics and floral notes out of this wine.” The ’09 shows aromas of stinky cheese and mandarin orange, with a creamy texture and tannins that are well balanced with acidity…it’s quite delicious.

“It’s interesting to step back in time,” says Nappa of the process.  “These types of wines are well received here. Being in New York and close to the city, there are educated, savvy wine consumers…and high-end restaurants are interested in these types of wines.” Located in Brooklyn, and vinifying Long Island fruit, Red Hook Winery produces at least 28 or 30 different wines a year. Red Hook Winery’s winemaker, Christopher Nicolson, says that his aim has never been to make “orange wine” but to work with skin contact and its effects on white wines, one of the many experiments conducted at Red Hook, a winery whose purpose is to learn which varietals work best in which Long Island plots. Sourcing fruit from select plots at Macari and Jamesport Vineyards, as well as from a Peconic Land Trust property with 35-year-old vines, Nicolson says, “We’re hoping to learn something about the separate sites, so we vinify everything separately.” Working with Abe Schoener of Scholium Project, all of Red Hook’s orange wines are made with wild yeasts—a “feral fermentation.” And with Sixpoint Brewery across the street, says Nicolson, who knows what’s in the air.

Currently, they have at least eight skin-fermented white wines in barrel, but Red Hook’s 2008 Jamesport Sauvignon Blanc has just been released. Smoky and savory with searing acidity and notes of citrus and cheese rind, the winery’s first skin-fermented white wine demonstrates a harmonious complexity. In limited distribution, there are only 28 cases of 500 ml bottles, most of which have already been claimed. “A lot of restaurants have absorbed it [the wine], which’ll enable more people to taste it,” says Nicolson.

For those interested in local orange wines, these are the only ones currently produced on Long Island and in New York State.  On May 4, at Park Slope’s Palo Santo Restaurant, you can sample Christopher Tracy’s skin-fermented whites as he presents them alongside the Latin cuisine of chef Jacques Gautiers—a springtime opportunity that should not be missed.