The sloping vineyards of New York’s Finger Lakes region known for producing golden-hued rieslings and chardonnays also are offering a splash of orange wine.
The color comes not from citrus fruit, but by fermenting white wine grapes with their skins on before pressing — a practice that mirrors the way red wines are made. Lighter than reds and earthier than whites, orange wines have created a buzz in trendier quarters. And winemakers reviving the ancient practice like how the “skin-fermented” wines introduce more complex flavors to the bottle.
“Pretty outgoing characteristics. Very spicy, peppery. A lot of tea flavors, too, come through,” winemaker Vinny Aliperti said, taking a break from harvest duties at Atwater Estate Vineyards on Seneca Lake. “They’re more thoughtful wines. They’re more meditative.”
Atwater is among a few wineries encircling these glacier-carved lakes that have added orange to their mix of whites and reds. The practice dates back thousands of years, when winemakers in the Caucasus, a region located at the border of Europe and Asia, would ferment wine in buried clay jars. It has been revitalized in recent decades by vintners in Italy, California and elsewhere looking to connect wine to its roots or to conjure new tastes from the grapes. Or both. Clay jars are optional.
Aliperti has been experimenting with skin fermenting for years, first by blending a bit into traditional chardonnays to change up the flavor and more recently with full-on orange wines. This fall, he fermented Vignoles grapes with their skins in a stainless steel vat for a couple of weeks before pressing and then aging them in oak barrels.
Orange wines account for “far less than 1 percent” of what is handled by Southern Glazer’s Wine & Spirits, the nation’s largest distributor with about a quarter of the market, according to Eric Hemer, senior vice president and corporate director of wine education.
Hemer expects orange wines to remain a niche variety due to small-scale production, higher retail prices — up to $200 for a premium bottle — and the nature of the wine.
“It’s not a wine that’s going to appeal to the novice consumer or the mainstream wine drinker,” Hemer said. “It really takes a little bit more of, I think, a sophisticated palate.”
The wines have caught on in recent years among connoisseurs who like the depth of flavors, sommeliers who can regale customers with tales of ancient techniques and drinkers looking for something different. Christopher Nicolson, managing winemaker at Red Hook Winery in Brooklyn, said the wines hit their “crest of hipness” a couple of years ago, though they remain popular.
“I think they’re viewed by these younger drinkers as, ‘Oh, this is something new and fresh. And they’re breaking the rules of these Van Dyke-wearing, monocled ... fusty old wine appreciators,’” Nicolson said.
It’s not for everyone. The rich flavors can come at the expense of the light, fruity feel that some white wine drinkers crave. And first-time drinkers can be thrown by seeing an orange chardonnay in their glasses.
“Actually I wasn’t sure because of the color, but it has a really nice flavor,” said Debbie Morris, of Chandler, Arizona, who tried a sip recently at Atwater’s tasting room. “I’m not a chardonnay person normally, but I would drink this.”