To read the first post in this series: The Butterfly Effect: How the death of a fad gave birth to beautiful color in wine, Part 1: Considering Recent History
A Visit to the Egg with Hardy Wallace
We’re standing in front of a concrete egg filled with fermented straight-to-press Semillon harvested alongside the Napa River during the 2012 harvest. It’s fruit grown in a rocky vineyard directly beside the water. The egg holds the answer to a question we’re there to consider–how does its wine compare to the same fruit fermented during skin contact? Wallace processed the white grape both ways.
In discussions of macerated fermentations, claims are often made that such techniques obscure terroir. Side by side lots offer some insight into the validity of such an assertion. Going deep enough points out another consideration. In conjunction with the idea of terroir, the variety of the fruit also has to be considered.
Considering Wallace’s Mentor, Kevin Kelley
Wallace started his label, Dirty and Rowdy, with a close friend only three vintages ago, their work in white wine beginning in their second vintage. But Wallace stepped into the project thanks to the encouragement of winemakers Kevin Kelley, of Salinia and NPA, and Angela Osborne, of A Tribute to Grace and Farmer Jane.
The Venture reaches back to a chance flight in 2009 to San Francisco when Wallace decided to take a quick trip to the Bay Area to visit with friends he’d made online in wine, thanks to his popular wine blog, Dirty South Wines. Having gotten to know Jon Bonné of the San Francisco Chronicle, the two decided to meet at Terroir SF, a popular wine bar in the city. There Bonné suggested they purchase a bottle of Kevin Kelley’s 2008 skin-contact Chardonnay. As Wallace explains, he’d had skin contact wines before but none “necessarily as heart warming.” Kelley’s Chardonnay “wasn’t just a funky glass of wine, not just a puzzle or intellectual stimulation.” He pauses, “what a core of joy it had. Other examples I’d had at that point were beautiful but didn’t move me like that.”
Kelley’s Chardonnay changed Wallace’s perspective on domestic wines and he returned again to spend a week touring Sonoma and Napa wine specifically hoping to meet with Kelley.
When asking Wallace to think through what it was about that particular wine that so affected his view, he considers the grape itself. He responds, “It’s an example that changes the way you feel about wine, and what it can express. Kevin’s wine…” He thinks on the question again, then continues, “it was chardonnay, a grape that has so much baggage that comes with it, and here is this experience that redefines the grape.”
That wine by Kelley was made with Heintz Chardonnay, a well-known, quality vineyard, but it was a distinctly different expression of the the site–fruit fully fermented on skins and sold in a stainless steel thermos.
By Spring of 2010, Wallace had moved to Sonoma and was working with Kelley helping to market the NPA project, and create the weekly blends ordered for local delivery.
While working with Kelley, and Osborne as his assistant, Wallace realized he wanted to step into making his own skin contact white wine. But, after securing a vineyard source, an incredible heat spike hit. It was Labor Day 2010, right before harvest, and the fruit was entirely lost to sunburn. Having to find a new grape source, with a lot of vineyards lost from the weather, that year Dirty & Rowdy started by shifting to red fruit and making Mourvedre. In 2011, they were able to locate a white grape again, and return to their original interest in making skin contact Semillon alongside the red wine project.
Ryme Cellars Mind Scrambles
Ryan and Megan Glaab of Ryme Cellars began making two of their white wines with skin fermentation after an experience analogous to Wallace’s first contact with Kelley’s Chardonnay. 2006, Ryan explains, was the first time he had an orange wine, tasting Ribolla Gialla from both Radikon and Gravner in one night. The experience, he explains, “was mind scrambling. I’d never tasted anything like it.” He continues, “I like to be really surprised by wines. That experience sparked a fascination.”
Within a couple years, Megan and Ryan were able to visit Stanko Radikon in Fruili, and see first hand how he made his wines, fermenting on skins in open top wood containers, then storing for extended periods often still on skins. During the visit, the Glaabs were told by Radikon that a friend of his, George Vare, was growing Ribolla in Napa, and making wines with macerated fermentations too. In 2009, the Glaabs heard from their friend Dan Petroski that Vare might have fruit they could purchase. That year, inspired by their visit with Radikon, they started making Ribolla Gialla with incredibly extended macerations. The next year, they followed suit with a skin contact Vermentino, keeping the contact time shorter there out of consideration for the differing characters of the grapes.
The Role of Tannin, Flavor, and Mouthfeel
The differing fermentation choices between Ribolla Gialla and Vermentino made by the Glaab’s highlight an obvious but oft overlooked point–when it comes to orange wines, it depends on the grape.
Tannin structure of grapes resides primarily in the skin, rather than the pulp of the fruit. As Wallace likes to illustrate, the skin of the grape acts as the tea bag, with the pulp giving water for the tea. The longer you steep tea, the stronger the beverage. Similarly with grapes–the longer the skins are in contact with the juice, the greater the effect. However, different white grape types have differing levels of tannin in their skins. The amount of tannin available helps determine whether its worth leaving the juice in longer contact or not. As Ryan explains, other varietal factors such as smell, flavor, and weight also come into consideration.
Ryan offers insight by contrasting their Ryme his Vermentino (they also have a hers presentation of the grape that is made straight-to-press) versus their Ribolla Gialla. “The grapes have different things to give. With Vermentino it isn’t beneficial to use long maceration. The grape is more sensitive to oxidation, and volatility, but I like the richness it gets from skins.” The grape also has comparatively little tannin, offering less structural alteration in the wine from extending maceration. So, to protect the wine, while balancing structural benefits, the Glaabs press off their his Vermentino after two weeks maceration, then allow it to finish ferment to dryness.
Ryan then discusses the Ribolla, “Ribolla requires a lot of patience. It has a very tannic structure.” Ribolla Gialla is considered one of the most tannic white grapes, in fact. He continues, “I like the evolution of tannin you get from long maceration with Ribolla.” In working with the Ryme Ribolla Gialla, the Glaab’s patience isn’t just kept through extended maceration (their 2012 is still on skins after harvesting the fruit in September), but after bottling as well. Their 2010 Ribolla Gialla will be released later this Spring.
The Glaab’s experience with macerated fermentations is extended too by Ryan’s work with Pax Mahle at Wind Gap Wines, where Ryan is Assistant Winemaker. There the team has experimented with Roussanne, Marsanne, Viognier, and Chardonnay on skins, thus witnessing the effect of using the technique on differing grape types over a number of years.
Glaab explains that when it comes to skin contact “variety is a key piece.” With some types, extended macerations can make the wines too heavy. Scientific studies have shown that extended skin contact increases the potassium levels of the wine (Ramey et al 1986), effectively raising the pH, thus making the wine heavier on the palate. This is true with as little as twenty-four hours of contact (Darias-Martin et all 2000). Skin contact also increases the aromatic and flavoral elements of a wine (Singleton et al 1983). But as Glaab explains, this has to be considered in relation to the characteristics of the particular variety. For some varieties, he points out, “the aroma and flavor are too singular, very strong and direct, almost thick” thus working against the potential advantages of time on skins. This isn’t to say you can’t successfully make an orange wine with those varieties. It is to say you may have to think about different factors in their treatment. As a result, in considering what will be heightened by fermenting on skins, the use of the technique has to be judged in balance with the overall characteristics of the particular grape type–structure and flavor, aroma and mouthfeel.
Tasting Rocky: Dirty and Rowdy’s Semillon
Wallace has pulled samples from three lots of Semillon. The first comes directly from the concrete egg we’re standing beside–fruit harvested then put straight to press and into concrete for fermentation followed by aging. The second two lots were fermented on skins in a large stainless steel fermenter. After fermentation, the fruit was pressed with half going into old oak barrels, and the rest being kept in steel.
We taste the straight-to-press wine first. It is pretty while also light. As Wallace describes, “more pretty than wild.” It carries at this stage very light sleeping fruit, dried grasses, and white sage with a long tang finish. We move to the wine from barrel. It has a stimulating, vivacious nose, with refreshing lifted elements. The palate is rocky and stimulating. The flavors of the press lot are present, but richer, with more charisma. This rendition is pretty with substance. The third lot, also skin fermented, is tasted. It has the wildest edge to it, but with a more focused texture than the barrel aged wine. Finally, we quickly mix the three together in rough proportions. The blend immediately offers a river bed nose. It is multi-layered, grassy, herbal, and hits in stages. The palate too is multi-dimensional, and multi-staged, rocky. This wine opens to gorgeous.
To read Part 3 in this series: The Butterfly Effect: How the death of a fad gave birth to beautiful color in wine, Part 3: The Craft of Wine Tasting, and the Question of Responsibility, Conversation with Two Sommeliers
To read last year’s series explaining Orange Wines beginning with how they’re made, then their presence in Georgia, Italy, and California, begin here: Understanding Orange Wines Part 1: A Quick and Dirty Look at How They’re Made and What Their Tannins Do To Our Saliva
As this series continues specific grape varieties and other examples of both Oregon and California wines will also be explored. The question of terroir will also be more centrally addressed in a future post in this series.
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