Pinot grigio as ‘Orange Wine’

Wine drinkers in the US like to bash Pinot grigio, saying it tastes like water, has no personality, is innocuous, or is just simply a waste of time. I’ll give them “innocuous,” on most accounts—but I’d prefer that to some noxiously herbal cats-piss elixir or a thick golden yellow “juice” that tastes like buttered popcorn. So I’ll order it by the glass on occasion, especially if the btg list is a corporate-driven checklist otherwise dominated by big name Sauvignon blancs and Chardonnays.

But if you relegate all Pinot grigio to the “totally uninteresting” category, that would be like shunning wines from Pomerol or St. Émilion because you’ve tried Bogle Merlot, it’s boring, and so Merlot is never worth drinking.

Believe it or not, Pinot grigio actually has the capacity to make a rather complex and age worthy wine. Putting the beauties from Alsace and Alto Adige aside for another time, I am here to tell you about the elegant, refined, and even sometimes dramatic Pinot grigios from Collio.

Collio's position in Friuli. Slovenia is immediately to Friuli's right (east). Map source:
Collio’s position in Friuli. Slovenia is immediately to Friuli’s right (east). Map source:

On a map, Collio is a crescent-shaped sub region of Friuli-Venezia Giulia that hugs right up against Slovenia. The Julian Alps protect Collio from harsh northern winds, but allow cool breezes through to lower nighttime temperatures. The Adriatic Sea to the south helps warm things up and regulate the region’s overall temperatures.

There are about 120 producers in Collio cultivating a variety of grapes on 1,500 hectares of vineyards within eight municipalities. Collio in total covers about 7,000 hectares over 25 municipalities. The landscape is hilly and green, creating many microclimates within a mix of forest, meadow, farmland, and vineyards.

Livon Vineyards with Slovenia behind them and the Julian Alps in the background.
Livon Vineyards with Slovenia behind them and the Julian Alps in the background.

What makes the Collio terrain most unique, however, is something most people wouldn’t even think to ask about.

Where did all those hills come from?

In fact, the region is defined by its hills. The word “Collio” comes from the Italian name colli, which means hillsides. (Colli Orientali, neighboring to the northwest, obviously takes its name from the same root.) But what is so special about these hills?

Topographic map of northern Italy. Map source: Wikimedia.
Topographic map of northern Italy. Map source: Wikimedia.

A particular type of rock called “flysch,” or “ponca” in Friulian dialect, dominates the soils throughout the zone. Flysch is a sequence of sedimentary rocks that were deposited in deep marine facies (large distinctive rock units) through a deformation of the earth’s lithosphere caused by any series of natural forces (mainly continental collisions). In Collio, the sedimentary rocks of marine deposits date back 50-65 million years ago in the Dolegna (north) area and 40-53 million years in the Cormons area (central).

Today in the hills of Collio, we find that the result of the compression of soil layers moving vertically and diagonally over each other has created irregular layers of sandstone, clay, and mud, with large variations in mineral concentrations within small areas. So not only does this soil provide an interesting substrate from which vine roots can draw, but the vertical and diagonal layers facilitate drainage and growth of the roots.

Flysch soils, aka
Flysch soils, aka “ponca” in Friulian.

While Collio maintains an impressive portfolio of thriving white grapes, Pinot grigio has impressed me the most. The grape has a well-established history in Collio with the first written record of it dating back to 1847.

When made in a fresh, fruity style, yes Pinot grigio is pretty boring but so is Ribolla gialla, one of the region’s other (indigenous) varieties. I’ll give more attention to Ribolla in a future blog entry but for now my subject is Pinot grigio. These two grape varieties also have skins that aren’t exactly yellow or green when mature like most “white” grapes. Both Pinot grigio and Ribolla gialla have skins that turn a pinkish to purple when they are ripe, or ultra-ripe, as in the case for Ribolla gialla. They also both make really great “orange wine”—but not necessarily just because of their skin color, although that does help give the resulting wine and interesting hue.

What is “orange wine”?

Orange wine is actually the opposite of rosé wine. Where rosés are made from pressing red grapes quickly and limiting skin contact with the juice (skins give the juice color, tannins, and other phenolic characters), orange wines are made by pressing white grapes and leaving the skins in contact with the juice to give just that: color, phenols (flavors), and sometimes a touch of tannins. Many white grapes can be made this way under certain conditions, not only highly pigmented grape like like Pinot grigio and Ribolla gialla.

Maceration on white skins. @ La Castellada Winery. October 2013.
Maceration on white skins. @ La Castellada Winery. October 2013.

The method is an ancient one from the country of Georgia, and if you think about it, it makes sense. They didn’t have high-tech presses, pumps, and temperature control way back then in that part of the world. So they did what they could with the grapes, and after so many years, figured out how to do it well. Slovenia has a similar history using this technique, as do many other regions of northeastern Italy.§

Orange wines typically range in color from amber or cider-like to a bright salmon. Since the skin contact is usually done in the presence of oxygen, the wines can develop Oloroso Sherry-like characteristics. Other qualities you might find in orange wines include: apricot, peach skin or orange rind, almond, honey, ginger, green tea, black tea, chamomile, rose, and a dry, but polished, possibly saline finish. Actually, in any well-made white that has seen time on its skins, you are bound to find plenty of exotic aromas and a depth of flavor and texture. Given that they are a sort of white wine with a red wine structure, their food pairing potentials seem endless.

I don’t care if people say that the orange wine trend is over, or if it’s just the beginning. It’s an ancient method that continues to prove itself in modern winemaking both in the Old and New World. It’s here to stay. Not only are U.S. winemakers from New York to California already making them with great success, orange wines have infiltrated our more adventurous wine lists and shops’ shelves here in the US. They have also gained attention in our wine magazines, news columns, and blogs [ … ahem].

Here are a couple of my favorites from my recent trip to Collio, as well as one great one I just discovered in my own backyard!

Draga Pinot grigio 2014. Collio DOC. Pinot grigio 100%. Light salmon color. The juice spends 24 hours on its skins. Then the pressed wine remains in stainless steel for 8 months before bottling. Watermelon and rose-water aromas lift out of the glass. As the wine warm up a bit, scents of orange peel emerge. On the palate, there is more rose, and components of yellow nectarine and tropical fruit. The wine is clean and refreshing with a crisp astringency. Perfect with any manner of vegetables, smoked or grilled foods, including fish, as well as spicy foods. Everything on my prepared a plate of smoked trout with a spicy mustard spread and crudité worked terrifically. ★★

La Castellada Pinot grigio 2009. Collio DOC. Pinot grigio 100%. This Pinot grigio is one of the most striking ones, not only for its color, but for its body and personality. Maceration on skins takes 15 days and the wine spends 36 months in 15HL wooden barrels. The color is a deep pink with copper edges turning more amber as it ages. This wine is still young and the bouquet is all over the board. Perfume, green banana peel, root vegetable, and then a touch of bubble gum evolving to rose petal and tarragon. It is rich and smooth on the palate with a great balance. Many flavors emerge as you explore this wine. ★★☆

A few days after returning home from my recent trip to Collio, I visited the Beauregard Vineyards tasting room in Bonny Doon, California up in the Santa Cruz Mountains. I had forgotten that I had tried a new vintage of his orange wine from barrel earlier this year—which was also impressive—but this one is a finished wine and it’s a fabulous domestic example of the style.

Beauregard Vineyards Pinot gris ‘Orange Wine’ (Regan Vineyards) 2013. Pinot grigio 100%. This one sees 21 days of skin contact. The bouquet is watermelon rind, jasmine, orange peel, and lemongrass. On the palate, flavors of raw almond, peach, citrus, and green tea present themselves. This is a well-structured wine with just the right amount of grip and salinity to carry the fruit and achieve overall balance. ★★

Beauregard Vineyards Pinot gris
Beauregard Vineyards Pinot gris “Orange Wine” from the Santa Cruz Mountains.

PS – I just tried Ryan Beauregard‘s Pinot gris ‘Orange Wine’ 2012 last night and it’s aging beautifully.

– – –

† Indigenous white varieties include Friulano, Ribolla gialla, Malvasia, and Picolit. International whites that have been in the area for well over 100 years include Pinot grigio, Pinot bianco, Sauvignon (blanc), and Chardonnay. Reds are far less common but nevertheless can still be found. (On my recent trip to Collio, I tried probably well over 150 whites and maybe five reds.) You’ll often find the indigenous Pignolo, and the international varieties: Merlot and Cabernet. Colli Orientali, just north, sustains a bigger list of reds.

‡ Interesting that the word “collision” has the same root, colli. In Latin “collidare” means “to collide.” I wonder if the etymology of the Italian word for hills leads back to the same Latin root.

§ Actually the technique of making white with some skin contact can be found in more than rare instances from Lazio north to Emilia-Romagna, Alto Adige, and most certainly Piemonte. Many consumers actually have no idea that’s what they’re drinking, like in the case of Sauvignons from Alto Adige. They frequently see at least a few hours of skin contact but a casual consumer wouldn’t know because the wine actually doesn’t change color drastically. Examples of whites that are made with skin contact (but are still “white”) from Piemonte include beautiful and age worthy wines made from skin-macerated Arneis (Negro, Valfaccenda) and Timorasso from Colli Tortnesi (Massa, Mariotto, La Colombera).

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