Anyone else ever feel like Nebbiolo is the grape that shouldn’t work. It’s so light in color, it’s practically see-through: a faint rouge hue with its rusty orange-y-brown aura that just hints that this wine isn’t what it appears to be: Firm in structure, full-bodied, and undeniably tannic, but balanced by an—at times—racey acidity. The classic aroma descriptor is “tar and violets,” as the wine typically includes scents and flavors of herbs, dried flowers, and the bitterness of a dark coffee. But one only has to taste the differing expressions coming from the Nebbiolo motherlands of Barolo, Barbaresco, as well as Asti and Alba to know that location and climate means everything to this grape.
Here is what California’s El Dorado County has to provide this dark beauty.
Let’s talk about orange wines for a second. Orange wines are wines made from white wine grapes through a similar process as red wines are typically made. Instead of immediately pressing the white grapes to separate skin from juices, thereby making a white wine, the skins are left on during the fermentation process and, often, for a bit of post-fermentation maceration (ie: additional skin contact time). It’s the oxidative effect—oxygen’s influence on the grape skin compounds—that turn the wine it’s notable orange-y color. Resulting wines are typically dry with notes of phenolic bitterness and a slight tannic texture. Flavors will vary depending on the grape variety, but usually include tertiary, maturing notes of honey, nuts, and even dried fruits.
Like any other wine type, no two orange wines are quite the same. Of course grape variety will play a large role, but the time and attention of the winemaker is critical. Too much oxygen exposure equals spoiled wine and/or funky flavors. Too little and you don’t get the desired affect—visually or on the palate. I’ve had some funky (read: unpleasant) orange wines. I’ve had orange wines that barely touched the outer spectrum of what it means to be orange (thus quite lacking in aroma and flavor).
Today I bring you Passaggio Wines skin fermented Pinot Grigio. It’s a fun and perfectly delicious example of the winemaking process.
If you haven’t read my notes about Crystal Basin Cellars Mourvèdre, definitely take a look. My understanding of California’s Sierra Foothills as a cool-climate wine terroir was proven right by that light, yet rustic single-varietal expression. So I was excited to open the winery’s single-varietal Grenache—a grape that I have a love-hate relationship with. I love it when I can taste the eccentricity of fruit flavors innate in this variety, the racy red spices that can linger in the back palate, and the assertive acidity that binds it all together. I hate when it turns into a over-ripe fruit bomb, worthy of spreading on my toast with peanut butter.
I’ll give you one good guess which side of the Grenache spectrum Crystal Basin Cellars falls into…
I don’t know if you’ve seen my deep dark dungeon where I store my wine. Ok, it’s a coat closet. This COVID thing’s got me like “When can we finish construction on the awesomely designed—and legit—wine cellar?!?!?. Ah well, like Indiana Jones, I lit a torch and ducked beneath the dusty remains of corpses who traversed these parts before me. Wine to the left, wine to right, wine all around me. How…how am I to know which is the right bottle for tonight? I can barely see. Quickly…quickly I must make my choice before the walls collapse around me and a bolder of a wine cask comes rolling towards me. Grab something! Grab anything! Now Run!!!!
I came across Crystal Basin Cellars during an industry event—actually it was a bit more like an informal gathering—of grapegrowers and winemakers in El Dorado County. The topic of discussion was lesser known varieties that thrive in this portion of the Sierra Foothills. We tasted some really interesting (and delicious) wines that day. A lot of what you may call “rustic” reds actually have an excellent “cool-climate” expression due to the colder air that sinks down through the Sierras and settles along the vines in the foothills. Indeed, Mourvèdre, a fun, funky grape that can be as carnal as you like it from one terroir but as delicate as a flower petal from another, has found a good home here in El Dorado, maintaining its innate structure, achieving full phenolic ripeness, but holding on to the much needed acidity to lift the beautiful fruit flavors on the nose and on the palate.