Letters from Lodi
An insightful and objective look at viticulture and winemaking from the Lodi
Appellation and the growers and vintners behind these crafts. Told from the
perspective of multi-award winning wine journalist, Randy Caparoso.
Forlorn Hope produces stunning Lodi grown “orange” wine
What do you think of orange wines? Even longtime wine lovers and “experts” get thrown for a loop the first time they are asked that question. The first thing you think, of course, is, “I didn’t know they make wine from oranges.”
Orange wines, however, are exactly that: wines made from the usual wine grapes, but finished with an orange-ish color. Many of the better orange wines have been made from commonly known white wine grapes – like Chardonnay, Sauvignon blanc, Pinot gris or Gewürztraminer – but are fermented on their skins, rather than without their skins the way white wines are usually made. This, essentially, is treating white wine grapes the exact same way as black skinned grapes used to produce red wines: red wines are always fermented on their skins, which is where they get their color, tannin, and most of their flavor components.
However, since white wine grapes don’t have the deep pigmentations of red wine grapes, they end up with somewhat of an orange tint, mostly due to the oxidative process resulting from this type of fermentation (white wines are usually fermented in stainless steel tanks or barrels, which minimizes exposure to oxygen). Hence, “orange” wines, which have become quite the thing these past four, five years, among wine lovers seeking a “different” kind of experience.
“Different,” of course, can mean wonderfully fresh and exhilarating for some people, and weird and, well, indifferent to many others. Judging from the way he’s been quickly selling out his orange wines every year, you have to say that winemaker/owner Matthew Rorick of Forlorn Hope Wines falls in the former category. Although Forlorn Hope is based within the Fairfield city limits in Suisun Valley, Mr. Rorick has an abiding love of Lodi grown grapes – especially Portuguese varieties grown by Ron Silva (the “Portugese grape king” of Silvaspoons Vineyards) and Markus Bokisch (Rorick has been sourcing Verdelho from Bokisch Ranches’ Vista Luna Vineyard).
The 2012 Forlorn Hope Lodi Kirschenmann ($30), however, represents Rorick’s first-ever pick from Kirschenmann Vineyard, located on the east side of Lodi off Bruella Rd. This 19-acre Mokelumne River AVA vineyard – purchased last spring and now lovingly cultivated by Tegan Passalacqua (better known in the wine world as Turley Wine Cellars’ winemaker/vineyard manager) – consists primarily of ancient, own-rooted Zinfandel bushes, originally planted in 1915. In 1992 a couple of acres on the property, which old-timers used to call Baumbach Vineyard (Passalacqua changed the name in honor of its longtime owners, the Kirschenmann family), was planted to trellised Pinot Gris, and this is what the Forlorn Hope Kirschenmann is made from.
And indeed, the Kirschenmann bottling has a bright, clear, shimmering orange sheen. The nose is deep and compellingly aromatic – suggesting stone fruit pies made from peach and apricot, but not the flowery, lavendery fragrances common to conventionally vinified Pinot Gris – and on the palate, the fleshy fruit qualities follow up in slightly viscous, meaty sensations. A mildly tart fresh fruit acidity adds a little lift; and just a modicum of tannin lends a gentle grip to the feel. Finally, for the alcohol police, this wine is finished at just 12.5% – amounting to a poised, balanced, medium body.
Says Rorick, “We got the grapes in at just over 22° Brix (i.e. grape sugar reading) – if anything, we could have gone slightly lower, like 21.8°. Because we fermented in open-top T-bins (the thigh-high plastic squares, also hauled into vineyards as harvest gondolas), some of the alcohol burned off. In fact, most of the orange wines that we open-top ferment usually finish off with lower alcohols, like 11.9%.”
Rorick adds, “I’m actually new to the game of orange wines – our first vintage doing this was 2010. It’s not entirely unique either – I was originally inspired after tasting skin-contact Pinot Gris from places like Friuli (in Italy) and Slovenia. It’s not so much the idea of doing something different – orange wines occupy an interesting intersection between white wines and red wines. You get the aromatics, lightness and freshness of white wines, combined with a little bit of the tannin, texture and grip of red wines. When you include the stems, like we did with the Kirschenmann Pinot Gris, you get even more grip.”
As it were, the Kirschenmann’s tannin level is actually quite low – adding just a light drying effect to the finished wine. If anything, this orange product has a zesty fruit freshness that is closer to normal white wines than to reds. Think of it as a sleek, fine boned woman dressed in a man’s suit – you can even paint on a mustache, but she still looks like a sexy woman (re Marlene Dietrich). This, despite the fact that Pinot Gris is a clonal variant of Pinot Noir; and thus, a grape (like Gewürztraminer, which also traces an immediate ancestry to black skinned varieties) that actually grows out in the field with a slightly purplish cast to its skin. When Pinot Gris (a.k.a. Pinot Grigio) is conventionally fermented as a white wine, however, all or almost all the pigments drop out.
Perhaps to hedge a little on the feminine side of the Pinot Gris grape, Rorick also subjected the incoming clusters from Kirschenmann to a full week in a sealed and gassed bin, where a little carbonic maceration (i.e. partial fermentation within each individual berry) occurred – a process that usually results in enhanced fruity sensations, coupled with super-soft tannins. After removing the wrap and foot treading the whole clusters (stems and all), the wine fermented to dryness on its own native yeast population within two weeks. Six months in neutral oak barrels (that is, barrels used in previous years, thus adding negligible “oak” flavor) helped round out this orange tinted wine.
“It definitely ended up as one of the clearest colored skin-contact whites we’ve ever done,” Rorick tells us. “There was no filtration – the wine seemed to settle out on its own accord. Since this was our first shot at these grapes, I can’t say for sure if it was the carbonic maceration that gave the Kirschenmann its softer texturing. But I knew I wanted to ferment whole-cluster, and the wood aging also helped soften the tannins from the stems and skins. When I taste it, I find something of a starfruit-tropical fruit quality in the wine. My thinking is that this could have come from the carbonic maceration, with just a hint of tannin bitterness that is sort of what you get when you bite into the rind of a starfruit.”
Technical geek-speak aside, this orange colored Pinot Gris certainly makes for an interesting cross-dresser from a culinary perspective. For dishes like chicken stewed with mushrooms and bacon in red wine (the French call this coq au vin, of course), for instance, or salmon roasted with veal stock laced with red wine or truffle oil: these and many other food preparations stand to benefit from wines combining the sharp fruitiness of a white with the mild tannin of a red. Yes, this is where many rosés and lighter reds (like Pinot Noir and Beaujolais) also come in – but slightly chilled orange wines like the Kirschenmann may fit even better!
One thing for sure, Mr. Rorick remains a true-blue believer in Lodi wine grapes. “I’ve heard all the misinformation out there,” he tells us – “stuff like, ‘Lodi is too hot to make great wine,’ or ‘no way Lodi makes wines under 14% alcohol.’ These statements are just wrong on so many levels. It’s certainly not our experience — Lodi grapes are perfect for what we do.”
We say, let the yahoos out there abide in their shrink-wrap bubble. All it means is mais fica – more for us, these rare, refreshing, stunningly original wines like Forlorn Hope’s Kirschenmann.