Orange wine is very, very fashionable. Often associated with the natural wine movement that is not strictly true as many conventional winemakers are experimenting with orange wines too. Perhaps the fact that they have both emerged into the spotlight in recent years has brought the two such an association. I must say I like the idea but I have not always been convinced by the wines themselves, so here are some recent experiences.
Muscat Petits Grains
James carrying out a pigeage of the Muscat
First of all we should clarify what orange wine means. They are made from white wine grapes which are left on the skins for an extended period in order to extract more flavour. This long maceration also adds tannin and colour to the wine just as happens with red grapes when making red wine. The length of time for skin contact and the type of grapes will add more or less colour, flavour and texture to the wine.
This was how wines were made many years ago, the current trend is a revival of ancient practices. Some countries such as Georgia have always made wines like this. I have had the opportunity to taste such wines from all over the world including Georgia. Mostly I find them pleasing the mind and appreciating the technique rather than pleasing my palate. Academic rather than pleasurable. Often they lack charm, taste very dry and with no fruit, perhaps the result of overlong maceration.
However I have recently tasted some very attractive orange wines. Les Choix 2014 came from Turner Pageot in Gabian, a very well judged wine as there was still plenty of apricot fruit as well as being dry and textured, made from Marsanne grapes. Very good. Ora(n)ge Sur Les Canilles 2016 is made by Domaine Ribiera in Aspiran. Régis and Christine Pichon make this delicious wine from Clairette and Terret grapes, again they have extracted good texture and dry flavours as well as white fruit flavours. Both wines have the slightest note of Fino sherry which really appealed to me.
At Mas Coutelou in 2015 and 2016 Jeff used white grapes such as Muscat Petits Grains to make orange wines, usually supervised by our two Australian assistants Cameron in 2015 and James in 2016. The result in 2015 went to make OW1, a blend of eight grape varieties macerated for a couple of weeks. It is a bright colour, has good texture and plenty of fruit along with a herbal note. The following year James made the Muscat based wine and this is a real success, the muscat notes are there but restrained to give white fruit flavours which linger with good spicy notes and a dry finish.
Cameron and me
Orange, skin contact, long maceration. Whatever name you give this style these are wines requiring judgement and skill from the winemaker. I encourage you to try them but select ones from winemakers you trust.
For more information from someone who knows orange wines much beter than me I would recommend this website from Simon J Woolf.
Thursday, August 11th was the last day before Jeff shut up shop for a few days as he does every year to celebrate the Béziers Féria. A few days of rest and recuperation before the preparations really start for the vendanges. As he had received a number of requests for visits Jeff decided to group them all together and have a tour of the vines and tasting with lunch.
Visitors from Grenoble, Orléans and Nanterre assembled at the cave along with my friend and sommelier Sandra Martinez and we set off around some of the vineyards. Jeff explained his philosophy and vineyard work and it’s worth repeating a couple of points of note. I mentioned the problem of vers de la grappe a few weeks ago which Jeff treated with a spraying of clay to discourage the moth from laying its eggs. We found a bunch in La Garrigue which was affected and Jeff opened it up to reveal the cocoon of the larvae.
Vers de la grappe cocoon
He also explained how bats are the ideal solution and why he provides shelters, each bat would eat around 2,000 insects a day including the moths responsible for vers de la grappe.
We also looked around at the majority of vineyards and their dark green colour at a time when the vine is putting its resources into the grapes to get them to maturity, as that is how they reproduce. So, in a natural state the leaves start to look pale and tired as the vine is not channelling energy into the leaves. The dark green, attractive vines are so coloured because of the nitrogen feeds and, in some cases, irrigation.
We returned to the domaine where we were joined by a group of wine professionals. In the garden we tasted a range of Mas Coutelou wines as well as some lovely salads and (for the carnivores) some charcuterie.
Jeff leads the tasting accompanied by his sister and niece
The list of wines shared, all from 2015 except the last, was: Bibonade (rosé and white), Peilhan Blanc, Maccabeu, OW1, 5SO Simple, Sauvé De La Citerne, On Peut Pas Vraiment Dire Que, Classe, La Buvette À Paulette, Flower Power, Flambadou, L’Oublié, Devigne Qui Vient Diner, 5J
I missed the Bibonades and Peilhan as I was getting the Maccabeu from tank. I had a bottle of Peilhan at home recently though and it was lovely, really strong evidence of the quality of 2015. All apples and pears and fresh acidity with a long finish. Even by Coutelou standards it is an exceptional wine.
The Maccabeu is, if anything, even better. Cooked apple and cinnamon flavours, fresh acidity, almost smoky. There is so much going on here and, as the jug I collected the wine in was in front of me, I kept being drawn back to it through lunch. The wine changed and opened out with more fruit and spice. This will develop beautifully when it is bottled, a stunner, my new favourite.
OW1 is Jeff’s first skin contact wine. He was reluctant to join the trend and didn’t want an orange wine but this spent plenty of time on skins, I remember Cameron and I carrying out a manual pigeage. Now bottled the wine has texture and tannins from that skin contact but there is plenty of fruit and remains balanced and fresh. Very good.
Manual pigeage of OW1
5SO was on good form. The boisterous, chatty group became quiet for the first time, captured by its fruit profile and drinkability on a hot summer’s day, which essentially is what it was designed to do.
Citerne was one I didn’t have last week and it had been some time since I had tasted it. It showed well, the Mourvedre adding a real plummy depth. Another wine which will emerge in coming months, another to look forward to. OPPVDQ was on great form, another to quieten the crowd. It confirmed my opinion that this is a wine which will really benefit from some time in bottle, hang on to some if you have them. La Buvette À Paulette was last week’s big surprise and another bottle confirmed the pleasure, really showing its quality.
Flower Power not yet properly labelled. What a colour!
Flower Power took some time to come around but now that it has done so I can confirm that this will strengthen the reputation which it earned in its first vintage in 2014. The vineyard is still young and will continue to improve the wine it delivers, if the snails leave it alone. The ten grape varieties give a complex story of light and shade, red and dark fruits, floral and sappy.
Flambadou was once again a star, showing the lightness of touch in this Carignan. Jeff describes it as like a Pinot Noir. There is depth and character packed into quite a light structure. The vineyard has a light layer of limestone beneath the fine clay and it is this limestone which adds the complexity to the wine. A grand cru of Carignan.
L’Oublié and its story once again captured the imagination of everyone, its secondary flavours beguiling the tastebuds. Devigne Qui Vient Diner is the wine which Jeff made in partnership with Christian Venier from the Loire, Gamay added to some Languedoc grapes such as Cinsault. My, this has improved with a few months in bottle (magnum), really delivering a rounder more harmonious blend with zappy fruit and lovely sweet fruit.
Finally 5J the Grenache Gris from 2012 aged in barrel made to reflect a Spanish fino to accompany the best hams. Oxidised notes, barrique notes and a flash of clean fruit, quince and apple.
A great day, much longer than most were expecting but nobody showed any signs of fatigue or willingness to depart. Many joined us in the cave des soleras to taste some of the old wines there. And poignantly, some wine of Jean-Claude on what would have been his 80th birthday. His legacy will live on.
I enjoyed reading the Facebook post of one of the visitors Benoit who described Jeff as a magician and an artist. The day was a success.