Editor's Note: With "Wines Less Tasted" local wine enthusiast Lenn Thompson will explore every corner of American wine country looking for the unique, the surprising and—always—the delicious.
James Christopher Tracy, winemaker and partner at Channing Daughters Winery in Bridgehampton, New York, has earned his reputation as an oenological explorer—and a bit of a winemaking wizard. In a region building a following for its merlot-based wines—and all of the Bordeaux comparisons that come along with them—he looks to Northern Italy for inspiration.
The focus here is set square on white wines—everything from sauvignon blanc to tocai fruilano to malvasia bianca to field blends that include grapes like muscat ottonel and more chardonnay clones than you can shake a vine at.
My personal tastes rarely lead me to New World chardonnay, but Tracy's—and he makes a half dozen distinct, intricate renditions—are a pleasure.
The red, white, and rose programs at Channing Daughters would be more than enough to earn Tracy, a former Manhattan pastry chef, his reputation for experimentation and innovation. But in 2004, he decided to push envelope even further—a cliché that will make sense in a moment—by adding orange wines to the winery's production.
Orange wine...what the heck is that?
It's simple, sort of—it's a white wine made like a red one.
Most white wines are made by crushing grapes and then removing the juice from the skins immediately (or nearly so). Then, that nearly colorless juice is then fermented.
Orange wines are white wines fermented on the grape skins—which extracts color, tannins and aromas from those skins, just like with red wine production. All grape juice is clear. Red wines are only colored because of the skins.
Tracy describes his own techniques for these unique and increasingly popular wines this way:
Our hand-harvested grapes are de-stemmed but not crushed, placed in one-ton open-top bins. We stomp on the grapes by foot and punch down by hand. Once primary fermentation is complete and the wines are dry they are racked into barrels where they stay untouched until bottling!
The results are nothing short of delicious, if somewhat confounding.
The first time I tasted one of Tracy's orange wines—the 2004 Meditazione—I thought I'd gotten a bad bottle...and who can blame me? It was deeply colored—like a much older wine—and both smelled and tasted like nothing I had ever had before. It was nutty and somewhat oxidized, with dried, rather than ripe fruit flavors. A bit like Sherry, but not really. I was confused, but intrigued—perhaps that's why they named it Meditazione.
Today, the Channing Daughters orange wines program counts three members: Meditazione (a blend of sauvignon blanc, chardonnay, tocai friulano, pinot grigio, and muscat ottonel), Envelope (made with chardonnay, gewürztraminer, and malvasia bianca )—named because that's what he's pushing with these wines, and Ramato, a copper-colored (Ramato is copper in Italian) 100% pinot grigio.
Making wines like these may make Tracy seem like a bit of a mad scientist, but he's quick to point out that this is actually an "ancient way of making wine" and he lists producers like Gravner, Movia, Radikon and others in Friuli and Slovenia as his inspirations.
Some Old World orange wines sell for $100 or more, making the $40 Tracy charges for Meditazione and Envelope a value and the $20 for Ramato a downright steal. Entry-level orange wine was pretty much unheard of until Tracy introduced Ramato.
Orange wines can be made in many wine regions, but Tracy feels that Long island is special in this regard: "we can ripen the grapes with a great deal of flavor and aroma and still have bright natural acids and moderate alcohol that does not have to be tinkered with in the winery! It is our beautiful moderate maritime climate that engenders these sorts of wines."
I asked Tracy how he best enjoys these wines. His answer is both specific and romantically vague:
With delicious food and delicious people! Preferably in a large glass with the wine at cellar temperature (58 degrees). In other words not too small and not too cold.
Tasting The Wines
Channing Daughters Winery 2008 Meditazione ($40): Layered and complex, it smells of dried apricot, fresh peach, lightly smoked black tea, roasted nuts, dried orange peel and citrus blossom. On the fuller side of medium bodied, the palate shows beautiful intensity at 12% ABV. The flavors range from dried apricot, black and herbal tea, roasted nuts, straw and Bosc pear skin. It's dry, with an almost Sherry-like salinity, noticeable skin tannins and citrusy acidity—all with a long, focused and fresh finish.
Channing Daughters Winery 2008 Envelope ($40): Floral nose—rose petals and honeysuckle—also smells like toasted almonds, baking spice, candied ginger and tropical fruit. This wine is extremely full bodied with myriad flavors ranging from membrillo to roses to pineapple and star fruit. Dry with noticeable skin tannin. Long finish shows just a bit of oak character.
Channing Daughters Winery 2008 Ramato ($20): Not as complex as the other two, but still delivers plenty of orange wine character with scents of apricot, pear, citrus and spice. Dry and medium bodied, the palate delivers hints of roasted apples and peach—with wonderfully balanced acidity.
About the Author: Lenn Thompson is the founder and executive editor of The New York Cork Report. He lives just outside of Long Island wine country with his wife, son, and trusty beagle.