I RECEIVED an email this week from Hamilton Russell Vineyards in South Africa. It told the story of a recent tasting of 31 vintages of their chardonnay, from 1982 t0 2012. The aim was to get an idea of how capable the wine is of medium to long-term aging and to provide some guidance for those who have been buying and cellaring the wine over many vintages.
What particularly caught my eye was owner Anthony Hamilton Russell’s comment about the difficulty of judging the condition of older wine – particularly older white wine. “One person’s deep-colored, rich, nutty, treasure is another’s tired, oxidized, lost opportunity,” is how he expressed the problem.
This struck a chord since it touches on the provocative question of how ideas mediate our perception and appreciation of wine; and in particular how some very similar effects can in one instance be perceived as positive and desirable and in another faulty and undesirable.
In this instance, I’m thinking about the effects produced in white wines by intentionally oxidative vinification — represented by what we’ve come to call orange wines — and like results derived from long-aging whether in bottle, barrel, or some combination of both. I’ll refer to the latter as “off-white wine,” and for convenience sake lump orange and off-white together under the rubric “un-white wine.”
Anthony doesn’t make the first kind of wine. So far as I know his marvelous chardonnays are not subjected to maceration on the skins as orange wines are. They are light-colored, emphasize fruit, and give every appearance of being made in that modern-but-respectful-of-
Since it’s not Anthony’s intention to make wines that show either orange or off-white features, when they acquire them simply by sitting around in the cellar it’s fair to think of their appearance as accidental, even unfortunate. In advanced age HR’s Cape chardonnays aren’t what they were made to be. They’re something else and – as Anthony admits – we’re not likely to be in agreement as to their drinkability. In the worst case they are, in his words, “a lost opportunity.”
Held long enough, HR’s chardonnays will take on color and lose fruit in the same way the white wines of Burgundy (his model) have always done. At what point a white wine goes over the hill is indeed a subjective judgment, but I think its right to say that by the time an aged HR chard has passed beyond the stage where a nutty complexity complements a still lively fruit profile and begins to fade toward off-white and even orange it has by then become something other than what is was intended to be. One has to assume that letting a bottle to get to this extreme stage is a mistake — the consequence of poor judgment, neglect, or sheer absent-mindedness.
By contrast, that outpost of die-with-your-boots-on traditionalism in Rioja, Lopez de Heredia, has long encouraged oxidative, orangey characteristics in their white wines by means of lengthy, barrel and bottle-aging regimes that are fully intentional and carefully managed. In some sense, LdH’s aged, viura-based whites have even more similarities to contemporary orange wines since the extended time in barrel imbues them with wood tannins that mimic the lightly grippy texture we associate with the maceration-on-skins that’s the halmark of a true orange.
LdH’s white Riojas are marvelous, one-of-a-kind, heritage-quality wines — and, by the way, very tough sells. They simply don’t have the cachet of the output of expressionists like Josko Gravner and Stanko Radikon, truly quirky brews that are the darlings of a new urban sommelocracy. The same might be said for oloroso sherries – although interest in these seems to be picking up.
Which brings us back to the question of how it is that some un-white wines remain somm queens — fashionable, high-prestige, in-demand and capable of fetching top prices — while others are dismissed as irredeemably old-fashioned, worn-out, or just plain faulty. I don’t have the answer to this, but I’m going to propose that it has something to do with intentionality and the moment in the cycle when the “orange effects” are induced.
It seems clear that when these effects are both intentional and introduced early (during vinification) they are highly valued; when intentional and induced later in a wine’s life (during maturation) they may be valued, but less so; and when the effects are both unintentional and appear toward the end of a wine’s life they are likely to be little valued except by persons with very specific tastes.
In a fourth possible case, when the effects are produced unintentionally during vinification, it seems indisputable that what you have is a faulty wine, tout court.
Click here for a quad chart illustrating the social hierarchy of un-white wines.