One of the more popular questions I get asked in masterclasses is “how many days of maceration is necessary before a white wine becomes an orange wine?”
My answer has been in flux for the last few years. At one point, I felt that anything less than a week didn’t constitute the full monty, but the right answer is more complex. The definition of orange wine for me is not primarily to do with colour, but rather with style. White wines cross the line when they start showing more texture and quite possibly tannins – and when the typical flavours of maceration start to appear: dried or cooked fruits, tea leaves, dried or fresh herbs, woodsmoke and so on. When this occurs depends on myriad factors – grape variety, method and amount of extraction, fermentation vessel and temperature are just a few.
Valter Mlečnik, now very ably assisted by his son Klemen, is one of the classic producers of this style in Slovenia’s Vipava valley. Valter was lucky to have Josko Gravner as a mentor between 1983 and 1999, a period he speaks of very fondly. It had a huge influence on his style, which has become ever more stripped down over the years.
In a divergence from Gravner, the Mlečniks don’t see any value in skin maceration over three days (apart from with Friulano, which they macerate for six days). Yet tasting the wonderful Cuvée Ana (named after Valter’s grandmother) reveals a textbook orange wine character – the complexity and structure, the flavours are unmistakable.
Ana 2011, the current vintage on the market, feels very youthful but holds its head high. It’s surprisingly grippy for the short skin contact, with wonderful jasmine, black tea and chamomile aromas and a spicy, honeyed palate. More to the point, it’s beautifully balanced with a fine, elegant finish and a lightness of touch. Right now, the 2011 is a little more forward compared to the 2010 (one of the most divine vintages ever, in my opinion), so well worth cellaring if you can.
The blend has changed over the years, from Chardonnay-heavy to the current Chardonnay/Rebula mix (40% each) plus a light seasoning with Malvazija and Friulano (10% each). The Rebula is no doubt what gives the tannic grunt.
It’s worth noting that the three day skin contact is probably more authentic, in terms of Slovenia’s centuries-old tradition of macerating white grapes, than the much longer maceration times now used by Gravner, Radikon and many of their colleagues. This, as with almost every detail in the estates’s vineyards and winery, is based on the 1844 winemaking manual “Vinoreja za Slovence” (Winemaking for Slovenians), a volume that Valter and Klemen have found to be stunningly prescient and accurate.
Ana has a sense of classicism about it, the kind of refinement that comes from such knowledge distilled and honed across centuries, rather than years.
Mlečnik Ana is available in the Netherlands from Delicroatia price €28.
For the full story of the Mlečniks and many of their colleagues, order Simon’s book Amber Revolution.