Announcement We are continuing to publish the best entries into our wine writing competition, which overwhelmed us with both the number and the quality of submissions. We intend to publish more entries, including this one, and then to invite readers to vote on their favourites from the longlist of published articles. This vote will run between Friday 7 April and Thursday 13 April. Over the Easter weekend, the team will deliberate as to which five entries should be shortlisted, and the final winner will be announced at Sherry Night in London on 23 April.
The 24th entry into our wine writing competition comes from Paula Sidore, as photographed here by Ralf Kaiser.
My name is Paula Redes Sidore. I'm in my mid 40s now, but I originally arrived in Berlin from Charlottesville, Virginia, in September 2002 with a freshly minted Master's Degree in Creative Writing, a five-week-old baby and, like so many Americans, no knowledge of German wine. That changed in 2006 when I first seriously tasted, then studied and eventually fell head first down the Riesling rabbit hole. After training as a sommelier (initially Germany's IHK, then the CMS), I worked in both the wholesale and retail sides of the international wine business. My true calling is a marriage of words and wine: I went on to launch WEINSTORY, a translation agency dedicated to improving how German winemakers and the German wine industry present themselves to the wider world. On the journalistic side, I regularly publish articles in various German and English periodicals and blogs, including Der Feinschmecker and Küche. After 14 years in the big city, I recently moved to Bonn, Germany, to be closer to the woods, the winegrowers and the vineyards.
An orange state of mind
Ever have a glass of orange juice directly after brushing your teeth? Rarely deliberately, and certainly not an experience that justifies repetition. And yet does anyone blame the lowly orange juice? Swear off juice forever? Demand a store refund? Or turn the blame to the toothpaste? Of course not, that would be silly.
Yet I am bothered tremendously when a different sort of orange beverage routinely receives precisely that treatment. For those who've never encountered it, orange wine is its own category, alongside red, white, rosé and sparkling. The formula is pretty straightforward: white wine made from grapes fermented on their skins for an extended amount of time. This long maceration period lends the finished wine both its colour – anywhere from bright gold to brooding amber – and its phenolic, often slightly bitter bite.
Misconception number one starts here, at the wine's point of inception. While many winegrowers who choose to make orange wine do share a philosophical foundation with 'natural wine' producers, they are more fellow wayfarers than pilgrims to the same shrine. At its core, orange wine ultimately reflects viticultural technique, not organic or biodynamic sensibilities. In order to drive this point home, some wine professionals have begun shunning the loaded term 'orange' in favour of this vinous category's more technical name 'skin-fermented wines'.
In recent years, these wines have been hyped no end, lionised by wine geeks and hipsters, celebrated through events like RAW WINE in London, Berlin and New York and yet demonised by those who call them little more than faulty wine with an excellent marketing agent, incapable of expressing terroir or varietal typicality. This sort of extensive publicity inevitably piques the curiosity of many mainstream or conventional drinkers who go on to taste these wines straight up, as a new 'off-white' delight.
And therein lies the rub.
While there's much to love about orange wine, an easy-drinking sundowner it is not. The dark, cloudy hues, the complex, unfamiliar savory aromas of herbs, citrus peel, wild honey and roasted nuts, the deep flavours and, most importantly and perhaps unexpectedly, richly textured tannins will challenge even the most experienced professional. Tense acidity and minerality course through these wines like lifeblood, leaving very little room for juicy fruit-baskets of peaches and apricots and delicate bouquets of spring daisies. That said, drinking a young St-Estèphe will present many of the same challenges, yet they don't polarise to anywhere near the same degree.
Let's separate fact and opinion. The hype has unfortunately presented a number of misnomers, confusing the very public it's trying to convince. Despite its origins, orange wine is not the 'new white'. The process of steeping the skins and seeds draws out tannins and phenolics, giving it a texture and style more akin to a red wine than a white. And anyone who orders a bottle unawares – looking for a little glass of lovely white, sans food – is going to be in for a bit of a rough ride. Netflix has it wrong – orange isn't the new black. If anything, orange is the new red.
So why bother? Well, the very elements most vocally criticised in orange wine are the same elements – depth, complexity and structural grip – that lend it a freedom few conventionally produced white wines enjoy. For wine connoisseurs it provides a fascinating kaleidoscope of smells, flavours and textures. These wines are the sommelier's joker, defying established traditions and pairing easily with a wide range of cuisines in unconventional orderings and alliances.
Photo by Paula Redes Sidore/Weinstory.de
Yet the greatest potential lies perhaps in reaching exactly that average wine drinker, and giving her that first, unforgettable 'orange moment'. Mine came in the dark cellar corner of a well-established estate in Germany's Württemberg region. There stood two casks with ohne alles (without anything) chalked on the top. Sitting for three years on the skins, these 'forgotten' Rieslings were left to the fates. I watched as the winemaker cautiously dipped the wine thief into the cask for the first time in over a year and released a cloudy, amber-coloured liquid into my glass. Notes of orange zest and dried Cretan mountain herbs led into a wild, muddy and mysterious palate of citrus, wet rock and an electric acidity that pulsed like a live wire set free in a violent storm. Haunting. The opposite of easy-drinking, straightforward, familiar flavours. Up to that point, I hadn't found many orange wines I could call friends. Challenging, yes; enjoyable, not so much. This was the stolen kiss on a dark dance floor when you never caught his name, and almost a year later I still find myself reminiscing about that experience as the one who got away, the one who might have been …
And here we return to the toothpaste and orange juice. Just because this is not the bottle to quaff on the summer balcony after a hard day's work doesn't mean all orange wine isn't worth drinking. This makes as much sense as dismissing all literature after mistakenly packing Gravity's Rainbow into the suitcase for a summer vacation at the Costa del Sol.
Expectations and opportunity – that is the key to achieving your own ohne alles moment. Find a good guide – a knowledgeable retailer or restaurant sommelier. Start simple, by the glass perhaps, and remember that like every other wine, each orange wine sits on a spectrum from approachable to extreme. Open your mind, ignore the hype, and taste for yourself just how orange you can go.
Andreas Barth from Weingut Lubentiushof in his cellar, with classical music playing in the background. Here light and shadows represent that balance epitomised by music and wine. Photo by Paula Redes Sidore/Weinstory.de.
Long ago when I studied music at conservatory, I deeply envied my fellow students with absolute – sometimes referred to as perfect – pitch. It wasn't only that it made them better singers. It was the physical ecstasy they experienced when the perfect pitch vibrated through their bodies, akin to the moment of elation when the final piece of a puzzle is laid in place to reveal the picture as a whole.
Wine tickles the taste buds rather than the ears, but there's something of that same effect to it. Each wine holds its own individual frequency, an intrinsic resonance that shifts from year to year in tandem with a multitude of variables, from sun and wind to ripeness levels and overall health of the vines and the fruit. Wine is a natural product made in natural – ie variable – conditions. And much like a conductor, it is the winemaker's job to hear this natural frequency and to tune the elements in his or her control in both the vineyard and the cellar until the resulting wine vibrates and sings under its own power.
Easier said than done.
Winemakers have traditionally sought balance in their wines to achieve that very effect. As Katharina Prüm of Germany's legendary Mosel estate J J Prüm told me, '[balance is] part harmony and part coherence, a state where everything meshes. Everything on one plane.'
Unlike in many other nations, however, German winemakers face a variety of legislative concerns that distract them from focusing solely on that balance. Indeed, there are few places in the world that can compete with the complexity and precision of German wine law; there is seemingly a rule for every eventuality, and wine is no exception. Kabinett, Spätlese, Auslese, trocken, halbtrocken, Eiswein – each and every classification has a precise, measured set of rules and readings. And those designations are as much prescriptive as descriptive. Sugar and acidity levels, for example, are expected to be measured both individually and in tandem based on complex formulas that might confuse even the most advanced maths student.
This has its advantages of course; it is said that a German wine label reveals more information to the consumer about the liquid inside than any other country. Then again, too many rules can be just as bad as too few, especially when it comes to language and a set of intricate wine laws that require not only a linguist but also a lawyer to decipher them. But this, simply put, is how wine is done in Germany.
Yet for every rule, there exists an exception.
Enter feinherb. The term is on its face simple enough – it literally translates as 'delicate dry'. The implications, however, are considerably deeper. There is already an official designation for half-dry wines – halbtrocken – that covers everything north of 9 g/l and south of 18 g/l residual sugar, with the maximum amount dependant on the natural acidity level. Feinherb instead carries with it a sense of 'off-dry,' or even 'off-dry-ish', a plucky sensibility that fits well for a hipper, modern and more social-media-savvy crowd.
Yet it is also very much a traditional classification, historically revered in the Mosel. The region's cold temperatures, steep stony cliffs, copious sunshine and Riesling's naturally high acidity means that the wild yeast naturally stops fermenting while a bit of residual sugar remains in the wine. And this stalling where yeast, sugar and alcohol achieve a natural balance is the intrinsic frequency of the wine. As Dirk Richter of Max Ferd Richter explained to me, '[feinherb is] the prototype Mosel … historically this was the case because the lower pH values inherent to the Mosel mean the wines need a bit of sugar to shine ... like salt in a favourite recipe'.
For all its history, however, feinherb has gained a legitimate spot on wine labels only in recent years. Despite the official ban on the term in 1971 with the redo of the German Wine Law, a dedicated cadre of troublemakers – spearheaded by the late and very much missed Annegret Reh-Gartner, owner of the storied Reichsgraf von Kesselstatt estate – refused to let it disappear. They led a quiet but active rebellion on their labels by retaining the term; soon thereafter began a protracted court fight that ended in 2003 with renewed official recognition of the classification.
Leaving a word on the label may not seem like a particularly radical step, but in the German winemaking world, it was the equivalent of going to the barricades. But why? Because even in a national legislative environment where winemakers must don a tight corset of classifications, there has to be space for self-expression by the winemakers. And in this way, the feinherb designator provides a Riesling release valve.
Unlike its Prädikat counterparts, a feinherb Riesling actively refutes hard line data and standardization in lieu of instinct, gut feeling and perception. And it is exactly this perceived taste that both made it both so controversial and difficult to legislate, as well as setting the style apart from everything else. Regional differences in tastes and traditions, varieties, geography and geology mean that when it comes to perceptions, one person's feinherb may well be another person's halbtrocken, despite the analytics. Just ask Shakespeare. Balance in the southern wine-growing region of Baden, for example, traditionally means a wine of weight, depth and opulence. A balanced wine in the steep northern Mittelrhein, in contrast, is sleek and slender with a tightrope stretching between fruit and acidity.
And therein lies the beauty of feinherb – at its heart, it is a liquid expression of an artful balance where the sugar enhances the natural elements to unleash the wine's natural absolute pitch. Every element harmonises with the next like an orchestra building layer after layer of taste rather than sound.
And a well-made feinherb is not only a beautiful wine in and of itself, but a window into the soul of the winemaker. When attending trade conventions, I often focus on estates offering feinherb wines because they will distil their creator's perception of the vintage into a shorthand that few other wines offer – like peeking at someone's music collection or the books on their shelves.
These observations don't quite apply universally. There are still a few complicating factors – it is Germany, after all. Firstly, because it's unregulated, lesser winemakers sometimes use it as a catch-all for marketable wines that simply don't fit well elsewhere. But even at the high-end, feinherb is oddly not limited to the basic feinherb Qualitätswein category. It can actually stack on other Prädikat categories as well, creating a Kabinett feinherb or Spätlese feinherb. But here at least the philosophy of feinherb as the expression of balance within the criteria of those categories remains. And those enigmatic insights are both priceless and pitch perfect.