“I don’t like orange wine”, says Angiolino Maule emphatically. “When you ferment white grapes on the skins for weeks or months, they become too tannic or oxidative and you lose the expression of terroir and variety”. Then he pours me a tank sample of a 2017 Garganega (the area’s major indigenous white variety) which stayed on its skins for four months, smiles cryptically and lets me taste.
It’s quite a surprise. Despite the very long skin contact, the wine has a soft and accessible texture and the recognisable volcanic tang of the variety. It is both concentrated and profound, but also pure and fresh. The apparent conundrum becomes clear. Maule is not against skin fermentation as a technique, he just believes it needs to be executed with care and attention to detail, in order to achieve elegance and varietal expression.
This example is an experiment, where netting inside the steel tank was used to separate the grape pips (which Maule believes are the main culprits when it comes to tannins) and remove them after the first few days of fermentation. It was also fermented at a controlled temperature, with pump-overs rather than punchdowns – a significantly different technique than that popularised by producers such as Radikon, Gravner and Prinčič.
Maule’s La Biancara estate is situated in Gambellara’s ancient volcanic hills, which protrude suddenly from the Veneto’s industrial flatlands, providing the area and its more famous neighbour Soave with mineral-rich soils and brittle pumice-like rock. He’s a seminal force in the region, having pioneered natural winemaking and viticulture since the last 1990s. The initial impetus came from Joško Gravner, but Maule has long since forged his own path.
We also taste a 2004 Pico (La Biancara’s top Garganega, blended from three relatively high-altitude vineyards), which Maule explains was the year when he reached a turning point, realising that maceration had to be reigned in and handled differently to achieve more refinement.
Pico 2004 was made with ten days of maceration (it’s been reduced still further in recent years, to only 4-5 days) and minimal sulphur additions (30mg/l if my maths is correct). It’s a great example of how wonderfully these wines age, displaying harmony and focus, but no signs of oxidation or decrepitude whatsoever. The texture and the fruit are rich yet typical of Garganega, with a lick of ripe lemon peel and herbal, haylike complexity. We drink it in the refuge of the Maule family’s kitchen on a baking hot June day and it’s the perfect refreshment, stimulating both mind and body.
More recent vintages continue the trend towards still greater finesse – 2015 radiates the pure, mineral drinkability that is the hallmark of all of Maule’s Garganegas (the other bottlings are Masieri and Sassaia), while 2016 still has the first flushes of youth, but the same beautiful balance and restraint. Both these vintages dispense with any added sulphur – something Maule is not religious about, but likes to achieve when the vintage permits.
It’s clear that Maule wants to differentiate his work from the more extreme, no holds barred orange wines of Collio or Brda. Nonetheless, Pico is a perfect demonstration of how relatively extended skin maceration can bring many facets to the party. I’ll continue to tease him that this is one of Italy’s greatest orange wines.
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It’s not too hard to track down a bottle of the entry level (and outrageously good value) Masieri, which will give you a great idea of Maule’s style. Pico is more tricky to find outside Italy, but check wine-searcher to see if it’s available in your corner of the world. Also look out for three precious single vineyard bottlings of Pico: Taibane, Faldeo and Monte di Mezzo (pictured above). Only 600 bottles of each are produced per year.