It’s the new colour on the wine spectrum – white wine made as if it were a red. Simon Woolf debunks the myths behind this centuries-old style of vinification...
Orange wines are the most characterful, thrilling and food-friendly styles on our shelves today, with their deep hues, intense aromas and complex flavours. So say the converts. The counter charge is robust: orange is the emperor’s new clothes, beloved only of trendy sommeliers and hipsters who forgive their oxidised, faulty nature. The wines are unpalatable curiosities that no right-thinking wine consumer would ever choose to drink for pleasure. Who’s right?
Before answering that question, what exactly is an orange wine? The term is increasingly used for white wines where the grapes were left in contact with their skins for days, weeks or even months. Effectively, this is white wine made as if it were a red. The result differs not only in colour, but is also markedly more intense on the nose and palate, sometimes with significant tannins.
The term ‘orange wine’ was coined in 2004 by David Harvey of UK wine importer Raeburn Fine Wines, while working in Frank Cornelissen’s cellar in Sicily’s Etna region. Harvey explains: ‘I didn’t set out to invent a word, I just used it naturally and it stuck.’ Some prefer the moniker ‘amber wines’, while others even question the need for a specific term. Saša Radikon, winemaker at his family’s estate in Friuli Collio, confirms, ‘The name may not be ideal, but this style needs its own category. If customers order a white wine and it turns out to be this surprising dark colour, they might not be so happy.’ He pushes the definition further: ‘For me, a proper orange wine must be fermented with wild yeasts and without temperature control, otherwise you’re muting the very characteristics you want to extract from the skins.’
Prejudice and misinformation seem to surround the genre. Critics sometimes mistakenly assume that the amber, orange or brown colour signals oxidation – or that the skin-contact process inevitably spoils the wine. Neither is true. The colour comes from the skins, not from oxidation, and although the winemaking style is often oxidative (open-top oak or plastic fermenters are popular), producers typically seal vessels after fermentation to ensure the wines stay fresh.
Confusion with that other slippery category ‘natural wines’ is also rife. It’s true that many producers of orange wines are keen on minimal intervention and low sulphur, but this isn’t a prerequisite for the style, Radikon’s comments notwithstanding.
Long and rich history
The assertion that this is a fleeting fad or fashion is also misconceived. In Friuli and neighbouring Slovenian Brda, maceration of white grapes is as old as the Collio hills. There’s a very practical basis: macerated white wines generally have increased longevity, due to the antioxidants in the tannins which act as a preservative. In 1844, Matija Vertovec, a priest from the nearby Vipava valley, listed the benefits in his manual Vinoreja za Slovence (Winemaking for Slovenians). He recommends skin macerations ‘from 24 hours to 30 days’, noting ‘it improves the flavour and durability of the wine, and ensures it will ferment to dryness’. Nevertheless, this venerable method was largely forgotten as wineries industrialised in the 1970s – stainless steel tanks and cultured yeasts were the new religion and fresh, neutral water-white Pinot Grigio the holy grail.
Fast forward to the mid-1990s: Stanislao ‘Stanko’ Radikon (father of Saša) and Josko Gravner, two established producers from the village of Oslavia, were searching for a more ‘back-to-basics’ methodology. Radikon felt that his Ribolla Gialla, a thick skinned but not very aromatic white variety, had more to give. The revelation came in 1995 – lengthy skin contact, just like Stanko’s grandfather had used, was the way to unlock its power. Saša Radikon reflects on how much potential was lost through not using this technique: ‘For years, it’s as if we were just making rosé from the grapes of Château Pétrus.’
Gravner sought inspiration further afield; Georgian winemakers have been making wine in qvevris (conical-shaped clay amphorae, buried in the ground) for at least 5,000 years. Typically, qvevri whites spend six months on their skins, a long tradition largely unknown in the west while the Iron Curtain prevailed. Gravner visited in 2000, and was so inspired with this ‘womb for wine’ that he switched entirely to qvevris in 2001, despite the risks of securing them. Ambushes at gunpoint were a significant risk for anyone trying to get valuable goods out of the country.
Collio winemaker Nicola Manferrari, famous for Borgo del Tiglio’s pure, varietal wines, is less enamoured about the style’s rebirth. ‘Making wine like this is just a waste of Friuli’s terroir – it could be made anywhere,’ he says. ‘It obscures everything – terroir, variety. It’s a primitive method, a backlash.’ Manferrari represents one side of a polarised divide in the region.
Grape variety and terroir are important, as some varieties react better to skin maceration than others. It’s not an accident that the orange wine revival began in Oslavia; Ribolla Gialla, with its thick, flavoursome skins is perfectly suited to the microclimate in the surrounding hills. There is no reason why terroir should be obscured by using skin maceration for white grapes any more than it would for reds.
Producers worldwide have begun to experiment with the style, sometimes with good results, but there are still no real specialists outside Italy, Slovenia and Georgia. The technique can be tricky to pull off without considerable winemaking skill and experience. Very few producers in the New World have been brave enough to try.
Approachable and food-friendly
Are these wines a mere curiosity, joining esoterica like vin jaune or Marsala? Emma Dawson, a wine buyer for UK retailer Marks & Spencer, doesn’t think so, as she describes one of two examples sold by M&S, the Tbilvino Qveris, a Rkatsiteli from Kakheti in Georgia: ‘The style is very approachable. While there is the hallmark texture and light oxidative influence, it’s well balanced with a fresh, fruity core.’
Lighter styles with less skin contact, like Cosimo Maria Masini’s Daphne or Skerk’s Ograde, share this approachability. These wines have subtle phenolics, without the full-on tannins found in more extreme orange wines like Radikon, Gravner or Dario Princic’s Ribolla Giallas. Georgian qvevri wines also tend to be seriously structured. The best producers achieve balance and elegance, but with poor winemaking or unripe tannins the result can be a clumsy mess, akin to chewing cold tea leaves.
The combination of freshness with tannin makes for superbly versatile food wines, as former sommelier and now writer/broadcaster Levi Dalton discovered while working at top New York Italian restaurant Convivio in 2009. He explains: ‘Orange wines were my get-out-of-jail-free card. We had a chef who would switch from fish to meat and back again on a tasting menu and orange wines paired effortlessly with every course.’
Dalton also contends that ‘the more you treat these wines like Barolos, the happier you will be’. The comparison makes sense; the best examples are true fine wines, with depth, longevity and complexity. They demand time in both cellar and glass – Gravner and Radikon release their signature wines at seven years old. High pricing reflects low volumes and yields; producers must be obsessive about fruit quality, as any mould or other defects will be amplified by the skin contact.
Just like great Barolo, truly great orange wines, like the ones recommended here, have tension, lift and power. In a world full of blandness and uniformity, they are less the emperor’s new clothes, more the adventurer’s new playground.
Natural wine enthusiast Simon Woolf is an awarded writer who publishes www.themorningclaret.com
Written by Simon Woolf