We are all used to a choice between red, white and rosé, but there’s a fourth colour increasingly being talked about in the world of wine - orange. This doesn’t mean wines made from citrus fruit, but white wines that are much deeper in colour than usual, ranging from pale amber to deep orange. Some countries, notably Georgia, prefer the term ‘amber’ to avoid exactly this confusion. The winemaking method that results in these deeply-coloured wines is probably the most ancient way of making white wine, a technique that has undergone a revival since the mid-1990s (especially led by producers in northeast Italy such as Gravner and Radikon and joined by neighbours over the border in Slovenia). Whether you call them orange or amber, such wines have recently gained an enthusiastic following, alongside the rise of the trendy, but ill-defined, cult of ‘natural’ wines. There’s sometimes an overlap between these two categories but not always.
What does orange wine taste like?
In drinking terms, orange wines can be a little bit of a shock at first to anyone used to clear, pale-coloured, fruity white wines. Orange or amber wines tend not to be fruity but are complex, layered and structured, often with notes of dried fruit, herbs and spices, tea and a savoury umami quality. These are food wines par excellence and can be amazing matches with foods like asparagus, fennel, mushrooms and cheeses, or when you’re looking for a white wine that has the intensity and structure to go with a meat dish. These are also wines that can be incredibly long-lived, helped by that phenolic structure, and because they don’t rely on fragile, fruity aromas and flavours for their personality. Don’t think about them as white wines but as a new style all together. Orange wines are not for everyone – but well worth exploring for a truly fascinating and intriguing wine experience.
How is orange wine made?
In simple terms, making an orange wine means vinifying white grapes in a similar way to making red wine, so the fermenting juice spends time macerating in contact with the grape skins. This period may be anything from a few days to many months (which is in fact far more extreme than almost any red). The most traditional recipe comes from Georgia where qvevri winemaking was listed in 2013 by UNESCO as ‘intangible cultural heritage of humanity’. This technique has a history of around 8,000 years, and it involves crushing the grapes and pouring the lot (juice, skins, pips and stems) into large egg-shaped clay jars called qvevri (sometimes spelt kvevri), which have been scrubbed and lined with beeswax. These jars are buried in the ground, traditionally in the cellar or ‘marani’ of the house. The idea is that the earth both supports the fragile clay jars and helps keep the vessel naturally cool. The qvevri are sealed with a wood or stone lid and the fermentation is allowed to proceed naturally for several months.
What makes orange wine orange?
As with red wine making, there are variations on this theme that affect the colour and structure of the final wine. Winemakers have the choice to include stems or not, whether they punch down and stir the fermenting mass, and whether the seeds (which can be bitter) are allowed to settle to the bottom. Maceration time, temperature and exposure to oxygen all have an effect too – longer maceration and more oxygen tend to mean deeper colours, and at the same time, phenolic compounds and tannins may be extracted from the skins giving structure more like red wine than white. Frequently winemakers choose to allow spontaneous fermentation, so no added yeast or bacteria. Typically no sulphites will be added, at least until bottling, and there may be no filtration so the wines are often cloudy. Winemakers may opt to chill the fermenting juice, though ambient temperatures are more usual in the spirit of minimizing intervention. Fermentation vessels may be steel, oak, concrete or clay, with vessels that allow some oxygen exposure usually preferred. It’s also very important that grapes are ripe and healthy, because this method will emphasise any unripe stalky tannins or mouldy characters. It’s worth noting that there’s a difference between this winemaking approach and the sort of skin maceration used in places like Croatia, usually at a cool temperature and before fermentation, to gain texture and complexity but avoid the colour and structure of an orange wine.
There is relatively little formal science to be found on orange winemaking, though it’s clear that there’s no actual orange pigment present, and unless a winemaker is using pink-skinned grapes like pinot gris, there are no anthocyanins either. The orange colour seems to come from compounds such as carotenoids, flavonoid-type phenols and catechins (which can be bitter) from the skins. Explore more on colour in wines here.
One piece of research in South Africa tested different vinification methods on chenin blanc and showed that with fermentation on skins, levels of volatile aromatics were reduced, especially some terpenes (chemicals that give floral and aromatic notes to certain grapes). There were also higher alcohol levels, fewer fruity esters and lower acidity (possibly due to higher potassium salts in grape skins). There are few legal definitions around skin-contact wines or orange wines, though in South Africa such wines require a minimum of 96 hours on skins including fermentation and a maximum of 40 mg/l total sulphites. Ontario in Canada requires 100% of the grapes to be macerated and fermented on skins for a minimum of 10 days.
Which orange wines should I try?
Maurer's Fodor Orange 2016
The Wine Society has started to venture into the world of orange wines, so far working with Oskar Maurer, a fourth-generation winemaker in Serbia. His first skin-maceration whites were in 1994 and he explains , ‘That was the traditional way in this wine region. Everyone was doing this with white grapes, because they could win a lot of extract, tannins and taste from the skin of the grapes. These wines were made without filtration, clarification and sulphites, and this is how these wines lived longer.’ Maurer’s Fodor Orange 2016 is made from olaszrizling (the Hungarian name for welschriesling) and Maurer says, ‘The vines are nearly 50 years old; these are bush vines with small grapes and clusters. In 2016, we used 500l vessels for maceration for six days with punching down (of skins) twice daily and no stems. In 2016 the harvest was two weeks earlier than the previous one, with no botrytis and the raw material showed us that we could make a smoother orange wine.’
Expect more orange wines in the near future!
Caroline Gilby is a Master of Wine and a scientist by training. She is a wine writer with a passion for the wines of Central and Eastern Europe and contributes to several wine books, magazines and websites.
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