Orange wine: let it grow on you

Gems, fruit, chemical elements and even a fish are used to describe the colour of wine. I still have to taste the wacky Spanish blue wine adventure, but something tells me I probably never will. There’s a whole category of wines out there that so far hasn’t reached a bigger audience: orange wines.

Granted, it looks like morning pee after a heavy night on the town, but this so deserves to be enjoyed, taking you off the beaten track. Here’s why it got me all excited…

Being Dutch, orange is a special colour and not just because half the nation turns carrot colour at every European or World football championship. The colour is embedded in our history with good old William, Prince of Orange, ancestor of the Dutch monarchy.

So, what are orange wines?
Basically, they are white wines with prolonged skin contact. Like red wine, the white grapes are crushed and the juice stays in contact with the skins and seeds during fermentation. Maceration lasts between a couple of days and a year. There is no set definition of minimum number of days of skin contact before a white whine is called orange, but generally 4 days is considered as acceptable starting point.

Maceration can take place in many different containers, wood, clay, cement, etc. The colour comes from maceration and grape seeds. Actually, amber would be a better colour descriptor, especially for all those winemakers in upcoming Orange, Australia that have little to do with this wine style.

Orange wines are not the same as natural wines, although they overlap in areas of viti and viniculture. Natural wine is made with no chemical stuff or additives, from the soil to the bottle. An orange wine is not necessarily natural, a winemaker can still decide to use additives in the cellar, most likely sulfite.

Old school
While it may sound to many as a trendy niche for avant-garde sommeliers, this way of making wine goes back thousands of years. Back then, on the Caucasus, grapes were put in very large egg-shaped earthenware vessels called qvevri and besides an occasional stirring left on its own for months or even years. In fact, Georgia’s qvevri winemaking is part of Unesco’s heritage list.

Check out this interesting Unesco clip, with soothing Georgian voice over. Forget Demi Moore’s pottery skills in Ghost, this is the real thing:
Ancient Georgian Qvevri wine making

Back to Bea
Although still small scale, orange wine is made in almost every wine producing country. Italy’s Paolo Bea is founder of the natural wines organisation Vini Veri and producer of fantastic wines, together with his 2 sons. Located in Montefalco, Umbria, red wine dominates here with the extremely tannic Sagrantino grape.

On a sunny Sunday afternoon, Bea’s Umbria Bianco, a 2011 Arboreus made it to the tasting table. Made from Trebbiano Spoletino, an unknown variety that has grown on Bea’s family estate for over 100 years. Where many wine labels carry text with little meaning, Bea goes out of his way to get as many information on the bottle as possible. Refreshingly different, although you do need to understand some Italian.

The wine fermented for 22 days on the skins, without regulated temperature control, followed by 191 days on the indigenous lees! No additives were used besides a little sulfite during pumping over and bottling. It sounds almost apologetic when he states on the label that he cannot do without a bit of sulfite since he doesn’t do sterile filtering. I tasted bottle #7,074, out of 9,300 bottles made in 2011.

If presented in a black glass, it would be hard to tell if this was white or red wine, very mixed bag of aroma’s and tannic too. So often you read about wines that are supposedly a rollercoaster ride for your taste buds. Well, this is a rocket ride. Your brain is still trying to cope with what your nose is registering, while your taste buds cheer as if it were your first elementary school trip.

The aroma descriptors go off the WSET charts. Honey, tropical fruits, vanilla, bees wax, ripe apple, the list goes on and on. Too much to cramp into a regular tasting note. Forget conventions, this is uncharted waters, you are on your own, destination unknown.

I left the bottle for 5 days in the fridge and let it come back to slightly chilled temperature for another try (too cold doesn’t suit this one). Believe it or not, the wine had improved!

My wife called it sherry and poured herself a glass of fresh Albariño. She doesn’t get it, like I don’t get her Sanskrit yoga poses. And that’s ok. It happens that I like sherry, especially the oxidized Amontillado/Oloroso style that resembles Bea’s blockbuster.

So, maybe tasting orange wine for the first time is like having your first beer as a teenager. Or, as the Germans put it beautifully in one word: gewöhnungsbedürftig.

Orange wines will never become highly popular, but the style is a welcome variation to the vast sea of wine that is out there.

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