Around two years ago, our then student Ylenia wrote her dissertation on orange wines. I recall being busy at the time (my excuse) but clearly remember a confusion of thoughts that revolved around her mentioning it; ‘wine made from oranges eerrghh! And it’ll never catch on’ and then went along my merry, ignorant way.
Over the intervening two years, ‘the orange thing’ has crept into my psyche on an increasing number of occasions, but without enough emphasis to make me want to question why everyone was getting so excited about making wine from oranges. Until one day a friendly wine rep confronted me with a bottle of the bloody stuff and stopped me in my tracks.
First thing to learn is that it ain’t made of oranges, although there is wine made from orange juice, but that’s something completely different. Orange wine is made from white grapes and the orange reference comes from the skin contact that is allowed to take place making the colour of the white wine change to a sort of orange hue.
There is, as we shall come to see, nothing new about this at all. Skin contact for white wines was wide spread in the wine world until someone started to remove the skins and prevent skin contact in order to make the white wines crisper, fresher and more delicate. Paler in colour and without tannins more associated with the maturing of red wines.
As there hadn’t been a name for skin contact white wines other than well, white wines, my guess is that people just continued to call them white wines when they had the skin contact removed. This also became the established taste, certainly during my 35+ years of white wine drinking.
So, it’s only with the re-birth of the skin contact white wine that we had to have a new name for them and orange seemed most appropriate, given that it described the colour.
Though orange wine has grown to become much more than just a term for skin soaked white wines, and this is to me, where it becomes interesting, and where I can see a future for it.
You see, quite quickly the term orange wine has become synonymous with the expression ‘natural wines’, wines that have what’s nowadays called minimum interventionist methods such as field blending (i.e. you mix different varieties of grapes, as grapes, at the point of picking) whole bunch fermentation (i.e. no pressing to release juices) and no addition of sulphur to ‘disinfect’ the grape juice during fermentation (in its self a noble and risky idea that could render the whole lot to vinegar) Also wild fermentation, using just the air born yeasts rather than carefully selected ones from a lab’ and you begin to see how these might be referred to things other than orange wines, maybe ‘wholesome, natural or just plain mad’ wines! (though we do sell wines from the village of Mad in Hungary, so that would never have worked.)
So, what are they like, once you’ve gotten past the nomenclature, well let me start with the word ‘different’ and to progress from there.
My first encounter with orange wine was with Ben Glover of Zephyr Vineyards, New Zealand’s ‘Agent Orange’ wine. A field blend of his three grape varieties Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc and Gewurztraminer, wild fermented, whole bunch, minimal sulphur, un-fined, unfiltered, as-you-get-it orange wine. I loved its irreverent and slightly punk labelling. But I very quickly felt out of my ‘comfort zone’ when the first taste was not only ‘weird’ but slightly fizzy!
I am a great experimenter with wines and like to see what affects oxygen and being open have over a period of two or three days. Here is a direct copy and paste of my e-mail message to the rep who gave me the bottle to try:
“Incidentally, some feedback on Agent Orange. We tasted the bottle over the weekend with my very pregnant daughter, spread over three 'sessions' really to see whether we could get our head around it. The results were in chronological order: Saturday evening "weird".
Sunday lunchtime: " slightly less weird and becoming more Alsace Grand Cru like"
Sunday evening: ".....I think I'm in love! Wow this is amazing.......very fine Alsace almost Pinot Gris grand cru, great depth, richness and balancing acidity, amazing!...........dam the bottles empty!"
I think the upshot being that it needs to breath to show its best, a fact I’ve since proven on a few occasions when I have served Agent Orange to friends, to the point where I now decant the wine from its sediment, store the wine in the decanter in the fridge and serve from the decanter the results are mind blowing!
Sadly, I’m probably the only person in the known universe who will go to such lengths in order to get the best out of a bottle of white wine.
However, once tasted the notion that there is something out there that tastes so good and is so different begins to eat at you and somehow other white wine just doesn’t cut-it for you quite like it used to.
There’s another angle to this, that needs to be explored and that’s the price. Hand picking, field blending etc don’t come cheap and when you add to this that most orange wine producers talk in hundreds of cases then you know it’s going to be expensive. A quick scour around the internet will soon confirm that £30-a-bottle doesn’t buy you much in the world of orange wine or that was until Aldi broke the mould earlier this year with their £5.99 Orange Wine from Cremel Recas in Romania(there’s none of it left, so I’m only telling you what you could have had!) I too didn’t get any but would have loved to have tried it and as an indirect customer of Cremel Recas want to know when they will be offering it to me.
What I’d really like to know is did the thousands of Aldi customers drink their first taste of orange wine and go “weird” forget it. Or did they say wow! Cause if enough of them did, the landscape of the white wine market is about to change for ever, and that’s very exciting indeed.
If you’d like to try Agent Orange from New Zealand and another orange wine from Sicily that we stock why not come along to my “leading Edge” wine tasting at the Old School House on November 22nd details here.
Select your date of birth to confirm you are of legal UK drinking age.