Whereas not too long ago, any serious wine lover would give a wide berth to russet-coloured, amber wines (especially those suspects drawn straight out of demijohns and carboys), tinged wines made from white wine grapes strangely enough have recently found a cult following.
The Italians have something of a latch on this new style of ‘orange wine’. The term, allegedly coined in 2004 by a British wine importer upon tasting such wines in Italy, is a bit of a misnomer really because it isn’t referring to a wine made from oranges.
Makers of orange wine are basically doing little more than reinventing the vinous wheel by drawing on old practices in the Caucasus dating back thousands of years. The modern versions were born a few years ago in the Friuli-Venezia Giulia in Italy from where the idea spread to countries such as France, Germany, Slovenia, Croatia, New Zealand, Australia and the Unites States.
Here winemakers are applying techniques that modern-schooled oenologists today would call a debauchery and which are normally shirked in the making of modern-styled white wines.
While producers of conventional whites quickly remove the pigment-laden skins to keep their wine clean, fruity and fresh, the so-called ‘orangistes’ on the contrary ferment the juice of ripe white wine grapes macerating on their bitter skins and pips, usually for an extended period between a week and a year.
This is treating white wine grapes the exact same way as when making a red wine which gets its colour from extracting colour pigments from the dark skins of red grapes. However, since white wine grapes don’t have the same deep pigmentations, the result is a wine that’s lighter than a red yet darker than a white, falling somewhere on the colour spectrum of autumn foliage.
This method of prolonged maceration not only darkens the juice but also contributes a tannic structure and austere texture. The taste is unlike that of any other wine style, be that white or red. Although the colour resembles a pink, the general profile of orange wine doesn’t come close to that of a delicate, fruity rosé either. So, understandably, while some of us will find themselves smitten, not everyone is a fan.
It doesn’t help their popularity that many of these distinctive dry and tannic amber wines are made in an oxidative manner in wooden barrels, amphora or kvevri earthenware rather than in closed, temperature-controlled, impermeable stainless steel tanks to protect against the effects of exposure to oxygen.
But not all orange wines taste outright oxidised. Neither are they always unpleasantly reminiscent of poorly made sherry or the quirky whites of the Jura in France. The better examples have an interesting chewiness, vibrancy and immediacy to them which would at least mask any oxidative off flavours and amplify unusual, savoury characteristics.
These wines look and taste different from the ordinary so that many people would reject them out of hand. My democratic palate has given the style a chance. As intriguing as these ochre wines are, the combination of colour and the peculiar, raspy mouthfeel of some reminds me of a rustic winemaking epoch which is best left laid to rest.
Perhaps there’s a simple reason why perfectly fresh and fruity modern-styled whites are – and orange wine probably never will be – mainstream. These tinged and esoteric wines seem to require just a little too much explanation and convincing. I would recommend you taste before you buy the throwback that is today’s orange wine.
This article first appeared in The Times of Malta, Friday 4 March 2016