Bone deep wines

As orange wines emerge on wine lists and retail shelves alike, Simon Woolf argues that orange is no fad, but a way to make some grapes sing.

Friuli, Italy is well known  for its amber winemaking.
Friuli, Italy is well known for its amber winemaking.

Dimitri Brečević says that when he relocated from his childhood home in France to his Istrian fatherland in 2006, “I had a lot of problems getting the local Malvazija variety to ferment properly. Brečević, who is half French and half Croatian, says, “I asked other winemaking colleagues and family who lived in the area, and they all told me the same thing: You have to use the skins if you want Malvazija to do a reliable spontaneous fermentation. I tried it, and they were absolutely right.”

Brečević’s experience highlights one of several key reasons why winemakers since antiquity have made what are now commonly known as orange, amber or skin-contact white wines. The style died out in the 1960s and ’70s, with the introduction of the Willmes press, stainless steel tanks and reliable laboratory yeasts. Contrary to what some consumers might assume, its rebirth in the late 1990s wasn’t the bastard child of a hipster sommelier and an avant-garde winemaker. Rather, it was based on very sound intentions to make a more authentic, natural style of white wine.

What’s old is new again

Josko Gravner and Stanko Radikon are the two pioneers usually credited with reintroducing orange wine to an unsuspecting world, between 1997 and 1998. Both had reached a point in their successful winemaking careers where frustration had set in. In Gravner’s case, a research trip to California in 1987 made him realise that ever-increasing intervention and technology wasn’t the right path. Radikon, who passed away in 2016, had a yet more specific goal: “If you walk through our Ribolla Gialla vineyards, smelling and tasting the Ribolla grapes, they have a very specific aroma and flavour,” he said. “But I could never find this flavour in my finished wine. Eventually, I decided to try making the wine like my father used to do. I put the grapes with their skins into a barrel, and left the skins in contact for a whole week.” Radikon’s experiment caused a significant shift: “The really big change was when I tasted the wine. It was something completely new, totally different and exciting. It made me crazy, just tasting it. For the first time I could taste Ribolla grapes.”

Radikon went on to discover another advantage of vinifying in this ancient manner. After a few years of fine-tuning, he settled on three to four months of skin contact for all the estate’s white wines. With such long maceration times, plentiful tannins and polyphenols are extracted. They have a natural antioxidant effect, protecting and strengthening the wine. Radikon discovered he could drastically reduce the amount of sulphur needed to end up with a stable wine. By 2002, he was confident enough to reduce it to zero, pre-empting a fashion for zero added-sulphur wines that would only really gather speed a decade later.

His realisation was less cutting-edge innovation than vindication of much older folk know-how, as his son Saša explains: “My grandfather always used to macerate Ribolla Gialla, because it was the only way to produce a wine that would keep for a whole year. Also, Ribolla’s skins are so thick that they would jam the press. Macerating them for a few days would soften them enough so they could be pressed.”

With the huge growth of the natural wine movement in the last decade, more and more winemakers realised that extended skin contact was the best way to make a white wine with minimal intervention. It’s this synergy between skins and non-interventionism that has driven a lot of the category’s expansion.

Iago Bitarishvili has established himself as one of Georgia’s best traditional winemakers – he was one of the first to promote and produce the traditional amber wines fermented in qvevris, traditional clay pots, when he started in 2003. Bitarishvili now makes two different expressions of the Kartli region’s native white variety Chinuri. Both are fermented and aged in qvevri, but one is made without the inclusion of the skins and the other with. “If there’s a problem, it’s always with the non-skin contact wine,” he muses. “The qvevris with the skins never need any help from me.”

Good winemaking

Georgians have a special term for the mix of skins, seeds and stems that is traditionally included in the ferment, and left in contact with the wine for up to six months. ‘The mother’ is a very apt name, as these solid elements provide everything needed for a wine to successfully mature. Dr Eko Glonti, an ex-medical doctor turned winemaker, notes that etymologically in the Georgian language, “wine is not made. Rather it is born. We make a womb out of clay, then bury it in the soil like a goddess.” 

Winemaker and promoter of Georgian traditional culture Mariam Iosebidze says this is far more than pure romance: “We use the term to ‘raise’ wine (which in Georgian can both figuratively and literally mean to help someone stand on their feet, like a child) rather than to ‘make’ wine. After Georgians were introduced to chaptalisation and other dishonest ways of winemaking, if someone was using these methods, they would say that he was ‘making wine’ (not raising wine).”

There is sound science behind many of Georgia’s old traditions. The majority of a grape’s wild yeasts cling to the grape-skins and form the bloom, so it’s completely logical that a white wine undergoing a spontaneous fermentation will have a faster, more vigorous and potentially trouble-free fermentation if the skins are included. Stems and seeds allow for more phenolics to be extracted into the finished wine, bringing strength and durability.

There’s also a certain holistic appeal to using grape must, skins, seeds and stems – after all, with a thick-skinned grape these components can make up 20% or more of the must, something the grower worked hard to nurture throughout the year. “This is what I love about orange wine,” says Tamara Lukman, from the Kmetija Štekar winery in Slovenia’s westerly Goriška Brda region. “It’s the whole grape, in a glass.”

Alice Feiring, perhaps the world’s foremost commentator on and agitator for natural wines, concurs that the use of maceration in white wines has a fundamental goal: “As the skins were more understood as a way to make wine without addition, when the use of clay for fermentation spread, and winemakers learned to do less, great ‘orange’ wines have proliferated. Not because they were a style, but because they had a purpose.”

The other stated aim of most natural wine growers is to produce terroir wines – that’s to say, wines that have a sense of place, and express their grape varieties with verisimilitude. Despite the cries of naysayers that the orange wine technique obscures both variety and terroir, many of the style’s most enthusiastic protagonists insist the exact opposite is true. “The terroir is in the skins,” says biodynamics and cold climate viticulture pioneer Deirdre Heekin of La Garagista. Her work with hardy varieties – mostly specially developed hybrids – in Vermont has taken a surprising direction. All La Garagista’s white varieties are fermented and kept with their skins, sometimes for up to nine weeks. 

The slightly shrill, nervy characters of hybrids such as La Crescent, Vidal or Frontenac Gris gain weight, complexity and balance with maceration. There are parallels with many popular white varieties grown in the extreme continental climate of Slovakia and the Czech Republic – both at the limits of generally accepted latitudes (28° to 50°) for vine cultivation. Here again, Welschriesling, Grüner Veltliner or Devin all achieve more substance and interest with extended skin contact. Without this paintbrush in the viniculturist’s toolbox, significantly more interventionist practices such as chaptalisation or overt oaking are the only way to achieve more amplitude and depth.

Cool climates aren’t the only factors that predispose towards skin contact. Non-aromatic white varieties such as Ribolla Gialla, Welschriesling or Trebbiano di Toscana have limited range when vinified as conventional white wines. They’re varieties that lack a strong fruit profile or character – neutral would be kind. But throw their skins into the ferment, and the change is dramatic. Ribolla becomes regal, superbly structured and age-worthy. Welschriesling gains gingery aromatics and real texture, while the otherwise extremely humble Trebbiano develops complex dried herb, tealeaf and hay elements.

This ought not to be a surprise. Consider Cabernet Sauvignon or Zinfandel vinified as rosé, without any skin contact during fermentation – they are often downright fey, charming and feather-light. No-one would dare to suggest that their full potential can be unleashed without at least a week of skin contact. Saša Radikon uses this analogy when he talks about the decades before the 1990s, when the Radikons were still struggling to make their Ribolla Gialla as a conventional white wine and throwing away the skins: “It’s like we were making a rosé from the grapes of Pétrus,” he says.

Yet another imperative for orange wines manifests itself in many parts of Italy. The rather quiet, if not positively shy Massimiliano Croci looks out over his hilly vineyards in Colli Piacentini as he ruminates: “This was never a well-known or fashionable area for wine. Because of that, we never modernised. We’ve always macerated our white grapes here. We’re not doing this now because it’s trendy.” Yet his delightfully aromatic, playfully tannic frizzante wines are gradually finding themselves back in fashion, as wine drinkers look for styles that speak of authenticity and tradition – and options that don’t need the winemaker to intervene by process or addition.

Here to stay

Fashion may be shining a spotlight on this style at the moment, but it would be mistaken to lump orange wines together with other supposedly on-trend novelties such as blue or aromatised wines. Skin fermenting white grapes to produce orange wine is arguably one of the most ancient methods of winemaking in existence, increasingly taking its place among the holy trinity of white, red and rosé. A great deal of its adoption in winemaking circles is premeditated on the grounds of expedience and the wish to express grape rather than human hand. 

The whim of New York somms or Instagram influencers who discovered orange wine last week might appear to drive this cloudy, amber-coloured revolution, but probing deeper reveals that it is unequivocally a statement about authenticity and the desire to express more by doing less.


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