A Case for Orange Wine
What is it? And why drink it?
To the trinity of red, white, and rosé wines, add a fourth: orange wine. What is it? A white wine that’s made like red wine, with skin contact. There is no definitive way to categorize orange wine, and it stands out as a distinct style.
Orange wine gets its colour when grapes are crushed and fermented so that the juice absorbs pigments from the grape skins (during what is called “skin contact”). In contrast, the light colour of white wines is obtained by separating the juice from the skins immediately after crushing. Skin contact gives specific colours (and flavours) that reflect the grape variety and how long the juice has had contact with the skins.
Orange wines take on a spectrum of colours, shades, and intensities, similar to rosé. Line up a dozen bottles of orange wine and you’ll see not just various shades of orange, but colours that mirror the hues of honey, from the light creamy yellow of clover honey to the rich amber of wildflower honey.
Orange wines have their own spectrum of fruit and berry flavours, but might just as easily include flavours such as bruised apple, nuts, herbs, and sourdough.
It’s not just colour that makes orange wines different: many are cloudy because they are not filtered or fined. Indeed, this contrasts with conventional wines where cloudiness can be considered a fault. Some producers seek to educate consumers who might see their cloudy orange wines this way. The label on Natural Amber Pinot Gris from the Okanagan Valley’s Sperling Vineyards states, “Nothing added. Nothing removed. Bottled cloudy—may form a harmless deposit.”
Orange wines have their own spectrum of fruit and berry flavours, but might just as easily include flavours such as bruised apple, nuts, herbs, and sourdough. Some are slightly oxidized, and they can be pungent, yeasty, and even a little sour, like some beers. And they can also be quite tannic because of their contact with skins and seeds (and sometimes stems)—just as red wines pick up tannins as they absorb colour from the grape skins. All this makes orange wine not just another style of wine, but a style that’s notably different from its red, white, and rosé siblings.
Interest in orange wine has been fuelled by people looking to ancient winemaking styles, which are often imagined to be more “natural” than conventional modern methods. Many winemakers look to the Eurasian country of Georgia, where winemaking facilities dating back 8,000 years were recently found. For thousands of years, Georgians have been making orange wines by leaving the juice and skins in earthenware jars (qvevri), which are buried underground to ensure a consistent temperature. A modern example is Koncho & Co.’s Rkatsiteli Qvevri, a native Georgian grape variety. Made in qvevri, it has a light honey colour, is very dry and quite tannic, and shows flavours that include herbs and nuts, with a hint of pine.
France’s Jura region, Slovenia, and Friuli-Venezia Giulia in Italy are known to make similar styles of orange wine. La Castellada makes one from ribolla gialla, a grape native to Friuli-Venezia Giulia, that is medium-amber in colour, well structured, and grippingly tannic with complex fruit flavours. The Primosic winery, in the same region, uses ribolla gialla to make a quite different orange wine that is straw-yellow in colour and has herbal, nutty, and sherry-like flavours with a marked tannic finish. Italian orange wines are sometimes called ramato (auburn), and Scarbolo Pinot Grigio Ramato XL is an amber-coloured, fresh-textured, balanced wine with complex flavours.
Interest in orange wine has been fuelled by people looking to ancient winemaking styles, which are often imagined to be more “natural” than conventional modern methods.
New World winemakers are embracing the style as well. In Chile, for example, José Ignacio Maturana makes Maturana Naranjo from a torontel variety—orange-tinted oeil de perdrix in colour, with lovely fresh, musky fruit flavours. Like Australia, New Zealand, the U.S., and South Africa, Canada is becoming an important producer of orange wine, as many wineries, boutique and larger-scale, have started to produce it. The Vintners Quality Alliance (VQA) in British Columbia and Ontario has recently recognized orange wines, a progressive move that shows it is no longer a quirky wine for eccentrics, but a legitimate style.
The colour of pinot gris/grigio grapes makes this a popular variety for orange wine, especially in B.C., where it is the most-planted white grape variety. Sperling Vineyards’ aforementioned Natural Amber Pinot Gris is cloudy and orange-pink in the bottle and delivers lovely, layered fruit flavours, with tannins on the dry finish. Further south, on the Naramata Bench, Nichol Vineyard uses pinot gris to make an orange wine that is pale pink and full of red fruit and berry flavours.
Yet other B.C. winemakers have taken different varietal paths. The Okanagan’s Haywire makes an orange wine from sauvignon blanc called Free Form. It’s cloudy and has bright acidity that shows excellent varietal character. An orange wine from Stag’s Hollow, Viognier Marsanne 2015, is as per its name a blend of viognier and marsanne that spends 12 weeks on skins. It’s a classic creamy honey colour, austere in style with positive tannins and flavours that include marmalade, orange peel, and herbs. At Little Farm Winery in the Similkameen Valley, winemaker Rhys Pender makes Pied de Cuve Orange from riesling. It delivers vibrant orange and citrus flavours, has great structure, and is clean, fresh, and very drinkable. Meanwhile, Tinhorn Creek Vineyards has used the kerner variety to make a light amber wine that shows lovely tropical fruit flavours and a fine fruit-acid balance.
The Vintners Quality Alliance in British Columbia and Ontario has recently recognized orange wines, a progressive move that shows it is no longer a quirky wine for eccentrics, but a legitimate style.
Orange wines from Ontario draw on a range of varieties. At Vineland Estates Winery on the Niagara Peninsula, chardonnay musqué gives a light-honey colour and layered flavours that are floral and nutty. At Norman Hardie, in Prince Edward County, Vin Gris de Ponton from pinot gris radiates a welcoming apricot-orange hue and delivers bright acidity and flavours that are herbal and slightly reminiscent of Campari. At Niagara’s Southbrook Vineyards, Ann Sperling uses vidal in her organic and biodynamic orange wine. It’s a serious wine with lots of depth and structure, along with bright floral aromatics. Sperling says vidal was an obvious choice because it delivers the colour, needs no additives, and contributes a complex aromatic profile.
There’s even an orange sparkling wine: Trail Estate Winery in Prince Edward County’s pétillant naturel is made by bottling the wine before fermentation is complete. It’s a blend of riesling, geisenheim, and gewürztraminer that delivers vigorous bubbles and flavours dominated by citrus, grapefruit, and sourdough. Trail Estate also makes a few orange wines solely from gewürztraminer.
As with rosé, the hue of orange wine is important, so most orange wines are similarly bottled in clear glass. But orange wine can often be aged for three or more years, and some producers prefer coloured glass to protect it from light. In Prince Edward County, Stanners Vineyard Pinot Gris cuivré is copper-pink in colour with attractive fresh fruit, and drinks more like a conventional rosé.
Orange wine is an enigma. It is best served at temperatures closer to those that are ideal for reds rather than whites. It shares features with the other three colours, but it’s unlike any of them. Will orange wine challenge the position of conventional wines? Rosés, long running a distant third, have recently become the number two choice in France, where red wine’s market share has fallen from around 75 per cent to just over 50 per cent in 25 years. Maybe, in time, orange wine will take off too. It has surely broadened its appeal to many wine-lovers beyond the small group of aficionados that first embraced them. Winemaker Ann Sperling says orange wine is “especially for consumers who are open-minded.” A niche wine well worth opening your mind to.
Tableware provided by Atkinson’s of Vancouver: Baccarat, Saint-Louis, and Zalto stemware along with JL Coquet plates.
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