When I first came across orange wines six or seven years ago I turned up my nose. Sometimes even clamped my nostrils shut. Ranging in colour from gold to brownish-amber, these suddenly fashionable ferments didn’t always smell good, wafting out aromas of rotting apples or manure. The taste? Maybe like a rustic cider but at 20 times the price. They had their passionate protagonists. The rest of us were baffled sceptics.
Today much of that scepticism has evaporated because the quality of orange wines has improved so much. It’s also fair to say their intriguing history is better understood, along with their chameleon ability to match all sorts of savoury foods – a point seized on by eager young sommeliers. So what are orange wines? They are whites made like reds: grape skins, pips and sometimes stems are left in contact with the juice for weeks or months to provide extra body and flavour (hence the equally popular term “skin-contact whites”). It’s a natural process but a tricky one. Winemakers intervene minimally, favouring spontaneous fermentation and avoiding temperature control, additives, fining, filtration. They also tend to avoid using sulphur dioxide to protect their wines from spoilage, arguing that maceration on the skins makes them naturally more robust.
This ancient approach to white wine was revived in the late 1990s by a few producers in Friuli in north-east Italy and neighbouring Slovenia. According to Simon Woolf, author of the fascinating book Amber Revolution, their mission was to reclaim a lost identity by adopting methods used up to the era of their grandparents – a well-timed move when wines the world over were beginning to taste the same. The pioneers, Josko Gravner and Stanko Radikon, were also inspired by Georgia whose 8,000-year winemaking tradition involves the use of qvevri – big clay pots buried up to their necks in the ground or cellar. (So impressed was Gravner by the wines he sampled on his first visit to Georgia in 2000 that he ordered eleven qvevri – only two of which survived the long, bumpy journey to Italy. Replacements luckily fared better.) Today, Gravner and Radikon wines remain the benchmarks – orange beacons worth serious money if you want to discover how memorable and ageworthy this style can be.
Since those early days the movement has blossomed. Georgian producers using qvevri have been stars at Slow Food Festivals since 2008. Japan and Scandinavia in particular love the salty, umami flavours of orange wines, and the growing popularity of natural wines in general is bringing amber examples to wider audiences – especially in London, Paris and New York but here too. What once seemed like a fringe fad is beginning to look mainstream. Try a few and see what you think, testing their versatility with roast pork or chicken, cold meats, curries, tajines, roast vegetables, kimchi, strong cheeses. Not too extreme in style or price, my recommendations make a useful starting point.
Tbilvino Qvevris, Kakheti 2016. Full marks to Marks for selling such an appealing and authentic Georgian wine at an everyday price. (Admittedly this one is made in substantial quantities). Mouthfilling with pleasant orange compote and apple notes and a salty finish. Alcohol 12%. From selected Marks & Spencer outlets, €16.
Baglio Bianco Catarratto, Terre Siciliane 2017. A terrific orange introduction, subtly earthy and super-fresh with purity and depth. Three days of skin contact; no added sulphur. Alcohol 12.5%. From Green Man Wines, Dublin 6W; Drinkstore, Dublin 7; Listons, Dublin 8; Blackrock Cellars, Blackrock; Le Caveau, Kilkenny and www.lecaveau.ie, €19.95.
Fedellos do Couto Conasbrancas, Ribeira Sacra 2017. Purity also underscores this gloriously lively lemon-and-pear-toned Galician. About 60% of this blend of six grape varieties has 40 days’ skin contact. Alcohol 12.7%. From Corkscrew, Dublin 2; Green Man Wines, Dublin 6W; 64 Wine Glasthule & ely64.com; €32.95.
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