Orange Wine

At a recent wine tasting event, the theme was forgotten grapes. The goal was to try numerous grape varieties at one tasting event, of grapes that most people would be unfamiliar with. The first challenge was to find the wines. A quick internet search located a number of possibilities. Wines from Italy, Greece, Portugal, Austria and The Republic of Georgia, made for an interesting evening.
One of the more unusual wines was an “orange wine” from Georgia. The wine was made from four native grapes: Rkatsiteli, Kisi, Mtsvane and Saperavi.  Additionally, the wine was fermented in qvevris without additives and filtration.

So what is an “orange wine”?

Rose vs Orange
The easy answer is that it is to white wine, what rose is to red wine.  Rose involves very little contact with the red grape skins, in order to extract just enough color to leave a slightly pink hue. However, with orange wine, we have white grapes with limited skin contact, extracting some of the skin pigment, tannins and phenols.  Normally, this would be undesirable for a white wine, whereas for reds, skin contact is a vital part of the process.  Typically white wine production involves crushing the grapes and quickly moving the juice off the skins into the fermentation vessel.

Fermentation with skins
The practice of extended skin contact with white wine grapes has long history in the Caucasus region. In Georgia alone, this winemaking style goes back at least 8000 years, where they are often aged in clay vessels (qvevri) or wooden barrels. Qvevri are lined with beeswax and buried in the ground, which provides natural temperature control and slow, oxidative aging that produces earthy, texturally distinct skin-contact wines.  More recently, Italy has adopted this style, particularly in the Friuli-Venezia Giulia wine region, with Pinot Grigio.

Orange wines get their name from the darker, slightly orange tinge that the white wines receive due to their contact with the coloring pigments of the grape skins. The actual color can range from bright gold to a tawny brown (for more oxidized wines).

On the palate, these wines can easily be mistaken for red wines. They have the body, texture and moderate tannins, found in red wines. But, they have the fruit and aromas of a white wine. They are confusing wines. Try doing a tasting in a black wine glass, and see how easily it is to stump your wine drinking friends.

Just as rose wines, orange wines offer a good compromise when you can’t decide between white or red. For example, white wine would traditionally accompany fish and red wine would accompany meat. Orange wines are delicate enough to pair with fish, but are also structured enough for red meat.

Even though these are white wine grapes, there is no need to chill. To serve correctly, serve them at cellar temperature. You may also want to decant the wines, and allow the aromas to open up.

Back to our wine for the evening: 2012 Orgo Rkatsiteli. I would say it was 50/50 on people liking the wine, and others finding it “odd”.  The amber colored wine had notes of apricots, dates, beeswax, dried orange peel, and cinnamon…all white wine notes. But, on the palate, there were defined tannins, and a mouthfeel of a red wine. In a blind tasting (literally blindfolded), I would be hard-pressed to determine what this was, because of the mixed sensory signals.

Many people consider these types of wines as a passing fad (tell that to the Georgians, and their 8,000 years). Some even claim that these are actually “flawed” wines from winemakers that haven’t learned to make wine “properly”.  It is hard to call it a fad, when it really hasn’t caught on yet. How many have you seen in your local wine store?

I guess the jury is still out, and only by tasting them will you be able to either share their virtues, or dismiss their novelty. Whatever your until impression, make a point of at least seeking some orange wine out, and give it a try. Then, share your comments on this blog.

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