As the Holidays approach and hosting begins, this year, try impressing your guests with something a little out of the ordinary.
Orange wines have become very popular. They’re no novelty, however – the style predates white wine. These ‘amber’ anomalies are new for western culture, but they’re the spirit, the pride and joy, of a particular, very small corner of the world.
Their appearance names them, and so, no, these are not breakfast specialties and have nothing to do with citrus fruit. And though also deeper in colour, as skins play a part, rosé wines are set apart being made from red grapes.
No whitewashing here, though exclusively the product of white grapes, these are not your average white wines, and are most certainly in a league of their own.
Some are quite subtle but, on the whole, it’s the texture, it’s the medley of intense – if kinky – flavours of the more traditional examples that acknowledges their otherness.
Though controversial, it is now the fine restaurant that seeks them out, more and more wineries are taking a stab at producing them, and exports are growing.
First, some history
Cut off from the influences of the world, at the eastern end of the Black Sea, the small country of Georgia possesses 8,000 year old winemaking evidence, deeming it the birthplace of wine.
And it’s of the scrupulous, unswerving Georgian culture where orange wine truly has its roots.
Their system is unique, to say the least, but completely logical. Crushed grapes – skins, stems and all – ferment in qvevri – large clay pots which are buried up to the neck. Once fermentation is complete, the qvevri are sealed and forgotten about for up to several months.
During this time, flavour, colour and tannins are extracted from the skins and stems, just as in red winemaking.
Underground was and is their refrigeration; grape skins their preservative. Literally sacrosanct to the locals, their methods and amber wines have remarkably held sway to this day, earning ‘Intangible Cultural Heritage’ by UNESCO in 2013.
The orange wine hype came about when, a few years prior, their lifeline Russia, had blown them a blessing in disguise embargo. But Georgia “set [its] face like flint” and advanced by seeking out other markets of cultural climates, where the genuineness and singularity of their wines would be highly salable.
Revisiting both their tradition and the qualitative benefits of skin contact, the trend was fed further all the while by a couple of Friulian winemakers, both of Slovenian descent. Though not to the latter’s degree of archaism, choosing above-ground wooden-over-clay vessels, these men began inspiring others, propelling this more ‘natural wine’ style further.
We’re now seeing, among others, Austria dishing out lovely macerated wines; and increasingly, Portugal with their above-ground amphorae tinaja wines; and Spain, where the term con pieles decodes their labels.
Thus, it’s Georgia; skip over to Slovenia and coterminous Friuli, Italy, that may each rightfully claim to be the fathers of ‘skin contact’ – a style that, even for the wine-fluent, almost requires a second literacy.
What you can expect
Unlike conventional white winemaking where, prior to fermentation, the grapes are pressed and skins discarded, orange wines’ varying shades of deep amber to light pink have everything to do with the duration with which the skin maceration extends. One week to a year greatly influences the final style. Just like a tea bag steeping in the pot, the longer it sits, the more aromas and flavours, texture and tannins leach out.
Spanning the dried, cooked or freshly picked, floral and fruity notes are often exuded, with candied peel and peach to the fore. Teas of all kinds are common aromas, from chamomile to oolong; as well as hay and similar aromas from spices such as anise star or saffron; and savoury notes like nuts or soy sauce. Even frankincense or varnish is not unheard of.
There are, of course, the less funky. Friuli’s lighter-hued yet no less vital ramato style is quite fresh and subdued in comparison and frequently seen made by other countries’ orange wanna-makers.
In the more traditional qvevri wines, the stems and lengthier ageing really adds those dimensions of peculiarity and grip as well as to their cellaring potential. And the more structured they are, the more I recommend a brief decanting to allow them to open up. It is those tannins that very much set orange- apart from white wines, and that also render them excellent food wines.
Hence, colour is often commensurate with their character and serving temperature (12-18℃), and might well be a gauge for suiting like intensity found in food.
What to eat
Midweight, complex, with depth and freshness is the checklist for a versatile food wine, and orange wine ticks those all off, plus those foods notoriously difficult to pair with wine (such as brussels sprouts) can often find success therewith.
Recipes such as manicotti stuffed with veal and ricotta, or pork ribs baked in sauerkraut and beer are ideas that would suit lighter styles nicely.
Moroccan cuisine comes to mind, as does Indian: spicy, many different flavours and textures resounding at once. A spicy Aloo Gobi, for example, can twist your usual sides of cauliflower or sweet potatoes into the even confrontation required for the deeper-hued sort.
The same goes for seasonal dishes such as tourtière or roast poultry – even duck for the wines’ relative density.
Hors d’oeuvres to think about might include Devils on Horseback; chicken liver mousse; or mini Gorgonzola-cranberry quiches.
Bold, firmer cheeses like old Cheddar, Gloucester or Parmesan meld well into orange wine’s fruitier side. Feta’s brininess goes well with the more savoury, unfiltered types – those which sit under the eaves of ‘natural wines’, the irreducibles of the wine world. A category in which cloudiness is praised.
Of means by no means
Wine in its most primitive form would have often turned out that way. Think of what it would take to make it both clean and clear without the speed and efficiency of technology. And unlike today, nothing was thrown out, nothing wasted – faulty, hazy or rusty.
But it’s abundantly clear the know-how of ancient people: tannins and flavour compounds are antioxidants. The more present, the more spoilage can be warded off.
A return to the old ways is being seen and romanticized all around us – and when it comes to wine, I love how it has us forever marching backwards into the future.
Tbilvino Kakheti Amber Rkatsiteli 2020, Georgia, $19.95 LCBO #25728 (order online)
The Audacity of Thomas G. Bright, Ontario, $18.95 LCBO #16878 (Hawkesbury, Alexandria)
Elementi Organic Trebbiano 2021, Italy, $18.95 LCBO #28124 (Hawkesbury)
Southbrook Triomphe, Ontario, $29.95 LCBO #25292 (Hawkesbury)
Les Grandes Espérances Le Génie Orange 2021, France, $23.55 (500mL) SAQ #14555744 (Hudson, Vaudreuil)
AA Badenhorst Riviera Secateurs Swartland 2021, South Africa, $21.20 SAQ #13995027 (Vaudreuil)
Causse Marines Zacm’Orange 2020, France, $34.75 SAQ #14033727 (St-Lazare)