A Closer Look at Orange Wines

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So what’s the deal with orange wines?

The orange wine craze has been inundating wine bars and establishments touting the merits of natural wines for quite some time now. More and more people are becoming familiar with this unique wine style, yet few are aware of the story behind the recent rise of its popularity. Read on to learn the modern history of orange wines, and the link between its recent story and its ancient origins.

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The story of orange wine begins long ago in what is now the country of Georgia. This area has the longest continuously documented history of winemaking, dating back prior to 6000 BCE. Large clay vessels called qvevri were used to ferment the wine; lined with wax and buried in the ground up to their necks, these earthen pots allowed a natural temperature control to keep fermentation relatively cool. Oxygen exchange through the tiny pores in the clay enhanced the texture and aromatic intensity of the wine inside. All wines were fermented in qvevri, whether white or red.

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Without modern technology to take advantage of anaerobic fermentation, temperature control, and fining and filtration, white wines darkened when aged in qvevri, resulting in their distinct amber hue. Phenol and tannin extraction led to complex aromatics and layered depth of the palate of these “orange wines.” Their intensity paired nicely with game and strongly flavored dishes, suiting the ancient peoples well.

Over time, wooden barrels gradually replaced qvevri for aging everyday wines. However, the traditional style was kept alive throughout the centuries, and many Georgian producers still make an orange wine or two.

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Fast forward to the 1980’s. Josko Gravner, a winemaker in northeast Italy’s Friuli area near the Slovenian border, paid a visit to California and tasted hundreds of wines for inspiration. He concluded that the modern-day winemaking methods were beginning to result in wines with unfavorable characteristics and standardized profiles and left in a very bothered state. He began to research and study traditional winemaking methods from other areas of the world.

Gravner’s explorations led him to visit the orange wine Mecca of Georgia. There he fell in love with the prospect of amphora fermentation and shipped a few vessels back to his winery and made a few experimental vintages that received high acclaim. Gravner is still a prominent name in the orange wine movement today (and makes some very delicious wines!).

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While Gravner was perfecting his style in the 1990’s, nearby Slovenia began to undergo a winemaking revolution. In 1991 Slovenia declared its independence from the Yugoslav republic and its winemakers rejoiced. Hidden underground cellars were reopened, and Slovenia’s long history of winemaking dating back to the Celts began in earnest again. Bottles from big names in Goriška Brda such as Movia, Edi Simčič, and Kabaj popped up in wine shops internationally, and many were influenced by Gravner’s success. His style was emulated and tweaked, resulting in Slovenia’s abundance of delicious orange wines today. It is now one of the major producers of this traditional wine style, and Slovenian orange wines appear on many high-end Michelin star wine lists worldwide.

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More recently (in the 2000’s) many other regions began to partake in the orange wine trend. Today these wines can be found in pretty much every wine producing region in the world, with excellent examples coming from Chile (Louis-Antoine Luyt), New Zealand (The Hermit Ram), California (Scholium Project, AmByth Estate), France (Jean-Yves Péron), Spain (Vinos Ambiz), Italy (Gravner, or course, and Dario Prinčič), Slovenia (Movia, Batič, Edi Simčič, Kabaj, Aci Urbajs), and last but not least, the founder of it all: Georgia (Pheasant’s Tears, many others). If you want to find any of these amazing wines, email us… we’ll get them for you!

We’ll finish off with a brief primer of exactly what an orange wine is:

-          Made from white varieties (any will do, but those with thicker skins and interesting aromatics often result in very impressive wines)

-          Often not destemmed prior to fermentation

-          Juice is not pressed off before fermentation (basically the wine is made the same way a red wine is made)

-          Punch downs are common (during the fermentation the grape skins tend to gather into a “cap” and rise up to the top of the tank; this cap needs to be manually pushed back down into the fermenting liquid)

-          Post-fermentation, vessels are sealed, and the wine remains in contact with the skins for a prolonged period of time

-          The wine is eventually pressed off from the skins, bottles sans filtration, et voila! Your orange wine awaits your enjoyment!

And what does it taste like?

Bruised apple, honey, nutmeg, rich baking spices, caramel, toast, grilled fruits, and a cornucopia of fascinatingly intertwined herbs and spices. These wines are not for the faint of heart, but they are treasures for the adventurous… so open your mind (and your palate) and jump on the orange wine bandwagon for a truly memorable drinking experience!

If you’d like to learn more, check out Simon J Woolf’s Amber Revolution, available here.

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The Barrel Room