Not since the advent of screw cap v cork has the wine world been so divided on an issue. This is not about closures however, this is about the wine itself; a style so polarising some pundits refuse to acknowledge it as wine at all. Some refuse to put it past their lips. It is orange wine. Not the wine from the Orange wine region, but wine defined by its golden hue. Orange wine, a style born in antiquity, is making its way into the coolest venues and being spruiked by the pointy end of the wine fraternity and it only seems to be getting stronger. But what exactly is it?
Orange wine, in general, is made from white grapes that have had extended skin contact – a process that slowly breaks down skins and creates texture and colour in the wine. In some extreme cases the wine may be left in contact with the skins for hundreds of days. To put this in perspective, most conventional red wines may only be subjected to skin maceration for two weeks, for conventional white wines merely hours, if at all.
Orange hued wines, or ‘amber wine’ have often been heaped with scorn. The problem with some orange coloured wine is that it is not “clean”, showing bacterial spoilage flavours and high acidity, problems that are sadly all too common. These are the bad ones - at least they are in this writer’s opinion. Wine should not be effected by brettanomyces , a spoilage yeast producing off flavours of dank, mouldy cellars and wet dog. Nor should wine smell like someone is removing nail polish in your glass, which is precisely the smell of high concentrations of volatile acidity. The criticism of bad orange-coloured wine is just as valid as criticism of bad conventional wine. Bad things are bad, no matter what the category. Good orange coloured wine is rich and textured and brings interest and intensity; they really shouldn’t be off-putting at all. In short, you should want to drink them.
At the forefront of the orange movement in Australia is Patrick Sullivan from the Yarra Valley who makes an exquisitely drinkable version called “Breakfast Wine”, made from Sauvignon Blanc. Sauvignon Blanc is a great vehicle for the orange treatment as it subdues a great deal of the expressive tropical aromas and delivers weight, intensity and intrigue. Jauma from South Australia, too, makes savoury, crunchy and wild wines, that he describes as having gone through “the Jauma timewarp”. Chenin Blanc, Riesling, Trebbiano and Malvasia are all grapes that are subjected to this unusual , if ancient, winemaking practice with the Friuli in Italy – a stronghold region of these styles of wines – who are leading the international charge of the movement. Radikon, Gravner and Podversic are all pioneers in the category of long skin contact and orange-ness.
Some important classifications need to be made. Organic wine, “Natural” wine and biodynamic wines are not automatically orange, but they are all too often lumped into the one boat, especially by their detractors. Although it would be fair to say that the cult of orange often brings with it a great deal of consideration for the land and vine, whereby chemicals to prevent disease in the vineyard, inclusions like sulphur to prevent oxidation and tailored yeasts are not part of the program. To take a journey through orange coloured wine, you need to almost forget everything you know about conventional white wines and start again.