A new term is dominating the wine trade, forums and fairs these days: Orange wine. But no one quite knows what it actually means. And no wonder. Because there are no regulations, no rules and no specific definition for this wine style.
Austrian wine journalist Helmut O. Knall tries to shed a bit of light on the subject:
Orange Wine. Where does it come from? Of course an English-speaking colleague invented this term when he had the wine in his glass for the first time. And it’s not inaccurate, especially because many of these wines have an orange shimmer to them when exposed to light. But, to put it simply, it is mainly a white wine that has been matured like a red wine. This means the grapes are not just destemmed and then pressed; first, they soak on their skins for a few hours – which is called maceration.
Many white grape varieties develop a reddish tint when they are fully ripe. Perhaps you’ve already seen this before. The grapes are no longer green in colour, but have turned from yellow to a soft red. We have some grape varieties like this in Austria. Gewürztraminer, Roter Veltliner and Spätrot – also known as Zierfandler – are a few. The colour is always found in the skin of the grapes. Even the juice from red grapes is white when the grapes are immediately pressed. The best example of this is Champagne. If however, these slightly reddish white grapes soak on their skins for a few hours, the skins themselves impart some colour to the white juice – which then develops a rosé or soft orange tone.
Sounds simple. Well – not quite.
There is still another way in which the colour can come into the wine, namely, if oxidation begins to occur. This happens often, for example, when white wine is fermented in an amphora – the oldest known method used for wine. There are countries that still apply this method, with Georgia as the best known today. In Georgia, clay amphora-like vessels, called qvevri, hold from a few hundred liters up to 3,500 liters of fermenting wine. After being filled with the squeezed grapes, the qvevri are buried in the ground and then sealed. Ideally, they are all but airtight and only micro-oxidation occurs. However, oxidation is what often happens, and this turns the wine to an orange colour.
Orange wines are often mistakenly thought to be organic or sulphur-free, which is not necessarily the case. Because of this, there are also terms used like natural wines, raw wines, artisan wines and organic wines. While there are now well-attended fairs with titles bearing these terms, what is missing are regulations for how the wines can be produced. The only wines that actually have to be produced in accordance with regulations – and are strictly controlled – are those named as being from organic or biodynamic agriculture. But once again, these are not necessarily orange wines.
Let’s just call these wines, simply, “wines that are a bit different”.
Because there are not only white wines made a bit differently, but also certainly red wines.
Without a doubt, there are great wines in this “category”. One just has to be open-minded. Because these wines, whether red, white or orange, are different from what we are used to; they’re “raw” wines. Sometimes unfiltered and therefore a bit cloudy, often with corners and edges, perhaps even challenging. Yes, definitely different.
It can be often heard at tastings whether wines like these are really necessary, especially when there are wonderful fruity and clear wines existing in Austria. Fair enough. But there are also many wine lovers who want to try something new once in a while. And there are winemakers who dare to experiment and don’t want to stop. Also, there are young sommeliers who want to recommend something fancy or exotic that can, at the same time, match the creative cuisine of their chef. Then there are Austrian winemakers who have succeeded with their unusual wines on the lists of the most exclusive restaurants. And not only in Austria. The best example is Noma in Copenhagen, named four times as the best restaurant in the world and that has listed some of these Austrian wines.
Yes, these wines are certainly a niche product. Barely any can be found in supermarkets. For fans and aficionados in the social whirlwind of wine, orange wines are being tasted more and more often. Whether this is a continuing trend, the future will tell. Presently, it seems very positive.