Seven reasons why I love orange wines

Giorgio Clai and other winemakers in the Ploder Rosenberg cellars

Giorgio Clai and other orange winemakers in the Ploder Rosenberg cellars

I’m drawn to outsiders – people who dare to be different, who stand out proudly from the crowd.

That makes orange wines – and the winemakers who produce them –  an easy sell. This is a style that can shock, surprise and thrill. A stand-out orange wine tasting at Styria’s Ploder Rosenberg winery reminded me of how much I love these adventurous, and occasionally challenging beverages.

Here’s why:

1. They’re not made from oranges
Orange wines are white wines where the grape juice has been left in contact (macerated) with the skins for a few days, weeks or even months, giving the finished wine an attractive orange (or rosé or amber) hue. Orange wines normally have more body and structure than a normal white wine, and may even have noticeable tannins.

2. The flavours are complex, arresting and unusual.
Sick of your white wine tasting of stone fruits, citrus and … er…. that’s it? Orange wines are never neutral – they can taste and smell of anything from dried apricots, to nuts, roasted herbs, plum skins or even red onion marmalade. And they vary tremendously, from light and mineral, to full-bodied and really wild.

3. Like many of the best ideas, orange wines have their basis in centuries old traditions.
Georgian qvevri (amphora) wines could probably claim to be the great grand-daddies of the style, having an unbroken 8,000 year old tradition – and winemakers in the “Capo d’Istria”, an area now spanning three national borders (Italy, Slovenia and Croatia), have spearheaded a renaissance of the style over the last two decades.

4. They’re frequently more stable and age-worthy than your average white wine
The grape-skin tannins act as anti-oxidants, protecting and stabilising the wine so it can age gracefully over the years. The best orange wines (see my list below) can be truly superb after 5-10 years in the bottle, as the tannins soften and the flavours gain complexity.

5. They allow the winemaker to work in a less-interventionist manner
The risk of spoilage or oxidation is considerably reduced by the presence of phenolics, from grape tannins. That means the winemaker can opt to use less sulphur dioxide to counteract the effects of oxygen and ageing. Filtering and fining can also be avoided, if the producer takes care with hygiene in the winery.

6. Some of my favourite winemakers make fantastic examples of this style
Fulvio Bressan (Friuli Collio), Sandi Skerk (Friuli Carso), Miha Batic (Vipavska Dolina), Paolo Vodipivec (Friuli Carso), Georgio Clai (Istria) and Mladen Roxanich (Istria) are passionate producers who can really make an orange wine sing

7. They demonstrate the age-old links between the winemakers in the “Capo D’Istria”
North-Eastern Italy (Friuli), Southern Slovenia and North Western Croatia (Istria) may be separated by national borders these days, but the cultural and linguistic links persist – and orange wine is a tradition that has long been the norm in all of these regions. The commonalities are fascinating to observe, from grape varieties, attitudes to winemaking to just tasting the finished products.

OK, who’s counting – here’s the bonus reason:

8. The winetrade is somewhat split about the category, causing occasionally amusing controversy . . .
Ex-sommelier Ron Washam (AKA Hosemaster of Wine) is expected to a launch a “world’s most undrinkable orange wine award” soon. He’ll be dispatching Frank Buck, natural wine hunter, to find the most eligible entrants.

I suggest ignoring the polarised opinions. Try the wines and make your own decision.

Ten favourite orange wines to seek out and enjoy.

ploder rosenberg vineyard

Ploder Rosenberg vineyards

Links to purchase in the UK and/or mainland Europe are provided where possible. Please note – I’m not affiliated to any of the distributors or retailers I link to.

Sandi Skerk, Friuli Carso, Italy – Ograde 2009

This must be one of the most elegant and graceful orange wines ever made. Wonderful soft texture, savoury, nutty and apricot overtones, and a fresh grapefruit aroma that draws you in. A blend of Vitovska, Sauvignon Blanc, Malvasia and Pinot Grigio.

Fulvio Bressan, Friuli Collio, Italy – Carat 2006

A wine that needs time – fantastically complex, rich and seriously tannic. My current favourite drinking vintage is the 2003 – hard to find, unless you make the trek to Fulvio’s favourite Enoteca in nearby Gorizia. Fulvio’s other wines are available from Les Caves de Pyrene in the UK, but not this one, sadly.

Eugenio Rosi, Trentino, Italy – Anisos 2009

Full, creamy texture, very focused citrus fruit and acacia blossom. Attractive bitter finish. Everything about this wine feels lively. Barely any perceptible tannins.

Vodopivec, Friuli Carso, Italy – Vitovska 2007

Beautifully complete and balanced, mature, quite full-bodied, but not overblown. Fine tannins, plum skins and green tea on the nose, a hint of vanilla pods on the finish. Fermented in Georgian clay amphoras.

Giorgio Clai, Istria, Croatia – Srivi Jacov 2010

Almost brooding in its intensity, yet supremely elegant, with profound Malvasia character (peaches and almonds) and a perfect mineral finish. Keep it for another year or two to really unlock the potential.

Mladen Roxanich, Istria, Croatia – Ines u Bijelom 2008

Yes, orange wine can be sexy – this is a wine that is complex and voluptuous, with intense apricot and nut flavours and a long finish.

Miha Batic, Vipavska Dolina, Slovenia – Zaria 2010

Every bit as complex as you would expect from a blend of Pinela, Zelen, Rebula, Vitovska, Klarnica, Chardonnay and Yellow Muscat. Made in a deliberately oxidative style, quite tannic, yet somehow avoids being scary – the aromas of jasmine and plums are attractive, the flavour is long and satisfying.

Alaverdi Monastery, Khaketi, Georgia – Rkatsiteli 2010

A qvevri fermented wine, produced in the purest, most non-interventionist manner possible (as a gift to god, quite literally). Beguiling, jasmine green-tea scented nose and delicate plum fruit on the palate.

Claus Preisinger – Edelgraben 2011 (Weissburgunder, AKA Pinot Blanc)

Wonderful creamy pinot blanc, with a tiny hint of red-onion marmalade on the nose, and subtle phenolics. Sadly no UK importer yet, but taste his wines at the forthcoming Raw fair.

Ploder Rosenberg – Aero 2011

Fermented in Georgian amphoras (qvevris), with intense perfumed red grapefruit aromas, cloves and woodspice. Accessible, with only a light hint of tannins, starbright, clean and focused.

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    23 thoughts on “Seven reasons why I love orange wines

      • That sounds win-win to me Ryan. A bottle of orange wine = passport to Porto. Yep, I’m in!

        But this also reminds me of something interesting. The idea of long skin macerations seems almost wholy absent in Portugal. I’m sure there must be a Portuguese Orange wine, but I haven’t found it yet.

        I remember last December, I brought a bottle of Roxanich’s Ines u bijelom to the winelover event in Lisbon. It was eagerly tasted by around 40 winemakers and wine lovers, but many were quite bemused about what it was.

    1. Very fine post, Simon. And very interesting, as usual. I know personally the first 4 producers you mention here, and their wines. Amazing products, really (I love vitovska!!). In my region you can also find some white wines ( Soave, mainly) macerated on the skins, like “Bucciato” of Ca’ Rugate winery… Although they say this is a traditional winemaking method, I am not so fan of it… So, here there is my question for you: do you think that only a few white grapes can allow this kind of technique? of course, I think so… (and garganega of Soave is not among them) :)
      Lizzy

      • Thanks Lizzy! That’s a very interesting question. In my experience of drinking these wines, there are clearly some varieties that respond more sympathetically to skin maceration than others.

        Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio, Pinot Blanc and Malvasia all spring to mind – grapes that have the potential to be quite full bodied or generous in their texture. Something that’s usually accentuated by the orange wine technique.

        For me, if you take an aromatic grape (eg: riesling), grown in an area where minerality and freshness can prevail, skin maceration could dull those attributes down. With orange wines, the focus is usually on secondary and tertiary aromas – not fresh fruit. Having said that, Skerk’s Ograde achieves something rather wonderful with its fresh grapefruit nose – and a lightness of touch that is quite incredible considering the amount of skin contact. You may remember better than me, but I think he’s quite careful about destemming etc, to avoid too much “grunt” in the finished wine.

        It’s also important to remember that there are many styles of orange wine. Even in the 10 examples I selected above, there’s a wide range – Claus Presinger’s Pinot Blanc is only subtly influenced by skin contact (I don’t have the data on how many days this wine is left on its skins, but I’m guessing it’s only a few days), and has good varietal character.

        At the other extreme you have wines like Radikon’s Ribolla Gialla, which goes too far for my personal taste (although I love the white blend Oslavje). Here the focus really is on structure, longevity and power. And that works less well for me – I want some finesse too.

        Ultimately I think each wine has to be judged on its own terms. The questions I generally ask myself are:

        a) Is the wine well balanced?
        b) Is there some varietal character? I wouldn’t say this is essential for a successful orange wine, but I’m often surprised and delighted when I find it. cf. Clai and Skerk who are masters at transmitting the grape’s typicity even with long skin macerations
        c) Is there a good reason why the winemaker chose to make the wine this way? ie: tradition, terroir, grape variety

        • Yes, I agree totally with you. When you taste a wine, never forget the winemaker’s hand and the nature of soils – they are essential ingredients in any wine!

    2. Simon, Lizzy, just to say that I make orange wines out of white Malvar grapes, and it seems to work! I do different lots with different maceration times.
      Ryan, I consider myself invited to Porto :)

      • Hi Fabio, I stil can’t believe that I have only ever tasted your Grenache (or should that be garnacha ;-)) Something I have to rectify soon – will you be at Raw this year?

        I’ve not come across Malvar, but reading a brief description, it seems to fit the orange wine profile – ie: medium bodied, and maybe not too aromatic?

        How did you arrive at the decision to vinify it as an orange wine? Did you try making it as a standard white wine also?

      • Thanks Ivano! Crossing the border is luckily no big deal, as you probably recall the borders between Italy and Slovenia are barely marked at all. Ironic considering how hard they were fought over.

    3. Just found this.

      We are kindred souls on three of your faves that I know pretty well, with Sandi and Fulvio on the top of that list.

      Honestly I eschew the idea of this as a category as in my market it is not a very strong consumer calling card. There have been less than a dozen tastings in NYC in the last year under this category.

      But I do so so love some of the best wines that are made in this ancient and traditional fashion. There is something deep in flavor and wafting in aroma that a wine like Ograde carries with it. The skins do carry atomic units of bouquet with them.

      I did enjoy this post. Reason #5 was news to me and it will stick with me as my prime takeaway.

      Nicely done my friend.

      • Let’s hope I’m not overstating the case with #5 – I’m sure those with a more scientific bent than me would give a more complete explanation. I’m simplifying for reasons of brevity . . .

        This is a niche category, make no mistake about that. But it’s quite fascinating as the idea harks back to such old traditions.

        No-one wants to forget the advances in technology and knowledge that allow us to have such a wide variety of high quality, stable, durable wines in the modern age – but acknowledging, understanding and trying to build on tradition is valuable, at least IMHO.

        • I’m going to vet #5 with friend at retail who just ‘knows it all’. I’ve head smatterings of this idea, just not quite so overt.

          I think of Orange Wines less as a niche and a category and regions like Friuli and Georgia more that are identified in my mind and my palate as associated with this traditional approach.

          I had an interesting discussion with a really astute retailer about this the other day. They’ve pioneered Friuli here back in the day and are very bullish on Georgia. It’s not the size of the niche, it’s the power of it that matter. Think Jura. Think Savoie. Not a lot of wine from these spots but a fervent enthusiast group. Same with Carso and Georgia.

          And finally, of all of my friends in the wine world the two of us (with a few add ons) work at the cutting edge of tech during the day and chase the obscure and the traditional in wine and purity in taste on the other hand. There is something very real about this.

          See you at RAW hopefully.

    4. I am new to your blog, but share your passion for natural wines. I love this post! Skerk wines are a favorite of mine, so elegant and surprisingly food friendly.

      • Thanks for reading Sarah – and sorry we didn’t meet up at #dwcc
        I think Sandi’s wines might just be my favourite “orange” wines of all time. Although Josko Gravner might pip him at the post. And Giorgio Clai too.

        I don’t think it’s surprising that these wines are food friendly. They are relatively full bodied, meaning they can stand up to quite assertive food. And the tannins help too – they refresh the palate, leaving you ready for the net mouthful of food, and glug of wine.

        Happy drinking!

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