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Orange goes mainstream

Back in December 2016, the UK’s Independent newspaper published a rather superficial piece entitled “Orange Wine: Why we’ll all be drinking it in 2017”. The headline was outright clickbait, but there was a grain of truth. Orange wines – that’s to say white wines made with extended skin maceration – do seem to be popping up increasingly in the most unexpected places.


London’s Ritz Hotel recently added an orange wine to its list, Vogue magazine has published two articles on the subject, and large, commercial wineries such as Villa Melnik in Bulgaria and Domäne Wachau in Austria are marketing their examples of the genre. Could orange wines be reaching a tipping point?


How it all began

The modern age of orange wine dates from the late 1990s, when Italo-Slovenes Joško Gravner and Stanko Radikon released their first skin-macerated white wines onto the market. The technique itself was as old as the surrounding hills, but in the post-World War II rush to industrialise and adopt modern winemaking technology, this venerable method of making white wine fell by the wayside.

What was seen by many as a bizarre outlier in 1997 has become a staple on the hipster’s distressed beech table in 2017. Orange wines might not line the supermarket shelves, but they have been steadily gaining traction and fans. The promotion of Georgia’s timeless winemaking culture, where white grapes are also subjected to very long skin contact (typically between three to six months), has also helped boost their exposure.

Every corner

The Bulgarian example, a Sauvignon Blanc from major producer Villa Melnik, highlights two more recent developments. One, that producers are increasingly adopting the ‘orange wine’ moniker and marketing their wines as such (Villa Melnik’s Sauvignon is titled ‘Orange Wine’ on the label). Two, it’s no longer just maverick winemakers in Friuli, Slovenia, and Georgia who are dabbling with extended skin contact. Everyone, big and small, seems to be at it.
Winemakers in every corner of the globe clearly want to play with the technique, and the resulting bottles often turn up as conversation pieces on the tasting table. For producers, having an in-house skin-macerated white is fast becoming de rigeur – much as it used to be with pet nats or super-premium barrique-aged Merlots.

The wines from this new crop of ‘oranges’ are variable. Some seem awkward and half-baked, others wonderfully assured. The challenge for winemakers outside the Adriatic or the Caucasus is not only lack of experience with the technique, but also arguably the void of cultural or historical reference points.

Learned a lot

Diwald, a small-to-medium-sized organically certified producer in Wagram, Austria, broadly fits the profile of a winery that might experiment with obscure wine genres. Martin Diwald’s output is sold in upmarket organic chains as well as specialist merchants. But his ‘Zündstoff’ isn’t gracing those supermarket shelves – there are only 350 bottles a year. A pun on the German word ‘explosive’, and also meaning a robust discussion, the wine is a skin-fermented Grüner Veltliner or Riesling, depending on the vintage.

Diwald didn’t set out to make an orange wine, but fermented a small batch of Grüner Veltliner on the skins in 2014, with the aim to blend it into other wines. Liking the results, he decided it was worth bottling on its own. With Zündstoff now in its third vintage, Meininger’s wonders if he plans to increase the quantities? “I have the clientele and the channels, but I decided not to,” he says. “I find some natural winemakers and distributors are a bit all or nothing. I don’t want to be pushed into the natural corner – I don’t want to be pigeonholed.” Still, he’s positive about the experience: “I’ve learnt a lot doing these maceration wines. It gives you a totally different perspective on reduction and oxidation. You learn a lot from these wines, for all your other wines.”

In contrast, Cullen Wines is a large, well-established operation in Australia’s Margaret River, producing around 250,000 bottles a year. Their Cullen Amber 2014, made from a blend of Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc, is their first vintage of an orange style. With maceration times from two to 28 days, and fermentation vessels including amphorae, open-top fermenters, and steel tanks, the project has a rather trial and error feel. Winemaker Vanya Cullen, however, brims with confidence: “We made 1,000 cases and people really like to drink it. I love the idea of the whole season in the wine – the skins and the pips.” While Cullen’s super-ripe, powerful reading of the style feels defiantly New World, she was inspired partly by cult Georgian producer Pheasant’s Tears, whose wines she enjoys. She also confirms that more Amber is in the pipeline for future vintages.


Technique spreads

The well-known winemaking faculty at Plumpton College in Sussex, England, has taken things a stage further. Not only have they made two editions of their own orange wine, but the subject of orange winemaking is now even in the curriculum. “I thought it was a fairly important movement to include into the mix,” says programme manager and lecturer Tony Milanowski. “It makes perfect sense that we talk about red and white grapes, and we talk about wines from the juice and wines made from the skin. There should be four wine styles, so why not teach four wine styles?”

Milanowski, an Adelaide-trained winemaker with experience in major commercial wineries on two continents, visited the Radikon family in Friuli and subsequently attended a seminar at the London RAW WINE fair in 2013. He recalls feeling slightly disgruntled: “I felt they were just advocating one way of using skin contact – the ultra-natural, low-intervention way. But the RAW version isn’t the only idea. That’s why I thought I’d get the students to do it.”

Josh Donaghay-Spire is head winemaker at Chapel Down PLC, one of the UK’s larger wineries. He’s also one of Milanowski’s former pupils. Donaghay-Spire produced the UK’s first commercially available orange in 2014. The resulting wine, Chapel Down Orange Bacchus, played fairly safe and aimed for a more mainstream reading. Donaghay-Spire left the must on the skins for only 10 days, and then aged the wine in oak for nine months to soften the tannins. The wine was fined with bentonite and sulphured to ensure it stayed crystal clear and fresh.

Stylistically this appears to have little to do with the minimal-intervention tradition from Friuli or Western Slovenia. Donaghay-Spire clearly sings from the same hymn sheet as his teacher Milanowski on this point: “There is a lot of interesting grey area between conventionally made wines and the unsulphited, dark brown, cloudy, out-there stuff. To me that’s where a lot of good wines are and it is an area of experimentation which I’ll have fun exploring.”

Some major producers seem willing to push the envelope a little further. They don’t come much bigger than Domäne Wachau, one of Austria’s largest wineries and a cooperative to boot. The Domäne has been experimenting with making wines in amphorae since 2009, although to date only four vintages have been bottled and sold. Their Riesling Amphora 2015, the most recent release, was fermented in Spanish Tinajas (amphorae) similar to those used by Elisabetta Foradori, a natural-wine pioneer from the Alto Adige. Left on its skins for a full six months, it was then bottled unfiltered and without any sulphite additions.


Only 1 percent

The result succeeds admirably, partly as a demonstration that minimal-intervention wines made by a skilled, experienced winemaking team can be beautifully clean and pure. The winery’s director, Roman Horvath MW, feels that it’s important to experiment and to remain open-minded about new trends in the industry, even if his winemaker was initially less keen: “It’s a playground for us. It helped a lot to gain a little bit more experience. Our winemaker Heinz Frischengruber was very sceptical at the beginning, and it needed a bit of persuasion from my side. But now he enjoys doing it, and he enjoys the wine.”

But before anyone thinks Domäne Wachau is about to change its spots into a natural-wine outfit, Horvath confirms that the 1,200 bottles of Riesling Amphora represent a miniscule sub-1% of the winery’s production. Furthermore, it is sold almost exclusively at the winery. “It is with none of our distributors,” he notes. “Even our Swedish distributor told us it is too niche.”

This pattern is consistent across almost all those producers who dabble in making orange wines – the results are barely commercial, the quantities so small as to be almost insignificant. The only exception is Georgia, where a clutch of the largest wineries are all significantly expanding their qvevri ranges (including white wines made with very long skin contact).

Always a niche

So what does this trend mean? Right now, it’s close to impossible for consumers to find many of the wines discussed in this article. They represent a process of dipping toes in the water, of testing winemaking teams perhaps more than testing the market. Still, just as many producers added barrique-aged cuvèes to their ranges in the 1980s, or sparkling wines in the 1990s, orange wines seem to be enduring in some portfolios. The producers interviewed for this article have all made multiple vintages and show no signs of abating.

Although most agree that the more extreme orange style popularised by Gravner, Radikon, and their disciples will forever remain a niche, it’s likely that extended skin contact with white grapes will endure as another tool in the winemaker’s armoury. In that sense, while Milanowski and Donaghay-Spire may have strayed furthest from orange wine’s roots, their assimilation of the concept into more mainstream winemaking looks surprisingly prescient.