Orange wines: Skin-fermented magic

| July 2, 2018 | 0 Comments
Georgia is considered the birthplace of orange wine and very possibly wine in general. (Photo: © Burt Johnson | Dreamstime.com)

Georgia is considered the birthplace of orange wine and very possibly wine in general. (Photo: © Burt Johnson | Dreamstime.com)

Orange wines have recently captured the attention of sommeliers, winemakers and wine lovers alike. And contrary to what the name might suggest, these wines are not made from oranges. Rather, the word “orange” simply refers to the colour of the wines that results from a process involving the extended maceration of “white” grape skins with their juice. The skins contain pigment as well as tannins, producing wines with an orange or amber colour. These wines also often offer a broader and more structured mouthfeel. The skins also contain natural preservatives and antioxidants, which make the wines amenable to aging, and eliminate the need for additional stabilizing chemicals.

For the sake of this column, I will make some generalizations about orange wines, but it is important to note that stylistically, these wines, like all others, will vary depending on a number of factors, including the grape variety used, the length of maceration time, the terroir or soil where the grapes are grown and even the vessel used for fermentation. Having said that, more often than not, orange, amber, or skin-contact whites tend to lack in light, crisp and fresh flavours, boasting instead  palates of dried fruits, nuts, flowers and herbal teas.

In modern winemaking, leaving grape skins in contact with juice is typically reserved for red-wine production, but in Georgia — the birthplace of orange wine and very possibly wine in general — people have been producing white wines with long skin maceration times in clay vessels known as qveri for about 8,000 years. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, producers such as Gravner and Radikon started to experiment with longer skin contact for white wines with grapes from Italy and Slovenia and were responsible for popularizing the style in Europe and around the world.

Some of the many reasons for the recent boom in popularity of orange wines would almost certainly include their involvement in the natural wine movement (orange wines are not always being produced in a natural way, but historically the two have been synonymous) as well as their often intense bouquets and palate-awakening qualities. Arguably, though, the biggest key to their success comes from their unique ability to pair perfectly with such a vast range of different dishes. Skin-fermented whites are an ace-in-the-hole for sommeliers looking to help a group of diners choose a single bottle to pair with the variety of dishes on the table. Their tannins allow them to hold their own against fatty meats (which also makes them a perfect substitute for red wine at a barbecue on a hot day) while their fruit profiles and acidity make them great options for more delicate plates of vegetables and fish.

At the moment, the LCBO tends to focus on more conventional wine styles, so it is unlikely that you will find orange wines on its shelves. However, readers interested in experiencing these wines have some options. Fauna food + bar in Ottawa, Toronto’s Archive wine bar and Soif bar à vin in Gatineau all offer a variety of orange wines by the glass. To enjoy at home, the 2016 “Rami” by Azienda Agricola COS in Sicily is a blend of Insolia and Grecanico and is available in cases of six through www.thelivingvine.ca for $40.95 a bottle. For a more nearby option, Niagara’s Southbrook Vineyards offers a skin-fermented Vidal for $29.95 a bottle. Visit their website — www.southbrook.com — for information on how to order this tasty vintage.

Alex McMahon is the sommelier at Riviera restaurant in Ottawa.

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Alex McMahon is the sommelier at Riviera restaurant in Ottawa.

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