Portugal has green, France begat pink, and Georgia gave us Orange. Whether that orange spectrum is closer to deep cognac amber, rich pomegranate red or honey blonde straw, multi-hued “skin-contact wine” – AKA Orange wine – is definitely grabbing its share of headlines.
Orange wines may be all the rage but they can also be confusing. Sharing the rich sienna colour palette of Grand Marnier and Cointreau, it’s easy to see how neophyte Orange wine drinkers might assume oranges as the base fruit of the wine. In fact, no tangerines, tangelos or navel oranges are slayed to make these complex, aromatic must-try wines.
The interesting twist on Orange wines is they’re essentially white wines made like reds. Instead of the usual white wine process of quickly pressing the grapes, fermenting only the juice, and composting the skins, Orange wines adopt the same, long, “everything in the tank” maceration process that gives reds their depth of colour, aromatic vibrancy and phenolic varietal backbone. Sometimes partially crushed, sometimes whole cluster, the skins are left on the grape during the fermentation and aging process. The length of that skin contact is one of the great variables (inconsistencies) in the current global Orange wine-making movement, ranging from hours, months and in some cases, years. Made right, the result can be sublime: white wines that are structurally more tannic, texturally more concentrated and palpably more complex, and rustic in character.
Skin Contact 101
Orange wines employ perhaps the oldest method of wine production in the world. Original Georgian Orange-ists would use clay amphorae or Georgian Qvevri (or kvevri) dug into the ground to ferment their wines. The lid shut, gently pressed grapes thrown in, the wine would be hermetically sealed off from light and naturally cooled for 6 months. From there, nature did all work.
Fast forward a few hundred years and many of today’s winemakers, pine for those simpler ways. They argue these natural, farmhouse wines and no-to-low intervention methods represent wine-making as it should be. For others, skin fermented wines offer permission to experiment with indigenous yeasts, savoury stems and alternative production methods. Wineries can pull back on – even eliminate – sulphur additions, allowing the skin, seed and stem tannins to do the microbial (bacterial spoilage) heavy lifting. Fining, filtering and the chemical cocktail additions often associated with modern winemaking, or – as Matt Kramer of Decanter describes – engineered wines – can be reduced or eliminated. Indeed many wineries producing Orange wine grow grapes that are farmed organically and bio dynamically offering, many would argue, a purer and more honest expression of terroir. Net: if you like the extra tannic structure and herbal bite of stems and are undaunted by the aesthetics and visual aspects of unfiltered, hazy wine (lees), then Orange wine may just rock your socks.
What’s Your Skin in the Game ?
For me, it’s the fascinating array of aromatics and flavours and unctuous mouth feel that makes Orange wines so intriguing. These wines are increasingly on offer at by-the-glass wine bars and hipster-hot restaurants, but you won’t find them at the local wine importer and “dispensary” here in Ontario – the LCBO . If you want to buy Orange wine, you’ll have to visit a winery or order a case – or a fraction thereof – from a wine agency (see tasting notes).
Ontario wraps Guidelines around Orange Wines
So….. I was VERY excited to see a review of skin-contact wine production methods on the agenda for the Terroir Symposium in Toronto last month and even more enthused about the blind tasting that would accompany this discussion.
The What’s your Skin in the Game panel was prompted by the new skin contact regulations on table and effervescent whites under review by Ontario’s Vintner Quality Alliance (VQA). For readers not living in Canada, Ontario’s VQA is our appellation approval system, offering credibility and price benefits (+ 33%) to VQA approved brands.
With VQA’s varietal-typicity framework and rigorous tasting panel standards a longstanding issue and hurdle for innovative winemakers, I sensed there would be heat – and not just from alcohol. Beyond price point, this new legislation regulates production methods and marketing parameters – just in time for the 2017 patio season.
All bets are off when you blind taste Orange wines
- Ann Sperling, winemaker, Southbrook Vineyards, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario and Sperling Vineyards in Kelowna, British Columbia
- Brent Rowland, winemaker, Pearl Morrisette Estate Winery, Jordan, Ontario
- Brian Schmidt, winemaker, Vineland Estates Winery, Vineland, Ontario
Nine skin contact wines were tasted: five from Ontario, one from BC and three from international markets – Italy, New Zealand and France. We quickly learn there is nothing uniform about the production of skin contact wines including the wine we’re tasting today. The maceration processes and skin contact on today’s menu vary from less than 10 days – the minimum VQA skin contact allowed – to more than 10 months. According to winemaker Ann Sperling who initiated the VQA legislation and has two wines in today’s tasting, 10 days is a reasonable timeframe for indigenous fermentation to reach “lift-off” and to attract varietal characteristics in a cool climate region.
The Orange wines range in colour from rust to pink and the base white wine varietals, we’re told, can include anything from Chenin Blanc, Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris to Riesling, Muscat and/or Chardonnay. With Ontario’s Orange wine regulations, varietal character will not be considered by the tasting panel as part of the overall grade and like Rose and European region regulations, the base wine grape/varietal does not have to be shared on the label.
Still, making white wines like reds and adding all the delicious phenolics (chemical compounds), tannin depth and aromatic goodness imparted by skins is a total no-brainer for all of today’s panellists. Master Sommelier and Toronto author John Szabo, who leads the discussion, quotes Mike Weersing of Pyramid Valley in New Zealand and his attitude to Orange wine production: “Why would I throw away the skins – a vast part of the message of site, season and terroir -when they contain the identity and complete DNA genome of the vineyard?”
Of course all bets are off when you blind taste Orange wine so good luck to VQA tasting panel! Indeed some speakers on the symposium panel and in the audience argue the VQA tasting panel approach is a straightjacket to creative wine-making and like Australia and South Africa, it’s time for Ontario’s panel to go. I’ve sampled maybe a dozen skin contact wines with a range of varietals and I often struggle with identifying “sensory character”. The normal “deductive” wine tasting grid used to assess white wine based on visual, aromatic and structural traits that we learn in wine school, doesn’t quite hold true with extended skin contact white wines. Between the colour, higher tannins, richer mouth-feel and protein haze or turbidity (suspended particulate matter that isn’t filtered out) that comes from weeks and in some cases years of resting on solids, wine lovers will have to fine-tune their sensory winetasting skills.
At the end of the day, it was a brilliantly illuminating session with a fascinating matrix of Orange wines – some of which I enjoyed and others….
Here are my notes and the discussions from the tasting:
1. Norm Hardie Vineyard and Winery – 2016 Pinto Gris Tornado Niagara Peninsula, Ontario
Time on skins: 12 hours
Yes – skin contact wine but just barely. Norm’s Tornado doesn’t meet proposed VQA requirements. Still, a fresh, zesty fruity wine with notes of baked apple and lime citrus. Juicy and crisp with a firm line of acidity.
2. Southbrook Vineyards, 2016 Vidal Small Lot ‘Natural Orange’, Ontario
Time on Skins: 25 days
Biodynamic, hand harvested, 100% whole berries, 1/3 foot pressing, indigenous yeast, some stems. True amber hues. Cloudy.
- Aromatics: wow – intense aromatics and beautifully floral – rose petal, citrus, coriander,
- Palate: lots going on here! Stone fruit – ripe peach with some tropical notes, grapefruit, spice, creamy texture and hints of of Fino sherry. The stem and skin tannins are real – and offer a tongue numbing sensation – vs the usual full-mouth astringency of say, a tannic Cab Sauvignon.
In terms of the varietal, I only know Vidal from Ice Wine so little Vidal typicity experience to fall back on.
3. Sperling Vineyards, 2015 Natural Amber Pinto Gris, British Columbia
Time on Skins: 28 days
According to Ann Sperling, this wine is all about returning to natural production methods. It’s cloudy rusty red in colour, with a streak of flinty minerality and a firm, stemmy backbone. It’s texturally different from the first two wines – with a more lactic mouth-feel.
- Aromatics: intensely aromatic – stone fruit – apricot and peach – with this ethereal fragrance of green, jasmine tea
- Palate: I taste honey, green tea with grapefruit and ripe stone fruit. Good levels of acidity. Rustic, oxidative, mushroom flavours add an interesting complexity to this wine.
4. Azienda Agricola COS, 2014 COS Rami, Terre Siciliane, Sicily, Italy
Time on Skins: 6 days
Again this is technically not a “skin-contact” wine based on Ontario’s VQA standards but we’re reminded Sicilian geography and heat means it’s easier to get a fermentation going. Natural wine advocates, COS adheres to the principles of biodynamic agriculture and don’t filter or fine their wines. Distributed in Ontario by the Living Vine
- Aromatics: beautiful clear, orange golden hues offers floral aromas and stone fruit freshness
- Palate: ripe apricot and nectarine with herb de provence organic earth flavours and a wet stone mineral finish. Great length and round, rich honeyed mouth-feel. I am seduced by the golden amber hues of this wine. Good acidity.
5. Domaine Viret, 2015 Dolia Paradis Ambré, Valléé du Rhône, France
Time on skins: 60+ days
Clear, amber, beautiful blend of Muscat, Rousanne and White Grenache. Distributed by Nicholas Pearce
- Aromatics: beautiful manadarin nose with a strong resemblance to Grand Marnier. Lot’s of orange blossom dominating this wine.
- Palate: I would have guessed gewurtz as the varietal on this wine with it’s complex fruit-forward expression. It’s a rich, blend of ripe stone fruit with a sherry-like texture and tannic structure. Amazing acidity underpins it all.
6. Norm Hardie Vineyard and Winery – 2016 Pinto Gris Ponton Prince Edward County, Ontario
Time on skins: 10 days
Nine days cold soak and one day fermentation with a natural yeast fermentation. Grapes for this skin contact wine come from seriously cool climate region PEC and it’s fair to say this wine reflects the county’s mineral character and hallmark, lean acidity. Deep rust in colour.
- Aromatics: fresh, subtle citrus and stone fruit on the nose
- Palate: crisp, bright peach, pear and citrus. Creamy mouth-fill. Classic regional mineral notes.
7. Pyramid Valley Vineyards, 2015 Growers Collection, Kerner “Orange”, Marlborough
Time on skins: 3.5 months
Distributed in Canada by The Living Vine, this North Canterbury New Zealand winery is taking a leadership role in ethical vineyard practices, bio dynamics and resurrecting skin contact wines. Using a blend of Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris grapes, the wine spends one month on skins. Grapes are hand-picked, whole bunch pressed with indigenous fermentation. The wine goes through a second malolactic fermentation, with total fermentation lasting a full 17 months.
- Aromatics: Pretty. Fresh fruit basket – pear and strawberry
- Palate: Grippy acid, marmalade in colour and taste, with ripe peach and apricot stone fruits and citrus. Hint of bitterness and sage spice. Full bodied and opulent.
8. Pearl Morissette Estate Winery, 2015 Cuvée Blu, Ontario
Time on skins: 3.5 months
Varietals a blend of 50% Viognier and 50% Riesling. 3.5 months in cuvee. After primary fermentation, the lid was put on and the wine left to do its thing – aside from occasionally “pawing the cap.” Moved to foudres (large oak barrels) for final maturation.
- Aromatics: Pretty, very floral and fragrant. Stone fruit – peaches and pears and a hint of petrol gives a clue to the varietal.
- Palate: Bone dry. Nicely balanced with ripe apricot, orange peel and honey notes. Firm tannins provide discernible structure; palate texture offers a delightfully creamy, round experience.
9. Vineland Estates Winery, 2016 Chardonnay Musqué, Twenty Mile Bench, Ontario
Time on skins: 55 days
Notes: Crushed with seeds, some sulphur use, natural fermentation
Oops – I was distracted and no significant notes on this one! My bad….
- Aromatics: Peach, quince
- Palate: Nice tannic backbone, spicy notes
From Fiona Beckett: orange wines are best served at room temperature.
From Josh Corea: Orange wines need protein for the tannins to bind to so enjoy with a ceviche, steak tartare or charcuterie