Jamie Goode: Orange wines will always be geeky

By , 1 September 2022

Image: Georgianwine.uk.

Over recent years, a new wine style has leapt to public consciousness. It’s orange wines, also known as amber wines, and more correctly referred to as skin-fermented white wines.

Of course, we’ve always had these wines. Think about white Port: these are white grapes, fermented on skins before the addition of spirit for fortification. And the qvevri wines of Georgia, where the whites ferment on skins for as long as 6 months in sunken clay vessels. But the vast majority of white grapes are fermented after pressing, so it’s just the juice that it is involved, with the skins cruelly cast away, with all their goodness and flavour.

I don’t know why skin-fermented whites have become so popular, but I suspect it is something to do with the expanding of wine’s style and flavour horizons prompted by the emergence of the natural wine movement. Over the last 20 years there has been an explosion in curiosity and creativity in the world of wine as winegrowers have left the safe territory of techno wines, eschewed the safety net of wine additives, and have started using a range of different vessels for fermentation and ageing. Along with all this innovation, many winegrowers have toyed with a tank or two of skin-fermented whites, and some have taken it further than this.

If you think about it, it’s more surprising that these orange wines weren’t a thing than it is that they have become a thing of late. After all, if red wines are fermented on their skins, why not whites? There are a lot of flavour compounds and flavour compound precursors in grape skins, and so fermenting on skins – a process called extraction – results in a wine with more flavour.

What happens in orange winemaking? The main difference is the extraction of skin flavour compounds and precursors. I remember the first orange wine I tried, and what blew me away was the aromatic intensity. It was a Sauvignon Blanc from the Barossa Valley. If it had been made the normal way – press, then settle, then ferment the clarified juice, it would likely have been a rather boring neutral dry white. The Barossa isn’t a great terroir for Sauvignon, after all. But with skin contact, the aromas were remarkable. As well as aroma precursors, the skins also have tannins.

This is where we have to get a bit technical. In red winemaking, skins have tannins and anthocyanins (the pigments that give them their colour). During the winemaking process, these form complexes together: anthocyanins aren’t all that stable in wine, so the fact that they bind to tannins producing what are called pigmented polymers that make colour more stable. This also changes the mouthfeel of the tannins. Now white grapes don’t have anthocyanins and so they are unable to form these pigmented polymers.

The implications? It means that often with orange wines the tannins can seem quite brisk and harsh. They often have a different mouthfeel, and this is where winemaking – and especially the choice of how long to leave the wine on its skins – is a critical factor. It’s also a little non-intuitive.

In making red wines, generally speaking the shorter the extraction, and the less intense the extraction, the less tannic the wine tastes. If extraction takes place in the absence of alcohol, then the tannins can often be less harsh, and this is the basis of cold soaks, where there is extraction before fermentation begins. But another approach to get sleek tannins is a post-ferment maceration. And this is highly relevant to orange wine.

If a white wine ferment on the skins takes place and the wine is pressed straight away, then often the tannins can be very grippy. Frequently, white wine skin ferments last a lot longer than reds. In Georgia, it’s not uncommon to leave the qvevri sealed for 6 months before pressing: the extended maceration, paradoxically, results in less tannic wines. The tannins are fined (they are removed from the wine) by something in the wine – perhaps the pulp. As a result, choosing when to take the wine off the skins is a critical aspect in orange wine production.

So this is one of the key facets of making orange wines: managing tannins. And another issue is that some varieties really work well with skin ferments, while others are less successful. Muscat, aka Zibbibo, does really well. Sauvignon is good. Chardonnay less so. I’ve not seen many Riesling orange wines.

There’s a lot of debate about whether skin-fermenting whites obscures terroir. This is interesting: sometimes orange wines taste like orange wines, and the place is less obvious. But is this just because we don’t have a lot of experience matching these wines to place? Red wines display terroir, so why not whites made the same way?

And there’s another nuance: carbonic maceration and whole bunches. Some brave souls do carbonic maceration with whole bunch ferments. This can add extra elements to the flavour of the wine.

So will these skin-fermented whites remain in the realm of geeks, or will they go mainstream? Most on the market are relatively expensive wines made by artisan producers and so currently have a limited audience. But a Romanian producer called Cramele Recas has made a natural orange wine that they have managed to get in UK supermarkets at £6, bringing orange to the masses. However, I don’t think the world is ready for this style of wine to go mainstream – at least not yet. It will remain the territory of the geeks.

  • Jamie Goode is a London-based wine writer, lecturer, wine judge and book author. With a PhD in plant biology, he worked as a science editor, before starting wineanorak.com, one of the world’s most popular wine websites.


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