Orange wines

Wednesday, April 9th, 2014

Every wine lover is familiar with white, rosé and red table wine but orange wine? The style is nothing new – orange wines were first made thousands of years ago in countries such as Georgia and Armenia.

More recently, orange wine has been re-discovered by winemakers with enquiring minds who are ever ready to push boundaries. Best described as white wines made in the same way as reds, the colour and tannins derive from contact with the skins.

The Italian region of Friuli has its own devotees (and opponents); there is also a growing group of enthusiasts in California. With South African winemakers travelling and working worldwide, it’s hardly surprising some enterprising youngsters have been inspired to experiment with their own orange wines.

Craig Hawkins, who produces them under his Testalonga El Bandito label, was first inspired by an Italian producer, which led him to explore further similar wines from Slovenia, Italy and Georgia. His first try, some five or six years ago, was made from old vine Chenin Blanc, fermented for five weeks on the skins. Length of skin contact is a major element of Hawkins’ learning curve; five weeks is the shortest – an extraordinary two years the longest. Today, it’s more likely to be two or three weeks.

Elaborating on the winemaking process, Hawkins explains: “I ferment whole bunches in open-top wooden containers with very little punching down of the cap to extract only what the grapes give themselves.” After replacing the heads of the wooden containers they are laid flat and fermentation proceeds slowly with topping up until he feels the wine is ready for pressing, after which the wine is aged on its gross lees. Sulphur is kept to a minimum, due both to the tannin and other antioxidant properties “but is ultimately determined by having healthy vineyards, farmed organically and biodynamically”, explains this environmentally conscious winemaker.

Is it more difficult than making a standard white wine?  “The first time it may be more challenging but if you know what you are trying to capture, I’d say it poses equal challenges to the standard approach,” admits Hawkins. For him, the biggest difficulty to overcome is the preconceived idea that people have of what that wine should taste like. “We are taught to dislike phenolics/tannin in white wine. As soon as we pull a finger to that idea and realise that all these flavours are part of orange wines as colour is to a red wine that is a step forward. The goal is to harness these flavours into something enjoyable.”

Chenin Blanc isn’t the only variety Hawkins has used for orange wine; his favourite so far is Sauvignon Blanc. “Probably one of the most beautiful wines I’ve made,” reckons this winemaker, who otherwise eschews Sauvignon. Some orange wines can be rustic, not necessarily a negative, but this 2013 Sauvignon, with two weeks’ skin contact, is uncommonly refined, even with its attractively exotic flavours. It is different but not frighteningly so. I can imagine it would be a good introduction for anyone interested in but nervous about trying something so different.

Other varieties have been employed by first timers Mick Craven and his partner, Jeanine Faure, of Antipodean Wines (though that name will change), who were inspired by orange wines made in California. They chose Pinot Gris and Clairette Blanche, in part due to their high acid, a component that tends to drop out with skin contact. The former, on skins for two weeks, enjoys a dusty pink hue and has a flavour of watermelon with a firmness of build and dryness of finish that’s miles away from either Italian Pinot Grigio or Alsace Pinot Gris. But the real eye opener is their Clairette Blanche, made in two ways. One was vinified the standard way via whole bunch pressing with fermentation in an old 500-litre barrel, which has produced an aromatic wine with good body (at just under 11% alc!). The other portion was left on the skins in tank for two-and-a-half weeks, the wine being more neutral in tone but with a solid structure. Blend the pair and you have flesh, flavour and structure with low acid and alcohol.

One of the major issues of dispute is whether these wines display any sense of place. Some argue that the winemaking process dominates any more individual expression. Craven ripostes: “Adding yeast also changes terroir.” Hawkins also has a firm opinion on the matter. “The moment you decide to farm properly and cut the first grapes and make wine naturally is the moment you take the first step in conveying terroir.” British wine journalist Jamie Goode is less certain, saying: “The big question is whether winemaking or terroir is to the fore.’”

South African orange wines are so niche, I suspect even many of the media haven’t tasted them yet, so what sort of future could they have here? Both Hawkins and Craven agree it’ll take a great deal of communication to get them off the ground. As Hawkins says: “In Europe, people are more accepting of these wines purely because they are exposed to more things than we are, stuck at the bottom of Africa. We, as a country, are still coming to grips with cloudy beers and quality coffee but, at the end of the day, orange wines could become popular as long as they provide pleasure.”

For Goode “orange wines are wonderfully different”. The best are distinguished by their wonderful spectrum of aromatics and freshness. Even made oxidatively, they retain amazing freshness and purity with an intriguing mouthfeel. “The tannins are unusual and quite grippy but there are no anthocyanins, so the pigmented polymer formation occurring in red wines doesn’t feature in whites.” Encouragingly, Goode admits: “I’ve had many more good orange wines than bad ones, though the latter surely exist.”

With others slowly joining the small band of South African orange winemakers, wine lovers with inquisitive taste buds should have plenty of new and hopefully enjoyable experiences in store.

Hawkins El Bandito

– Angela Lloyd