In defense of orange wine

The title of this post is somewhat tongue-in-cheek because if the growing interest of wine drinkers and restaurants in white skin-contact wines is any indication, “orange wines” do not need much of a defense. As it often goes, however, some observers and detractors of this phenomenon do not confine themselves to stating that it is just not their thing, but rather present a number arguments as to why they believe the rise of white skin-contact wines is just “a fad.” As a general rule, skeptics of orange wines are skeptics of natural wines in general. To them, the rise of natural wines and orange wines will always be a niche thing – confined to stubborn traditional winemakers and urban hipsters.

As someone who has written extensively on spontaneously fermented beers and “wild ales,” I have seen such denigrating statements before. It may be undeniable that many of the earlier adopters of spontaneously fermented beers, wild ciders, and natural wines are “hipsters,” but to characterize a return to local and ancient fermentation methods as “a fad” is odd, to say the least.

One typical argument is that many white skin-contact wines are flawed. The word “flawed” should be used with caution, and is only meaningful when one can establish what the “normal” wine characteristics for an orange wine should be.  It makes little sense to judge a skin contact wine by the standards of a “normal” white wine. Saying that an orange wine is too phenolic, bretty, or oxidized begs the question. If these characteristics are traditional for the style, and work well in a skin contact wine, than they are neither flaws nor faults. To use an analogy from the beer world again,  the presence of lacto bacteria and brettanomyces is a flaw in a lager, but a defining characteristic for a lambic beer.  A wine style has to fail on its own terms to be flawed. If a wine turns to vinegar, or the proliferation of wild yeast deprives the wine of all fruit and complexity, it is reasonable to conclude that it is a failure. But if you are really trying to break down some of the arguments against orange wines (and natural wines in general), a lot them can just be re-stated as not conforming to the criteria of a clean (white) wine.

The duration of skin contact also matters a great deal. A crisp orange wine that was on the skins for only 24 hours  is a completely different animal from an orange wine that was on the skins for 12 months and then buried in amphorae for fermentation and aging. This makes it challenging to even generate a set of standards or expectations for all orange wines.

Sampling a lot of different skin contact wines, and then revisiting the occasional modern white wine, has left me puzzled. Following wine writers such as Alice Feiring, it is not perplexing to me that we ferment white wines on the skin, but rather, that we stopped doing so. There is a time and place for clean, transparent, and sparkling whites but that such wines have almost become the norm needs explanation. I suspect that the explanation is the same as for other alcoholic beverages. We want a clean, consistent, fruit-forward product that has alcohol but does not feature the diverse and lively products of actual fermentation, and no signs of tartness, “wild” yeast, or oxidation, in particular. Our palates have increasingly been shaped by alcoholic beverages that were literally “killed” before bottling. When conventional winemakers talk of terroir they often confine themselves to the soil, not the microorganisms involved in fermentation. The yeast comes from a package.

Of course, the strongest argument in favor of a “new” (i.e. old) style is that it is good. The reason why I started writing about spontaneous fermentation is, once more, that I was simply blown away by the flavors, aromas, and visual appearance of some of the white skin-contact wines that I (serendipitously) tried. It was this “aha” moment that I also experienced when I drank my first lambic beer and became a strong public advocate for them.

In a world where natural wine bars and shops proliferate, “sour” beers and spontaneously fermented meads and ciders are on the rise, and kombucha starts replacing soda habits, I am not that concerned about the struggle of orange wine for recognition. But some historical / conceptual clarification is needed to counter some of the ignorant reception of these wines. There may be a day when spontaneously fermented skin-contact wines will be on the decline again, but don’t count on it any time soon.

Back to Orange

It all started with Radikon. That would be tempting to say. But truthfully, while it was quite likely that Radikon constituted my first experience with skin-contact wine (“orange wine”) it did not occur to me at the time that Radikon’s wines were part of a tradition of wine making that rather “predictably” produces the properties in a wine that I enjoy so much. I liked it a lot but did consider it an eccentric natural wine, not part of a “tradition.”

In fact, I had made an earlier attempt to characterize wines that should appeal to lambic drinkers (“funky”, “natural”, etc.) but my attempt seemed contrived and retrospectively I feel that only the oxidized, full, whites of the Jura region were a good, first approximation. I thoroughly enjoyed many natural wines but never experienced that transformative, life-changing experience with a particular style of wine making that initially drew me so strongly to lambics – despite finding myself increasingly drinking more wine.

There was the occasional skin-contact white experimental wine from Oregon but the first time it really hit me that orange wines were the kind of wines that I had been looking for was in 2016 at an organic restaurant in Berlin near Christiane F’s Bahnhof Zoo where the wine-by-the-glass list offered a skin-contact Pinot Gris (“Graupert”) by the Austrian winemaker Meinklang. I was so blown away by the wine that I returned to the restaurant a few days later to have it again. Here was everything I was looking for in a wine: tart, funky, complex, and so drinkable. I made a firm mental note about “orange wines”…

Meinklang Graupert in Berlin

In 2017 the Portland Fermentation Society attended a natural wine event at Liner and Elsen where my favorite wine turned out to be an orange wine named “La Petite Robe” by Jean-Yves Peron from France. I purchased a bottle. Things started to solidify. I started deliberately looking for orange wines on menus now (and tried to seek out the places that served them).

In June 2017, after an uninspiring day-trip to Florence (“the open air museum”) I returned to Bologna, collected my courage, and found myself a table at the local natural wine bar Olindo Faccioli, expecting a fair amount of language challenges. This did not happen and my inquiry about an orange wine by the glass was met with educated enthusiasm and  I was swiftly presented with one of my best wine experiences to date: Denavolo Dinavolino. There was more than a whiff of brettanomyces in this wine, yes, but it complemented its tart profile beautifully! I re-ordered this wine by the glass and at some point the server just handed me the remainder of the bottle….

I think this orange wine experience in Bologna, facing the gorgeous red and orange buildings, triggered the same kind of “eureka” moment that I had experienced in the past with the spontaneously fermented lambics. Which may not be too surprising because I do not think it is contrived to see the shared properties between lambics, the oxidized Jura wines, and the ancient skin-contact wines.

Denavolo Dinavolino in Bologna

Upon returning to the US I made sampling many more skin-contact whites an important priority (Coenobium Rusticum, Gravner, etc.). And after an almost five year hiatus, found my passion to write about spontaneous fermentation rejuvenated and have decided to make skin contact wines an important part of this blog. I realized there are so many stories to tell. So many subtle differences in aroma and taste to explore. What does skin contact mean for different white grapes? Flavor as a function of skin exposure time? Storage vessels such as amphorae and barrels. Understanding how the complex biochemistry of skin-contact fermentation in whites creates such beauty. And with the price of lambic (which remains another passion) reaching absurd, but understandable, levels in the United States, I am glad that this new fascination will not be a complete drain on my wallet.