Traditional Orange Wines
The traditional method is primarily employed in the Caucasus region today and represents the manner in which white wines had been made for thousands of years. An example of this is the white Kakhetian wine of Georgia where the juice of the white grapes is macerated for months on the skins, seeds, and stems in buried Kvevri. The method whereby this wine is made is illustrated in the figure below.
The grape varieties used in the process (indicated in the above graphic) are characterized by (domainegeorgia.com):
- Relatively neutral flavors (low content of terpene compounds)
- High levels of phenolic compounds in the skin
- High alcohol potential
- Moderate acidity.
The lengthy maceration periods associated with the process dictate that the grapes have adequate levels of sugar and acidity and be "perfectly ripe" (phenolic maturity) and that the grapes, skins, and stems be sanitary (domainegeorgia.com).
The result of the Kakhetian method is a wine with a color that is "dark, almost orange, tea, or amber, often with a pink tinge." The wine's polyphenolic content often exceeds 2000 mg/l, a level akin to light red wines and well above the average 300 mg/l for a European white wine. According to domainegeorgia.com, the sources of the polyphenols are seeds (47%), stems (42%), and skins (11%).
Other kvevri-based white wine production methods encountered in Georgia include the Imeretian (from the province of Imereti in western Georgia; 1/10th the chacha and no stems) and Kartli (central Georgia; 1/3 of chacha plus stems). The avoidance of stems renders the Imeretian method less tannic than the Kakhetian while the Kartli method falls somewhere between the two (domainegeorgia.com).
Contemporary Orange Wines
These wines originated in the Italy-Slovenia border area around Friuli-Venezia Giulia, pioneered by producers such as Gravner, Radikon, Movia, and others who were inspired by the ancient winemaking techniques of Georgia. According to Appel, these wines:
- May be fermented and aged in a variety of vessels, to include wood or clay
- Are often open to the elements until aging begins
- Utilize native yeasts for fermentation
- Undergo long, slow, natural fermentations.
The extended contact with the grape phenolics during the long. slow, maturation and aging results in wines that are characterized by (Appel):
- Exceptional richness and body
- Striking, fascinating tannins
- Unique flavors to include tea, baked apple, honey, nutcake, sourdough, cider, etc.
Ribolla Gialla orange wines from the pioneering Stanko Radikon are considered to be among the best of this wine style. Radikon ferments destemmed grapes in oak barrels with natural yeasts and no temperature control. At the conclusion of the fermentation the vats are filled and closed. The wine remains in contact with the skins for 3 to 4 months after which they are aged in large oak casks for 3 years and in bottle for 1 year.
A contemporary, non-Friuli orange-wine producer is the Etna-based Frank Cornelissen. The core objective of Frank's viticultural regime is the production of grapes that lead to profound wines. The practices to promote this goal include: crop management through pruning; tailoring of bunches to concentrate sugar; handpicking of defective grapes; late harvests; and multiple passes through the vineyards to ensure harvesting of fully ripened grapes.
In the cellar, Frank does not add sulfur either to combat oxidation or to combat micro-organisms. Wines are fermented by indigenous yeasts in small, food-grade plastic tubs. To ensure vintage integrity, all yeasts resident in the cellar are killed prior to the start of wine production. Fermentation is conducted with yeasts brought in from the vineyards on the grapes.
Both white and red wines are fermented with skin contact. His Munjebel bianco 2014 is a white wine made from 60% Grecanico Dorato and 40% Carricante. The grapes for this wine are grown on 40+-year-old vines grown in the Calderara soprano and Borriglione vineyards. A total of 4000 bottles of this wine is produced annually. This wine is amber in color and, when tasted, exhibited florality, spice, and a savoriness on the nose. Savoriness flows through to the palate. A textured wine with great acidity and a long finish.
Skin-fermented wines have spread way beyond the "old world" into every nook and cranny of wine production. While these wines will probably always occupy a relatively small niche of the white wine world, they have long thrown off the coat of "oddity."
Joe Appel, Skin-contact in winemaking turns an ordinary white into a tantalizing orange, Portland Press Herald, 8/31/16.
Domaine Georgia, Winemaking in Kvevri, domainegeorgia.com
Michael Franz, Collio, Italy's Best Region for White Wines, Wine Review Online.
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