Amber, skin-contact, macerated, orange. Where does it all start and where the hell does it end? What kind of response do these wines get on the market today? Who are the legends of the now stand-alone style? All of this and more is answered below, together with 11 wines to back up the in-depth theory. Welcome to House Pour, a guide that breaks down (not so) famous grapes and gets to the bottom of things by drinking (fo’ real).
BLAST FROM THE PAST
If you’ve been following this or any wine blog on the internet, you could have figured out by now that wine is only made from grapes. And no, orange wine is no exception. No oranges were harmed in the production. Looking back 6000 years to Caucasus (modern-day Georgia, the birthplace of viticulture), wines were made in large vessels called qvevri (kway-vree). White grapes would be left to macerate in contact with their skins, being exposed to small amounts of oxidation during the fermentation process. This practice was revived just a few decades ago in the northern parts of Italy and Slovenia, spreading like a wild fire to other areas of Europe and the world. The father-figures of this revival were Joško Gravner, Stanko Radikon and Aleš Kristančič (Movia). I know some of you will bitch and moan why I didn’t include any of these producers here, but the reasoning is simple. I wanted the lesser known producers to shine and get more exposure. Also, having these prime examples blind would be too easy a task. I like to keep things intriguing.
Typical white wine production involves crushing the grapes and quickly transferring the juice off the skins into fermentation tanks. The grape skins contain tannins and colour that are often undesirable for white wines, while for reds, skin contact is a vital part of the winemaking process because it gives the wines their colour, aromas, flavour and texture. In layman terms, amber wine is basically the middle ground between white and red wine. Depending on how long the juice ferments with the skins – anywhere from a few hours to many months – amber wines can range in colour from golden-straw yellow to vibrant amber to Apocalpyse-Now-sunset orange. The time with the skins also gives these wines more red wine characteristics, like bigger body and more tannin, while maintaining the acidity of a white wine. Little to no sulphur is added to the final product.
Even though the wines are readily available for purchase on any serious wine market today, for many producers skin contact is not a trend. Saša Radikon, son of Stanko, explains:
In 1995 we started making white wines with lengthy periods of skin contact. This was a technique that my grandfather used because he wanted to preserve his wine for a whole year. Before my father started selling our wines, my grandfather would make wine for the whole family from our vines, but this was for personal consumption only and it had to last an entire year until the next vintage.
Let’s face it, as more players get into a hyped category, the quality quickly diminishes and the nuances & distinguishing characteristics get vinified out. This is not the case with amber wines. I’ve been drinking them for about 5-6 years now and have never come across a boring, generic bottle. Bad yes, but never boring. The enthusiasm of these producers is out of this world and even New World regions such as South Africa, Australia, the US and New Zealand have been putting their firm mark on the map. Unfortunately, many academic oenological institutions still don’t provide support for the production of these stimulating wines. Many oenologists are “raised” in faculties that go in the total opposite direction, one that is highly influenced by machines, commercialization and sponsorships from big corporations – to keep the train running smoothly. That is not to say that everybody should jump head first into these waters. There are many self-taught guys out there that just don’t have the skill or knowledge to make a good amber wine. They make up for faults (VA, Brett, unhygienic cellars, disturbing levels of bitterness/acidity…) by stating that this is “what nature has given them”. If you’re a casual consumer that puts technicalities aside, fear not – these wines are some of the most food-friendly you can find on any restaurant list. Besides Champagne, they are the only kind of wines that can take people through the entire meal. Depending on tannin, acidity and the usual drill, you can pair them with oysters, mushroom soup, garlic chicken, duck, spicy Asian food, roasted pork, and all the way right back to the classic steak.
We blind tasted wines from 12* different countries and let me tell you – it was intense. Skin was everywhere, flashing left and right. On the table, under it, on the balcony, on naked display, in ice buckets. Wines made from grapes such as Viognier and Chardonnay were more approachable for the general public, while young Chenins or Tsolikouri just left sour expressions on people’s faces. Prices ranged from 40 to 160 SGD and no, the most expensive wasn’t the best. Ha! For some of these wines the hype is far from real, so be wary when buying, trust no one. Except Grape Nomad. I tell the truth even when I lie.
*An honourable mention to Jauma Xpectations 2017 which was in fact a blanc de noir made from Cab Sauv.
Ferme Des Sept Lunes ‘La Ferme La Face Cachée de la Lune’ Le Goût du Blanc 2013
Jean Delobre is one of my favourite discoveries of 2019, not solely because of this scrumptious skin-contact Viognier that he makes. Located in the Saint Joseph village of Bogy, this small winery (or better – farm) has 7 hectares of Syrah, Roussane, Marsanne, Gamay and Viognier; all cultivated biodynamically. Jean’s commitment to purity is mind-boggling. He tries to express every parcel of every grape in their own unique way, vinifying them all separately. For years I have been drinking low-intervention GSM blends and found them heavily homogeneous. Jean changed the entire game for me. Even though this came in 6th place, it really delivered full-on for the price. Lush and inviting nose showing notes of passionfruit, mango, apricot, pear, green apple and a strong presence of VA. Flirtatious, yet classy & bright. Finish is short and tart, leaving an impression that the wine has a few more months to wrap up the show and let new vintages in.
Purchased: Cogito Wines
You might also like: Sylvain Bock Faux Sans Blanc, La Sorga Blanc, Costador Orange de Noir
Beau Paysage ‘a hum’ Pinot Blanc 2015
Viticulture is tough in Japan, especially when it’s organic. Hot and humid summers with tons of rain (imagine Bordeaux on steroids) are a playground for rot and fungal disease. Led by Asai Usuke, mentor of many young guns in Japan, Eishi Akamoto burned all his textbooks and started making wine in his own way, relying on traditional Japanese farming management that had climatic cons pretty much under control. He wasn’t a natural wine proponent from the very beginning; in fact he hated it, but after repeated tastings in Tokyo’s bars, he eventually became a believer. This skin-contact Pinot Blanc comes in a series of only 300 bottles. The colour and nose are beautiful – washed out orange peel; aromas of pomelo, IPA hops, dried mango, jasmine and Sri Lankan green tea. One can get lost in this nose. The palate is quite one-dimensional with an unbalanced alcohol, making the wine seem flabby in spite of its solid fruit concentration. Linear, elegant finish, but cuts off halfway.
Purchased: Artisan Cellars
You might also like: Lumiere Winery Koshu Prestige Class Orange, Cullen Wines Amber
La Stoppa Ageno 2010
Emilia Romagna, Italy
If you’ve been doing your homework, you will know that Emilia Romagna is home to three grapes and one distinctive style – Lambrusco, Sangiovese and Malvasia; all made in a very classic way. When I was making a list for this tasting, I was thinking “ok, if anybody brings Italy, they’re going to bring Sicily”. Surprise, surprise. Even though it is a well-known fact that La Stoppa is one of the benchmarks for orange wine in the country, unfortunately, that wasn’t really reflected here. Brett, VA, Brett, VA. Doesn’t really go anywhere, even three days after the tasting. If you try really hard to get past these faults, you hit notes of melon and stone fruit, but that’s pretty much it. No real structure, nor balance. This was the least commented wine, but one of the tasters, after spending 10 minutes analysing it, stared blankly at me and said “this doesn’t make any sense”. Gold. Will report back on newer vintages.
Purchased: Straits Wine
You might also like: Castello di Lispida ‘Amphora’ Bianco, Clai Sv. Jakov Malvazija
Bura Plavac Mali Sivi 2016
You may have heard about Plavac Mali. You may have heard about the adjunct “sivi” or “grigio” usually seen with the Pinot family. But have you heard about Plavac Mali Sivi? This is a mutation of the black variety that just didn’t get dark enough in its evolution. I’ll shut my eyes to grape racism and proceed to loving them all unconditionally. The fruit for this wine comes from terra rossa-limestone soils with the most minimal of yields in order to get some delicious, wall-punching liquid. Sadly, this is where bottle variation shone the most. Having tried this wine at least six times in the past year, I know when it’s just not hitting full potential. Bottle condition was ace and the flavours were interesting, showing notes of dried apricot, sourdough, cheesecake cream and sea salt. Too heavy and hot on the palate. Acidity is dying down slowly, causing the wine to appear flabby and making the group wonder if this is where the evolution ends.
Purchased: The Adriatic Pantry
You might also like: Križ Grk, Ahearne Wild Skins, Tomac ‘Amfora’ Rajnski Rizling
Brkić ‘Mjesecar’ Žilavka 2016
Čitluk, Bosnia & Herzegovina
“Bosnia makes wine? Aren’t you guys still at war?” Oh man, if I had a dollar for every single time I heard somebody utter this nonsensical set of questions, I’d be bathing in liquid gold somewhere in the Maldives right now. But I’ve gotta hand it to you, what we don’t do much is produced biodynamic wine. We’re a young winemaking nation, so this is still unexplored territory. Josip Brkić is the pioneer of this movement, launching it with a Žilavka fermented with berries intact and left on their skins for 9 months in Bosnian oak barriques. I’d call this a classic white wine rather than an orange one. It does have that nice skin-maceration texture, but Josip plays it safe here. Nose of dill, caramelised popcorn, roasted nuts, pineapple and watermelon. Great acidity and textural richness, something you would immediately associate with model Chardonnay. Bit hot on the finish. Upon tasting this, one can conclude that the road ahead is long, but well-trodden for more divergent attempts.
You might also like: Krš ‘Orange’ Žilavka, Benvenuti ‘Anno Domini’ Malvazija
Celler Escoda-Sanahuja Els Bassots 2016
Escoda-Sanahuja is a quintessential producer of Spanish natural wine, something that you just must seek out if you’re serious about all shades amber. Joan Ramon Escoda and his wife Carmen Sanahuja set off on their winemaking journey in 1997 in Conca de Barbera, but fully converted to biodynamics ten years afterwards. The predominant limestone soils in this dry region need a lot of moisture, so the couple ensures that the microbiological life is healthy and kicking. Olive & almond trees, vegetables, chickens, cows and sheep play an essential role in this. The winner of this House Pour was a gorgeous Chenin Blanc coming from the satisfactory 2016 vintage. Ten days maceration, eight months aging in amphora. Lively nose reminiscent of orange blossom, lemon peel, preserved peach and dried pineapple. Light body with just a brush of tannins. Alcohol seems to come and go in waves, but doesn’t present a huge problem. Easily the most complete wine of the tasting.
Purchased: Wine RVLT
You might also like: Alfredo Maestro ‘Lovamor’ Albillo, Costador ‘Metamorphika’ Macabeu 2016
Weingut Werlitsch ‘Freude’ 2015
There are some wines that you drink and you’re like “ah, this is nice to drink a bottle of before I got back to the office” and then there are wines that you quit your job for, move to Austria and become part of Ewald Tscheppe’s cult. After all, the winemaking culture here is thousands of years old, so you’ll be working with some of the oldest Sauvignon Blanc plantings outside of France. Not too shabby. Here we have a blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay. Mesmerising nose of grapefruit, pomelo, freshly cut grass, crushed chalk, basil, orchids, lillies…I could go on forever. Hints of VA, but nothing too crazy. This has everything you’re looking for in proper juice – tannins, acidity, alcohol, richness, length, complexity. The palate is a citrus bomb that tastes like it was made at a three-Michelin-star-awarded lemonade stand. And beyond all that, Freude expresses terroir flawlessly, whether you want to believe in that or no. When you drink it, you know exactly where you are and why you are there.
You might also like: Schell Mann Achtung, Andreas Tscheppe Hirschkafer Erdfass
Valli ‘The Real McCoy’ Pinot Gris 2017
Central Otago, New Zealand
Try getting your hands on this. Ha! Miniscule quantities of this incredibly tasty wine are produced every year and sell out like hotcakes. Could be a result of an older and younger generation teaming up and allowing each other to create without restrictions. This is truly “the real deal”. Made from 100% Pinot Gris with partial whole-bunch fermentation and 38 days on skins. Bottled proudly in a clear vessel. Unique, Sauternes-like smell going towards aromas of honey, apricot, tomato leaf, yellow apple and sweet corn. We get all sorts of calls when smelling the wines, but this time one aroma stands out from them all – fresh money notes. Make it raaaaain! Heavy, but it’s a good weight – something you would associate comfortably with big Grigios from Gorizia. A firm rope of tannins, ginger spice, dried mixed peel characters and a salty, drying finish. If the acidity was a tad higher, we would have us a top-list candidate.
You might also like: Pyramid Valley Orange Wine, Express Winemakers ‘Orange’ Riesling
Pheasant’s Tears Tsolikouri 2017
Pheasant’s Tears is the Mack Daddy of Georgian wine. This is the voice that pinned this country’s amber wine onto the world map. For the production of this single varietal Tsolikouri, grapes are picked from the alluvial vineyards of Baghdadti, Georgia. The ripest stems are added to the grape skins, juice and pits and aged together for 9 months in qvevri that are more than a hundred years old. Everything is pretty much still done in accordance to Georgian traditional methods. Regarding the grape itself, Tsolikouri is planted only in Georgia where it is used mostly for the production of sweet wines due to its high acidity and full body. Might as well have stuck to that here. Decanted for two hours. The appalling nose of rancid cheese, wet hay, heavily sanitized dentist’s clinic, charred pears and horse shit (literally) did not dissipate. Tastes like a harbour polluted by petrol – oily and chemical-ly. If you try to get past this torment, you still hit a brick wall – no structure, no intensity, no point.
Purchased: Highbury Vintners
You might also like: Stori Winery Rkatsiteli, Winery Khareba Krakhuna, Do RE Mi Khikhvi
Testalonga ‘El Bandito’ Skin 2018
Swartland, South Africa
Great South African wine is quite a recent phenomenon. During the Apartheid, the wine industry was completely dominated by one organization, which controlled everything from production to price, so it is only since the early 1990s that independent wine producers have emerged. With certainty I say that Testalonga is not just one of the best producers of South Africa today, but of the whole New World. Unfortunately, this 2018 ‘El Bandito’ was a disappointing effort. Hand-harvested Chenin Blanc that spent 8 days on skins. Reductive as fuck, like real textbook reduction (read rotten eggs). The positive trait of it is that it’s refreshing and fruity when the reduction blows off, unlike the Phesant’s Tears. It just doesn’t have any depth and tastes rather water-like, which makes me question the potential of it turning into a grandiose wine like some of their other bottlings (think ‘Cortez’ or ‘The Dark Side’). Will definitely be more approachable next year, but not necessarily more exciting.
You might also like: Channing Daughters Ramato, Pheasant’s Tears Chinuri
Kabaj Rebula 2011
Goriška Brda, Slovenia
Known as ‘Collio’ in Italy, and ‘Brda’ in Slovenia, the Hills have been the epicenter of age-worthy white wines for several decades. Winemakers here have struck gold with vineyards planted on an ancient seabed, the soils rich in marl and flysch and an infinite range of vineyard exposures and microclimates. With an annual production of 100.000 bottles and 15 hectares of vines, Kabaj stands out as one of the icons of amber wine production here. This Rebula (known as Ribolla Gialla in Italy) was macerated for 30 days and aged 12 months in French barriques. One of the oldest wines in the batch and without a doubt well past its prime. The fruit (even the dried one) has died down and melted into some heavy caramel-spice profile. The alcohol tastes hot (even though it’s only 12%) due to the lack of acidity, making the wine come off as clumsy. No real character or drinkability at this point. Usually this particular label offers good value for money, so don’t shy away from newer vintages.
You might also like: Dolfo Rebula, Erzetič ‘Amfora’ Belo, Gravner Ribolla Gialla
House Pour is an approachable guide to the world’s (not so) famous grapes. We’re a group of friends that meet once a month, bring bottles to the table and have a good ol’ time. If you’re inspired by the idea, please spread the love within your wine community. If you’re based in Singapore, don’t hesitate to join us or enquire on hosting your own event! DM at @grapenomad or email at firstname.lastname@example.org.