Colour me happy: the truth about orange wine

They've been popping up on Australian wine lists for years, like sonar pings signalling that something is out there. 

But despite all the buzz, we're still waiting for orange wines to reach 'the tipping point' into widespread popularity. 

Your first orange wine can be like trying wine for the first time – the style challenges everything you thought you knew. It has the tannin and textural profile of a red, but a flavour profile beyond any white.

Vanya Cullen, chief winemaker from iconic Margaret River winery Cullen, has released an orange wine called Amber, and sees the style as accepting and loving all parts of the grape. "It's an expression of the land in a way which is treating a white wine like a red wine," she says.

While whites are made by pressing juice off the grapes before fermentation, orange wines are made with extended skin, seed and sometimes stalk contact. The quintessential examples are macerated (left on skins) for months beyond fermentation. The extended skin contact often adds the signature depth of colour to the wines. 

It defied everything we were taught at [winemaking] university.

Kevin McCarthy

"I had my first orange wine at a restaurant in Rome in 2005," Cullen recalls. "A sommelier recommended a Gravner, and it was the most expensive wine on the list. I thought, 'That's just insane!' I spent the whole night pondering it."

The Gravner effect

Josko Gravner is a legend of white wine making from Friuli, Italy. In the late '90s, disenchanted by conventional practices, Gravner looked for inspiration in Georgia, a country where winemaking is thought to have remained unchanged for 5000-odd years. Here, white wines are made with skins and stalks in clay pots called Qveri, which are buried underground.

Gravner did a 180 degree turn on his winemaking philosophy, and dramatically ditched his stainless steel tanks in favour of amphora containers.

He made his first extended skin contact wine in 2001, with macerations lasting up to seven months. Whilst extended skin contact in whites was not unknown in these parts, it's this spectacular event which could be considered as the catalyst for the orange wine movement.


Defying the teachers

The first Australian-made orange wine was the 2008 T'Gallant Claudius, made by Kevin McCarthy. He visited Gravner in 2007, to learn from the guru first hand.

"It defied everything we were taught at [winemaking] university," McCarthy recalls. "The reception was interesting. I was nearly lynched a few times presenting that wine at dinners. People were aghast that you'd put such a thing in front of them because it was cloudy. But then, with time and explanation, people just loved it. It was great to see the extraordinary turnaround in people's thinking in the space of 20 minutes."

Despite McCarthy's best show-and-tell efforts, the 2008 Claudius was not a sales success. It was simply too radical for the market at the time – but a groundswell of support has been building ever since.

The orange people

Stuart Knox started listing orange wines at his Sydney wine bar, Fix St James, in 2010. "We had Shobbrook's Didi 'Giallo' on the list alongside a handful of Italian producers," Knox says. "Now, there's heaps of local orange wines coming out nowadays."

The Rootstock Sydney event in 2014 flew the flag for orange wines, featuring Pheasants Tears from Georgia as well as a number of Italian producers such as Radikon. Cullen was at Rootstock too, on the eve of the 2014 harvest which became the first vintage of Amber. 

From the frenzy has come confusion about what an orange wine really is. It has been used by those championing the natural wine movement, but they're not necessarily the same thing.

There is a misconception that the orange colour accents must be a byproduct of oxidation, and on the other hand, not all wines macerated for extended periods have a pronounced change in hue.

The fad-like atmosphere has also turned some people off, and to add further complexity, Orange is a wine region in New South Wales.

One giant leap

David Lawler, beverage director for the Rockpool group in Melbourne and president of Sommeliers Australia, says it's time for an in-depth conversation around orange wines. "We need a standard vocabulary ... like we do for red and white wines."

It's an exciting area with huge growth potential. "We are having some success investigating food pairing with the flavours at Spice Temple [and] we are working towards listing orange wines at Rockpool," Lawler says. 

"Whilst I'm yet to taste the Cullen Amber, given the expectations that come with their iconic status, the release is significant. If they are exploring different ways to express their patch of land and grapes, it's worth applauding."

I ask Vanya Cullen if she considers the release a big step. "It's funny, it didn't feel like one. As a biodynamic producer, you're used to travelling 'hands free' to a certain extent, because you don't have backup of additives such as yeast, tannin, acid. Orange wines are a little more extreme and out there, but it felt like a natural evolution of what we already do."

One small step for Cullen might be one giant leap for orange wine.

Rootstock Sydney will be held at Carriageworks from November 28-29.