Twelve orange wines for independents to try, as suggested by David Williams
Gravner Ribolla, Venezia Giulia IGT, Italy
(Raeburn Fine Wines)
The father of modern skin-contact wine, Josko Gravner’s adoption of clay amphorae after a trip to the Caucuses in the mid-1990s invited scorn and derision in equal measure at the time but has bred countless imitators in the years since. His wines remain the gold – or rather, in this case, deep amber – standard in this rapidly growing category: symphonically deep, rich and complex, with a proven ability to age, they are among the most sought-after wines in Italy.
Guerila Retro, Primorska, Slovenia
Just across the border from Gravner and such skin-contact fellow travellers as Dario Princic in Friuli, Slovenia has been another fertile breeding place for small-scale orange wine producers, with star names including Mlečnik, Burja and Kabaj. A biodynamic producer based in Primorska, Guerila’s take on the style in this blend of local varieties Pinela, Zelen, Rebula and malvazija is at the less extreme end of the orange spectrum, with a week’s maceration providing a graceful, luminously floral-herbal, gently honeyed style.
Iago Chinuri, Kakheti, Georgia
(Les Caves de Pyrene)
Depending on who you listen to, wines made in buried qvevri clay pots account for between 5 and 10% of all wine made in Georgia. But the post-Soviet revival of the technique for commercial winemaking has played an outsized part in shaping the country’s 21st-century reputation in the West. Few producers are more skilled at the art than Iago Bitarshvili, whose qvevri-made orange version of the white Chinuri grape is gloriously precise, fine-textured yet complex.
Abel Mendoza Blanco Fermentado con Pieles, Rioja, Spain
Few countries have taken to skin-contact winemaking quite like Spain. Winemakers all over the country are playing with the technique, both in full-on orange (often using amphorae / tinajas) but also in many ostensibly “conventional” whites (at a recent Decanter tasting of around 100 white wines made from indigenous grape varieties, it was easier to count the wines without some skin-contact influence). Top small-scale Rioja producer Abel Mendoza makes one of my favourites: a blend of three varieties of gloriously silky substance.
Gaia Wines Clay Orange Wine Assyrtiko, Santorini, Greece
(Hallgarten & Novum Wines)
Another Mediterranean country where winemakers have looked back into their history and rediscovered the joys of skin contact, Greece has a plethora of white varieties that seem particularly suited to the technique. Among them is the best known, Assyrtiko, which, with its thick skins, yields up texture and pithy complexity in abundance, not least in the typically pure, clean and finely balanced example, made in clay “spheres” and with 30 months’ lees-ageing as well as extended maceration, from Gaia Estate.
Cullen Amber, Wilyabrup, Margaret River, Western Australia
Like so much of the funkier end of modern Australia’s small-producer scene, British drinkers aren’t always privy to the most interesting of the country’s many orange and skin-contact wines: the avid domestic market means they simply don’t find their way to our price-obsessed shores. One widely available producer that has led the orange (if not Orange) Australian way, however, is one of the country’s best and most respected: Margaret River’s Cullen, whose Amber, based on a 10-day maceration in amphorae and concrete egg, is gorgeously pure and sings with herbs and orange citrus.
Cramele Recaș Orange Wine, Timisului, Romania
Romanian wine of all colours has, like Georgian wine, come so far since the end of Communism that it’s a shame that most UK coverage still focuses on its ability to provide outstandingly priced commercial wines. A shame, but, especially in the midst of a cost-of-living crisis, inevitable, and we make no apologies for flagging up Romania’s QPR again here, since the reliable Cramele Recaș’ four-way blend is a brilliant bargain beginner’s guide to orange wine for around a tenner a pop.
Rigal Gros Manseng Vin Orange, Vin de France
Cramele Recaș’ rivals at the lower-priced end of a category that is still resolutely premium include the Georgian Tbilvino and Chile’s Macerao (from Luis Felipe Edwards), while two of the canniest larger producers in the Languedoc-Roussillon, Gerrard Bertrand and Paul Mas, have both tipped their toes in the orange stuff. France (Cahors) is also the home of Cramele Recaș’ most consistent and widely distributed entry-level orange challenger, Rigal, which uses Gros Manseng for its lightly textured tropically tangy easy-drinker.
Testalonga El Bandito Skin-Contact Chenin Blanc, Swartland, South Africa
(Les Caves de Pyrene)
No prizes for guessing where South Africa’s most prominent and convincing orange wines have been produced so far. Swartland’s surfer-dude-hipster, natural-adjacent scene is full of experimental producers working with various lengths of maceration, with Craig Hawkins of Testalonga among those who have done so most successfully and harmoniously. His El Bandito Chenin Blanc gets 10-days of maceration in open-top fermenters before ageing in foudre; the result is beautifully racy, bright and true, with the gentlest of tannic bites.
La Garagista Vinu Jancu Vermont, USA
(Les Caves de Pyrene)
Rather like Australia, many of new-wave California’s best macerated bottles tend not to leave the state (or the States), loved as they are by sommeliers and mailing-list members. Still, the most compelling orange American wine tasted by this correspondent over the past year was from a rather more unexpected source and variety: Vermont’s La Garagista’s Vinu Jancu is made from La Crescent, a cold-hardy variety developed by the University of Minnesota as recently as 2002, and, with its mix of tropical and orchard fruit and ice wine-like febrile acidity, is utterly, brilliantly distinctive.
Viña González Bástias Naranjo, Maule Valley, Chile
The tinaja, the Spanish-speaking world’s answer to the amphora, has played an important part in changing perceptions of Chilean wine over the past decade, helping to show the country has more to offer than well-made mass-market varietals. Most of the clay action is taking place in the south of the country, in Itata and Maule, where very old vines (in this case Torontel, Moscatel, and País) are given what is, in the region, a traditional treatment of extended (60-day here) maceration for wines where the fragrantly floral meets mouthwateringly controlled bitterness and fine tannins.
Michael Opitz Pinot Gris-Traminer Orange Wine, Burgenland, Austria
With standout practitioners such as Uwe Schiefer, Heinrich, and Maria & Sepp Muster, Austria has one of the world’s most developed and extensive orange wine scenes, with the characteristics that make the country’s best white wines so compelling – that mix of ripe fleshiness, aromatic seductiveness, spiciness and bright incisiveness – all well-suited to a bit of skin-contact seasoning, and all very much present and correct in Michael Opitz’s finely-stitched, perfectly modulated example.