Making Orange Wine

The process behind the most intriguing trend in natural winemaking.

What is Orange Wine?

Some wines are called orange wines. They rank with red wines and white wines as distinct in color, hinting at the way they’re made. Since orange wines are made a little differently, they taste a little different. And since there’s roughly the same process behind all orange wines, there are some qualities they all share.

So what is orange wine? Essentially, orange wine is a white wine that’s made like a red wine. White grapes like Pinot Griggio, Riesling, or Chardonnay are left in contact with their grape skins after pressing. The juice extracts tannins from the skins, imbuing structure, body, and color (hence, ‘orange wine’).

That’s about as far as the commonalities between orange wines go. Distinguishing one bottle from the next depends on a few things. To understand what any given orange wine will taste like, here are a few things to take into account:

(1) The process: How is the wine made?

(2) The variety: What grape is used to make the wine?

(3) The terroir: What kind of place does the wine come from?

(4) The balance: What kind of wine is being made?

Why Orange Wine?

Orange wine is garnering a reputation as a serious competitor to the reigning champion of Sunday brunch, Rosé. You won’t be hard-pressed to find by-the-glass varieties on menus spanning up and down the snobbery spectrum.

Others see something else in orange wine, something far from pedestrian quaff. Ask some of the most emblematic producers from Northern Italy, Georgia and Austria, and you’ll hear about orange wines that are as pure and meticulously crafted as any wine on the market.

Still yet you have natural wine’s geekiest fans fawning over orange wines with flavor profiles more akin to beer or bourbon.

Long story short: there are different orange wines for different occasions. As with all color-coded beverages, the field is not created equal: Some orange wines are fantastic, many are good, very many are an affront to the senses (reasons vary). Clues to the quality and function of any given bottle become apparent when you get clear on just what orange wine is. In this article, we’re going to focus on two of the pioneers. The estates of Jasko Gravner and Stanko Radikon produce emblematic orange wines that have inspired a generation. Their wines are cornerstones, but their philosophies are distinct. Here we’ll investigate the process.

Gravner and Radikon

Most orange wines fit nicely in a wider context of ‘natural wine’. That’s partly due to coincidence and partly due to the the process that orange wine harkens back to. The idea of letting juice sit in its skins during fermentation is not a new one. Evidence of extended skin contact goes back thousands of years, and this recollection of a process used by ancient winemakers is in line with a turn away from ‘modern’, or ‘comercial’ winemaking.

In this sense, vintners making orange wine (or contact wine) are driven by a kind of primitivism meant to undo the spurious behavior of modern winemaking (including the use of pesticides, herbicides, lab grown yeasts, and the rest).

The estates of Stanko Radikon and Josko Gravner call their wines ‘natural wines’, and care little for further qualification. Both have forgone organic or biodynamic certification, and both have renounced any DOC classification. Gravner infamously regards the use of terms like ‘organic’ and ‘biodynamic’ as empty marketing tags. In an interview with Louis/Dressner, Saša (the late Stanko Radikon’s son) gives an anecdote where he chides the lack of seriousness and rigor from organic certification inspectors.

He says:

We only applied for organic certification once. My father showed the inspectors the vineyards and they told him they looked fine. He then asked them to follow him to the cellar they told him that that wouldn’t be necessary, that the cellar had nothing to do with certification. Stanko insisted that the bulk of the production was in the cellar and they should inspect his work there, but they still refused. He then asked them how often they’d pass by for controls and they replied that once you’ve gotten your certification, they didn’t really need to check up on you anymore.

They haven’t sought such a designation since. All this comes from two of the most fastidious, non-interventionist and detail-oriented producers making wine today. In terms of orange wine, these are two of the uncontested pioneers. Their philosophy is as hard-lined as it is thin: make wine out of grapes and nothing else. It’s a principle that demands a lot. The production is painstaking and arduous — much of it blaringly uneconomical. The yields are low, the costs are high, and the risks involved with such demanding constraints probably come off to most modern winemakers as wrongheaded. But as consumers we like this principled approach, especially when the wines are as good as some of Stanko and Josko’s wines can be.

That isn’t to say, however, that Gravner and Radikon are using the same style of production. There are many points of departure in their respective styles. This alludes to the fact that the process behind making contact wine is never just one thing. Even as close neighbors championing the same philosophy, these two domains produce wine in a way that is as exemplary as it is unique.

The Place

Both Gravner and Radikon are located in the northeast corner of Italy, right on the Slovenian border. The vineyards are situated within the Friuli- Venezia Giulia region, in the town of Oslavia, and are within walking distance of each other. Most sites are small and peppered throughout slow- rolling hills at the base of the Julien Alps. The soil here is heavy clay with rich deposits of shale — perfect for absorbing extra moisture from the rainy climate. Where most of Radikon’s vines grow in one larger parcel, Gravner holds 7 smaller vineyards strewn about his 35-hectare estate.

The Vines

As both winemakers insist on minimal intervention, it is extremely important to produce the best fruit possible. At Radikon, there seems to be a strongly pragmatic approach to this requirement that’s a bit loftier for Gravner. In the interview with Louis/Dressner, Saša Radikon notes the precise training and pruning method aimed at reducing the vines yield to a mere four bunches per vine, about half a kilogram of fruit per year (enough for about one or two bottles of wine). In so doing Saša adheres to the conventional wisdom that smaller yields increase the quality of the fruit.

The Process

Scrubbing through Gravner’s very fancy website, we get the impression that this kind of functional thinking takes a backseat to the holistic approach involved in more explicitly biodynamic enterprises. As terroir is concerned, much of the estate is dedicated to not just to vineyards, but also olive trees, cypresses, ponds and other natural features aimed at diversifying biological community. In doing so, Josko adheres to the principle that monoculture is at odds with the production of good fruit.

The old story goes that the famous, modern winemaker Josko Graver takes a trip to California where he drinks something like 10,000 wines in a few hours and realizes the error of his modernist, high tech ways. Essentially, he is not impressed, so changes direction and adopts the ancient winemaking technique of the Georgians whereby (both red and white) grape juice is left to macerate in their skins in giant clay amphorae called ‘qvevri’.

Gravner’s wines are thus ‘contact wines’ insofar as the grapes are pressed, followed by an extended period of contact with the skins. In every-day white wine production, this is not the case. Normally the grapes are pressed, and the juice runs off to some other vessel for fermentation.

The Radikon family has a more modest story of how they got into the skin-contact business. Generations back, the wines made at the estate were purely for personal consumption, and so in order to make the wine last they would vinify the white wines the way you’d normally vinify red wine, i.e. allowing for some extended skin contact. Presumably the skins imparted some tannic structure that helped to preserve the wine throughout the year.

Today, Radikon first de-stems, followed by fermentation on the skins for approximately three months. The wine is then aged in oak anywhere from one to 3 years, depending on the cuvée. There are no acids, sugars or yeasts or stabilizers added. There is no sulfur added either.

Like Radikon, Gravner eschews temperature control during fermentation. However, Gravner has a technique for accomplishing this task that stands as a delimiting factor — not just between these two winemakers — but also between many producers of contact wines. Gravner ferments in the ancient amphorae used by the Georgians for over 5,000 years. These giant clay containers are buried in the earth in order to maintain a cool temperature. Many producers of contact wine still use these qvevri today. Radikon does not.

The Product

When it comes to bottling, many cuvées see at least a year of aging before release. This is true of both Gravner wines as well as Radikon’s, with few exceptions (the ‘S’ series, for instance, are released immediately after bottling). However, this final stage of the process does include one particularly idiosyncratic detail on the part of Radikon. Instead of the traditional 750-milliliter bottle size, Stanko has opted for half-liter bottles with thin corks. One motivation is typically practical: the small corks have less surface area exposed to the outside world. Also, the corks come from higher up the hill where the humidity is lower thus lowering the rate of infection. I’m compelled to think, however, that there’s another motivation mentioned by Saša that may hold all the weight: the smaller bottles make it easier to take down a red bottle and a white bottle with dinner. Reasonable.

As important as the process behind a wine can be, it’s one factor of many. The variety, the terroir, the type of wine being made all play a hand in the finished product. Next we will look into these other factors and see what their function bares out.