Renowned orange wine expert and award-winning writer Simon J. Woolf tells the full history of this ancient wine and its modern struggle to gain acceptance in Amber Revolution: How the World Learned to Love Orange Wine (Interlink Books; Fall 2018).
While the focus is mainly on the history and culture of orange wine in Slovenia, Italy and Georgia, the book also includes profiles of 180 of the best producers from 20 countries worldwide and is crammed full of all the information you need to find the best orange wines worldwide.
We spoke to Woolf, who is also the founder of The Morning Claret, a website focused on natural, organic, biodyamic and orange wines, about the relationship between natural and orange wine, how Georgia fits into this story, the future of orange wine and much more.
What was the motivation to write a book about orange wine?
The overriding reason is that I spent years wishing this book existed. When I first started to discover these amazing wines, I was desperate for a resource, for some more information, so that I could understand a bit more what this tradition was all about. I could see that it was an important historical slice of winemaking that had been ignored but I just didn’t know how to probe deeper into it. So I spent a couple of years researching and was getting frustrated. Eventually it dawned on me that I might have to be the one to actually write the book.
Similar to natural wine, it’s good to define our terms when we talk about orange wine. So what exactly is orange wine? And since many people tend to use these terms interchangeably, for better or worse, what is the relationship between orange wine and natural wine?
This does indeed cause a great deal of confusion. First off, obviously, none of these terms are completely set in stone – people will even have different definitions and argue [about them]. But my definition of orange wine is very simple, and it’s a technical definition. I define orange wine as wine made from white grapes that have been fermented with their skins – it’s that simple.
I think orange wine fits into the same paradigm as white, red or rosé wine. When you look at these categories, they’re all ways of talking about winemaking techniques: red wine is red grapes with the skins; rosé wine is red grapes without the skins; white wine is white grapes without the skins. So when you start to think like that, you realize, okay, that’s 75 percent of the possibilities. The other 25 percent is orange wine.
So I define orange wine merely as a winemaking technique whereas natural wine is a philosophy, it’s an overarching philosophy that can obviously take in any style of wine, it could be sparkling, it could be white, it could be orange, it could be rosé, whatever.
They do overlap to a very large degree, and I think that’s because orange wine is a very traditional way of treating white grapes. It’s a technique that became largely sidelined after the Second World War when winemaking technology appeared in a big way. And its reintroduction and reinvention was largely due to winemakers at the natural end of things – the type of winemaker that tends to experiment with the orange wine technique or make a wine in that style is usually someone who is focused on tradition and artisanal methods and low intervention, so I think that’s why we have this huge overlap.
Another reason [for the overlap] is that if you want to make a natural white wine, or a white wine with very low intervention, maybe without any added sulfites or certainly with very low sulfites, then macerating, i.e. fermenting with the skins, is a very good way to do it because you get built-in stability and minimize oxidation when you include the skins with all their phenolic compounds.
As you know, we work in Tbilisi and write a lot about Georgian wine. How does Georgia fit into the story that you’re telling about orange wine?
As I’m sure I don’t need to tell you, Georgia is really where it all begins. Most of the world had no idea about the Georgian tradition of making wine in qvevris, and that it has been documented for many thousands of years, at least until Georgia emerged from the grip of the USSR.
It’s very clear that Georgians in many ways have the longest tradition of orange wine or amber wine, to use the term that I think more Georgian winemakers prefer. The country really is the cradle of wine and holds the keys to this style in so many ways.
We hear a lot about how the Soviet Union, and later Russia, had an incredible impact on the Georgian winemaking industry. But in your book, you delve into the German influence on Georgia’s wine culture in the 19th century. Can you briefly describe how German settlers influenced Georgian winemakers before the Soviet Union?
Absolutely. First, I’d like to point out that my research into this is ongoing. In fact, I’m publishing an article sometime soon in The World of Fine Wine where I take a deeper look at the topic.
It’s fairly well documented that there were communities of so-called Caucasian Germans, and they were mostly settlers coming from Swabia, which is part of southern Germany that overlaps with Bavaria. They were very much encouraged by Tsar Alexander I in the first couple of decades of the 19th century to migrate to the South Caucasus, so not just Georgia but also Azerbaijan and Armenia. And they were encouraged to migrate there because it was seen as a land of opportunity – there was loads of space and agricultural land. And there wasn’t a great deal of prosperity in the south of Germany at that time.
These communities popped up in the first half of the 19th century, and they made a living by farming and making wine. And, of course, they had no hesitation in importing winemaking knowledge and technology such as it was from Germany. So the main innovation, if you like, was the idea that wine should be fermented and aged in wooden barrels. As far as I can tell, and again I don’t feel my research is completed just yet, but as far as I can tell Georgians just had never done that before the 19th century.
There are several of these towns in modern-day Georgia, Bolnisi being the most well known, which were founded by Germans – they didn’t exist before. As I wrote in the book, on my first trip to Bolnisi I found these guys who were throwing out their wooden barrels and installing qvevris – ironically, using these ancient clay pots was kind of a modern innovation, a way to keep up with the times. People don’t want wine made in these wooden barrels anymore.
Do you think that orange wine is at odds with industrial modern winemaking?
Yes, I think you can say that. We can compare it in some ways with the rise of white bread, which was essentially a product of the Industrial Revolution – you needed more processing to refine flour and make something that was actually not very nutritious but still a highly valued product.
In some ways, if you look at what happened with wine, especially in Italy, people suddenly had technology, they suddenly had the wherewithal to be able to make this crystal clear, fresh if sometimes rather amorphous-tasting white wine. It was a revolution, it was a novelty because no one had ever really managed to do this – it’s quite difficult to make white wine with no technology in a warmer climate. The idea of this kind of clear, fresh-tasting liquid totally took over, and no one could get their heads around why you’d want to have something russet colored that was slightly cloudy. But of course I think what was missing from that equation was the same as with white bread in a lot of ways: flavor.
Why do you think people love to hate orange wine?
Orange wine is an easy one to pick on because it’s the most different. Natural wines, if they’re red, as far as taste profile and texture profile go, they can often be quite similar to conventionally made red wines. But if you take white wines, especially those that have had skin contact and are unfiltered, they can be radically different to anything that the conventional wine world has been used to dealing with if you go back a couple of decades.
It’s also an aesthetic thing. If you’ve spent a decade or more being taught or teaching that white wine is not supposed to be a brown or amber color, and if it is, it means it’s oxidized, it can be very hard to pull back from that and it can very hard to even convince yourself. You really have to sit there and say okay, it’s the color that’s bothering me, not the taste. We’re all deeply visual animals when it comes down to it.
What do you think the future holds for orange wine?
In Italy, Slovenia and Georgia, and some of their satellites (some other parts of the Balkans, for example), this wine culture has now been so strongly reintroduced, it’s become so well-established that it’s becoming part of the furniture really, in the best possible way.
What I really enjoy seeing is how winemakers in different parts of the world, especially winemakers in New World countries, are using this technique. Because someone in Australia or South Africa frequently isn’t tied down by tradition and often doesn’t have the same regulatory limitations put on them like someone in a classic wine region like Burgundy or Piemonte might have. So for them, the idea of skin contact for white grapes is just another tool to add to the toolset, it’s something they can play with.
So many winemakers, and not just the natural ones, not even just the small artisanal ones, are embracing the idea of orange, the possibility of having a fourth color. It has a very bright future.
Click here to purchase your copy of “Amber Revolution: How the World Learned to Love Orange Wine” (Interlink Books; Fall 2018), out now.
Editor’s note: Following on the heels of our 2019 gift guide, we are running our inaugural Book Week, which spotlights some of our recent favorite culinary books, just in time for the holiday season.