Orange is the new white

The Kalleske Plenarius and Vinden Headcase Gewürztraminer. Huon Hooke

Orange, amber or skin-ferment white wines are an acquired taste. Perhaps, like beer and coffee, we shouldn’t expect to like them the first time we taste them.

Two provocative examples crossed my path recently. The more often I show these kinds of wines to drinkers who aren’t familiar with them, the more interesting the discussions become. Why do we enjoy – or not enjoy – them? Are we misled by their unattractively dark and turbid appearance? Is their appearance unattractive only because it’s different to what we expect? And is what we expect only what we’ve been conditioned to expect and react positively to, or is there something immutable about good and bad taste?

If entered in a wine competition, there’s little doubt they would be shown the door. But are they truly bad wines? No.

Vinden Estate is a family-owned Hunter Valley winery making excellent vino. I’ve raved about them before. Younger-generation family member Angus Vinden is assisted by well-established Hunter winemaker Dan ‘Bucket’ Binet in the winemaking. Their more conventional offerings are exceptional, especially shiraz and other wines sourced from the Somerset vineyard.

The limited production label The Vinden Headcase usually indicates ‘reserve’ selections of shiraz and semillon, but the latest one is a 2019 gewürztraminer produced by utilising the grape-skins, which are normally discarded before fermentation. There were three treatments all involving skins: pre-fermentation maceration followed by tank fermentation; 18-hour skin contact followed by draining off to barrel for fermentation; the third by fermenting on the skins for seven days before pressing. The blend wasn’t filtered or fined before bottling.

The result is a deep orange-golden, cloudy wine with a complex bouquet and flavour, which has much of the scrumpy cider-like character common to most skin-ferment white wines, but some of the gewürztraminer personality survives. The wine has some charm and appeal, even to someone like me, who has a moderate aversion to such wines. I tend to prize freshness, brightness, clarity and fruit character in white wines. There were notes of orange and other citrus, white pepper and mixed spices, and a slightly grippy finish thanks to skin tannins.

Another wine, where I was less successful finding pleasure, was the Kalleske Plenarius 2018. This is a Barossa Valley viognier, wild fermented on skins for eight days, matured in oak for 10 months then bottled without fining or filtration. A major difference from the Vinden is that no sulphites were added (the Vinden label states ‘minimal sulphites added’).

The appearance was dark orange and cloudy, the bouquet suggesting malt, various spices, dried fruits (apricots and raisins) and arguably a touch of oxidation, while the palate was full-flavoured, quite grippy and dry but avoiding bitterness, the texture quite oily – both visually and in mouth-feel.

Neither wine showed serious winemaking faults such as volatility or brettanomyces.

How should one assess these wines, to say nothing of scoring them?

If entered in a wine competition, there’s little doubt they would be shown the door. But are they truly bad wines? No.

They are drinkable, depending on your personal taste. But they are a country mile away from what most winemakers, drinkers and critics would consider well-made, high-quality wines. Or is it simply that they wouldn’t be recognised as ‘normal’ or ‘correct’ white wines?

Some drinkers love these kinds of wines. Their dark, cloudy appearance is a sure-fire way to recognise them as skin-fermented wines made from ostensibly white grapes. Some love them because they see them as more ethical than conventional wines. Ethical or sustainable considerations are more important to some consumers than aesthetic appeal or quality.

Recognising a wine’s brown and cloudy appearance seems to lead some people into assuming that these are ethically or sustainably grown and made wines. This assumption isn’t always correct. (The Kalleske wine was made from biodynamically-certified grapes, however.)

Both wines were made from grapes and are, technically, wines. I have no problem with people drinking and enjoying them. Where I do take issue is when such wines are claimed to more accurately showcase terroir – the individuality of the place where they were grown. They do no such thing. They merely taste like skin-fermented wines, without regional, vineyard or even (in most instances) varietal characteristics.

But they are fun to discuss.

2 thoughts on “Orange is the new white”

  1. Avatar
    pepito says:

    who says brettanomyces is a “serious winemaking fault” ?

    1. Huon Hooke
      Huon Hooke says:

      I’m happy to put my hand up for that. But it depends on the intensity, and the tolerance level of the drinker.

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