Orange, Natural, RAW Wines – Flight of fashion, niche item, or source of inspiration?

Everybody has new words in their vocabulary these days; the discussion runs fast and furious, especially in online wine forums and Facebook groups. There has never been a single subject quite as polarising as this one. A trend, once initially dismissed by many oenologists and industry professionals as a nine-days wonder, has long since established a market niche for itself. Above all with young sommeliers, who work together with creative chefs de cuisine. One is now aware of the unmistakable presence of these wines on the wine lists at some of the most prestigious culinary destinations in the world.

The picture shows some glasses filled with orange wine. Copyright: Orange & Natural Wines/Susanne Korab
© Orange & Natural Wines/Susanne Korab

In principle, this little revolution in the world of wine arose from the tedium of "industrially" produced wines. Over the past couple decades, squeaky-clean and almost surgically sterile concrete cellars – outfitted with rank and file of stainless steel tanks and French barriques – became the new theatres of operations for winemaking, nearly everywhere in the world. And many wines became almost interchangeable with one another from the standpoint of flavour, regardless of geographic origin. One could hardly tell anymore – unless with a vast store of personal experience – if a particular white wine had been produced in Sicily, Rueda, New Zealand or Austria. And it was even more difficult with the reds: an opulent and juicy fruit profile, a few notes of toasty oak, round and soft; those wines were everywhere. And no matter how much the talk of "origin" and "heritage", the only perceptible difference with the bigger producers sometimes seemed to be an extra digit following the €, £ or $ sign. This became the trigger for many winegrowers to try something a bit different...

So let’s try to bring a bit of order to the diverse current trends in "alternative" wines.

Orange Wines

This is a term and a concept that very quickly established itself as the "fourth colour of wine". As is often the case, it was an English-speaking colleague who originated the term, upon having one of these wines in his glass for the first time. Not inappropriate, because many of these wines do have an orange tint when held to the light. On that basis, a few producers and wine merchants in Germany attempted to define "orange wine" thus: as a white wine that had been vinified like a red. So, no more destemming and straight into the press as usual – instead, letting the grape must stand for a couple hours on the skins, or simply allowing fermentation to proceed on the skins.

Many white wine varieties take on colour and develop a slightly reddish hue when they become very ripe. The clusters are no longer green, but become deep yellow or red, and the varieties are often named for this tendency: Roter Traminer, Roter Veltliner or Spätrot (a synonym for Zierfandler). Some of the grape varieties are identified as "grey", like Grauburgunder/Pinot Gris. The element of colour lies always in the skin of the berries. "Red" wines, too, remain white when one presses the grapes immediately, like Blanc de Noirs in Champagne. And indeed, if one allows these lightly reddish white-wine grapes to stand on their skins for a couple hours, there will be some colour extracted from the peels, and a white wine becomes rosé-coloured, or even slightly orange.

But there also exists still another possibility for bringing an orange tone to a wine: if it should begin to oxidise. Like, for example, when one ferments white wines in amphoras – the oldest known technique for wine production. There are countries in which wine is still made in this manner today, the best-known example being in (formerly Soviet) Georgia. These clay vessels are called qvevri, which can contain a few hundred litres – or even as much as 3,500L. These amphoras are typically buried in the ground, filled with the crushed – not pressed – grapes and then sealed. Ideally, the qvevri is nearly airtight as well, and only a micro-oxidation will take place. But quite often more and more oxygen will find its way into the vessel, so that the wine begins to oxidise and colours itself orange.

Orange is not necessarily organic.

These wines are often automatically assumed to be "organic" by some consumers, but they are not obliged to be. This can be substantially different in the various countries of origin – for this reason, a definition would indeed be quite important. Orange wines do not have to be organic, or free of sulphur. This has absolutely nothing to do with it. In addition – and very importantly – there are conceptual differences that different languages bring to the picture. Thus one also encounters terms like "Natural Wines", "RAW Wines", "Artisan Wines" or "Organic Wines". And even though in the meantime there are well-attended wine fairs with titles such as these, the designations mentioned lack any type of prescribed statute or rule concerning how the wines must be produced. The only elements of production that are in fact stipulated in Austria – and which are strictly monitored – involve organic or biodynamic cultivation. But then again, these wines will not necessarily be orange.

RAW, Natural and Artisan Wines

In the English-language sphere, one understands RAW wines as being near-to-nature, ("natural wines"), produced by means of organic or biodynamic agriculture; wines which also demonstrate a sense of origin. Their aromas and flavour evoke the region where they were produced – so that one quickly lands in the densely populated briar-patch of the concept "terroir", only here in connexion with organic viticulture.In Great Britain, there are even organisers of these RAW-Wine events who have developed a charter, according to which the winegrowers must work organically or biodynamically, may only harvest their grapes by hand and only ferment them spontaneously on their authochthonous yeasts (except for the secondary fermentation of a sparkling wine). There may be no "winemaking additives" introduced, and it is not permitted to inhibit malolactic fermentation. Levels of free sulphur should be kept as low as possible, and any "heavy manipulation" is strictly forbidden – this specifically means methods of concentration such as cryoextraction and reverse osmosis.In other countries, these and like wines are designated as "Artisan Wines". Most of these are in fact wines produced primarily by relatively small growers, who do a great deal of their work by hand, who mostly observe spontaneous fermentation and are proud of their "terroir". However, there is no guarantee here (for example in France) for organic viticulture or reduced levels of sulphur.

Wooden cask, amphora, concrete egg, earthenware or stainless steel tank?

The methods of vinification are also quite diverse. Here, creative winegrowers have sought alternative vessels in order to give their wines a distinctive touch. The oh-so-popular stainless steel tank suddenly became too reductive and too sterile. The wood of the casks, whose toasty aromas of oak were so fashionable during the 1990s, grew to be viewed as producing aromatic distortion. So in Italy, the growers reactivated their good old concrete tanks, refurbished and relined the interior surfaces and are using them once more today for fruit-forward wines.

Earthenware tanks have found favour with some Austrian wine producers, in which one allows the lightly pressed grapes to ferment very slowly, and leaves them a long time on the lees, stirring only occasionally.

Fermenters of natural stone are currently being used to an increasing degree by Austrian and German growers. The wines are said to achieve – in these vessels made from granite or basalt – a greater presence of minerality and greater complexity. In addition, stone casks are suited to wines fermenting as pure grape must, as well as those that are fermenting on the skins. But the long-term results have yet to be seen, although a few estates are already achieving noteworthy outcomes.

The so-called "concrete egg" has introduced itself to other regions of Europe, a vessel in which the oval shape itself brings about independent motion of the juice and circulation as it ferments. These eggs were followed by experiments in the same form using wood, and then the latest vessels – with which folks are currently experimenting in Tuscany with great enthusiasm – are spheroids made from porcelain, which can yield very delicate and complex red wines.

The aforementioned clay amphoras are in fashion now as well, originally from Georgia, mostly, but subsequently also imported from Spain. These are now sometimes also made from terra cotta, which in turn is highly favoured by Italy’s organic wine producers.

And more contemporary than ever before is the technique – originally from Burgundy – of whole cluster fermentation, also referred to as intercellular fermentation. Here the grapes are no longer destemmed, but rather gently placed – without pressing and with the stems – as whole clusters in the fermenters. The greater part of the grape material then begins to ferment within the berries themselves, and the pressing only occurs later on. This method of vinification often produces engaging and elegant wines.

And the good old wooden cask has not yet been pensioned-off; larger, neutral casks are often specifically employed for further maturing, after the wines have been taken off the lees.

So, are these just experiments and niche-wines?

These wines, regardless if red or white, presently remain niche-market products. You will hardly find them at your local Tesco, Aldi or Stop & Shop. But oenophiles now encounter them with increasing frequency at wine-themed gatherings. And only the future will ultimately show if the trend manages to gain traction. At the moment it appears so, because more than a couple experienced and established producers are "playing" with these methods of production, and thus bringing special bottlings to the market.

It is, though, an inspiration, being able once more to try out something new – and this is true for all, whether winemaker, sommelier or wine aficionado.