What’s in a Name?
Defining Orange and Natural Wine

Twenty years ago, the pinnacle of fashion for an Austrian winegrower was to release his or her premium red blend, aged in expensive new French oak. But times have changed – new oak is no longer regarded as being on the cutting edge.

Producers these days are more likely to pour you their ‘Orange wine’, or a special cuvée made without added sulphur – a ‘Natural wine’ perhaps. They might also use terms such as ‘raw wine’, ‘skin contact’ or the German adjective «maischevergoren».

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

Natural and Raw Wine

Natural wine’ – occasionally called ‘raw wine’, is the broadest of these categories, a term that’s become increasingly popular over the last decade to mean wine made with the least possible intervention from the winemaker. In Austria only those estates that cultivate their grapes organically may market Landwein exhibiting turbidity or clouding and oxidative notes as ‘natural wine’. This applies equally to wines with an indication of grape variety and vintage, and without a more specific indication of origin than simply «Österreich» and wines without indication of grape variety or vintage and with no more detailed designation of origin than «Österreich». Descriptions such as «Naturwein» are not permitted for any wines.

The natural wine movement started in France in the 1980s, when Jules Chauvet and Jacques Néauport began their research and experimentation into how to make wine without the use of the anti-oxidant and preservative sulphur dioxide. Since then, vin nature has blossomed into a diverse yet global counter-culture movement, fighting against homogenisation, industrialisation and the culture of Parker points that dominated the 1990s and 2000s.

So what does this say about the liquid in the bottle? Most would agree that the idea of natural wine means the following:

  • Organic or biodynamic viticulture – whether certified or not
  • Hand-harvested fruit
  • Spontaneous fermentation, without the use of added/laboratory yeasts
  • No additions or adjustments to the must, so no acidification, no chaptalisation and no yeast nutrients or enzymes
  • No heavy manipulation of the wine, eg: spinning cone, reverse osmomis, micro-oxygenation, cryo-extraction
  • No filtration
  • No fining
  • Minimal or no sulphur dioxide additions

The above definition was adopted by Decanter magazine for a panel tasting of natural wines held in January 2017.

Natural wine has its more ardent supporters, who would also insist on:

While there’s no single definition, a number of growers’ associations and other organisations have made attempts to classify and certify producers on a voluntary basis. Rawfair is fast becoming one of the world’s leading natural wine fairs, and has a strict charter of quality criteria for submissions, including an upper limit of 70 mg/L of total SO2 – this is less than half the amount allowed in standard dry wines, under EU law.

Growers’ organisations are numerous, and all have slightly differing rules – some stricter, some more lenient. They include the French Renaissance des appellations, Italian Triple A (both with multiple Austrian members) and Italian ViniVeri (also with internationally-based members, but currently no Austrians).

A logical question at this point would be ‘Isn’t it enough to be certified organic and/or biodynamic’?. The answer is complex, but mainly centred around the fact that these farming methods don’t control everything that happens in the wine cellar, although they do specify lower total SO2 limits than for conventional wines.

A producer may have organic certification and start with beautiful, even biodynamically-grown fruit but then work rather conventionally in the cellar. It could then be argued that this creates a misconception for the customer, who sees the biodynamic symbol of the bottle and expects a product that is ‘natural’ rather than ‘industrial’. The natural wine movement addresses this issue by recognising that integrity is just as important in the winery as it is in the vineyard.

American writer/journalist Alice Feiring and UK based Master of Wine Isabelle Legeron are two of natural wine’s most famous supporters and communicators. Both talk of natural wines as being ‘alive’ in a way that industrially-produced wines are not. Legeron gives this description: ‘Fine natural wines are vibrant and alive, and show excitingly diverse personalities that are full of emotion’.

The category is controversial, with some wine critics and experts claiming that it is merely forgiving of potential faults in a wine. Natural wine fans don’t see anything wrong with a cloudy wine, or with noticeable sediment – a circumstance that would be enough to have a wine removed from the shelves of most supermarkets, where aesthetic conformity and freedom from blemish are the norm.

Natural wines can sometimes have higher levels of bacteria such as brettanomyces or volatile acidity than conventional producers would normally tolerate. Whether these factors ‘work’ in a specific wine is partly a matter of individual taste. Brettanomyces has often been cited as a key component, albeit an unrecognised one, in many of the world’s most classic red wines.

Orange Wine

Orange wine is often confused with natural wine, and the two are sometimes erroneously considered to be synonymous. Where natural wine refers to a broad category – even an ideology –orange wine refers simply to a winemaking technique.

The name orange wine was coined by UK wine importer David A. Harvey in 2004, and has since become accepted as the most convenient way to describe white wines made with extended skin contact/skin maceration (extended meaning days, weeks or months).

Just as ‘rosé wine‘ means a wine made from red grapes but with very brief skin contact, an ‘orange wine’ is a wine made from white grapes with extended skin contact during the fermentation. This has lead to some defining orange wine as ‘the fourth wine colour’ or as ‘a white wine made as if it were a red wine’.
The Austrian Wine Law allows Landwein with cloudy texture and oxidative notes to be sold when it carries the designation ‘Orangewein’ or ‘orangewine’. This provision may also be applied to wine with an indication of grape variety and vintage, and without more detailed designation of origin than «Österreich», as well as wine without indication of grape variety and vintage and with no more detailed designation of origin than «Österreich».

The extended skin contact technique is most well established in the formerly Austro-Hungarian corner of the Adriatic which is now technically Italian Friuli and Slovenian Goriška Brda. Extended periods of skin maceration have been common in these regions for centuries. A Slovenian winemaking manual from 1844 confirms this. Its author, the priest Matija Vertovec, recommends macerations from 7–30 days for both red and white grapes.

Leaving white grapes with their skins – and in some cases stems – is an even older idea in the republic of Georgia, where the technique of making wine in qvevri (large amphora-like vessels which are buried in the ground up to their necks) has a history of around 8,000 years. Arguably, Georgian qvevri wines made from white grapes are the original ‘orange wines’. Here the skin contact can be as long as nine months.

Orange wines are a fascinating hybrid between red and white, with some of the structure and tannins that would normally be expected only in red wine, but also with the freshness and fruit from white grapes. The extended skin contact brings up a smorgasbord of unusual flavours, from overripe or bruised orchard fruits, to herbs, hay and chamomile.

There’s a common misconception that orange wines are supposed to be oxidised, no doubt due to their colour, which can span anything from a light amber gold to a deep russet brown. Oxidation is rarely the desired goal, with winemakers who are expert with the style usually ensuring that their vats are closed and topped up once fermentation has completed.

By now, a large number of Austrian producers have taken to the orange wine style, starting around 2005. Some make their orange wine in the traditional Friulian/Slovenian manner – wild yeast fermentation, no temperature control and minimal use of sulphur – whilst others use the extended skin contact technique within a more conventional or ‘modern’ paradigm, to add a little spice to their white wines. Here’s where confusion sets in – some orange wines can thus also be classed as natural wines, while others might not necessarily fit that definition.

The final misconception is that orange wines are always made in clay amphorae or similar vessels. Whilst this is true of the Georgian tradition, most of the acknowledged masters of orange wine in Friuli and Slovenia use open-top wooden fermenters.

Although natural wine and orange wine may both be minute niches, they still prove to be exciting additions to many winemaker’s portfolios – or even their one and only passion. With many Austrian winegrowers following this path, the best of them manage to yield some of the most fascinating, characterful wines, enriching both the Austrian wine scene and the market in general.

Author: Simon J. Woolf