Orange wine in NZ today… What’s the state of play?

This story was originally published in NZ Winegrower magazine, February 2017.

Adventurous, boundary breaking and innovative? Or over extracted, faulty and faddish?

Orange wines have taken over where corks and screwcaps left off, as the wine industry’s current hot topic of debate… They can be organic, biodynamic, skillfully made expressions of aromatic grape varieties or they can be oxidized, phenolically challenging and lacking in fruit expression.

Whichever side of the fence they sit on stylistically, orange wines look like they are here to stay, if sufficient numbers of winemakers and gatekeepers in the world’s industry are any indication.

Their most vocal proponent in New Zealand is the country’s newest Master of Wine, Stephen Wong. He suggests that the most successful orange wines tend to be made from regions with access to good aromatic white grape varieties. Generally, this means cooler regions and it makes New Zealand a natural fit for orange winemaking. In his travels in the glass, Wong has seen more orange wines emerge from regions with a strong representation of smaller wineries, especially organic wineries, which are often aligned with natural wine philosophies. While he concedes that orange wine and natural wine are not interchangeable, he suggests there is a significant overlap between the two.

In New Zealand regional terms, Wong says North Canterbury and Central Otago led the initial charge but Marlborough, Gisborne, Nelson, and Martinborough have also produced a substantial number of orange wines while Hawke’s Bay was only represented by one producer until recently. He has yet to encounter any orange wines from Waiheke or Northland.

Winemaker Lynnette Hudson also sees a greater number of orange wines being made by winemakers who focus on using certified organic or biodynamic fruit in their wines because the principal of making an orange wine is returning to the basics.

“This can mean minimal intervention winemaking with low to no impact on the environment, human health and, supposedly, a true expression of the grapes and where they are grown; terroir.”

Hudson suggests the role of orange wines is to trigger thought about growing grapes that make less impact on the environment and to make wines with less of an interventionist approach.

“The idea seems to be to make healthier wines for those who live around the vineyards and for consumers who drink them, which can suggest lower SO2 additions and fewer additives in general.”

So, how does orange winemaking in New Zealand compare with orange winemaking styles produced internationally?

Wong sees three factors coming into play.

Firstly, New Zealand grapes possess an immense fruitiness which comes through in many of the country’s orange wines. The varieties used play a part because most of New Zealand’s national vineyard is planted in aromatic varieties, so most orange wines tend to be made from varieties such as Pinot Gris, Gewürztraminer and Sauvignon Blanc.

The second factor is the time that wines spend on skins tends towards the shorter end of the spectrum. Like Australian orange winemaking, New Zealand’s tends to last for three to four weeks, with very few going on to spend ten weeks of skin contact, although there are exceptions.

“As a result, we don’t see as many of the highly complex developed spice aromatics and phenolic structures more common in longer-macerated wines. New Zealand orange wines also tend to be less oxidative than their Georgian or Friulian counterparts,” says Wong.

“The majority of New Zealand orange wines are softer in their phenolic make-up from the shorter time on skins, but there are a few which are fiercely tannic,” Wong says.

There is a school of thought that grippy orange wines are the result of a moderate, but insufficient length of time on skins. In the same way as tannins in red wines can become smoother and more complex as they continue macerating, orange wines can, potentially, benefit.

The third factor is vine age. New Zealand vines are generally younger than those used by many European producers and Wong suggests that local winemakers are more careful with what they extract as a result.

He also suggests there may be less complexity or phenolic maturity to pull out of the skins as a result of the generally younger vine age in this country.

“For me, really good orange winemaking is unafraid to extract – longer times on skins obtain intense flavours beyond what is possible with white winemaking – but also being skilled enough to know how to manage those tannins and phenolics so the wine is still enjoyable texturally. A good orange wine should bear some relationship to the varieties being used, but transcend them,” he says.

In terms of tannin structure, winemakers at Sato and Pyramid Valley are pushing the envelope and he has also been impressed by the orange wines made by Francis Hutt at Carrick, and James Millton at the Millton Vineyard. He suggests that Hutt and Millton are marrying structure with perfume in their wines made from highly aromatic varieties like Riesling, Gewürztraminer and Viognier.

“I’ve also seen some interesting work with malolactic fermentation in orange wines from Lucie Lawrence at Aurum and Jen Parr at Valli.”

The use of amphoras, also known as tiñajas, is more prevalent in Europe than in this country for orange winemaking. This is a technique which can incorporate noticeable oxidation with a superb effect, which adds complexity rather than spoils the wines, says Wong.

As for a direction for orange winemaking in future, Hudson sees a strong divide between winemakers who she describes as extremists and those who hate the thought of making extreme orange wines.

“For me I find it exciting to push the boundaries but having a sound winemaking background has taught me how to make wine with little or no intervention but using temperature as a controlling factor.  This has helped me to produce orange wines that are not faulty. I do not believe that orange wines means faults are acceptable. At the end of the day these wines have to be drinkable. This is my personal opinion and lots of people think faults are acceptable. I just can’t drink faulty wines,” she says, adding that she hopes orange wines remain a strong category that encourages the reduction of additives in both the vineyard and the winery.

“Any step in this direction is a positive one.”

Wong says orange wine sales are growing in New Zealand but believes this is more indicative of an increase in the number of drinkers trying orange wine for the first time than a growing market.

“I don’t think many will continue to purchase or drink orange wines after their first experience, and even some of the more daring drinkers may choose to keep orange wines as an option in their list of possible wines but may not order them regularly.”

He thinks the future for orange wines is a niche market in wine bars and adventurous restaurants as well as influencing conventional winemaking as winemakers gain confidence with their techniques and and include more skin contact components in their wines to add interest and texture.

“There may come a time when there is a spectrum of wines with varying levels of skin-contact rather than just orange wines vs normal whites

Author: Joelle Thomson

I am a wine writer, author and educator... first bitten by a big buttery Chardonnay on a dark and stormy night in the 1980s and there was no turning back... Follow my tastings and join some too on this new site.

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