I’ve had the privilege of attending quite a few Acqua Panna Global Wine Experiences over the years. Organised as part of the Melbourne Food & Wine Festival, the wine masterclasses offer a unique opportunity to sample some terrific, often hard-to-find or unusual wines, and the guest panels often include international wine critics, renowned winemakers and sommeliers.
The Wine Advocate’s Lisa Perrotti-Brown MW was one of four panelists on “The Not So Classics” masterclass moderated by wine journalist Mike Bennie at Melbourne’s Town Hall last Sunday. She was joined by Rollo Crittenden, winemaker at Mornington Peninsula’s Crittenden Estate, Sebastian Crowther MS, Head Sommelier of Rockpool est. 1989, and winemaker Kathleen Quealy of Mornington Peninsula’s Quealy.
As the name of the panel suggests, the 12 wines in four brackets were not your classic varieties. Two of the white wines were “orange” wines, the 2011 Tissot Amphorae Savignon from Jura in France and the 2010 Dario Princic Jakot, a fruliano from Friuli in Northeast Italy. Their inclusion in the lineups sparked much debate.
If you’re not familiar with orange wines, you would probably be a bit shocked by a white wine that is cloudy in appearance and has a definite orange or amber hue. This was certainly the reaction from an audience member to the 2011 Tissot Amphorae Savagnin. He wondered what was wrong with wine no. 2?
Perrotti-Brown suggested that the wine was faulty, showing unfavourable signs of oxidation (eg. flat on the palate and bitter in taste), but her opinion wasn’t shared by some other members of the panel.
Quealy explained that what makes orange wine so unusual, not only to look at but to smell and taste, is the novel technique of letting a white grape variety ferment on its own skin.
Skin maceration is normally a practice reserved for red varieties because the skins’ phenolics and tannins lend colour and texture to the wine. When used for a white wine, skin contact imbues the wine with many of the characteristics normally associated with a red wine, such as a richly textured mouth feel complemented by tannins and a more earthy or savoury after taste.
Debate centred around to what extent the unique attributes of the orange wines were the result of extended skin contact or oxidation.
Quealy argued that sometimes winemakers deliberately use oxidation as a technique to introduce certain aromas – eg bruised apples, dried fruits and smoky nuts. While oxidation generally leads to the detection of volatile acidity (VA), a small amount of VA isn’t necessarily a sign that the wine is faulty.
Certainly the winemaking approach favoured by Stéphane Tissot and Dario Pincic are designed to let a small amount of oxygen permeate the wine throughout the fementation and ageing process. The Tissot Amphorae Savagnin, for example, was fermented in clay amphorae instead of stainless steel.
The use of amphorae is an ancient practice that originated in the Caucuses and was revived in the 1990s by two pioneers of orange wine – Fruili’s Josko Gravner and Stanko Radikon. Clay amphorae is more permeable than stainless steel, and during the fermentation process some of the wine evaporates. If the vessel is not topped up, oxygen rests above the flor or veil that sits on top of the wine.
Both wines were aged in used barriques for 20 months or more and only a small amount of sulphur was used to preserve the wines. Bennie explained that the exposure of wine to oxygen throughout the fermentation and ageing process limits the need to add sulphur and also extends the life of the wine in bottle.
Sorry to sound a bit technical, but I think an understanding of how the wines are made better prepares you for a somewhat idiosyncratic tasting experience. One audience member, who seemed to know a lot about orange wines, was emphatic that the wines didn’t have oxidative characters, attributing their somewhat funky qualities to skin contact only.
Because of their red wine-like qualities, orange wines are best served at room temperature. I certainly found myself enjoying the wines more as they opened up. The bitter herb like accents didn’t diminish the liveliness of the citrus flavours and the minerally acidity of the 2011 Tissot Amphorae Savignin. And while the tannins added red wine-like texture and structure, both wines were still elegant and less weighty than reds.
Popular with sommeliers, orange wines are often expensive but well worth a try, especially if you’re looking for something different!
Merrill Witt, Editor