All those years ago, when I first got the orange wine bug, who could imagine this: One of the world’s foremost wine education bodies, The Wine and Spirits Education Trust, has just added orange wine to their syllabus. A big thank you to Australian Instagrammer thewineabout, currently a WSET Diploma student – I discovered the news via her feed.
In 2015, when I wrote a major article for Decanter magazine about orange wine, WSET were not yet on-board with the Amber Revolution. Their strategic director Antony Moss AIWS MW acknowledged the omission to me in a private email exchange, but noted that “The WSET does not have an ‘official view’ on anything (orange wines, 100 point rating system, minimum unit pricing, biodynamics, cork vs screwcap etc). But what it does have to do is make decisions regarding what to include in syllabuses at each level. These decisions are primarily based on our best knowledge of what it is important for professionals around the world to know and understand.” .
No longer an obscurity
He didn’t rule out the future addition of orange wine, but the implication was that it hadn’t made enough of a mark to require inclusion. It’s really heartening to see that this has changed. From 2019, the course material contains a summary of the extended skin contact technique, plus a brief note about the growers in Friuli Collio who rescued the style from its previous obscurity.
It does a decent job of explaining fermentation on the skins and how this affects white grapes – but there were a couple of phrases that had my eyebrows raised. This is from the section on skin contact:
“At the extreme end of the spectrum, there are some wines made from white grapes that are fermented on their skins (and may undergo post-fermentation maceration) without temperature control or sulfur additions. These are typically called ‘orange wines’, the name hailing from the colour of these wines (often amber-coloured), which develops due to the oxidation of compounds extracted from the grape skins. These wines do not taste like typical white wines. They are usually dry, have notable levels of tannins and taste mainly of tertiary characteristics such as nuts and dried fruit.”
To the best of my admittedly woolly scientific knowledge, oxidation is absolutely not part of the process. Colour in orange/amber wines occurs for same reasons as it does in red wine: the pigments in the grape skins are transferred, through extraction, from the skins into the must. Oxidation is neither desired, nor in most cases would it be possible, as the blanket of CO2 generated by fermentation effectively prevents the ingress of oxygen.
This phrase also carries a risk, that it perpetuates the erroneous idea that orange wines are all about oxidation or oxidativeness. Whilst many of the greatest producers of orange wines recognise the role of oxygen in their winemaking, they also emphasise that oxidation is never the goal.
This isn’t Ribolla’s true soul. The beast is only unlocked with the inclusion of its skins
Wine professionals often get this confused – especially when their eyes rather than their palates make the judgement call. Orange wines can resemble the same amber or nut brown colour produced by oxidation in deliberately oxidative styles such as Amontillado sherries, or the sous voile wines of the Jura. But with orange wines, the colour comes from the skins.
The second troubling statement pops up in the description of the orange wines of Friuii Collio (and specifically Oslavia, home to the two orange wine icons Gravner and Radikon):
“The resulting wines are amber, orange or gold in colour, have pronounced flavours of citrus rind, marzipan and honey, muted varietal character and medium tannins.”
This is, in my opinion, another common misconception that needs to be shown the door. Why should a wine fermented with its skins display muted varietal character? No-one makes this claim when it comes to red wines – who would argue that Cabernet Sauvignon only expresses its true varietal character as a rosé?
That’s not muted varietal character
Perhaps this confusion stems from the idea of expected, rather than actual varietal character. Exhibit A: Ribolla Gialla. A white grape variety whose flesh, devoid of its regal skins, produces a fairly neutral wine with the vaguest notion of white blossom aromas, a weedy suggestion of citrus fruits, and (with luck) a nutty hint on the finish.
But this isn’t Ribolla’s true soul. The beast is only unlocked with the inclusion of its skins. Then, the character is unmistakable – smoked honey, spicy tannins and the unfocused citrus notes mutate into thrilling freshly squeezed lemon juice or even pomegranate molasses.
These are strong varietal characters – but they are very different to those of the white flesh alone. It has to be said that other aspects of winemaking and ageing may mute the pure varietal character of Collio’s orange wines. No wine which has been aged in oak for five or more years (a la Gravner or Radikon) is going to taste the same as this years’ vintage straight from a steel tank.
This has nothing to do with the orange wine technique per se (fermenting with the skins). Indiscriminate use of oak in general (not a la Gravner or Radikon) can blunt a wine’s character far more than any other intervention.
Then there are the various tenets of minimal intervention/natural winemaking: spontaneous fermentation, uncontrolled fermentation temperature, uncontrolled malolactic fermentation, minimal or zero sulphur additions. Any of these, guided by a less than expert hand or allowed to proceed with substandard fruit, can backfire and edge a wine ever closer to rustic cider.
This isn’t the aim, neither is it the outcome with Collio masters such as Dario Prinčič (also namechecked in the WSET literature), La Castellada or Franco Terpin.
It’s good to have (skin) contact
Fearing that the next generation of wine professionals might be fed a rather muddled view of orange wine, I contacted WSET to find out more about how the material had been authored. All credit due to Antony Moss and his colleague Victoria Burt: Not only were they willing to discuss the content, but they also requested my collaboration as a technical editor to improve the wording. From 2020, WSET Diploma students should have a more nuanced – and I hope more factually correct – explanation of the points mentioned above.
These quibbles aside, it is wonderful that this historically important wine style – now such a exciting part of modern winemaking – will be taught to WSET students. As the wine world evolves and grows, orange wines are metaphorically and literally back on the menu.
Having passed through the program myself in 2018, it is encouraging to hear about WSET’s interest in the white grape skin contact world. On the other hand, I think that you minimize the importance of the factual mistakes in the text quoted which attribute the qualities of correct orange wines mistakenly and as the result of what should be considered a flaw. Feint praise that orange wine would be considered in the syllabus at all under the circumstances. This mistake unfortunately, i suspect is the result of certain parties having gotten their hands on some of the poor examples of the style which are indeed oxidized but should have been flagged. Apologies to the true practitioners of the orange arts are in order. Maybe as a 2020 addendum to the WSET curriculum
Thanks for the comment Charles. I’m very cautious to classify something as a mistake, because in truth there are nuances to all of these topics.
As I said in the article, I will be working with WSET to fine-tune this part of the course material, and if possible remove the reference to oxidation.
The challenge is that it’s a hugely complex area. Oxidation does play a role in a lot of natural wine making, but only in a very subtle way. IF you’ve ever tasted wines made in a completely oxygen free environment, and fermented in the highly reductive environment of a stainless steel tank, they can be pretty boring. Oxygen is an important component in wine, but it needs to be kept in balance as with everything else.
Also, it’s important to distinguish between oxygen, oxidation and oxidative character.
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