An ancient process brings a new trend to Virginia wine

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King Family Vineyards’ 2014 skin-fermented Orange Viognier is an exciting step toward a new genre option for Virginia wines. Photo: Rammelkamp Foto King Family Vineyards’ 2014 skin-fermented Orange Viognier is an exciting step toward a new genre option for Virginia wines. Photo: Rammelkamp Foto

Named for its deep amber hue, amber wine (also called orange wine) is skin-fermented white wine. Fermenting white grapes on their skins is a technique that once pervaded the ancient wine world.

“It’s probably the oldest way to make white wine in the world,” says winemaker Matthieu Finot of King Family Vineyards. But despite the ancientness of this technique, most producers press off white grape juice and ferment it alone, without the skins. Amber wine is a rare thing these days, but the idea is gaining momentum, and amber wines are starting to appear on wine lists.

When white grapes are fermented with the skins, different chemical reactions occur and you end up with a distinct genre of wine. Three main things happen in the process: Acid levels drop, aromatics and tannin levels rise and the pH of the wine increases, which changes the spectrum of microbiology that can survive in the fermentation.

In tasting an amber wine, the expectations are different than white wine—you want to taste for a bit lower acid and a rounder palate, soft tannins and more intense aromatics. In the way that you don’t expect the same experience from rosé as red wine, amber wine differentiates itself from white.

Skin contact in general isn’t all that unusual. Winemakers often use small amounts of skin contact (a few hours to a few days) to make minute adjustments during their fermentations. For instance, at Michael Shaps Wineworks they use a little skin contact on their petit manseng (a notoriously high-acid grape) to drop the acid levels into a more palate-pleasing zone. But lengthy skin maceration that results in an amber-colored wine is rare.

One of the few places in the world that has been continuously making amber wines for thousands of years is the country of Georgia. Georgia’s wine culture, richly explored in Alice Feiring’s new book, For the Love of Wine, orbits around qvevri, or large terra-cotta vessels, usually lined with beeswax and buried underground for temperature control. Qvevri are used to carry out extended skin fermentations of both red and white wines.

When Italian winemaker Josko Gravner traveled to Georgia he was so inspired by what he saw that he began making amber wines in his own country. The technique spread throughout Italy, and when these unique wines first hit the American market, they caused quite a stir. Several wine writers rejected them. Despite the millennia of amber wine tradition in the very birthplace of wine itself, the genre of amber wine was too different to be embraced by many of the wine’s trendsetters.

But the wines kept coming, albeit in small quantities, and after some time, amber wine began to be appreciated on its own merit, in particular for its unique ability to pair with certain foods. Within a few years of its contentious arrival in the United States in the mid-2000s, several domestic producers (notably Matthiasson, Channing Daughters and Scholium Project) began making amber wine.

Virginia entered this global trend as well, and Finot recently released a 2014 skin-fermented Orange Viognier as part of the King Family Vineyards small-batch series. Released only to wine club members, because quantities are low (just 44 cases), he fermented the viognier in open-top fermenters with the skins for about two and a half weeks to get the deep orange hue. “It doesn’t taste like a white wine, but it’s pretty interesting,” says Finot.

The wine is a bold amber color, with rich, intensely layered aromatics. The wine’s aroma truly stands out. “I decided to use viognier because of the aromatic profile,” he says. On the palate, the deep flavors show an in-depth expression of viognier. The tannin structure can rival any medium-bodied red wine and certainly stands up to cuisine like poultry and pork. “Orange wines in general are very interesting for food pairing,” says Finot. “It’s not the fresh and crisp white wine that you want to drink outside when it’s sunny, but on the food scene it’s very interesting.”

Feedback has been positive, and Finot plans to continue making amber wine in small quantities. The King Family release is an important chapter in the larger story of amber wine in the United States, and it has the potential to become a bellwether for Virginia food and wine pairing.

Amber wines are not the strange, rare oddities that much of the wine media makes them out to be, and it’s vitally important that Virginians embrace them. This genre of winemaking could have a major impact on our local culinary scene, because they have the tannic and aromatic structure to match up perfectly with local Virginia products. Pork, in particular, often needs something richer than a white wine, but it can easily be overpowered by a red. Amber wine is the answer.

As local winemakers begin experimenting with skin-fermented white wines, we may have more local amber wines to serve with Virginia ham. Let’s hope so.

Erin Scala is the sommelier at Fleurie and Petit Pois. She holds the Diploma of Wines & Spirits, is a Certified Sake Specialist and writes about beverages on her blog, thinking-drinking.com.

–Erin Scala

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