Vintage 2021 in the Hunter Valley may yet prove to be the year when winegrowers and winemakers alike, inadvertently, wound back the collective clock to a time when a wine's alluring combination of aroma, flavour, and texture took on a curious orange hue.
If my recent conversations with winemakers are anything to go by, then so-called orange wines, from the Hunter Valley, are making a comeback.
'Wait, what in the world is an orange wine?,' I hear you ask.
Not a wine made from oranges, to be sure. No, an orange wine - or amber wine (not to be confused with a wine from Orange lest you wish to face "serious consequences") - is a wine made from white wine grapes that is made like a red wine; a process called maceration.
If my recent conversations with winemakers are anything to go by, then so-called orange wines, from the Hunter Valley, are making a comeback.Daniel Honan
Red wines (and most rosés) get their colour from maceration. Red wines are made by fermenting grapes with their skins for the entire period of alcoholic fermentation. Sometimes, the juice will be separated earlier if the winemaker seeks a lighter taste or texture.
So, in short, the red winemaking technique of maceration is simply applied to white grapes. Often, this can reveal a whole other world of unique and astonishing colours, perfumes, flavours and mouthfeel.
This year, a number of Hunter Valley winemakers are toying around with a touch of skin-contact on their white wine grapes.
"I'm a big fan of the smells and textures of these wines, which you get by leaving the white grape skins in while the juice is fermenting," explains winegrower Angus Vinden of Vinden Headcase Wines.
"I'm using this technique with a bit of semillon, and some chenin-blanc. I tend to see lots of apricot and spicy notes ... typically things you don't often smell or taste in a normal white wine."
Adds winemaker Usher Tinkler: "I've been blown away by the response to our skinsy, Death by Semillon. People are loving it. I can't make enough. I guess, it's because the flavours are so unique and interesting. Thankfully, this year's been good to whites, and the 2021 Death by Semillon is looking awesome."
'OK... wait... You said a comeback? But, I thought orange wines were a new thing,' I hear you ask.
Sort of, not really. European winemaking countries, like Italy, Slovenia and Georgia, have a long history making white wines this way; some 5000 years in the case of Georgia.
Even our own Hunter Valley has a bit of history with skin-contact white wine making.
A few years ago, the now retired Iain Riggs and his Brokenwood cru experimented making their own skin-contact semillon. It was an attempt to recreate the semillon wines of old; back in the days of O'Shea - between 1923 and '56 - well before electricity (for refrigeration) was connected to the Valley.
"If you think about the whites O'Shea made, they would have been made in a similar way to some orange wines you see today,' Riggs told me, at the time. "There was no stainless steel in those days. No cooling, no power, nothing. O'Shea would have fermented some semillon on skins to act as a preservative to help protect the wines from oxidising."
So, you see, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun...
Indeed, Jodie Belleville, of Hart & Hunter, and Atusko Radcliffe from Small Forest, in the Upper Hunter, have been experimenting with white grape macerations for a number of years now.
"I love the skin contact verdelho," Radcliffe says. "It gives such a wonderful flavour and texture, with a deep golden colour. I usually leave the skins on for about two weeks to bring out the colour and flavours. This year, the whole winery is smelling like passionfruit and pineapple. I love it."
Jodie Belleville adds: "We've been playing around with skin-contact winemaking since 2015. We ferment some of our chardonnay on skins for 75 days. It gives the wine such a unique flavour and mouthfeel. This year, we're experimenting with some grner(-veltliner) too, which I'm very excited to see how that turns out."
Other Hunter Valley extended skin-contact experimentalists include Dirt Candy and their terrific gewurztraminer, The Renegade, which is rumoured to make a comeback this year, and Krinklewood's aromatic yet elusive, River Blend.
Stay tuned, the wine's they are a changing, as vintage 2021 rolls on.
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