A new trend among winemakers? What is orange wine and why you should try it

They ferment on the mash and thus acquire a special character. These orange wines are popular in Scandinavia. Demand on the German market is subdued. Still, it’s worth trying the wines.

Raw, disturbing, undrinkable – many who drink an orange wine for the first time grimace . But anyone who makes friends with the white wines fermented on the mash will appreciate the special taste experience. The market share of such wines is small, less than one percent. According to experts, the desire for the most original diet possible also increases the interest in orange wines. 

What is special about them is that the mash is not initially separated from the juice. The seeds and the pressed berry skin have longer time to release tannins and aromas. Experts speak of a longer maceration time. Just as the color of red wine comes from the skin of the berries, orange wine has a delicate tint that changes between amber and orange.

Some orange wines are also produced as natural wines, i.e. without any additives such as sulfur. You then only use the yeasts that are on the grapes for fermentation. In conventional viticulture, on the other hand, pure yeasts are used, with which the fermentation process can be controlled more precisely.

“I was shocked by this aroma” 

The Rhenish Hessian winemaker Hanneke Schönhals discovered orange wine in a Berlin wine bar. “At first I was shocked by this aroma,” she recalls. “But it didn’t let me go.” When she took over her father’s winery in Biebelnheim (Alzey-Worms district), she put her first orange wine in a barrique barrel in 2016. The result was promising enough to increase the crowd in the years that followed. “It’s steady growth on a small scale,” says Schönhals. The specialist trade in Germany has not yet been able to warm up to orange wine, but there is a great demand for it in Denmark.

“On the one hand, I find orange wines totally exciting because they offer new taste experiences,” says the managing director of the Federal Association of Ecological Viticulture (Ecovin), Ralph Dejas. “On the other hand, these wines will probably never be mass-conform.” Orange is a playground for many winemakers to develop experimental wines. “They show what potential a grape variety has.”

The winemaker Marc Weinreich has chosen the Chardonnay for this. Its orange is called “Des Wahnsinns fette Beute” and makes it clear from the start that the wine drinker expects something completely different. He lets the grapes ferment on the mash for six weeks and during this time sometimes tastes every day to see how the taste develops. “It’s a controlled idleness”, describes the winemaker who lives in Westhofen near Worms this process. 

He markets his natural and orange wines separately from the more conventional wines, including a “Pet Nat”, a sparkling wine made from wine that is still fermenting. There is a “subtle hype” for orange wine, says Weinreich. In Germany relatively little demand, 80 percent of his natural wines go abroad, mainly to Scandinavia and the USA. This year Japan was also added.

Orange wine – the niche product

For her orange wine, Hanneke Schönhals uses Cabernet Blanc grapes – a new variety that is one of the fungus-resistant vines, known as Piwi for short. “This grape has a lot of aromas in the skin – if you try it in autumn, it’s like a herb garden.” With regard to the tannins in the grape skin, she limits the must fermentation to two to three weeks.

“The idea is to let the grape do what it brings with it and what it can do on its own,” explains the winemaker. This also includes enzymes that break down the sugar and release flavoring substances in the process. “The grapes have natural enzymes – you have to give them time to become active.”

Orange wine is a niche product, says the chairman of the Rheinhessenwein association, Thomas Schätzel. The target group is manageable, but goes across all generations and also reaches young wine lovers. The new Rheinhessen wine queen Eva Müller has already developed orange wine and says: “It’s something completely different.”

The wine is left to its own devices – a risk 

Ernst Büscher from the German Wine Institute explains that it is not entirely risk-free for winemakers to leave the wine to its own devices for months. In this process, off-notes could develop that made the wine unsaleable. “On the other hand, this form of wine making is very attractive to more and more producers because it offers the opportunity to produce extremely complex and full-bodied wines that are off the mainstream.”

Orange wine is something for lateral thinkers and free spirits, confirms Hanneke Schönhals. Her mother taught her to think outside the box. As a reference to their Dutch origins, she calls her orange wine “Oranje”. “You have to get involved and say goodbye to all the categories that you have learned.” 

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