Szabo’s VINTAGES Preview – July 8, 2017

Defining Orange; Cool Climate Chardonnay & i4c Preview
By John Szabo, MS with notes from David Lawrason

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

Hot out of the press: Ontario has a brand new, ancient wine type: skin fermented whites. Better know as “orange” wines, the minister has just signed off approval on this new official VQA category. It’s the first set of official rules governing orange wine production in the world, a trendy category to be sure. Read on to learn exactly how they are defined and which ones to try. And coming up on July 21-23rd is Ontario’s big annual chardy party, the International Cool Climate Chardonnay Celebration or “i4c”. This report features a brief preview and a handful of cool chardonnays not to miss at the event. And finally, the VINTAGES July 8th release has lots to consider. I’ve picked a half-dozen smart buys, including a superb Barolo and a scorching value southern French red under $20.

Ontario Defines Orange: A New VQA Category is Born

The Vintner’s Quality Alliance, Ontario’s wine appellation authority, and the provincial government have just signed off on a new official VQA category: skin fermented whites. This makes Ontario the first jurisdiction in the world to create regulations governing the production of such wines.

More commonly referred to as “orange” or “amber” wines because of their colour, skin-fermented whites are essentially white wines made like red wines, with the grape skins kept in contact with the juice during fermentation. It’s far more common today to discard the skins immediately after pressing to avoid any juice contact.

What’s Old is New Again

Although fermenting white grapes with their skins is a departure from current protocols, orange wine has been around since the beginning of wine. Indeed in Georgia and Armenia, the cradle of wine with 8,000 years of history, the technique is still the norm. And most white wines around the world were likely made with some degree of skin contact up until the middle of last century. It’s worth remembering that modern white wine fermentation techniques – direct press into temperature-controlled, stainless steel tanks – are barely half a century old.

But today, orange wines are one of the hottest trends in the wine world. The re-birth of skin-fermented whites can be traced to Friuli/Slovenia in the 1990s, and in particular the iconoclast winemaker Josko Gravner. After several years of making conventional wines, Gravner credits a trip to California in the early 1990s as a catalyst for change. Disheartened by the multiple manipulations happening in the winery, he had an urge to return to more simple winemaking. A subsequent trip to Georgia cemented his new ideal: to make wine as was done thousands of years ago. That means long fermentations on the skins in Georgian qvevri (clay vessels) with no temperature control.

(Simplifying even further, Gravner recently announced that he will be making only one white (orange) wine from native variety ribolla gialla (2012 will be the last vintage of the Breg Bianco, a blend of sauvignon, pinot grigio, chardonnay and welschriesling) along with one red from pignolo.)

Gravner’s philosophy spread quickly to other producers in the town of Oslavia on the Italian/Slovenian border, and from there around the world. Orange wines entered the news stream about a decade ago, and suddenly began appearing on wine lists in the hip wine bars of London, New York, San Francisco, Tokyo and everywhere in between. And in the last several years, I have encountered skin fermented whites in every single country that I’ve travelled to: Australia, Chile, South Africa, New Zealand, the US and every corner in Europe. And now you can include Canada on that list. But none of these places have any official standards for the production of orange wine. Ontario is the exception.

In March of 2016, VQA Ontario received a request from Southbrook Vineyards in Niagara to create a new category for skin-fermented white wine. Southbrook was already producing an orange wine from skin-fermented vidal grown on their Four Mile Creek estate, but because the wine didn’t fit into any existing official VQA wine categories, it was labelled simply as Product of Canada.

Southbrook's Orange Wine Revolution

The desire to create an official category for skin-fermented whites was not only to be able to mention the geographic origins – the VQA controls the use of place-names on wine labels, and only VQA-approved wines can use them – but also more importantly to benefit from the tax advantages afforded to VQA wines. Non-VQA wines earn the winery approximately 34% less in revenue. (This is also unique to Ontario, but that’s another story.)

A standards development committee consisting of a half-dozen winemakers was stuck to work out the technical details and draw up proposed regulations. The document was then circulated to all VQA wineries and other industry stakeholders for comment, and by early 2017 the proposed standards were on the minister’s desk for sign off. The official approval came earlier this week.

Regulations for Skin-Fermented Whites

So what are the standards? The two most important details are as follows:

  • The wine shall be a table wine or effervescent wine produced exclusively from fresh grapes, of a white or pink variety (all permitted vinifera and hybrid grapes).
  • 100% of the grapes used shall be macerated and fermented on their skins for a minimum of 10 days. Fermentation shall occur when the skins are present.

There are several other technical details and labelling requirements, such as the mandatory mention of “Skin Fermented White” in a minimum font size on the principal display label (“Orange” or “Amber” can also appear alongside), but the essence is that the wine must ferment on the skins. This is to distinguish the category from wines made with some skin contact before fermenting, a technique called pre-fermentation maceration. Ten days was arbitrarily established as the minimum length of skin contact, a period, the committee felt, was the minimum need to acquire the typicity of orange wine. That number, and indeed all of the parameters, may change over time as more wineries enter the category. “We didn’t want to impose too many restrictions off the top”, relates Southbrook winemaker and committee member Ann Sperling. “We just wanted to open the door to the category.”

Also important is the requirement to register the intent to produce a skin fermented white at the time of harvest (similar to Icewine registration). This rule was put in place to prevent producers from re-submitting a product as a skin-fermented wine after failing to gain approval in another category, since expectations regarding oxidation and cloudiness, and varietal character, are vastly different for skin fermented whites. 

Technical Advantages

There are some advantages to keeping the skins during fermentation, which explain why, in the days before a full understanding of the winemaking process, the technique would have been commonplace. There’s a lot of good stuff in skins, including a number of useful compounds like aromatic precursors – the molecules that will eventually be liberated to give wine its characteristic bouquet – and especially polyphenols, the molecules that protect wine from oxygen and increase longevity.

As Pyramid Valley winemaker Mike Weersig in New Zealand’s Canterbury region put it to me some years ago: “why would I spend all year farming my vineyards meticulously to bring in perfectly ripe and healthy fruit, only to throw away the best part [the skins] at the last minute?”

As with red wines, these compounds are extracted more efficiently in the presence of alcohol, a powerful solvent, hence the stipulation that fermentation must take place on the skins.

Consumer Confusion? 

The new category will undoubtedly cause some confusion, and the VQA has already received customer complaints. “Some people still think that orange wine is made from oranges”, VQA director Laurie Macdonald tells me. People in the trade may chuckle at this, but I’d point out that it’s not an unreasonable assumption considering how much fruit wine is produced in Canada.

There is also confusion between orange wines and natural wines, the latter a nebulously defined category, compounded by the concurrent rise in prominence of these two wine types. To be clear, many orange wines are also “natural”, but not all, and skin fermentation for white wines is not a requirement to be considered natural.

So What do Skin Fermented Whites Taste Like?

The best way to understand these wines is to taste them, as they can be mind-bending and paradigm shifting. Considering that a wide range of varieties are used around the world in different climates and with different techniques applied, flavor profiles naturally vary. (Although one common complaint lodged against orange wines is that technique trumps grape and place, and they all taste similar. I don’t subscribe to this. I just think that we don’t have enough experience tasting orange wines to distinguish variety and place.)

But in addition to a deeper-than-normal colour, tending towards orange or amber thanks to the oxidation of colour pigments extracted from the skins, and often slightly cloudy, you can expect gentle oxidation (fully oxidized would be a fault). Think of autumnal fruit, lightly desiccated, like binned apples and withering peaches and pears, alongside cold orange pekoe tea, dried citrus peel and pot pourri. The palate will be slightly tannic, sometimes very tannic, drying, dusty, grippy, and especially savoury, loaded with umami. Close your eyes and you could easily believe you’re drinking red wine. Looking for a white wine with your steak? Try orange.

Although still a drop in the bucket in terms of production, the category is growing. According to Macdonald, there are around a dozen wineries experimenting with skin fermented whites. It’s highly unlike that these wines will ever be mainstream, but if you’re touring wine country or dining in one of the province’s more avant-garde wine bars, chances are you’ll come across a bottle sooner or later. And for the very curious, here are four to track down – go directly to the winery as you won’t find these on LCBO shelves anytime soon.

John Szabo’s Buyers Guide: Skin Fermented Whites

Southbrook 2016 Small Lot ‘Natural’ Orange Vidal – Time on skins: 25 days. Handpicked clusters of estate biodynamic vidal vineyard were foot trodden to crush about 1/3 of the berries and wild fermented for 25 days (with stems), with full malolactic fermentation and bottling without filtration. No additives of any kind were used. The original Ontario Orange, Ann Sperling has found a marvelous way to coax a maximum of flavor out of vidal (short of freezing it for Icewine), easily the most engaging dry version of the variety made. The depth of flavor is surprising considering less than 10% alcohol, but it’s a marvel of dried orchard fruit, orange marmalade and savoury-herbal notes, redolent of bergamot, English Breakfast tea, lavender, sage and dried roses. There’s a pleasant bit of grip on the palate, lightly dusty, with excellent length.

Pearl Morissette 2015 Cuvée Blu– Time on skins: 3.5 months. 15% Riesling, 15% Pinot Gris and 70% Chardonnay. Chardonnay was fermented with stems, the other two varieties were destemmed and fermented in clay qvevri and left on skins for 3.5 months before pressing and racking to a 60-year-old Alsatian foudre. Nothing has been added or taken away, including S02, and this is a sample taken from foudres. It’s the most texturally rich of Ontario orange wines, thanks in part to elevated, 14% alcohol, but also the most edgy and volatile, if still within acceptable bounds. It’s a step towards more extreme, or complete, skin-fermented white wine, relative to the first “Blu” in 2014. It has density and weight, palpable tannic grip and throat tingling volatility, also excellent length. Flavours defy easy description, at once meaty and savoury, yeasty and earthy, very visceral and alive. It’s the sort of intriguing wine that keeps you coming back for more, if only to unravel the mystery, but also certainly for the succulence, sapidity and umami hit.

Vineland Estates 2016 Chardonnay Musqué – Time on skins: 55 days. A more extreme example of Ontario orange, but one that evolves marvelously with a little air. It has a pale pink-rosé colour with the merest hint of orange. Nearly two months on the skins has given it a serious tannic backbone, dusty, drying, grippy. But I love the range of flavours, the dried roses, the rosehip and hibiscus flower, the pleasantly bitter finish, and certainly the cleanliness and precision on offer. Very good length. An excellent first commercial effort from Vineland.

Norman Hardie 2016 Pinot Gris ‘Ponton’ – Time on skins: 10 days. Aged on lees in 225L old French oak with full malolactic fermentation. This barely qualifies for the category (9 of the 10 days were cold soak without fermentation), so consider it a “starter” orange. Tart red berry fruit off the top leads into a very gently oxidative, lightly herbal palate expression, with rosehip, pomegranate and strawberry yoghurt flavours. The palate is very lightly tannic, with appealingly lean texture and sharp, well-defined acids and very good length. A “mild” orange wine all in all, relatively clean and fresh, and particularly sapid, but on the safer, fruitier end of the spectrum.

The International Cool Climate Chardonnay Celebration: July 21-23rd, 2017

By now, wine loving Ontarians know that the third weekend in July is devoted to chardonnay. From an idea hatched at a casual fireside gathering of local winemakers in 2009, to a party on the grandest scale, the International Cool Climate Chardonnay Celebration, or “i4c”, has become a fixture on the local and international wine calendar.

On July 21-23rd, 2017, the 7th edition of the International Cool Climate Chardonnay Celebration will take place at various venues throughout Niagara. The “international” is a big part of the i4c mandate; at least 50% of the 60-odd participating wineries are from outside of the province, and over the past 6 years, 150 wineries from 37 cool climate wine regions have come to Ontario wine country to celebrate their own versions of cool chardonnay.

Wine Country's Coolest Weekend

Even more impressively, some 12,500 consumers have shown up at the party to sip and chat with winemakers and winery owners, though only the most hardy chardy drinkers will have tasted through all 725 different cool climate chardonnays offered over the years.

The weekend kicks off on Friday with a day-long conference, the School of Cool, the ultimate summer school for industry insiders keen to explore various technical aspects of chardonnay production. Erudite keynote speaker Karen MacNeil, author of The Wine Bible, TV host, educator and winner of just about every English language award in the wine industry, will launch the proceedings.

Then I’ll be back again this year to moderate (read: referee) a trilogy of thought-provoking seminars featuring top experts from around the world of varying backgrounds: researchers, vineyard consultants, winemakers, marketers and media. This year’s topics are:

  1. Soil Smackdown

When it comes to wine, soil matters. But how much? Which soil type is best for chardonnay? What flavour and taste aspects, if any, are attributable to differences in soil type? This session explores the dirty secrets of terroir. The technical parameters will be set by Californian soil scientist and viticulturalist Paul R. Anamosa, Ph.D., and winemakers will have an opportunity to defend and romanticize the virtues of their dirt with the proof, hopefully, in the glass.

  1. The Chardonnay Continuum

Winegrowers love chardonnay for its versatility. In this open-ended session, we’ll explore a range of styles from old world classics to radical re-interpretations of the chardonnay paradigm, while winemakers describe how they achieve their artistic aims. Where do your preferences lis on the chardonnay continuum?

  1. The Sugar Trials

The bubbles have formed, and yeast cells have imparted their autolytic flavours. But there’s one last critical step in the traditional sparkling winemaking process: the dosage. How much sugar, if any should be added? It’s about balance, of course, but what else? CCOVI scientist Dr. Belinda Kemp considers the technical side effects of sugar addition on aroma and flavour compounds, foamability, dissolved oxygen, and more. Taste through a flight of sparkling chardonnays and guess the dosage, and pick your favourite. Sparkling winemakers will discuss their methodology in determining the ‘correct’ dosage, including the commercial considerations. 

For the full programme of events and to get your tickets, visit – I hope to see you there. And to help you prepare for your schooling, here’s a short list of cool chardonnays from Canada and abroad not to miss at the i4c. 

Buyer’s Guide: Canadian Cool Climate Chardonnay at the i4c

Benjamin Bridge 2011 Brut Sparkling Wine Méthode Classique, Nova Scotia ($49.95)
John Szabo – 2011 is a terrific vintage for Benjamin Bridge’s pure chardonnay traditional method bubbly, offering still-remarkable freshness with just a touch of honeyed-floral oxidative notes beginning to creep in. Yeasty autolysis is not a major factor despite 5 years on the lees, a trait of the top bubblies from Nova Scotia. The wine is lean and laser sharp on the palate with little dosage (no sweetness evident), though there’s plenty of acid to balance in any case. Excellent length, finishing on pure limey-citrus flavours. For the aperitif slot. Best 2017-2020.…

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John Szabo, MS

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Stags' Leap Winery Chardonnay 2015