Buyer’s Guide to VINTAGES August 7th Release

John Szabo’s VINTAGES Preview August 7th: Orange Wines, and Some Good Wines, Too

By John Szabo, with reviews from David Lawrason, Sara d’Amato and Michael Godel

It’s not entirely clear when wines became consistently white, rosé or red, the neat colour categories of wine we know today. In centuries, and millennia past, monovarietal vineyards hardly existed; the majority were planted with a “field blend” of multiple varieties, both dark and pale-skinned, harvested and vinified together. Depending on the mix of local varieties, the resulting wines would have come in a rainbow of hues from pale copper to deep red. Amber, or “orange”-coloured wines are thus nothing new, they’ve existed since the dawn of wine. By sometime in 19th or 20th century, with advancements in the industry, these deeply-coloured whites had fallen out of fashion. But now, at the dawn of the 21st century, orange wines are back with a vengeance. If you’ve perused the lists of fashionable wine bars anywhere in Canada, or the world, you can’t have failed to notice an amber, orange or, less evocatively, “skin-fermented whites” category. And that the LCBO has themed the August 7th release around orange wines for the first time is yet another sign of the category’s growing popularity (even if they’re way late to the party). The style has proved polarizing, celebrated by some as a deep connection to the past and tradition, with so-old-they’re-new-again flavours, and dismissed by others for their annoying trendiness and homogenous oxidized flavours and bitter tastes. Even the WineAlign crü is divided; there is little alignment, except on the view that the field is generally “overpriced”, as mentioned by David. Michael, for his part, writes in his inimitably inscrutable way: “I love the clumsiness and oscillations of this wine. Utterly fascinating.” But is it delicious? Where do you stand? Read on for some more thoughts on orange wines, and the crü’s top picks from the release. If orange is not the new black for you, we also have plenty of other smart buys in the old-fashioned white, rosé and red categories.


Orange is the Old Black

It’s not entirely clear when wines became consistently white, rosé or red, the neat colour categories of wine we know today. In centuries, and millennia past, monovarietal vineyards hardly existed; the majority were planted with a “field blend” of multiple varieties as a hedge against weather – you were guaranteed a harvest every year. Both dark and pale-skinned grapes were harvested and vinified together. Depending on the mix of local varieties, the resulting wines would have come in a rainbow of hues from pale copper to deep red.

Clear, pale “white” wines did not exist, for even in those vineyards planted to white grapes only, the oxidative ageing environments in which all wines lived, like amphora or later wooden cask, would have caused the wine to oxidize to some degree, turning it progressively deeper shades of brown.

Then there was the question of ageability. Every early vintner’s goal was to make a wine that would last until at least the following harvest without turning to vinegar. In the days of scant technology, questionable hygiene and a lack of true understanding of winemaking, this was no mean feat. But it would have been discovered early on that the tannins extracted from grape skins, stems and seeds acted as a preservative, an antioxidant in effect. Thus, it’s entirely probable that all wines would have been made with some degree of skin/stem maceration during the fermenting and ageing process to extract those life-preserving tannins, whether produced from red or white, or a mix of grape colours.

Colour pigments, not only tannins, would also be extracted during the process. Predominantly dark-skinned grapes would result in varying shades of purple-red thanks to the colour pigments called anthocyanins found in the skins, while pale-skinned grapes, which also harbour yellow colour pigments called flavonols, would have yielded wines of varying golden, amber or copper colour. Thus “orange”-coloured wines are thus nothing new, they’ve existed since the dawn of wine.

Yet at some point, almost certainly not before the 19th or even the 20th century, the gradual replacement of field blends with monovarietal plantings, technological advancements, and a deeper understanding of the forces at work in wine production, made pale white wines possible. Other protective measures and preservatives (such as stainless steel tanks and sulphur dioxide) obviated the need to extract tannins and colours from white grapes. The technique of macerating white grape skins during fermentation became anachronistic, frowned upon as rustic and old fashioned, the vinous equivalent of the horse and buggy. With a couple of notable regional exceptions, like the Republic of Georgia, parts of Greece and northeastern Italy and neighboring Slovenia where the traditions continued unbroken, orange wines were a thing of the past.

What’s Old Is New Again

But what’s old is new again. At the dawn of the 21st century, orange wines are experiencing a revival. Spurred on by a growing cadre of winemakers looking to distinguish their wines from perceived overly conventional, manipulated products, the orange movement has gathered momentum as an inevitable, reactionary balancing force to counter the technological, squeaky-clean wines of the previous generation. It’s a movement that has been running parallel to the “natural” wine movement – those wines made with minimal intervention and free of additives. Indeed, many orange wines would be considered “natural”, but not all. Natural wines (depending on which definition), generally meet a much longer list of requirements, including that grapes are farmed organically, while orange wines must simply be skin-macerated, and display any colour other than very pale gold.

Early heroes of the orange wine renaissance include Josko Gravner from the northeastern Italian region of Collio in Friuli on the Slovenian border, who switched from conventional wine making in the ‘80s and early ‘90s to making orange wines after an inspirational visit to Georgia. Gravner adopted the Georgian tradition of throwing mixed white grapes, skins, stems, seeds and all, into clay pots buried in the ground (called qvevri in Georgia), and leaving them to ferment and age for many months. It’s a practice that earned Georgia a place on UNESCO’s list of Intangible Cultural Heritage, alongside other important intangibles like the Argentine Tango and Viennese Coffee House culture. Now, virtually every region in the world has someone experimenting with orange wines, even (20th century) tradition-steeped regions like Burgundy. And anyone who has perused the lists of fashionable wine bars anywhere in Canada, or the world, you can’t have failed to notice an amber, or orange or skin-fermented whites category. It’s a thing.

Skin-Fermented White

The simplest way to describe orange wines is as a white wine made like a red; the process is identical. But Ontario is the only jurisdiction to my knowledge that has a defining set of regulations for the production and labelling of orange wines. Officially called skin-fermented whites, and written into VQA regulations in 2016, these wines must be “100% fermented on the skins for at least 10 days”, and “made from fresh white or pink grapes from the approved grapes list”, to qualify.  Approved wines must include the term “SKIN FERMENTED WHITE” on the front label. The fermentation on the skins is an important distinction, as the alcohol formed during the process acts as a solvent and extracts more from the skins than simply soaking skins in the aqueous milieu of unfermented juice, as is practiced elsewhere.

The Taste

So aside from region, grape, and ageing vessel, what distinguishes bottles within the orange wine genre is often how long the juice has been macerated with the skins. It can be as short as a few days (except in Ontario), to extremes of many months, up to a year in rare cases (3-4 months is more common). The longer the maceration period, the more tannic the wine will generally be – think of the astringency of over-steeped tea. Yet I find more than a passing family resemblance in the majority of orange wines. Aromas and flavours shift invariably from fresh fruit to dried, like dried apricot, peach, quince, Golden Delicious apples, to honey, beeswax, Orange Pekoe tea, hay, dried flowers, toasted nuts. I describe the experience like a walk through a fruit orchard in the misty autumn after the fruits have fallen to the ground and started to decay.

But love for orange is far from universal; the wines are downright polarizing. “They have been hailed as innovative expressions, and damned as flawed, oxidized, repetitive and dull. Both the praise and the criticism have been well earned”, writes Eric Asimov in a New York Times article from last year.

Orange wines have become an easy target in certain sommelier and wine writing circles, derided for their sameness, their dullness, their annoying trendiness. And their popularity has driven up the price, too, with far too many underdelivering on value (it’s almost as bad as that other ludicrously overpriced category, “pét nat”, but that’s another story). Obvious flaws are forgiven, “because that’s the way they’re supposed to be”, as though wines from 6000 years ago are to be aspired to. Quoting myself from an article on orange wines I wrote for Macleans some years ago, “One of the criticisms lobbed at orange wines is that the style triumphs over terroir, and that it becomes impossible to tell where, or from which grapes, the wine is made.”

Admittedly, the range of wines on this release brought me back to that thought. While I have had some (not many) hauntingly perfumed and delicious skin contact whites, these aren’t them. The tasting at WineAlign HQ only reconfirmed the fact that oxidized wine tastes like oxidized wine the world over. Variety and region be damned. I struggled to find any beauty. In my opinion, they were almost entirely devoid of pleasure, dry, tannic, largely fruitless, vinegary, bitter. The fact that white varieties have generally higher acidity than reds makes the tannins inevitably extracted from skins perceived as that much more astringent and bitter than the same level of tannin in a lower acid red wine. But just why skin fermented whites are so frequently oxidized is a mystery to me, when reds, made in the same way, rarely are. Every wine style has its share of good, bad and ugly examples, it’s just that orange wines seem to have an unfair share of the latter two.

My criticism is hardly new. Ron Washam, who writes a scathing, tongue-in-cheek (and very funny) blog called the HoseMaster of Wine, had this to say about orange wines way back in 2012 when summing up some of his favorite anti-moments of the year: “There was a lot of talk about orange wines in 2012, but I don’t know a single person who likes them. Orange wines are the Kardashians of wine. Please, just quietly die.”

Former master sommelier Richard Betts shares the sentiment writing for Forbes in 2013: “I’m all for diversity in the wine space and when I say I’m excited for the orange wines to die, I don’t mean they need to disappear from the planet, nor are they all bad.  I do, however, look forward to the faddish / cultish following they’ve engendered in certain wine circles waning.  There are so many folks jumping up and down to be heard in the wine space today that it seems they’ll “like” something just to be different.  It’s like an arms race of ugly.”

And I could cite many more. But in any case, I couldn’t shake the nagging feeling that somehow I was missing something. This tasting seemed an exercise in intellectual torture and hedonistic disappointment.

I’m all for celebrating tradition and encouraging diversity, but deliciousness comes first. I’m also aware that deliciousness is in the mouth of the beholder, and that there’s no universal definition, so needless to say my view does not necessarily reflect the views of WineAlign nor any of its writers. After all, if, like Michael Godel, you “love the clumsiness and oscillations of wine” (and why not!), then I urge you to try for yourself, perhaps you will find the beauty that I missed.

Orange Wines

Southbrook Vidal Skin Fermented White Orange Wine 2019

Southbrook Vidal Skin Fermented White Orange Wine 2019, Ontario
$29.95, Vinexx
Michael Godel – Not all orange wines are created equal. I have sat on ‘14s, ‘15s and ‘16s before. Some fall away and others gain traction. This ’19 is one of the latter, now glowing and pulsing with renewed energy and drive. I love the clumsiness and oscillations of this wine. Utterly fascinating. Last tasted August 2021

Channing Daughters Ramato Pinot Grigio 2020

Channing Daughters Ramato Pinot Grigio 2020, New York, USA
$39.95, Nicholas Pearce Wines Inc.
Michael Godel – Ramato from the Italian, as a in a coppery colour and the name here a pinot grigio fermented on its skins, Friulian style. Fruit sources are the home farm in Bridgehampton and the Mudd West Vineyard on Long Island’s North Fork. A jumbled verse in mess of fruit, tisane and gingered bitters all tied up in a citrus refrain. In a New York epiphany moment.

Dominio De Punctum Pomelados Orange Wine 2019

Dominio De Punctum Pomelado Orange Wine 2019, Castilla, Spain           
$16.95, The Living Vine   
David Lawrason – This is not a stellar wine but I recommend it is a jumping off point for those beginning to explore orange wines. It is well balanced and fault free, with archtypical aromas and flavours, and comes in it a very fair price point in an overpriced field.
Sara d’Amato – Smartly packaged with an Aperol-esque flavour profile begging to be spritzed up. Organically produced, undeniably refreshing and offering wide appeal. Chill and crack.
John Szabo – I’d call this a “gateway” orange, so if you’re trying the style for the first time, start here, or if you don’t really like skin contact whites, it’s least extreme in the release with the most reasonable price/quality relationship. It shows more of a golden than orange colour, with a wide range of fruit, both fresh and dried, including pronounced pear and apple, fresher than the mean for the category.

Cambridge Road Cloudwalker 2020

Cambridge Road Cloudwalker 2020, Martinborough, New Zealand    
$36.95, The Living Vine
David Lawrason – Here’s a very successful field blend of pinot gris and riesling that captures some finesse and even elegance. The nose captures sweet spiced baked apple, plum, tea and gentle leesy nose. It is medium bodied, smooth and almost creamy but with a dry, tannic and slightly bitter finish.
Sara d’Amato – A thoughtfully conceived field blend of skin contact pinot gris and riesling, the latter sourced from 24-year old vines. Cloudy like fresh pressed grapefruit juice with a similar bitter-sweetness on the palate. A cleanly made natural wine that won’t disappoint.
John Szabo – I’ve included not as a smart buy, but rather as an example of the most extreme style of skin contact white in the release, should you wish to explore the outer limits. It’s oxidized to the point of not being able to recognize the varieties and even less their origins, just delivering the bruised fruit character of wines past prime, also dried fruit, and cold tea. The palate is firm and astringent, acetic and bitter, even if intensity of flavours is high. You might call this an acquired taste, more of an intellectual exercise than pleasurable pastime.

Whites & Rosés

Château Belles Eaux Les Coteaux Grenache Blanc 2020

Château Belles Eaux Les Coteaux Grenache Blanc 2020, Languedoc, France
$14.95, Mark Anthony Group
Michael Godel – We don’t get enough straight grenache blanc from southern France here in Ontario and from the Languedoc there emits a classic profile. Warm and creamy yet just sharp enough to stand up and be counted. Lots of white wine here for $15.

Spier Creative Block 2 2019

Spier Creative Block 2 2019, WO Coastal Region, South Africa
$19.95, Sylvestre Wines & Spirits
Michael Godel – Spier’s Creative Block 2 is a Meritage or Bordeaux Blanc, depending on which world you may ascribe to and either way a joint affair between sauvignon blanc and sémillon. Atypical for sure and yet enthralling, with lemon curd and lightly gingered bitters.
John Szabo – Fresh, oak-free grenache, round and soft, immediately engaging, fruity, ready to go. I like the sweet tarragon and parsley flavours, also the refreshing point of bitterness on the finish which lifts the ensemble. Length is surprisingly impressive, too, especially at this price.

Jean Max Roger La Grange Dimiere Sancerre Rosé 2020

Jean Max Roger La Grange Dimiere Sancerre Rosé 2020, Loire, France
$26.95, Connexion Oenophilia
Michael Godel – Next level in so many respects, most of all that satisfying and thirst quenching effect come about when Rosé is so entrenched in its own viable style. Truly Sancerre no matter the pressing.

Jean Pierre Seve Mâcon Solutré 2018

Jean-Pierre Seve Mâcon-Solutré 2018, Burgundy, France             
$19.95, The Case for Wine
David Lawrason – The Macon-Solutre appellation is very near Pouilly-Fuisse and this wine has the class and elegance of Macon’s most famous wine at half the price.  This is a quite rich, creamy chardonnay showing considerable ripeness and complexity.  Very smooth yet lively with finely woven acidity and a touch of minerality.

Schloss Schönborn Hattenheimer Pfaffenberg Riesling Kabinett 2018

Schloss Schönborn Hattenheimer Pfaffenberg Riesling Kabinett 2018, Rheingau, Germany
$24.95, H.H.D. Imports
David Lawrason – From a Rheingau property and vineyard at the heart of Germany’s most famous wine slope, this is a classic, ripe riesling in an off-dry style.  But there is such precision and balance, and such a lovely array of aromas that one doesn’t even consider sweetness. A great opportunity to try a German classic for a song.
Sara d’Amato – There is plenty of petrol and latent charm to be discovered in this plump Pfaffenberg riesling. To offset that viscosity is an undercurrent of energetic freshness that results in pitch-perfect balance. A memorable riesling experience at a more than reasonable price.
John Szabo – Structural changes at Schloss Schönborn and a terrific 2018 vintage in Germany have catapulted quality back much closer to the level it should be at from this historic estate. It’s off-dry in the classic register with 10% alcohol declared, and vibrant, punctuated acids. It’s the sort of ripe-fresh-zesty wine you can sip all evening without tiring.

Pesquié Édition 1912M Ventoux 2020, Rhone Valley, France                       
$17.95, The Vine Agency
David Lawrason – This rolling region at the foot of landmark Mt Ventoux is chock full of good value estate wines, with Pesquie being a leading light. This is medium bodied, gentle, rounded yet fresh and bright white blend (grenache blanc leads) with generous honeydew melon, peach candy and lavender aromas.

Chãteau Léoube Rosé de Léoube 2020, Côtes de Provence, France
$31.95, The Living Vine Inc.
Sara d’Amato – A refreshing and very typical style from organic producer Léoube who also makes ageworthy reds from Côtes de Provence. Seaside saltiness is front and center in this dry, delectably austere rosé dominated by grenache and cinsault and finished with smaller amounts of syrah and mourvèdre. Drink now or later but don’t forget the shellfish. John Szabo – A perennial premium rosé favorite, Léoube’s 2020 classic bottling is another gorgeous wine. The superior quality is evident from the genuinely rich, dense and concentrated palate well above the level of most easy-sipping fruity pinks. Organically grown and made with maximum respect for the environment.


Saint Didier Calos Reserve Cahors Malbec 2018

Saint Didier Calos Reserve Cahors Malbec 2018, AC Cahors, France
$17.95, Glencairn Wine Merchants
Michael Godel – Calos is a modern and ultra-fresh take from Cahors with an almost salty sidestep to really shake the foundations and put this in new world stride. The fruit is both black and blue, the meatiness chewy and medium-rare. Timely ideal for summer BBQ, smoky or not, that’s entirely up to you.
David Lawrason – From gravelled clay and limestone terraces comes a 100% malbec with a fine sense of purity and balance. No great depth or complexity at $17.95 but it captures malbec’s classic mulberry/blackberry fruit within a streamlined and balanced frame.

Malivoire Farmstead Gamay 2019, Niagara Peninsula, Ontario
$17.95, Noble Estates
David Lawrason – Now called Farmstead to differentiate from several other gamay bottlings, Malivoire’s ‘original’ gamay remains a great ambassador for this variety in Niagara. It is fragrant, delicate and crisp with a lovely nose of lightly candied strawberry/cherry fruit, florals, vanilla and peppery spice.
Sara d’Amato – The Farmstead is the new labelling of the Malivoire’s generic gamay and delivers a great deal for a small price. Spicy and peppery, brimming with cherry fruit, raspberry and bramble. Elegant with silky tannins and revitalising acidity. Prepare to be charmed. #gogamaygo

Torbreck Old Vines Grenache/Shiraz/Mourvèdre 2017

Torbreck Old Vines Grenache/Shiraz/Mourvèdre 2017, Barossa Valley 2017, South Australia
$24.95, (LCBO Online Exclusive) Noble Estates
Sara d’Amato -. A bewitching classic grenache-shiraz-mourvedre blend, brimming with fresh cracked black pepper, saltiness, iron and fig along with a pleasant meatiness. Graceful bottle maturation adds to the intricate tapestry of flavours that linger on the finish of exceptional length. A complex, authentic and thought-provoking experience not to be missed.

Lange Pinot Noir 2019

Lange Pinot Noir, Willamette Valley 2019, Oregon, USA
$43.95, Breakthru Beverage Group
Sara d’Amato – A cooler vintage accentuates the Burgundian inspired features of this upbeat and characterful pinot noir. On the fuller side of mid-weight but cut with refreshing acidity leaving an almost ethereal impression on the palate. A classic beauty.

Durigutti Proyecto Las Compuertas 1914 Malbec 2018

Durigutti Proyecto Las Compuertas 1914 Malbec 2018, Luján de Cuyo, Argentina
$29.95, Loyal Imports
David Lawrason – Assembled from five different soil-types and very old vines in the Las Compuertas sub-region, this is a full bodied, sturdy, notably mineral malbec with ripe blackberry, savoury fresh herbs/sage notes and florals. One to consider for a value oriented ‘big reds’ cellar.
John Szabo – Malbec from five soil types, vinified separately in concrete to explore the potential and possibilities of the area, delivers lovely perfume featuring the more floral side of malbec and its fresh black and blue fruit. I like the taut but generous texture, and the very good length. A really lovely wine, especially with a light chill. The only negative to the package is the packaging itself, bottled in an irresponsibly heavy glass bottle.

That’s all for this report. See you around the next bottle.

John Szabo, MS

Use these quick links for access to all of our Top Picks in the New Release. Non-Premium members can select from all release dates 30 days prior.

Szabo’s Smart Buys
Lawrason’s Take
Sara’s Sommelier Selections
Michael’s Mix

New Release and VINTAGES Preview

Don’t forget to follow us on Instagram for the latest WineAlign recommendations, tips and other interesting wine information.

Sponsored Toronto Wine Storage - Fine Wine Reserve

The Fine Wine Reserve provides discerning collectors with the highest standards of fine wine storage in Toronto. Their facilities are purpose-built and specifically engineered to protect your fine wines. With two locations in the GTA, The Fine Wine Reserve offers the widest range of storage options and styles in Canada - allowing them to serve the unique and evolving needs of novice and expert collectors alike.