Last year on a sunny Sunday morning, two days after the harvest was finished, the owners of six wineries in the northeast of Italy gathered to see the lord mayor unveil an orange bench. It was one of a handful of orange benches, each one with a dramatic view looking down across lush green vineyards.
Close by, on the same hill, is a round white monument, like a Martello tower. It was built to commemorate more than 50,000 Italian soldiers who lost their lives there, a reminder of the ravages of World War 1. This is Oslavia, a small hamlet near the town of Gorizia in Friuli Venezia Giulia, home to just 300 people and hundreds of years of history. Look one direction and you're in Italy, move your gaze ever so slightly, and you're looking across the border at Slovenia. It is like a time bubble. The houses are sylvan and the only sign of development is the overhead electric wires.
Oslavia is the home of orange wine, hence the orange benches. It's an ancient way of making wine, which is also popular in Slovenia and Georgia, yet it is only in the last 30 years that this artisan approach has been revived here, led by the most famous winemakers of the region, Stanko Radikon, Josko Gravner and Dario Princic. The trio made the decision to turn back the clock and make wine like their grandfathers did, farming organically, harvesting the grapes by hand, and allowing the wine to ferment in a low-intervention way using natural yeast. Rather than using Pinot Grigio grapes which had become popular in the region, they went back to using Ribolla Gialla, a thick-skinned white grape that has refreshingly high acidity.
Orange wine is made from white grapes, but because there is extended skin contact and the grapes are allowed to macerate when they're being fermented, much like red wine, they impart some colour, texture, and additional flavour to the wine. The way they make it here is low-intervention - everything is farmed organically, grapes are hand-harvested, they are fermented in low-tech wineries in large, open-top barrels or vats. And in the case of the Gravner, the wines are fermented in qvevris, a large, egg-shaped Georgian earthenware vessel which is buried in the ground to maintain a consistent temperature.
This orange colour is often mistaken for oxidation, but this is not a characteristic of these wines. While the fermentation vessels remain open during maceration and fermentation, the wine is then allowed to age in a covered vat. In fact, the additional tannin in the wine that results from skin contact serves to protect the wine. These are complex wines, which develop beautifully with age, and are particularly food-friendly, so it is not surprising that they are much loved by sommeliers. You can expect to pay a considerable sum for the top wines from Oslavia; as well as two from the region, here, I have some affordable, less complex options.
Wine of the week: Ribolla Gialla Dario Princic 2016
€51.95, 13pc, from Le Caveau, Kilkenny, lecaveau.ie, and GreenManWines.ie
Dario Princic’s 10-hectare farm is located in the Collio hills, just 1km west of the Slovenian border, and six hectares are planted as vineyards. He believes that the soils, in particular the schist sandstone marl (known as ponca), is particularly suited to the Ribolla Gialla grape, being rich in minerals, but not particularly fertile, which limits the yield of the grape, and ensures that the berries stay small and thick-skinned. Fermented with 30 days’ skin contact and aged in acacia and chestnut barrels, this is slightly spicy, with dried apricot and ripe pear melding with a creamy, almond character.
Forza Unfiltered Sicilian Catarratto 2019
€7.49, 13pc, from Aldi
New to Aldi, this organic wine from Sicily is made from the indigenous Catarratto grape. Light orange in colour, it is a skin-contact, unfiltered wine which is easy drinking with red-apple flavours and a touch of lime.
Tbilvino Rkatsiteli Qvevris 2016
€16, 12pc, from Marks & Spencer
From Kakheti in Georgia, this vegan orange wine is made from Rkatsiteli grapes, which ferment on their skins in a qvevris — a clay vessel which is buried in the ground. Silky with flavours of roasted peach skins, a touch of ground almonds and a note of grapefruit pith.
Gravner Ribolla Anfora 2010
€80, 14pc, from Sheridan’s Dublin, Galway and Meath, Sheridanscheesemongers.com, Siyps.ie, GreenManWines.ie, 64 Wine and 64wine.ie
Fermented in amphorae and aged seven more years in barrel, this is nutty with textured layers of barley, lemon, apricots, pineapple, wild flower honey and a butterscotch umami finish.
Calcarius Puglia Orange
€26.95, 11.5pc, from Le Caveau, Kilkenny, lecaveau.ie, and GreenManWines.ie
In a larger one-litre bottle, this skin-contact wine, made from 100pc Fallanghina, is what is often referred to as ‘glou glou’, a deliciously drinkable wine. Fresh and summery with flavours of confited orange and a touch of spice.