Rich glow of amber wines

A new book about orange/amber wines highlights the beauty of one of the world’s more unique styles. For publication in the week starting 26 November 2018.

A colleague recently asked what I considered the major trends in wine over the next few years. My answer focused on the increased popularity of natural wines and health because people have become more aware of what they put into their bodies.

Natural wines are made from grapes where no pesticides or other harmful chemicals are employed in the vineyard, and/or where fewer chemicals are used in the winery.

A significant related development is the rising popularity of “orange” or “amber” wines because these wines tend to be natural. Wine writer Simon Woolf has recognised this trend with the release of his first book, Amber Revolution. The book has been available via his web site for some months, but its release in the UK was embargoed until November 20 to allow for magazines with long lead times to be able to review the book at the same time as media that can produce feedback almost immediately.

It is a timely and beautiful book. Woolf writes well, and he has important things to say. Indeed, he received this year’s award for international feature writer at the International Wine Writers’ Awards sponsored by champagne maker Louis Roederer last month.

Amber Rev.jpgIn the book’s preface Woolf clarifies what he means by “orange” or “amber” wine: “This book focuses only on wines made with white grapes treated as if they were red, fermented together with their skins (and sometimes stems, too) for a period of multiple days, weeks or months.”

This style of wine-making takes time and skill. As Woolf notes, the technique “resists mass production” and requires considerable patience and skill to execute well, which means “these wines will never dominate supermarket shelves”. Amber wine is not fully understood, which is why Woolf wrote the book (cover shown above). “For all the exponential growth of interest, a great deal of myth, superstition and ignorance still surround the style.”

Twenty years ago, Woolf notes, it would have been impossible to write such a book. The major problem he encountered now was what to leave out.

Major producers of amber wine include Italy’s Friuli-Venezia Guilia region, neighbouring Slovenia and ancient Georgia. Previous columns have extolled the virtues of wines from those parts of the world.

Wine has been made in Georgia for at least 8,000 years, making it one of the earliest wine regions in the world. Georgia is noted for the way it produces wine in clay containers called kvevri (known as qvevri or churi in different parts of the country).

These egg-shaped vessels are used for the fermentation, storage and ageing of wine. They look like amphorae without handles and are either buried so that only the top shows or are set into the floors of large wine cellars. Kvevri are buried to stop them toppling during earth tremors.

The most unusual of traditional Georgian wines are known as Kakhetian, which translates as orange or amber wine. These are macerated for several months with skins, seeds and stems. They can be very tannic. Wine-makers who use kvevri claim  their wines are stable and do not require chemical preservatives to ensure longevity and superior taste.

Vipava Valley.jpgIn Slovenia, excellent macerated wines are made from the indigenous Rebula grape in the Vipava Valley (shown at left) about an hour’s drive from the capital, Ljubljana. These wines are easy to recognise because of their burnished bronze or gold colours, and profound flavours. The intensity of colour and flavours depends on the number of months of maceration and the time spent in old barrels, typically at least 1,000 litres. Flavours range from dried fruits like apricot through to balsamic notes mixed with dried herbs.

These amber wines pair well with a wide range of foods. For example, they can be consumed with slow-cooked red meats or stews, cuisines which traditionally have been seen as needing a heavy red.

Collio in Friuli in Italy’s north-east corner is just across the border from Slovenia. Collio is regarded as one of Italy’s most important white wine regions. A few metres away, across the border, the wines from Slovenia are less well known and sometimes attract lower prices, despite being of high quality and made from the same grape varieties. The Rebula grape in Slovenia is known as Ribolla Gialla in Friuli.

Many commentators believe Brda is western Slovenia’s most serious wine region. Collio means “hills” in Italian. Brda has the same meaning in Slovenian. Essentially Brda was part of Italy’s Collio wine region but became detached when the border was fixed in 1947 after much debate at the end of World War 2. The border went through villages, displacing families into different countries.

In Brda, Kabaj winery and its winemaker Jean-Michel Morel were one of only two Slovenians listed in the world’s top 100 wineries by Wine and Spirits magazine last year. The other winery was Movia and its winemaker is the brilliant Ales Kristancic. Both estates make formidable wine.

Wines made in amphorae are also making a comeback in the Alentejo, the major wine region in southern Portugal. There the clay pots are known as talhas. The word relates to the shards of pottery often found in the area. Romans were making talhas pots and wines in the region more than 2,000 years ago.

The Herdade do Sao Miguel (St Michael Winery) near the UNESCO-heritage town of Beja started its amphora project three years ago. Winemaker Paulo Pecas sourced his winery’s 21 amphorae from around the region, buying from families who no longer used them.

Most of the clay containers are at least two centuries old. “We are using the amphorae the way the ancient Romans used them [to make wine]. We refurbish the amphorae and line them with beeswax and this lasts for ten years before we need to do it again.” This estate’s wines are sumptuous.

Similarly, Woolf’s book is a lovely read. The photographs by Ryan Opaz are beautiful and Woolf knows how to tell a compelling story. One of the best sections starts on page 209 with profiles of 180 quality amber wine producers, of the thousands worldwide. The book’s focus is the three regions/ countries mentioned earlier, but Woolf notes that lots of countries are embracing amber wines. For the latest details, visit Woolf’s web site.

Words: 1,042

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