I can never forget the first time I tasted orange wine.
“This is orange wine,” the shopkeeper said. I thought he wasn’t being serious, but he continued, “Despite the name, it’s a type of white wine,” Before he could finish, I was already helping myself with an introduction.
It happened all too quickly. I was not prepared to enter a realm turned topsy-turvy by the intensity of such wine; it defied everything I thought I knew about wine – to the extent that I finally felt confident enough to appreciate it for what it really is, be it orange wine or natural wine and beyond, untethered by labels of origin, year and price. To do away with these labels was not my own predicament. Long ago, a group of revolutionary winemakers made it their mission to do just that.
In contrast with conventional white wine production, the making of orange wine involves leaving the grape skins and stems in contact with the juice, fermenting for days or even months. On the palate, it’s robust, bold and dry, with honeyed aromas of jackfruit, bruised apple, juniper, sourdough, and dried orange rind, and even tannin like a red wine with a sourness similar to fruit beer. Oxidation creates a deep, orange-hued finished product unusual for white wines, hence the misnomer.
Since the coining of “orange wine” in 2004, the term has piqued the imagination of a generous percentage of wine critics – and polarised the same. Like a hipster fashion that bewitches winemakers around the world, the “orange wine” movement traces back to Friuli-Venezia Giulia in Italy, as the culmination of a group of innovators’ pursuit of the winemaking at its finest. Amongst them, the story of the Gravner vineyard is perhaps the most fascinating.
When Joško Gravner took over the estate from his father in 1973, he embarked on a journey to making a kind of modern white wine that was comparable to the international standard. He was one of the first producers to introduce a stable production line using stainless tanks. His brief stint trying to model after the elegant “Burgundy” with barriques proved hugely popular. Inevitably for every revolutionary, Joško began to wonder what his unique style should be and found the answer in natural cultivation.
Towards the end of 1990’s, Joško Gravner left winemaking to experiment with his grandfather’s maceration technique as well as natural cultivation. Departing from popular methodology, the quest soon became a journey of self-discovery, leading Gravner to Georgia. With 8000 years of winemaking history, Georgia has been hailed as the origin of wine, the birthplace of skin-contact wine produced in large, underground amphorae known as “Qvevri”. These amphorae, and along with them the Georgian tradition, was almost lost to Soviet occupation and prolonged civil war. In 1997, Gravner received a 230-litre Qvevri smuggled by a friend working in Georgia, and began his adventure into the making of orange wine.
I was fortunate to try orange wine for the first time in all is glory – in a wine glass designed by Gravner himself to highlight the expression of Gravner’s amber wines. Unlike conventional wine glasses, the Gravner glass is wide and stemless, with three holes for finger grip. The stemless design makes it easy to hold the glass single-handedly, and the experience so intimate as though drinking straight from the palm.
One might wonder if such close contact ruins the wine’s temperature and quality, but that is precisely the beauty of the Gravner glass: the warmth of the hand helps to warm up the wine, which should not be drank too cold. The idea to create a stemless wine glass occurred to Joško Gravner in 2000 whilst travelling in Georgia. There, he happened upon a monastery in the hills of Tbilisi, where the monks welcomed him with a polyphonic praise of wine, which they then offered him in a simple clay cup. To capture the divine experience of savouring wine from a cup, Gravner worked with Massimo Lunardon to create the Gravner glass, which symbolises a more intimate and humble respect of the wine.
Just as orange wine has changed my perspective of what wine should be like, the Gravner glass has also opened my mind as to what the experience of drinking should be: simple and effortless. Orange wine is often compared to natural wine and organic wine. Despite their similarities – the exclusion of the use of artificial chemical fertilisers, yeasts and temperature controls – they remain distinctively their own wines. As biodynamic and organic labels become increasingly popular, Joško Gravner refuses to classify his wine as natural wine, or any labels for that matter. To Gravner, everything is but a simple and straightforward quest to make a wine that he himself would love. It’s almost like a reminder coming from a perfectionist: every journey has as its destination the inevitable discovery of the self.