Hugh Johnson accepts orange wine challenge
Hugh Johnson has taken up the challenge of wine writer Simon Woolf to taste a selection of orange wines after Woolf took exception to Johnson’s comments that such wines were “a sideshow and a waste of time”.
The sporting gesture form the veteran wine personality, following comments made in The Washington Post last month, led to Woolf organising a tasting at 67 Pall Mall on Wednesday 14 December.
The private tasting was followed by an orange wine masterclass hosted by Woolf for 67 Pall Mall members and selected press and trade representatives.
As reported in db, Hugh Johnson caused a something of a frisson with his dismissive comments on orange wine last month. Woolf, a vocal orange wine advocate who is currently researching a book on the subject, responded by accusing Johnson of “poorly conceived bluster” that displayed a “worrying lack not only of winemaking history, but also of what drives the wine industry in the 21st century”.
Following an introduction from Justin Howard-Sneyd MW, Johnson accepted an invitation from Woolf to attend a private tasting of eight orange wines (pictured below). Woolf reported that the tasting led to some “positive discourse” and that, though Johnson did not like all the wines presented, there were some he did enjoy.
Two falling into the latter category were the 2007 Ribolla Gialla from Friulian orange winemaking star Josko Gravner and, perhaps more surprisingly, a cloudy orange Welschriesling from the Rennersistas in Burgenland.
“It was really interesting,” Woolf told db. “What I realised is that when Hugh was interviewed in the Washington Post the interviewer mentioned the word ‘natural’ along with the word ‘orange’, and the word ‘natural’, I think, was kind of a red rag to a bull. so his rant [to which Woolf offered a riposte on his Morning Claret blog] was much more about the natural side.
“He had some really interesting observations and he actively liked a couple of the wines. Some we agreed on, some we disagreed on, but it was a very interesting discourse.
“He felt that they were all quite well-made wines, so I was very happy that I found some better examples for him.
“It was very positive and we finished up and he said thanks very much for challenging me and thanks very much for allowing me to go a bit deeper in to the subject.”
An advocate of orange wine over the past three or four years, Woolf echoed a point made in a recent db article that the category is rapidly diversifying as more and more winemakers from regions across the world choose to experiment with extended skin contact techniques.
Les Caves de Pyrene’s Doug Wregg told db that the natural organic and biodynamic wine specialist now has as many as 100 orange wines in its portfolio.
“It fascinates me – the deeper I go into it the more examples I find where these techniques were really the backbone of white winemaking in so many parts of the world,” Woolf said.
“It’s like a forgotten piece of knowledge that people have rediscovered. And I think what’s new is that now winemakers are saying, well, our grandfathers used this method to make a simple, rustic wine; we can use it to actually make a complex, ageworthy fine wine. That’s the difference.
“People are experimenting with the style in almost every winemaking country in the world. To me it makes sense because, what can you do to transform white grapes into a thrilling, complex wine with ageing potential? One thing you can do is to use oak, one thing you can do is amphorae; another thing you can do is use skin contact. Skin contact gives you a whole range of favours, it gives you a certain intensity, it extracts things from the grape that you’re otherwise literally throwing away.
“So I think it’s not hard to see why the winemakers are fascinated by it, because it’s another tool in the toolbox, it’s another way of getting more of what was already in the grapes into the bottle.”
The wine writer pointed out that while orange wine was the subject of a certain amount of negative prejudice (he quoted the ever-outspoken Malcolm Gluck as having said of an orange wine flight at a Sager + Wilde tasting that he “wouldn’t serve these wines to someone I didn’t like at a funeral”), the real issue was one of confusion between ‘natural’ and ‘orange’. Although orange wines are frequently made ‘naturally’ – ie, with a minimal of intervention and, often, without the addition of sulphur dioxide – this is not a prerequisite.
Prejudice and confusion
“Some of it is prejudice,” Woolf said, “like Malcolm Gluck – his comments that I quoted – that to me is just prejudice and the inability to conceive of something different. But actually most of what I see, and I think with Hugh as much as anyone else, is actually confusion.
“I asked him [at the tasting] this morning, ‘What do you understand by the term “orange wines”‘? And he actually said to be ‘To be honest, I don’t really know’. So we talked about it and we agreed that the term is misleading and confusing. But, you know, try putting on a restaurant list ‘White wines made with long skin contact’ – it just doesn’t work. I think we all understand why the term orange wine has come into fashion – because it’s a convenient shorthand to tell people that these are not standard white wines.
“So many people make this mistake – they think ‘natural’ equals ‘orange’ equals ‘natural’. Of course they overlap, but they’re not the same.”
Concluding, Woolf said that he was pleased to have had the opportunity to demonstrate to Hugh Johnson that orange wine is not, as Johnson had originally suggested, an inconsequential sideshow, but an integral part of winemaking history with a bright future ahead of it.
“It’s a niche, but there are many niches,” he said. “Sherry is a niche. Vin Jaune is a niche. But it’s also a niche with a lot of history and culture behind it. There is a winemaking manual written in Slovenian from 1844 that talks abut this technique. So I think it’s fascinating that winemakers in their search for ways to go back to their roots are rediscovering it, and, I think, improving it as well.”