When it comes to wine, we have a pattern in this country of discovering a region, style or whole category and adopting it as our new darling. Cutting-edge shops tout the wine, and all the cool kids drink it. Never mind that the region (France’s Jura, say) might have centuries of winemaking under its belt, or the style whole millennia. Maybe it’s our New World, kid-in-a-candy-store enthusiasm as we romp through the riches of the Old World, or the lack of ancient wine traditions of our own. Regardless, the problem isn’t in the discovery; it’s in the danger of abandoning our interest in one quarter as we move on to the next fad in another.
Orange wine has been just such a trend in the last two decades. A millennia-old tradition, the method of vinifying white wine on its skins in large amphorae, often sealed with beeswax and buried underground, can be traced to Georgia in far-eastern Europe (the birthplace of wine as we know it), some believe all the way back to 6,000 BC. Often called amber as opposed to orange (a slightly more accurate description, leading no one to believe the wine was made from oranges), the resulting wine has picked up pigment, phenolics and tannins from those skins and seeds—as well as flavors and textures from the oxidative process—and shows a range of character traits unexpected in “white” wine: dried fruits and flowers, honey, tea and nuts, along with a hearty structure. Its color depends on the amount of time spent on the skins, from days to weeks to months.
The credit for reviving the ancient method largely goes to Italian winemaker Josko Gravner, who visited Georgia some 20 years ago and brought the technique (and qvevri, the large amphorae used) home to Friuli-Venezia (which, incidentally, borders Slovenia, where a slightly less-ancient tradition of orange winemaking can be found too). And interest in making (and drinking!) the unique wine—not white, not red and generally not pink either—spread around the winemaking world, for good and for ill. Some experiments in orange wine, to be honest, come off as more funky than artful, cleanliness and balance being a little more challenging to maintain in wine fermenting and aging on its skins underground. And if that’s what the wine adventurer encounters, the old tradition is in danger of being discounted out of hand.
With his inaugural Villa Soleilla 2020—a copper-tinted beauty just released as the flagship of the new brand—iconic Provence producer Gérard Bertrand is making sure our interest in orange wines holds steady. The wine yields complex aromas, merging dried apricots, preserved orange peel and gardenias with baking spices and savory herbs like bay and thyme. The palate comes alive with a juicy compote of honeyed stone fruit. The wine is pithy and textured, with distinct tannins and a bitter edge on the finish.
With the intent of creating a “high-end orange wine with good aging potential, finesse, delicacy and balance,” as Bertrand describes it, he fuses ancient methods with finely tuned modern winemaking. The three white varieties he uses for the wine (Roussanne, Viognier and Vermentino) come from six different biodynamically farmed vineyard parcels. Whole berries go into vats to undergo carbonic maceration, but leaving nothing to the chance of the old days, Bertrand controls the temperature, “for the right balance of tannins, acidity and aromas,” he explains. Halfway through fermentation, he separates the juice from the skins, sending the free-run juice into French oak barrels and the pressed juice into three different vessels—clay amphorae, glass amphorae and oval stainless-steel and wood tanks—to retain intricate final blending options the ancient Georgians would never have dreamed of. “With Villa Soleilla, we go far with the details,” says Bertrand. “Each step, each container, has its importance and its impact on the aromatic palette of the wine.”
For Bertrand, Villa Soleilla is an important tribute to the roots of winemaking, but also a way to push the tradition forward. “I knew that our South of France terroir and varieties could offer orange wine in a new way,” he says. In fact, the aforementioned palette of a good orange wine is critical for Bertrand. “I love orange wines when they are aromatic, perfectly balanced and with a light bitterness,” he says. And orange wines that hit the mark (as Villa Soleilla does, with, in his words, “aromatic complexity, richness on the palate and velvety tannins”) open up exciting new food-pairing possibilities. Try cheeses of all sorts, Bertrand suggests (especially aged), and spicy dishes cooked with saffron (think paella or bouillabaisse), turmeric and curry—which together include a vast range of global cuisines.
In the US, the wine is order for preorder now.