Amber Waves of Taste
There’s been a lot of talk recently about “orange wines”: white varieties macerated and fermented on their skins, taking on an amber hue. The examples that exist are largely from “natural” winemakers and are usually sold to people interested in the novel or edgy bottles of the world. The truth is, however, that these “amber wines” (as they should be more aptly called) are anything but novel. At the foot of the Caucus Mountains in, what is known today as, the Republic of Georgia, this style of winemaking has been going on for many thousands of years. Yet, Americans are just beginning to discover them as the small country emerges from the oppression of Soviet rule.
The crux of what makes “traditional” Georgian wine different is the use of Qvevri. Qvevri is the proto-amphora clay vessel used in traditional Georgian winemaking which has been adopted by many western European winemakers. Qvevri are large tear-drop shaped vessels, anywhere from 1,000-3,000 liters in volume, made from clay and buried in the ground. Once harvested, red or white grapes are crushed under foot and the entire mash (seeds, stems, skins and juice) put into the Qvevri. The vessels are sealed using wet clay and a slab of slate, then covered with dirt or sand. Depending on the rate of fermentation (almost always spontaneous), the vessel might be unsealed for occasional punch down to prevent overflowing. Due to the shape of the Qvevri, the fermentation process creates a convection cycle which suspends the solid matter evenly through the liquid medium. As fermentation finishes, the cap naturally settles, effectively filtering the wine.
When this traditional method is employed for white varieties, such as Rkatsiteli, Chinuri or Mitsvane, the resulting wine is a rich amber color. Also referred to as “orange” wines, the style has emerged recently on the international wine scene from producers in Italy, France, and Spain and even from the New World. Gravner is largely cited as the first winemaker to use Qvevri outside Georgia, but others have followed: Paolo Bea, COS, Foradori, Vinos Ambiz, Bernhard Ott and Thierry Puzelat. Many argue that the skin contact and Qvevri fermentation increases the perception of terroir, while others say that it muddies it. However, given the coexistence of the Georgian varieties and the Qvevri technique, it’s hard to argue that these amber wines betray the place from which they come.
So what do we serve with these amber wines? These are rich and tannic wines that have aromas of tea, fresh and dried stone fruits, north Indian and Middle Eastern Spices (saffron particularly) and nuts. This is Silk Road cuisine wine... Afghan, Persian, North Indian, and some Chinese. The cuisine of Georgia largely reflects these Eastern influences with the use of spices and nuts as flavorings and thickeners. Though a world away, other cuisines that riff on the asiatic them work equally well. Jerk chicken, BBQ and Mexican all make good partners with wines like these as well as meals with a variety of flavors earthy savory flavors.