“Sod the wine, I want to suck on the writing. This man White is an instinctive writer, bloody rare to find one who actually pulls it off, as in still gets a meaning across with concision. Sharp arbitrage of speed and risk, closest thing I can think of to Cicero’s ‘motus continuum animi.’

Probably takes a drink or two to connect like that: he literally paints his senses on the page.”

DBC Pierre (Vernon God Little, Ludmila’s Broken English, Lights Out In Wonderland ... Winner: Booker prize; Whitbread prize; Bollinger Wodehouse Everyman prize; James Joyce Award from the Literary & Historical Society of University College Dublin)





31 July 2014


Tim Smith Wines Barossa Mataro Grenache Shiraz 2013
$28; 14.5% alcohol; screw cap; 94+ points

 Smithy loves the deep Mataro-dominant wines of Bandol, on France's sunny Mediterranean coast between Marseille and Toulon. It's called Mourvèdre there. Close your eyes, and a bottle of this works nearly as well as a plane ticket. I do believe I can smell the red Sahara blowing in across the ocean and a warm waft of Provence lavendar coming in from the other side. In the middle, it's all deep and glowering and chocolaty with a blacksmithed vortex that sucks at the helpless traveller. I don't mean to lay it on too thick, but the farther in you go it actually smells more and more like the leather apron of the smithy, with all that glowing coke and red soft steel ringing away on the anvil. It's as prickly and acrid as much as blackberry pie. The palate is sublimely fine, slippery and supple after all that sinister gravity, with just a whisper of very fine coal-dusty tannin. It seems there are no edges to cling to. Which suits me, especially if there's a stack of big field mushrooms and black russian tomatoes steaming on the toast, dribbling beneath a shiny port and cream reduction, black pepper everywhere. This makes surrender a delight. It's a third the price of a good Bandol, and a tiny fraction of the cost of that air ticket. Be quick! Sublime in as many ways as I can think, and believe me, my sodden old brain has spread so wide it's dribbling off the edges of the plate. PS After 30 hours with the cap off, a lot more primary fruit (raspberry, sweet cherry) oozed outa this, sending me even further down the hole.

Tim Smith Wines Reserve Barossa Shiraz 2012
 $85; 14.5% alcohol; screw cap; 94+++ points 

The penny-wise red perve might well wonder how the extra spend can buy a mere brace of plus symbols, but given that perfect seal and the sheer intensity of this fruit, each of those little symbols indicates another decade of increasing delight. It's all blackberry and anvil again, but darker and deeper, and it seems to make standing impossible, its gravity being overwhelming. It's unctuous and viscous and devilishly slick; long and lingering and reluctant to leave, and it's one of the only things with the power to bring you straight back from Bandol to the best of the top Barossa in a magical snap. Now that Smithy finally has himself his own proper winery in Beckwith Park, he seems to have found a bold new confidence. I think that even in their infancy these two reds are his best release yet. Which is saying something. See? I didn't mention one motorcycle! A triumph.PS As with the above delight, this one changed a lot in 30 hours, but it seemed to grow more Mataro-like charcuterie meat than your actual primary fruit. That makes it more moody and glowering. Give it another triumph:

top photo Philip White bottom photo Stephen White

Tim Smith Wine Eden Valley Viognier 2014
$28; 13% alcohol; screw cap; 92 points

Just to blow my blacksmith theory clear into Kingdom Come, Smithy's lobbed this beautifully perfumed Viognier at us. It seems to me to rewrite the Vio volume, especially in the High Barossa: I don't recall any other so fine and alluring, without losing the raw, almost feral nature of this very tricky grape. This one seems imbued with the fatty, estery carboxylic acid aromas of wax. Think palmitic acid, which gives both mother's milk and napalm their comforting aromas. It also smells of the lactones and linalyl butyrate that give white peaches their delicate buttery fragrance. It does NOT smell of apricot. In direct contrast, like the best high Barossa whites, it also has that edgy terroir whiff you'll sniff when you smash a lump of dry Kanmantoo Group schist with a hammer. That's common rock up that way. The wine's suitably unctuous and almost fluffy of texture, a character which you can see increase as your glass warms if you've served it too cold. The flavours are certainly peachy, but only white peach. And then there's that appetising rise of very fine phenolic tannins that the best Viogniers sport. In this case, they're slightly bitter, along the lines of Momordica charantia, the bitter melon. It reminds me a little of a very early release of Hill Smith Estate Viognier (around 2000), which was similar, and went just deliciously with a yellow curry I made from the greasy European carp: that bitterness counteracts the buttery, fatty nature of the coconut and fish, while the butyric (buttery) bits harmonise with the same components perfectly. If you take that advice, you'd probably give it higher points than I've squeezed, drinking it unaccompanied. Which makes me think it would also go swimmingly with crusty white bread and bloody big lumps of Paris Creek butter. Ten minutes later: I just realised I possessed both those latter ingredients and gave it a try.  Fuck it's good!

30 July 2014


David Wynn was a man of category ... Mountadam, early '90s, with man of category Howard Twelftree and the author [last man standing]

Men of Category

Wednesday 27 March 2002

I want to read to you the opening passage from One Man’s Ambition, the introduction to Wynn Winegrowers Diary, 1970, written by the late Walter James (below), who was a great and humble winewriter in Melbourne.

"When you choose to direct your life to the task of making money you may be sure that your success will arouse the admiration, and the envy, of a vast army of men who have had similar aims,” he wrote. “Should you set out not to make money but to make something really worthwhile in itself, your success will with equal certainty be rewarded with the admiration, and the goodwill, of men who really matter - men of category, as the Spaniards call them.”

He continues: "In some fields of productive endeavour, of course, you cannot achieve much without substantial means; it is only a little sad that so many men of ability as they reach for success and meet it are beguiled into allowing the means to submerge the aim and in the end are content to do, adequately enough, no more than a hundred others around them are doing equally well. Their obituaries describe these people as successful businessmen and they pass promptly into oblivion."

David Wynn, left, with Hurtle and Norm Walker, at Wynn Winegrowers' Romalo Cellars opposite Penfolds at Magill. These were originally built by the great French winemaker, Edmund Mazure, who taught his champagne-making skills to Hurtle, who taught his son Norm, who taught his son Nick, who's now half of the burgeoning Clare winemaking business, O'Leary Walker ... men of category, see?
Among the businessmen who will pass promptly into oblivion in the near future are many of those we see running the great Australian wine industry.

And not to be unduly cynical, it IS a great wine industry. Again.

Just last night I was ploughing through some old Winestate and Wine and Spirit magazines, from back in the days when a Petaluma chardonnay was $7 and we’d give you a free bottle of Grange if you bought a $12 annual subscription. 

Australia hadn’t discovered Shiraz then.

I read an interview I did twenty years ago with Frank Stone (left), a wine merchant from Atlanta. He was a man of category. He cursed Australian winemakers because he had never had one Australian wine shipper bother to visit Skinflints, his six wine supermarkets in Georgia, that were turning over $25 million a year of premium wine. He was also the President of an international wine education association with 1600 members, and he’d never once been contacted by an Australian winemaker or promoter.

Frank told me of the phenomenal success of the Italians in the United States, quoting figures like Villa Banfi, who’d gone from shipping nothing in 1975 to 17 million cases in 1982, and how the Italian government had got behind its winemakers and got some order into their promotion and made sure they went and visited blokes like Frank.

The people who’ve put Australia there beside the Italians might have taken twenty years, rather than seven, but they’ve done it - they’ve achieved some very grand things indeed, but even many of those will pass into oblivion.

Writers pass into oblivion, too. I remember Richard Farmer, the political journalist and major Canberra liquor merchant standing up in Len Evans Bulletin Place restaurant in 1984 to address the New South Wales Wine Press Club. “Fellow drug dealers”, he began, addressing an issue that has never really been faced since that day. Then he wheeled into a loud warning about Australia’s wine explosion being the result of the product being tax free, and said loud and clear that unless the industry got its shit together and grew up and lobbied, it would of course be taxed.

Now, thanks to the lobbying efforts of Brian Croser and Ian Sutton, we have an absolute dusie of a tax, but we don’t hear much from Richard since he penned Bob Hawke’s immortal line that by 1990 no child in Australia would be living in poverty. As a fellow writer, I think I know the sort of personal oblivion that might eat Richard right up ...

In the same year - the apocryphal 1984 that my generation of bookworms thought we’d never ever reach - Nathan Chroman (above), wine writer from the Los Angeles Times was here, saying he didn’t think anybody in the world needed to make better wines than our best Shiraz.

Gerard Jaboulet was here in the same week, handing out glasses of his La Chappelle Hermitage (1976 - $16!), from the French vineyard which is the very source of that Shiraz, totally disbelieving that we were spending taxpayers’ money to uproot our best and oldest Shiraz vines, not to mention nearly all of our ancient Grenache. There was hardly a vine of Cinsault or Carignan left after that exercise. These just happened to be the varieties Gerard coveted from Chateauneuf-du-Pape, the district which McLaren Vale now seems determined to emulate.

Gerard Jaboulet with Vogue Australia's Maria von Alderstein at our lunch in Sydney in 1984 ... Gerard became a great friend and mentor to the author, who took this photo

Funny thing about these “new” rousillon varieties, Viognier, Marsanne and Roussane, that they’re madly planting to get more South-of-Francey: they were all down there growing brilliantly in the Vales when Ebenezer Ward was writing The Advertiser wine column in 1862.

Gerard Jaboulet has tragically and prematurely returned to the great silence, but I don’t think we can say he’s gone to oblivion. I don’t know about Nathan. He’s a writer. And so was old Ebenezer (left), who shared one or two of my human tendencies. He got his tab in the Yorketown pub up to 50 quid in 1880, because of his derision of the quality of the local fizz, and his irritating habit of calling repeatedly for Krug.

Coming a bit closer to today’s men of category, one chubby fellow who was on the National Wine Centre board buttonholed me and boasted of how he would win his Order of Australia Medal for getting the Centre up against all the odds and dangerous detractors like me. I thought immediately that he was a man who had become “beguiled into allowing the means to submerge his aim”. He will pass promptly into oblivion.

Mark Cashmore, the great Hunter winemaker and marketer, is a name we don’t hear too much of any more. Before he sooled his lawyers on me for calling him Mark Morecash in 1983 I asked him the following question: “Why have you changed the name of your blend of Chardonnay and Semillon from Pinot Riesling to Semillon Chardonnay?”

To which he honestly replied: “Pinot Riesling doesn’t mean very much at all. Chardonnay’s not Pinot Chardonnay and I don’t think Riesling in the context of Pinot Riesling means very much. I mean Riesling is Semillon and Pinot is Chardonnay, and we have more Semillon in the wine than Chardonnay, so it should be Semillon Chardonnay.”

Not to put too much of a mozz on the Hunter, but the notorious Murray Tyrrell (left, with Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser) beat that hands down when I rang him for a comment on one of his habitual imbroglios: “Philip”, he roared like an old Chev blitz starting up, “what these fellers in the press are saying about me is completely unfalse!”

But that’s enough of that. I know what dear Walter James and David Wynn were thinking of when they conspired to write that paragraph I read to begin. They were talking of the true cycles of wine, and how so few of us ever really get to see it properly, gloriously, wholesomely occur; if not our very short lives, at least our concentration is too short to plan a flavour, and spend a year or three selecting the ground which will deliver it, then another one preparing it for the action. We might endure the few years it then takes for a crop to appear, or even stick around for another four or five so the fruit begins to show some complexity of flavour, but will we still be paying attention when those wines reach their maturity another ten years on?

How many decades of close attention does it take for a true believer to feel knowledgeable and comfortable about his terroir?

I interviewed M. Derallier-Dubrez once, and thanked him for the beautiful colour advertisements he’d been placing for his Quelltaler Estate, which was part of his Remy Martin empire. But I also voiced concern that the stylish ads were too subtle for Australians, and asked him how long he thought they’d take to reflect real change in his sales. This was in 1983, and he was nearly eighty.

“Aaaah M’sieu”, he said from his wheelchair, “I am planning for the year 2020.”

Remy foundered with its debt after buying Cointreau, and Derallier-Dubrez, who is still a man of category, sold Quelltaler to Wolf Blass, who sold it to Foster’s, who shut it down, ripped its tanks out, then put them back and opened it again. Perhaps their new 75,000 tonne wine percolator at Bilyara’s not big enough. Whatever will the shareholders think?

Another image from the Winegrowers Diary 1970: David Wynn's father Sam, the founder of the Wynn wine empire. As Sam Weintraub, maker of kosher wine for the Warsaw ghetto, Wynn escaped penniless to Melbourne in 1913, and was delighted to discover fresh grapes in the market. This page bears the autograph of discount king Dan Murphy, who did six months of a 30 month jail sentence for sales tax fraud in 1991 ... look what he left us ... and then there's the autographs of Norm Walker, Romalo fizz maker, and his son Nick, now of the booming O'Leary Walker Wines in Clare

Since our staunchly anti-gambling Prime Minister has insisted on Australians becoming the world’s biggest investors in the stock market, the popularity of wine as a sheer investment property has boomed. I don’t mean the idiots who buy the stuff like gold bars at auction, and lay it down and wait til it’s too old to drink, at which point they sell it on at a grand profit to some other dunderhead who’ll repeat the dumb cycle - I’m talking about the nature of a wine industry which has become dependent upon short-term investors for its survival.

What happened to Seppeltsfield without its family? Why are our heritage wineries, like Saltram and Quelltaler, under constant threat of closure in the name of shareholder interest? How could empires like that one which the Wynns built, over three generations and a whole century, continue to survive this deadly slow cycle, if their sole duty was to return value for money to their impatient but faceless shareholders, who are scattered about the globe avoiding tax?

The two systems, on the face of it, seem totally mismatched. To me, a wine which is good value for the shareholder is a terrible wine to drink, and, conversely, as Richard Farmer said on that tumultuous day in Sydney: “Small vineyards are a rich man’s hobby.”

How can shareholders imagine or learn or care that their fast buck comes at the expense of salinated soil and buggered river systems, somewhere else, and how can their managers afford to let on? How can they possibly conceive of the patience required, the foresight and drive to establish a vineyard like Coonawarra?

Of course the sad truth is that Coonawarra had already passed into oblivion when David Wynn bought the old Riddoch cellars and vineyard land there for £22,000 in 1952. One year the farm’s being sold on its value as sheep grazing land, the next Wynn and his winemaker, Ian Hickinbotham walked in and by 1954 they were directing the first deliberately induced and managed malo-lactic fermentations on earth. I’ve tasted that wine many times. It’s still delicious, and the Frogs still can’t believe it.

A case of old Coonawarras is a serious dive into the wondrous achievements of men of category, like  David Wynn, Ian Hickinbotham and Norm Walker ... photo Philip White

Like Wynn, I don’t think Hickie will be in oblivion when he goes. They’re what those Spaniards call men of category.

And so, I believe, might the Oatley family be. The plans Philip Shaw unveiled for the replanting and refurbishment of Coonawarra in my piece in today’s Advertiser are unlike the sort of thing you hear from a publicly-listed company. The previous regime was certainly less likely to chop yields and short term profits so dramatically. What will make the Oatleys serious men of category, who will not pass quickly into oblivion, would be to see them carry on with the plan I like to imagine them following. Like frighten the investors off, get the price down nice and low, then buy the whole thing out and delist it. I’ve done my bit.

I was wrong about Bob "Wild Oats" Oatley. Having skun Southcorp to the tune of $1.49 billion when he flogged them his Rosemount, he later assisted hand the big winemaker to the disastrous Fosters by selling them his 18.8% Southcorp stake for $585 million four years later in 2005 ... the old coffee king has yet another wine business now

South Australia was enjoying a spectacular wine export boom exactly a century ago. Ernest Whitington, writing in The Register of 1903, reported:

“At present time the vintage is in full swing .... new, clean and up-to-date appliances have taken the place of old-fashioned and dirty methods, and the results in every case have been most gratifying”. He went on to explain that the state’s wine production had gone up fourfold in the previous decade, and the export trade had “gone ahead by leaps and bounds. Wine has grown to become one of the staple products of South Australia”, he wrote, “and there is no knowing what dimensions the industry will develop. The possibilities are almost illimitable.”

But within thirty years, the war, the wowsers, changing public tastes, stupid government intervention, and a wave of investors who knew nothing about wine, at both the British and Australian ends, saw that boom go a complete gutser.

Our sale of strong alcoholic wines to fatten up the ration-starved Poms after the next war worked for a while, and we enjoyed another boom. “McLaren Vale furruginous wines” were pumped for all they were worth: smooth and alcoholic, and yes, in some instances, even grown on ferruginous soils. But suddenly the English felt they’d put on sufficient condition: they’d had enough, and flocked, en masse, back to the lighter, more accessible, less heady stuff from just across the Channel, and Australia’s great wine business belly flopped again.

Men of category are what we need more than anything, right now. The wine industry is suddenly in the hands of a generation which has experienced no surplus, no collapse, and indeed has faced very little inclemency at all in this golden age. All its investors are fairly new; many of them are in it only to avoid paying tax.

What we need is people who are determined and wise enough to make something really worthwhile in itself, people who will not let the money submerge the ambition. Because there are plenty of people who really do matter in Australia, people of true category, who will reward such enlightened endeavour with extremely valuable admiration, delight, and goodwill. And you never know: them, their children, and their grandchildren, might even drink.

Thankyou very much.


28 July 2014


Making Roussanne at Yangarra, the old pigeage way: wine fermented in amphorae may fit some folks' orange or natural parameters, but not necessarily ... photo Philip White

What is orange wine? Natural?
Five experts' points of view:
an attempt to clear some murk 

Plutonium is natural. Orange is a town.

Orange and natural wines are on the rise internationally.

I recently wrote of my longstanding theory that wine production, sale and marketing, and especially its packaging, shares a lot with the popular music business. Having been a music critic before I took my very deep dive into wine, I've often marvelled at the parallels.

Presuming such tinctures are not from Orange, and contain no plutonium, my article likened the current wave of very old-fashioned natural or orange wines to the minimalist reactionary punk movement of the mid-seventies. That piece raised a prickly frisson around the wine business, mainly because I confused orange with natural.

This was done partly out of ignorance - I have a lot to learn - but partly out of mischief. Some flushing out of the differences, if any, between the orange people and the naturalists seemed to me to be far too long overdue.

While underground movements tend to be paranoid and secretive, those that depend upon the actual sales of an item must eventually be governed by the law, or at least conform to sufficient fashion templates to be recognised enough to be saleable.

My colleague Jeremy Pringle (left), who's having a rest from his excellent Wine will eat itself  blog, winced reasonably at my music/wine analogy on the grounds of music categories being unfortunate intrusions in what should naturally be a fluid soundscape. Typical of his erudition, Jeremy's interested in quality, not categories.

But if you were one of the many premium winemakers at Orange, you'd surely prefer other makers who used your region's name to make clear they were talking of colour, not place. Whether the wine was orange or not. And if you were a consumer, you'd like to know the natural status stopped short of permitting the inclusion of plutonium.

With foodstuffs, consumers are constantly demanding more accurate descriptive labelling, if only to discover which evils or delights they're about to put inside their bodies. 

Stuart Knox, the Len Evans-trained proprietor and 'Bottle-Stroker' (his term) of the popular Sydney bistro, Fix St James, waded in on Twitter.

"Oh dear, it appears @whiteswine has gone all Wine Australia on us and confused natural wine with orange wine," he responded.

"Being that I'm a sommelier I'm well aware that @whiteswine has complete disdain for me and generally any sommelier's opinions," he continued. "There again, as far as I can actually see, @whiteswine is a blog that is built around disdain for most if not all of the wine trade."

Permit me here to make a clarification of my own. @whiteswine is my Twitter handle; my blog is called DRINKSTER.

While he missed making that distinction, Stuart settled sufficiently to make one clarification in our late night skirmish. He seemed to agree that natural wine is like the punk movement.

"However," he asserted, "if perhaps we are talking orange/amber wine then perhaps its spiritual home is Georgia ... I'm sick of the mistaking of orange and natural."

Believing that these sorts of wines are here to stay - they're basically the types of wine that were made for millennia before the modern industrialisation of winemaking - I presumed that if a dude like me is confused, then the poor old punter must be even more so.

If orange wines must be white, what do we call red wines that are fermented on skins and left for extended periods? Normal? ... photo Philip White

Since that twisty interchange, I invited three more highly-respected experts to clarify this murk.

The first was Max Allen, the popular author and wine critic on the Weekend Australian. Max has been a long-time evangelist, preaching the gospel of wines which are made without so much of the chemical and physical interference and manipulation inherent in modern refinery wine. 

"Orange is a description of a style of wine," he wrote with typical acuity. "Like sparkling or rosé, it refers to a technique. Natural is a philosophy, an approach, an ideology."

Max Allen is no punk. Here, he gives his beloved mandolin a tickle on the front veranda of Bill Monroe's old family home up on Jerusalem Ridge at Rosine, Kentucky

Julian Castagna is a Beechworth winemaker who made the first Australian biodynamic wines to blow me away. When I did my annual Top 100 tastings in The Advertiser around the turn of the last millenium, over three years Castagna consecutively entered different wines that scored higher than the thousands of others I tasted in those enormous blind exercises.

One of those winners of my Wine of the Year was a rosé. I couldn't believe what I'd done. Or what Julian had achieved. But in the years since, his Castagna wines have repeatedly dazzled and delighted me. 

And thousands of others, not the least his rivals.

Julian opened the door for this back-to-basics revolution. 

Castagna Genesis Syrah: the first biodynamic wine to alert me to the astonishing capacity of the voodoo winemaking techniques that follow the philosophies of Rudolf Steiner. Here's a full set on the winemaker's verandah at Beechworth, Victoria ... there aren't many Australian line-ups that come within coo-ee of this glorious lot, if any ... photo Philip White

"Natural is how we make wine; how we have made it from the very beginning," he wrote. "It's wine that speaks of the land from where it came, made without artefacts. I doubt though whether that is what is generally understood by the word. I guess most people understand it to mean wine without sulphur dioxide. Thus the confusion.

"Orange I understand to mean wine made with white grapes fermented on skins," he continued. "It is I think simply a descriptive term. How orange in colour it is will depend on how hot the fermentation got but the colour for me is less important than the phenolic structure which the skins impart to the wine." 

Then I invited comment from my landlord, the Yangarra winemaker Peter Fraser. Not only is he close handy - the winery's just outside my kitchen window - but he's been making some delicious wines without murk which could seem to fit a template that vaguely approximates either of the murky natural or orange appellations. 

Yangarra High Sands: 1946 model Grenache in deep aeolian sand, beginning to get its grasses back under a certified biodynamic and organic regime, after decades of conventional scorched earth viticulture ... can it be natural if it's been filtered before bottling? (Make mine a lightly-filtered, please.) ... photo Philip White

"My understanding of natural winemaking (maybe we should call it 'educated minimalist')," Peter wrote, "is to enhance and guide natural systems of growing and fermenting."

Then he added a telling sequitur: "If grape juice is allowed to ferment naturally and is left in a complete natural state it will turn to vinegar.

"Orange wine is a unique style of wine," he expounded. "I have two experiences of orange wine. The first was being poured 150 ml in a large burgundy glass at super hipster wine bar, and while I found the flavours and texture interesting I struggled to drink more than 30 mls of the glass, and was left looking for the closest pot plant so as not to offend the sommelier.

"The second was with sommelier Laine Kerison of Rococo of Noosa, who poured us all a small glass of Radikon (unfortunately I do not remember the variety or vintage) and paired it with fresh oysters with a vinaigrette dressing. It was a sublime gastronomic experience. It was only recently I realized, that while Laine had excelled as a sommelier in heightening that food and wine experience, these wines are maybe not designed for people sitting at a wine bar slurping big oversized glasses as we customarily do with most wines.

"More like sherries and other fortified wines they're designed to be drunk in small amounts as gastronomic experiences. I believe many producers and hipster wine bars are missing this critical point!

Having gone to the effort of growing,  destemming and sorting licensed biodynamic and organic grapes to this point, why would you let them go to a perfectly natural vinegar in the ferment? Or the bottle? ... photo Philip White

"But then there is the understanding that orange wines are white wines that have spent some maceration time in contact with the grape skins. This definition I believe falls very short, and needs much better clarification."

So there. If this clarification is to come from the producers, at least we've started the discussion. But, as with other foodstuffs, like genetically-modified and heavily preserved stuff, there are those, like me, who would like a slightly faster clarification than a long rambling spat is likely to produce.

Which would leave the door open for Wine Australia to impose its own appellation. Having just morphed into the Australian Wine and Grape Authority, it must surely be willing to thoughtfully consider changes to other nomenclatures, non? 

Max Allen wrote: 

Orange is a description of a style of wine. Like ‘sparkling’ or ‘rosé’. It refers to a technique.  

Natural is a philosophy, an approach, an ideology. 

Max Allen photographed by his daughter, Bridie 

Just as descriptors such as ‘sparkling’ and ‘rosé’ refer to the visual appearance of wines resulting from how they are produced, so too ‘orange’: by fermenting and ageing white grapes in contact with the skins, you end up with wines that often have an orange or amber colour. The word, then, derives from the technique.

Winemakers who identify as natural want to produce wine by adding as little as possible and taking away as little as possible. No added yeast, acid, enzymes, etc. No reverse osmosis, sterile filtration, etc. And the bare minimum of sulphur, if any.

The confusion has arisen because many of the orange/skin-contact-white wines you’ll find out there are produced by people who align themselves with the natural philosophy, and they these wines can indeed be cloudy and sometimes feral.

But that doesn’t mean all orange/skin-contact-white wines are natural, by any means: look at Gwyn Olsen’s 2013 Carillion Verduzzo – five months on skins, sure, but made from conventionally grown grapes, conventionally filtered, conventionally sulphured, and thoroughly conventional in character.

In other words: some natural wines are orange, just as some natural wines are red, some white and some pink. And some orange wines are natural, just as some orange wines are conventional.

The two words are not interchangeable. 

Carolann Castagna, sons Alexi and Adam, padrone Julian and respective hounds ... winemakers and fanatical gastronomes all ... photo Philip White

Julian Castagna wrote: 

‘Natural’ - is how we make wine; how we have made it from the very beginning. It's wine that speaks of the land from where it came, made without artefacts. I doubt though whether that is what is generally understood why the word - I guess most people understand it to mean wine without SO2. Thus the confusion.

‘Orange’ I understand to mean wine made with white grapes fermented on skins, from fruit that has been well cared-for in the vineyard. 

For me at least, normal knowledge and understanding and judgement of winemaking is still important; perhaps even more so. 

Orange I think is simply a descriptive term. How orange in colour it is will depend on how hot the fermentation got. The colour for me is less important than the phenolic structure which the skins impart to the wine. 

There are a very few interesting examples of this style, mostly from north-east Italy, but there are many more very bad versions. The market I think will sort that out sooner rather than later. 

The idea promulgated by some, that it simply okay to accept what have up to now been generally accepted as faults is nonsense.

Wine above everything else needs to be delicious and wine that is badly oxidised or has excessive volatile acidity is simply not. 

Biodynamic Shiraz tendrils reaching for the sky beneath a full moon at Castagna ... photo Philip White
Peter Fraser wrote: 


My understanding of natural - maybe we should call it “educated minimalist” - is to enhance and guide natural systems of growing and fermenting. 

If grape juice is allowed to ferment naturally and is left in a complete natural state it will turn to vinegar.

It should start with farming techniques that are without the use of synthetic chemicals, utilizing nature's complex web of biological symbiotic relationships. The educated winemaker with a solid understanding of winemaking principles will pick the grapes when the sugar and acid levels are conducive to a natural fermentation, resulting in a fermentation without analogous faults. We know that lower pH results in an environment which is not conducive to spoilage yeast and bacteria. So if we are to make wines with minimal additions, we must be making the decision of picking predominantly on the pH if we want to have a successful fermentation.

If we are to minimize the amount of sulphur additions we must keep the wine on lees, use more reductive storage vessels and avoid contact with oxygen as much as possible. These wines are also much more suited to early bottling, again to protect the wine from oxidation. 

These types of wines are very sensitive to temperature, both in barrel storage and as finished wines. Spoilage yeast and bacteria thrive in temperatures above 18 degrees celcius. Many natural wines tend to be produced in 'garage' type facilities, and I would hazard a guess that a very large proportion of wine shops and small wine bars have less than desirable storage conditions, especially in summer.

One of the evil enemies of the natural winemaking brethren is filtration. It is the one step that I fail to understand: is it so bad and so un-natural that taking away should be considered as bad as adding? I understand that unfiltered can lead to a fuller or more textured mouthfeel, but at the perils of Brettanomyces or mousiness spoilage? And considering the standard storage on wine as discussed above?

I am very fond of the idealization of minimal intervention in wine and getting back to basics. But our ultimate goal must always to be making wines that people want to drink, that tell a story of their place, maker and variety without the cloud of undifferentiated faults. 

Peter Fraser (cont'd):


Firstly, orange wine is a unique style of wine. I have two experiences of orange wine. The first was being poured 150 ml in a large burgundy glass at super hipster wine bar, and while I found the flavours and texture interesting I struggled to drink more than 30 mls of the glass, and was left looking for the closest pot plant so as not to offend the sommelier. 

The second was with sommelier Laine Kerison of Rococo at Noosa, who poured us all a small glass of Radikon (unfortunately I do not remember the variety or vintage) and paired it with fresh oysters with a vinaigrette dressing. It was a sublime gastronomic experience. It was only recently I realized, that while Laine had excelled as a sommelier in heightening that food and wine experience, these wines are maybe not designed for people sitting at a wine bar slurping big oversized glasses as we customarily do with most wines.

More like sherries and other fortified wines they're designed to be drunk in small amounts as gastronomic experiences. I believe many producers and hipster wine bars are missing this critical point!

But then there is the understanding that orange wines are white wines that have spent some maceration time in contact with the grape skins. This definition I believe falls very short, and needs much better clarification. 

Gerald Asbroek, winery engineer, Jacques Blain and Peter Fraser with Peter's beloved Vaucher Beguet grape sorting machine, which was invented by Jacques and delivers fruit that looks like caviar (below) ... Could it be a natural thing to remove the millipedes, stalks, snails, leaves, earwigs and whatever other critters choose to hide within the bunches? ...  photos Philip White

Peter Fraser (cont'd):

My personal experiences on oxidation and skin contact on white grape varieties: 

As I understand it, orange wines occur when the oxidation of the phenolic compounds in wine start to develop brown hues.

I handle all my white grapes and juice without the use of sulphur. In my experience the oxidation process causes the solid materials (pulp) to turn brown and juices made this way have an orange/brown hue. To the uninitiated this can be a scary sight. At the end of fermentation, orange/brown solid materials are mixed with the dead yeast and act as oxygen scavengers in the vessel, and depending on the wine style are stirred to add further texture and complexity. When these solids are removed from the wine, and sulphur is added, the wine will have a bright green hue and no brown or orange hues exist. However if sulphur had been added while these orange/brown  solids existed in the wine, the sulphur will act to bind this colour permanently into the wine.

Peter Fraser is experimenting with John Ullinger's amphora-shaped fermenters made with clays collected from each of his individual vineyard plots at Yangarra, so the wines are fermented in an approximation of the ground they grew in. Is that natural? ... photo Philip White

In further experience we have been experimenting with Roussanne, applying extended maceration on skins for as long as four months without any use of sulphur. It was my initial expectation that the resulting wines would have an orange hue by the end of this maceration. And yes they did. But what I found supported my theories of my oxidative winemaking without the use of extended skins. When we let the solids settle after the maceration, we racked the clear wine from these solids before sulphuring the wine, ending up with some yellow hues (maybe the stage before orange), and while we still retained some of the green hues, the wine was not orange.

It is my belief that we can attain texture and structure in white wine with the measured and timely use of sulphur, leading to the preservation of freshness and the greater potential for longevity without the possibilities of negative binding of oxidative compounds.

So skin maceration doesn’t necessarily mean that the wine will be orange, but orange can be attained.

Orange is not necessarily bad, but maybe we just need to think more about how it is presented and consumed.

The author in The Exeter with South Gippsland winemaker Phillip Jones, who made the first highly-regarded unfiltered and cloudy reds to cross this desk. While Jones doggedly refuses to pursue certification, DRINKSTER thinks these Bass Phillip Pinots noir have improved greatly since Jones turned his vineyard management biodynamic eight years back. So is a cloudy unfiltered biodynamic Bass Phillip Pinot orange? Natural? What's natural about a tractor, a stainless steel tank, or a bottle? ... photo Milton Wordley