Orange wines in Oslavia

Once upon a time there were basically three colours in wine: red, white and rosé.  Of course none of these were very exact descriptions as rosé is in reality a pale red, while ‘white’ covers a multitude of shades of, well, lemon. But as a categorisation it sort of works.  But it does not allow for orange wines which cover the spectrum from pale to deep orange, gold and amber. What are they? Nothing to do with oranges. They are wines made from white varieties which have been made as though they were red. During fermentation the juice is kept with the skins and pips for between a week and six months.  This extracts colour and tannin and leads to a very different style of wine than conventional whites.  And it makes the wines much more robust. It also gives them greater keeping potential as wines made in this way, like reds, resist oxidisation better.  

But of course it is not as simple as that.  Orange wines is what there was ‘once upon a time’ – before modern crushers and destemmers, before it was easy to separate the juice from the skins and pips. So these are the original ‘non red’ wines. And if they had some residual sugar in them and were flavoured and protected by adding resin or herbs then we are probably back to what our far distant ancestors drank.  And as a response to the perceived industrialisation of wine in the latter decades of the twentieth century – with a desire to grow fruit and make wine naturally – orange wines duly made a comeback in places like Friuli and neighbouring Brda in Slovenia, regions which only were divided a century ago. They had never been away in Georgia.  

Oslavia – Orange central

Friuli has two styles of white wine which really could not be more different.  Under the influence of German winemaking with selected yeasts and cool fermentation temperatures the region was the pioneer in Italy of fresh, clean and crisp white wine styles. So in a way it is slightly odd that there was a little pocket of fierce resistance bubbling away in the small town and area of Oslavia, just north of Gorizia, the last city in Italy before Slovenia. Actually the real influence was its geographical and cultural proximity to the traditional Orangistas of Slovenian and eastern Europe.  It is not by chance that many of the orange wine makers have Slav names. But they quickly learnt that their wines were not acceptable to the Collio DOC – too dark in colour. And so they left and formed a little but important movement of their own. In July 2017 I had the fortune to meet with one of the founder generation, Dario Princip, and one of the next generation, Damijan Primosic.

Dario Princip, rebel and pioneer

Orange wines come with attitude. They are defiant, bold and occasionally perverse.  Princip has this streak running through all that he does – but with a smile. He does not have any signage for the winery/house. If people want to visit us, they will find us’. And indeed we did by asking someone on the sparsely populated road.   Nor is there a website and so no easily obtainable, reliable information about the wines.

Dario himself was working barefooted in a new vineyard in the heat of a summer’s afternoon.  He has planted Pinot Blanc, not common here, but in which he has great faith.  But he cheerfully greeted us and walked us through his story, the winery and tasting.  ‘After 20 years I have learned so little’ he says but the wines speak otherwise. He has no external agronomist or enologist but he came to the view that short maceration (by orange standards) was what he preferred: 8 days for some, up to 30 for others. The wines do have a fruity lift that some of his fellow rebels eschew.  They are good examples of what a ‘natural wine’ can be, the unhelpful shorthand for wines made from grapes tended by an artisan, picked by hand, fermented with wild yeasts, no added chemicals, some wines with no added sulphur dioxide at all, no fining/filtering, and long ageing in large format wood.  

At both Princip and Podversic we tasted from the casks of maturing wines. At Princip I tasted the Pinot Grigio 2015, no sulfites (eight days of maceration on the skins for a pink-tinged amber colour), a Friulano, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay blend (18-22 days), a Ribolla Gialla and a wine he only made in 2008 and 2016: Favola 2016, a six-varietal blend (Pinot Bianco, Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Ribolla, Friulano and Malvasia Istriana). Its origin was the terrible mildew (Peronospera) which left Princip with just 2,000 bottles that year – there can be a price for not using synthetic chemical treatments.  The 2016 version has truly remarkable concentration and weight – worth saving for!  We finished with two similarly off-the-scale wines, both red: Merlot 2011 is still in its cask and has a great core of fruit, plus underbrush and acetic notes which will offend many – and delight others.  Finally there was Cabernet Sauvignon 2011, an ‘Amarone di Oslavia’, the fruit being dried on the vine and then macerated for 60 days on the skins for a big ripe wine with prominent tannins and sweetness.  I realise in writing this up that I have a very strong impression of this visit as a whole, rather than analytical tasting notes. Natural wine indeed.  

Unequivocal Podversic

Damijan Podversic is just at the point of having established his name and is now building a new, mostly underground winery, hence the crane in the picture.  It will have a spectacular view and is situated near the top of a fairly remote hill.  He has very very clear views and loves to express them in pithy trios and assertions.  

  • We don’t need wine to survive, we need great wines for relaxation and enjoyment
  • Great wines need only three things: a great site, a variety, ripe grapes (or more frequently, ripe seeds)
  • Enology schools should only teach the cycle of nature (the relationship with the moon and the stars), the colours and smells of nature, and  philosophy – all the rest is a waste of time
  • Wine is an objective matter, not a subjective one: why? It must have minerality/saltiness which comes from the land, crunchiness of fruit, and the rhythm of the season shown in the maturation of the seeds
  • Wine should never be orange because if it is, it on the downward slope to death. It should be golden
  • Maceration on the skins of white grapes for three months, his practice’ is not a choice. That is how long it takes to make wine, followed by two years in wood.  Others can’t justify or give reasons for X days or Y months
  • And many more.  

The wines are terrific, definitely the ‘great wine’ he seeks to make.  They are mostly single varietal, Friulano, Malvasia Istriana or Ribolla Gialla alongside some blends. We bought a bottle of Damijan’s Nekaj 2010 that evening in a restaurant in Gorizia, 100% Friulano. It certainly conformed to his rule that wine should be golden, reinforced by the clever design of the label. 

It was refreshing, substantial, more a food than a drink, intensely savoury, layered.  And then we noticed that – strange event – that we were struggling to finish the bottle.  So the answer to the perennial issue of not drinking too much may be to drink ‘orange’ – sorry, Damijan, ‘golden’ wines. Not because we don’t like them, but because they are substantial in way that conventional whites are not.  

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