Ontario Orange wine

BY RICK VANSICKLE 

Ontario’s Vintner Quality Alliance (VQA) is about to boldly go where few others have gone before and approve regulations governing the production and certification for skin-fermented white Ontario wines, more commonly referred to as “orange” wines.

A proposal to introduce the orange wine VQA category has been sent to the 165 or so Ontario members of the alliance for feedback. The feedback on the conditions and rules will be considered and presented at a VQA board meeting on Jan. 25. If it passes, as expected, it will open up the category to all wineries in Ontario to make and sell skin-fermented white wines with the all-important VQA stamp of approval.

“I think it’s good news for the system here,” says VQA executive director Laurie Macdonald. “It’s good to be open to these kind of wines.”

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Macdonald says it was a learning curve to draw up regulations for orange wines because VQA had to start from scratch with no similar regulatory rules in place that she could find anywhere in the world. Only South Africa has any kind of “wine standard” for skin-fermented wines, but Macdonald could not find regulatory specific rules for the category.

Under the new rules, here’s what VQA and the wine industry has proposed:

If approved, there will also be some operational changes, including training for the tasting panel on the expected range of sensory styles for these Ontario wines.  

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Winemaker Ann Sperling

Skin Fermented White Wine

• The wine shall be a table wine or effervescent wine produced exclusively from fresh grapes, of a white or pink variety (all permitted vinifera and hybrid grapes).
• 100% of the grapes used shall be macerated and fermented on their skins for a minimum of 10 days. Fermentation shall occur when the skins are present.
• The wine shall have an actual alcoholic content not less than 7.0% and not greater than 14.9% by volume.
• Turbidity requirements set out in VQA chemical analysis guidelines shall not apply to wines in this category labelled with “Bottled with Lees”   

Principal Display Panel labelling:

• VQA — Geographical indication — VQ
• Skin Fermented White

Other required labelling (anywhere on container):

• Vintage Year
• Grape variety or varieties and/or proprietary name

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Conditions:

• Skin Fermented White shall be declared in a type size at least as large as the varietal declaration on the principal display panel and not less than 2 mm based on the smallest letter. • Nothing shall be written between the grape variety name and Skin Fermented White. 
• Where no grape varieties are declared on the principal display panel, the term Skin Fermented White shall be declared in a type size not less than 3.2 mm based on the smallest letter.
• The terms Amber Wine, Orange Wine or Vin Orange may appear at the producer’s discretion. • If the wine is bottled with its lees, the label shall declare “Bottled with lees”
• A wine produced from one or more vitis vinifera grape varieties that does not list the grape varieties on the label or only references vitis vinifera varieties on the label shall not contain wine produced from hybrid grape varieties. A wine produced from one or more hybrid grape varieties listed that is labelled as a varietal wine may contain wine produced from vitis vinifera grape varieties. Varietal wines containing hybrid grapes shall only be entitled to a provincial designation.

The move to VQA approval for orange wines is important to wineries because it opens the door to more retail opportunities, such as the LCBO, and also from a monetary standpoint — non-VQA wines earn the winery approximately 34% less in revenue.

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The process for seeking the new skin-fermented white wine category at VQA came from a request from Southbrook Vineyards, which was already producing a non-VQA bio-dynamic, organic and natural orange wine from skin-fermented Vidal grapes and finding success.

Southbrook put together a request and VQA assembled a “technical committee” to arrive at the proposed rules.

The push from Southbrook was led by winemaker Ann Sperling, who cautions that a realistic timeline for the new skin-fermented white wine category is more like next fall. After it get VQA board approval it then needs to be signed off by the Ontario minister responsible for VQA because it’s a brand new category of wine.

Sperling says she tried to have it included as a sub-set in the white wine category, as is what happened in B.C., but the VQA board thought a entirely new category was a better route to go.

As for seeing her efforts pay off, Sperling says: “It’s wonderful. At least it broadens the spectrum of what VQA represents.”

The challenge ahead, she says, is educating the VQA tasting panel, made up of LCBO product consultants, on orange wines and the often cloudy and hazy look to these wines when bottled on the lees or made unfiltered and unfined. She hopes to be a part of the industry panel that will educate consultants on what orange wines around the world look and taste like.

Macdonald agrees, saying that if the category is approved, VQA will seek industry help in training the tasting panel on what to look for with these new-fangled wines.

“The process evolves as the wine world evolves,” says Macdonald. “Wine isn’t static.”

Macdonald is aware of at least a dozen wineries now making skin-fermented white wines in Ontario but expects the category to expand quickly if they get VQA approval.

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One Ontario winemaker ready to seek approval under anticipated new rules is Vineland Estate’s Brian Schmidt, above. He’s making his first orange wine from the 2016 vintage, a skin-fermented Chardonnay Musque that I had a taste of a couple of weeks ago. It was delicious.

Other Ontario wineries making or have made orange wines in include:

• Stanners Vineyard Pinot Gris (Prince Edward County)
• Trail Estate Winery Riesling and Sauvignon Blanc (Prince Edward County), which made a three-bottle set of Rieslings and a Sauvignon Blanc with varying amounts of skin-contact
• Fielding Estate Viognier (Niagara), the first in Ontario to make an orange wine
• Pearl Morissette had an orange wine made from Riesling and Viognier and was aging it in amphora (not sure where he’s at with that)
• Jay Johnston, winemaker at Flat Rock, has experimented with full skin-fermented Gewurztraminer, but has not released it commercially
• Ravine winemaker Marty Werner has jumped on board with a skin-fermented Viognier (Submerged cap for 6 weeks)
• Jeff Hundertmark, winemaker at Stony Ridge, made a full skin-fermented Riesling but isn’t certain he’ll bottle it as a standalone wine at this point

And, of course, the popular Southbrook Orange Wine, which is into its second vintage.

It’s a 100% natural (nothing added, including sulphur) Vidal that gets its glowing amber colour from skin contact during fermentation. “For our first batch we wanted to gauge response,” said winemaker Ann Sperling.
“When you’re talking ‘no additives’ a segment of people get excited. They are looking for something pure,” Sperling said. Only 150 cases of the Southbrook Orange Wine were produced in 2014; that quadrupled for the 2015 vintage.
“It’s like today’s music,” she said. “With better and better ways to reach niche consumers.”

With VQA about to approve this category of wines, Sperling and other winemakers willing to make the leap are about to turn a niche wine category into mainstream in a hurry.