Every so often the near desert that is wine publishing comes up with something welcome and really interesting. Wink Lorch’s Jura Wine and John Szabo’s Volcanic Wines come to mind. Simon Woolf’s Amber Revolution fits firmly in that category, and has generated a massive amount of excitement already on social media since its publication a few weeks ago. A pic of its striking cover is almost as ubiquitous right now as a bottle of Ganevat (in this case it’s a good thing)
In my review of Woolf’s book I have just one criticism, and I’ll get that out of the way first, although as you’ll see, it has nothing to do with the author. Like Wink Lorch’s book, Amber Revolution was self-published after a crowd funding campaign. I know Simon Woolf is not a well known author, though his work has appeared in Decanter Magazine and other drinks publications, and when his bio announces him as an “award winning” wine and drinks writer I do not doubt that assertion.
Nevertheless, it beggars belief that a book on this topic was not taken up by a specialist publisher, and as you will see, the sheer quality of this book on several levels only serves to reinforce that frustration. I only hope that the book achieves the success it deserves…and makes Woolf some money.
Before we delve into the book, let’s step back and look (fairly briefly) at what is Amber Wine and why we need a book about it. Amber Wine is the same as the wine we perhaps more commonly know as orange wine – note the lower case “o”, which ought not, pedantically speaking, offend the good growers of Orange in Australia (nor Orange County in California), but it seems that this small Aussie region of New South Wales has been a bit shirty about the term “orange wines”.
Amber, or orange, wine is wine made with skin contact. White wine is made without skins, from which the juice would pick up colour pigments. In that case, the grape skins are discarded after pressing. By leaving the skins in contact with the juice for anything between a couple of hours and several months (even years in extreme cases) the juice takes on a darker colour, which can range from a pale burnished gold to a deep browny orange, and a whole lot in between.
We are effectively talking about making a white wine in the same way, more or less, as you make a red wine. The result will show some typical red wine characteristics which are largely based around tannins, structure and mouthfeel (though experienced, of course, through our senses of sight and smell as well as taste).
I say sight, because the colour is what we see first, and this has led to one of the most erroneous criticisms of macerated skin contact wines – that they are oxidised. This mistake is usually made by older critics who are programmed to see darker colour as a sign of exposure to air. The irony is that in traditional skin contact wine making the skins form a cap over the juice, protecting it from oxidation (although submerging the cap regularly helps stop bacteria from appearing in the skins). Woolf will have quite a bit to say about the naysayers who so patently get this wrong.
We often think of orange wines in connection with amphora, and specifically the Georgian qvevri, a clay vessel with a small aperture, traditionally buried in the ground, in which the wine more or less makes itself. What we should remember is that amber/orange wine is actually made in a range of containers, even including epoxy tanks and stainless steel.
Slowly, since the 1990s, a movement has come together to create a rebirth for skin contact wines. I say “rebirth” because, of course, this is how “white” grapes would have been made into wine for many centuries since wine was first made, until the advent of so-called modern winemaking in the 20th Century. Those who travelled (mostly) from Italy to Georgia to see for themselves this dying tradition turned out to be very gifted and extremely driven individuals. The fact that we now have a fourth category for still, dry, wines (alongside red, white and pink) is ultimately down to them.
When we pick up Amber Revolution we are struck by its production values. It bears a resemblance in look and feel to a blend of Paul Strang’s 2009 work, The Wines of South-West France, Jon Bonné’s 2013 The New California Wine and Isabelle Legeron’s Natural Wine. I like the waxy texture of the cover and the stunning graphic by Studio Eyal & Myrthe. The text is very clear and easy to read, as are the useful info-inserts which are interspersed with the text, and which pick up on different mini-topics (how qvevri wine is made, misconceptions, matching food with orange wines etc).
The original photography, by Porto resident Ryan Opaz, is wonderful. It really makes the book, in the same way that Mick Rock’s photographs did for Wink Lorch’s Jura book. If you think a self-published work is always going to include a load of home snaps, think again.
The text itself reveals two things about Woolf. First, that this ex-musician, sound engineer, IT consultant and currency designer can write quite effortlessly and entertainingly. Second, that he knows how to do his research. The book shows a genuine depth of knowledge on a niche subject that is at times astounding. And secure in his expertise, he doesn’t pull any punches when better known so-called experts get it wrong. He obviously has a passion for the subject and is prepared to defend the wines.
The book’s narrative begins not in Georgia, the place we think of as the home of orange/amber wine, but in Northeast Italy, and over the border in Slovenia. It is in Friuli that one man in particular made orange wine great again. Joško Gravner was the darling of the international wine critics until he began to question everything he was doing, following a trip to California in 1987. In 2000 Gravner visited Georgia, a country in a fairly lawless state following the breakup of the Soviet Union, and with local help he tasted some amazing qvevri wines…and was completely hooked.
Joško Gravner by Murizio Frullani (see picture credit notes below)
Gravner surrounded himself with other likeminded winemakers from both Friuli in Italy and (once the Iron Curtain came down) producers over the border in Slovenia, people like Stanko Radikon and others. They doubtless gave him a certain comfort during the time his wines were being panned by critics, and returned as “faulty” by customers. But he persevered, and slowly a small group of influential wine people (like French Laundry’s Master Sommelier Bobby Stuckey, the UK’s David Harvey, and Eric Asimov, the New York Times’ long-standing wine critic) began to get just what Gravner was doing, and, more importantly, to get the wines.
Woolf doesn’t forget the importance of Georgia in the story. He travelled there himself for the first time in 2012, having had his orange wine epiphany in the Carso cellars of Sandi Skerk the previous year. He details the tradition, and talks about those artisans who kept the flame alive. Yet he doesn’t dodge the importance of slightly more commercial producers, like Giorgi Dakishvili, who began slowly to find an export market for these wines. This was so important because the home markets in countries in the former Soviet Union’s sphere of influence were not, and to a certain extent still are not, interested in skin contact styles, which they see as old fashioned.
Alaverdi Monastery, Georgia, by Ryan Opaz
Woolf covers a whole lot more in three hundred pages. He looks beyond the abovementioned core regions of skin contact production, to orange wines being made all over the world (the style is now quite prevalent in the USA, Canada, Australia, South Africa and has even taken off in a very small way in the UK).
He also entertainingly takes on the critics – I thoroughly enjoyed his gentle comments following a small tasting arranged with the English wine writer, Hugh Johnson (at 67 Pall Mall). I like a writer who stands up for the truth, and for what is factually correct, in the face of misleading comments from bigger guns. Let us not forget that there have always been extreme voices in the world of wine (Gluck on expensive wines, Bettane on natural wines), much as there are in politics. There is, of course, room for different tastes and opinions, but when such voices are factually wrong they do need to be put right.
If you either don’t believe the author knows what he’s talking about, or you’ve not realised yet that he seems like a witty but self-deprecating guy, read the Epilogue, where he details his attempts at making amber wine himself, or at least assisting in the process. I must say, I like someone who is prepared to have a go, not just talk.
Which reminds me, anyone know where I can find a small amphora? We have between forty and fifty bunches on the home vines this year and having failed with an allotment’s worth of unripe Seyval Blanc two years ago (including a cuvée with skin contact), I’d love to try again, without a plastic tank this time.
The final ninety pages of the book comprise a roll call of recommended producers, around three to a page with a short paragraph on what makes them special, plus address and contact details, all arranged alphabetically by country. This section really enhances what has gone before it. The bios are short, but they allow for our own further research.
There’s no way Woolf could have mentioned every possible decent producer of orange styles (so may I just add in the very compelling Špigle-Bočky from Richard Stavek and brought into the UK by Basket Press Wines, and Brash Higgins’ Amphora Project cuvées, especially the Zibibbo Amphora from old bush vines in Australia’s Riverland, which Vagabond imports)…but there are a heck of a lot he lists which I’d never heard of (check out Josip Brkič in Bosnia & Herzegovina if you can). Do not dismiss, or merely flick through, this section as it really will broaden your experience (more than 180 producers are listed as recommended from, I think, twenty countries).
Whilst, as the author makes clear, amber/orange wine does not equate to “natural wine”, much skin contact wine is made by producers following the natural wine path. It is for this reason that I think there is a good-sized market for this book, which I’d go so far as saying is essential reading for all adventurous young (and a few older, less prejudiced) wine lovers. Initially, I felt happy to support a worthwhile self-publishing project, but having read the book I am so pleased I did. The wine publishers have missed out and messed up big time here. Recommended reading, 100%!
Amber Revolution – How the World Learned to Love Orange Wine is written by Simon J Woolf, with a Foreword by Les Caves’ Doug Wregg, who has probably imported significantly more different orange wines into the UK than anyone else has, or will. The book is published in The Netherlands by Morning Claret (www.themorningclaret.com) at €35/£30, and in the USA by Interlink Books, Northampton, Massachusetts ($35). I understand that wider UK and European distribution will be forthcoming within a couple of months, but contact Simon Woolf on the above link for sales enquiries in the meantime.
Note on pictures – The photos in this article were all taken by me and, unless it is obvious they are not, were photographed directly from the book, including the photo of Joško Gravner with his qvevri, which was taken by Maurizio Frullani and appears in the book courtesy of the Gravner family, and Ryan Opaz’s photo of the Georgian Monastery of Alaverdi on the edge of the Caucasus Mountains. The photos below are mine. Please contact me with regard to any errors or omissions of attribution.
Skin contact selection, finishing with our first active English qvevris at Tillingham Vineyard, Sussex. You may even be able to spot my own not very successful first attempt among them, above.