Book Review: Amber Revolution by Simon J. Woolf

I’m slightly hazy (unfiltered, perhaps?) on the precise date I first enjoyed an orange wine. I’m guessing it was around 2005 or so. The particular wine, though—that is as sharp and defined in my memory as ever. It was a bottle of Gravner Breg, likely the 1998 or 1999 vintage, and it rocked my world. The deep amber color, the wet leaves, stone fruits, and citrus peel flavors, the exotic feeling of tannins from white grapes—they all set my head spinning.

A year later, in 2006, I had started to review orange wines regularly here on Vinography, when I could find them, which wasn’t that often, and buy them for my own cellar. Back then, if you mentioned the phrase “orange wine” even around wine geeks, they’d likey think you were talking about some wine made from citrus fruit that might show up at a home winemaking competition or state fair, not a skin-macerated white wine.

Fifteen years later, orange wine is a thing. Or should I say a THANG? It’s hot. Hansel hot. Maybe not quite as hot as natural wine (a category with which it overlaps, but is not synonymous) but definitely trendy. One of my favorite pastimes is keeping track of articles about orange wines, and when you have publications like Vogue, Elle, USA Today, and Fast Company writing about them, you know they’ve hit the big time.

All of which is to say, the time was perfectly ripe in 2018 for Simon Woolf to publish Amber Revolution: How the World Learned to Love Orange Wine. Given my exposure and interest to orange wines long before most people had tried them, it might have occurred to me to write just such a book, especially if I were a smarter, more ambitious writer. Had I done so, however, I doubt it would have been nearly as good as this impeccably researched and wonderfully definitive effort by Woolf.

Simply put, if you have any interest in orange wine, whether because you like the way they taste, or because you recognize that these wines are a direct link to the most ancient origins of humanity’s winemaking efforts, you should read this book.

A Tangled History

On the one hand, the history of orange wine is as straightforward as it gets. Archaeological evidence indicates that somewhere around 8000 years ago, in the region currently occupied by Armenia, the Republic of Georgia, and Azerbaijan (between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea) humans first began making wine. And that wine, made in terra-cotta vessels, was likely made of squashed clusters of grapes macerated with their skins and stems and seeds. If those grapes happened to be light-skinned, then those would have been orange wines.

The Republic of Georgia has been making skin-fermented white wines in large clay qvevris for millennia, perhaps the only truly unbroken tradition of orange winemaking in the world. But, as Woolf so clearly demonstrates, the rise of orange wine was not nearly as simple as the popularization of Georgian wine. In fact, despite having all claim to originating the technique, Georgian wine is only just now receiving recognition on the broader world stage.

The revolutionary rise of orange wine would come from the efforts of some Slovenians, some Italians, a New York sommelier, and a British Master of Wine (among many others).

The first 197 pages of Amber Revolution are dedicated to telling that story. Beginning with Italy’s Friuli-Venezia Giulia and its neighboring western Slovenia, Woolf describes the old traditions of skin-macerated winemaking that existed in these areas before the post-WWII era of industrialization largely wiped them out. But thanks to a few key pioneers in the late 80s and early 90s, chief among them Josko Gravner, these techniques were revived, and then fortified with a dose of Georgian inspiration to emerge, new, interesting and shiny on the fringes of a wine world hungry for innovation.

After narrating the journey of the modern Slovenian pioneers, Woolf takes us back to Georgia. There he lays out the story of the ancient tradition that nearly died under Communism, but then slowly clawed its way back to prominence, as winemakers (and the wine world as a whole) began to recognize the uniqueness and history of the country’s qvevri-based winemaking traditions.

The rise of orange wine makes for a rich tapestry of geo-politics, personalities, geography, and happenstance, all deftly woven by Woolf into eminently readable prose. Despite the significant number of narrative threads, personal stories, and dates involved, Amber Revolution proves to be an easy read, carrying the interested wine lover along through all its vignettes and cul-de-sacs with ease.

All the Facts

Peppered throughout the text Woolf introduces clearly demarcated blocks of a more factual, or academic bent, highlighting specific winemaking techniques, dispelling misconceptions, or highlighting the most popular grapes used in making orange wines.

The last 77 pages of the book represent a directory of some of the best-known orange wine producers from around the world, though their number has doubtless grown significantly since the book’s publication. Italy, Slovenia, Georgia, and Austria make up a sizeable portion of the producers, but Czech, Slovakian, Croatian, South African, and even Polish producers make an appearance as well.

I would have liked these producer entries to include their websites, and perhaps more importantly, a listing of the skin-contact wines and the grapes they employ. In an age when those things are often just a Google query away, this is more of a quibble than anything else, though I do wish Woolf would actually create an online directory on his website that could provide us orange wine lovers an up-to-date list of producers and their wines around the world.

For the time being, and I would guess for some time to come, Amber Revolution will be the definitive story and reference guide to the orange wines of the world, and a fitting tribute to the oldest, and one of the newest, styles of wine to tickle our palates.

Simon J. Woolf – Amber Revolution: How the World Learned to Love Orange Wine – Interlink Books 2018, $25 (paperback). Purchase a copy.

Full disclosure: I am one of the backers that funded the Kickstarter project allowing Woolf to self-publish this book. I receive no financial benefit from its purchase (other than Amazon.Com Affiliate fees).