While orange wine is all the rage, it has deep roots in ancient winemaking with a rich history in Georgia, northern Italy, and Slovenia. The first thing to be clear about is that it has nothing to do with the citrus fruit. Orange refers to the color that results from this particular style of winemaking. Just as there is a large spectrum of hues, aromas, and flavors of both red and white wines, there is an equally large spectrum with orange wines. Often also called skin-contact wines, these aren't just the middle ground between a white and red, but rather their own unique style. With their bold and complex personalities, these wines are most certainly worth getting to know.
What Is Orange Wine?
Orange wine is a wine made using white wine grapes that are treated like red wine grapes. This imparts an orange hue to the wine, but that's only part of the story. Ranging in color from golden hay to pink copper to saturated marmalade, orange wines are a unique and expressive style that warrant the attention they are finally receiving.
How It's Made
Typical wine grape varietals have white flesh and juice. What gives the wine its color (and other characteristics, like tannins) is the grape skin and the amount of time the skins are in contact with the juice. In the red winemaking process, the red grape skins remain in contact with the juice for a generous amount of time to pick up their deep hues, structure, and tannins. Rosés are made in a similar way, but have less skin-contact than reds, producing lighter-toned, pink wines with more delicate characteristics.
In the white winemaking process, the skins are removed prior to pressing in order to keep the light color and avoid picking up tannins from the skins. So where do orange wines fit in? Orange wines are made with white skinned grapes but use the red winemaking technique. The skin-contact can be a matter of hours to many months depending on what the winemaker is aiming to achieve. Allowing the white wine grapes to macerate and ferment on their skin and seeds imparts tannins, texture, body, color and reflects the whole flavor profile of the grape.
Orange Wine's Origins
It is thought that orange wine was being made in 6000 BC in what is now the country of Georgia. There, they filled large clay vessels, called qvevri, with white wine grapes, leaving the skins on the berries during fermentation and aging. The qvevri were buried underground for natural temperature control. The compounds from the skins acted as a preservative, keeping the quality of the wine for longer. This style of winemaking more or less came to a halt for a long time until about 20 years ago, when a handful of winemakers from Georgia, Northern Italy, Greece, and Slovenia started making them again. Keeping with the original art of low-intervention winemaking, many of these winemakers forego chemical additives, temperature control, and filtration, often leaving orange wine to fall under the natural wine umbrella.
Orange Wine Flavor Profile
So, it's ancient, it's trending, it's natural, but what does it taste like?
The amount of skin-contact time will dictate just how robust the wine will be. Often, orange wines are bold, dry, and textured, but they can also have a refreshing crispness and even express tart, farmhouse cider-like characteristics. Orange wines tend to have deeply honeyed aromas of beeswax, Brazil nut, bruised apple, and sourdough. They can have rich and textured mouthfeel with notes of quince paste, dried citrus peel, linseed oil, strongly brewed iced tea, and tropical fruits such as lychee and guava. Lighter versions have similar characteristics, but on a brighter level, expressing floral aromas of honeysuckle with dried fruits, saffron, and spice.
Where to Find Them & How to Drink Them
Tracking down a skin-contact wine is not nearly as challenging as it was 10 years ago. These days, they're readily available on shelves and wine lists in many shops and restaurants.
Bottle Shops & Online Retail
Because many orange wines fall into the natural wine category, bottle shops and web shops that carry these types of wines are likely to have a number of orange wines in their selection. They may be listed as orange wine, skin-contact wine, amber, or white with maceration. Often times, in the technical notes of a wine, the winemaker will include the number hours, days, or months of skin-contact. Ask your local bottle shop proprietor for their recommendations or name drop a few producers or regions (below) to get started.
There are no hard and fast rules here. How you want to drink your wine is really up to your mood and the weather. If it's a hot summer evening, fully chilled may be best. If it's a snowy winter night, it may be better closer to room temperature. As with all wines, flavors are slightly more muted when cold, and they become more nuanced as the wine warms up. If you're really looking for that magic number, between 50-55°F (10-13°C) is a good guideline.
Orange wines are great food wines that offer a lot of versatility when it comes to pairing. The key is matching the vibe of the wine with the food. A bright, tart and effervescent skin-contact wine, like the Meinklang Weisser Mulatschak from Austria, is a refreshing pairing when served chilled with white anchovies in vinegar and potato chips on a summer day at the beach. Alternatively, a deeply saturated orange wine with grippy tannins and nutty flavors, such as the Vej Bianco Antico from Podere Pradarolo in Italy, pairs great with pork, fried chicken, strong cheese, and all things mushroom.
Skin-Contact Wines: From the Classic to the Avant-Garde
Today, natural winemakers across Old World and New World regions are adding an orange wine or two to their line-up. There are a handful of notable regions and producers to be familiar with.
Tucked in the northeastern corner of Italy is the region of Friuli-Venezia Giulia and home of some of the OG orange wines. Josko Gravner re-pioneered the technique in the '90s when he brought back qvevris to his cellar and started experimenting with the native grapes of his region. Gravner still makes some of the most complex and austere skin-contact wines today. Orange wines from this region are often made from ribolla gialla, friulano, malvasia, and pinot grigio. Other notable producers of skin-contact wines throughout Italy are Radikon, Skerk, Cos, La Stoppa, Costadila, Podere Pradarolo, and Franco Terpin.
The birth place of orange wines and qvevri, Georgian winemakers continue to create wine in this style from native grapes such as rkatsiteli, mtsvane, chkhaveri, and kisi. A few labels creating brilliant orange wines are Dila-O, Baia's Wines, Zurab Topuridze, Pheasant's Tears, and Nine Oaks.
Bordering the Italian region of Friuli-Venezia Giulia, Slovenia is close to this region in both its terroir and philosophy. A few native grapes used to make skin-contact wines from Slovenia are Žametna Črnina, traminec, and rumeni plavec. Chardonnay, pinot gris, riesling and pinot blanc are also grown here. The Movia, Keltis, and Šumenjak labels all produce beautifully structured orange wines from Slovenia.
A handful of winemakers throughout Austria are making skin-contact wines as well. Meinklang Biodynamic Farm, Christina Netzl, and Maria and Alexander Koppitsch all have orange wines in their repertoire. These are made from a variety of grapes ranging from welschriesling to chardonnay.
Natural winemakers across the U.S. are playing with skin-contact wines in their cellars too. Andrew Beckham, of Beckham Estate Vineyard in Oregon, is both a winemaker and a potter. He ferments his pinot gris for 11 months in his handmade terra-cotta amphora. Another Oregon winemaker, Jeff Vejr, uses small amounts of obscure grape varieties, including native Georgian varietals, to create captivating skin-contact wines under his label, Golden Cluster.
Modern winemakers, such as Rob and Kate Burley of Unkel and Lance Redgwell of Cambridge Road, each create numerous wines in the skin-contact style from deeply textured, bruised berried pinot gris to sauvignon blanc with notes of papaya and peppercorn.
And So Much More
While all producers of orange wines can't be named here, a few more to know are Anton van Klopper of Lucy Margaux Vineyards in Australia, Kreso Petrekovic of Podrum Franjo in Croatia, and Kontozisis Organic Vineyards in Greece, who works with the gray-skinned, native grape, roditis.
Must Try Wines
With their dynamic, skinsy texture, elegant layers, and showy hues, orange wines absolutely deserve a place in your life. If you haven't tried one before, ease into this style with a shorter skin-contact wine to get your bearings. Wet your palate with different grapes from different regions. These versatile and complex wines are likely to surprise you with notes you haven't tasted before. They may just become your new go-to.