Orange wine is considered a category of wine, just like white, red, or rosé. Its name comes from the spectrum of golden hues it produces and its style is defined by winemaking decisions.
Just when you thought wine could be organized into tidy categories: white, red, or rosé, orange comes along. And, it’s made quite an entrance. Orange wine has inspired a cult following among natural wine drinkers. Instagram feeds and Indie wine shops display bottles of brightly colored wines that appear fluorescent in the glass. And, with an increasing number of restaurant wine lists and chalkboard menus at natural wine bars displaying headers, like “Amber Wine,” “Skin Contact” or even “Macération,” you might be wondering what you’re getting yourself into.
How Orange Wine Gets Its Appearance
Orange wine isn’t made from oranges, like you might assume, but instead white grapes. But, how does a white wine end up with a bright orange color?
Grape skins contain color pigment, flavor compounds, and tannin (a type of phenolic compound). It’s up to the winemaker to decide if they want the skins to influence how the wine looks, tastes, and feels. Orange wine is produced with skin contact of white grapes (hence the wine’s nickname “skin contact white.”) Instead of gently pressing grapes and immediately removing the skins to leave clear juice behind, like in white winemaking, a winemaker looking to produce orange wine crushes white grapes and allows the skins and seeds to spend time with the juice. This time spent together is called maceration. During this period of maceration, color, flavor, and tannin leeches into the juice. Maceration can last anywhere from a few hours to several months depending on the winemaker’s vision for the wine. The longer the maceration, the more extraction and the more influence the skins have on the wine’s appearance, aromatic profile, and structure. This winemaking process reminds me of steeping tea. The longer the tea leaves soak in water, the darker the color and the stronger the flavor and texture of the tea.
Pro tip: Some industry professionals believe “orange wine” isn’t an accurate or fully inclusive description for this category of wine. Instead you’ll more frequently hear “skin contact whites” used to describe this collection of colorful wine.
Terroir, vintage, grape variety and thickness of the grape’s skin, and the winery environment also has an impact on the intensity of the finished wine. And, not all white grape varieties are suitable for making orange wine. A winemaker will take all of these cultural, environmental, and physiological elements into consideration when determining maceration times.
All red wine (and most rosé) is made with skin contact of red grapes. With this method, rosé sees a shorter time on the skins, hence the lighter, more pink-toned hue compared to the bold rouge tones of red wine. With its crush-and-macerate winemaking process, orange wine is like the red-wine version of white wine. It may seem like orange wine is a new, experimental style; but, it’s actually more of a throwback to ancient winemaking.
Who Makes Orange Wine?
Winemakers in Kakheti, Georgia, a region at the intersection of Europe and Asia, have been fermenting white grapes with their skins for over 5,000 years! These beautiful “amber wines” are typically made in qvevri, an egg-shaped terracotta pot, also known as amphora. Wine is fermented, aged, and stored in these handmade clay vessels that are buried underground. The natural subterranean climate keeps the wine at the ideal temperature for a slow fermentation, extended skin maceration, and long-time storage. This ancient-style of making wine focuses on hand-harvesting grapes, using native yeast for fermentation in large oak barrels or amphorae, and extended skin contact.
Pro tip: Amphorae are heavily associated with orange winemaking, though their use is not a requirement. Not all orange wines will be made in amphorae; however, most amphora white wines will see some skin contact.
Outside of the Caucasus region, a group of winemakers on the Italy-Slovenia border in Friuli-Venezia-Giulia are resurrecting old traditions. In the 1990s, Josko Gravner knew that if he wanted to make compelling, and most importantly, honest wines, he needed to go to the source. So, in 2000 he traveled to Georgia, the birthplace of the vine. While visiting, he tasted white wines with extensive skin contact (several months). He was enchanted and enlightened. He decided to bring back these ancient winemaking methods to his home winery in Oslavia, Italy, focusing on extended maceration in amphorae. In 2001, he made his first amphora wine with skin contact. Since then, Gravner uses amphorae to ferment all of his wines. His wines spend 6 - 7 months on the skins before being moved to large oak barrels for additional aging.
Image courtesy of Rosenthal Wine Merchant
Pro tip: Though some of these wines display a glowing orange color in the glass, most of the time the back label of the wine bottle reads: “white wine” instead of “orange wine.” Winemakers in regions like Georgia, Slovenia and northern Italy, don’t consider their skin-contact wines a separate category from “white wine.” Sometimes you’ll see Georgian, qvevri-aged wines referred to as “amber wines.”
Over the decades, Gravner has taught and mentored winemakers, like Paolo Vodopivec, whose wines represent some of our most loved skin-contact whites.
At Radikon, just a short walk from Gravner’s winery, winemaking is inspired by how previous generations in Slovenia have made wine. Amphora is not part of the program, but all wines are made with hand-harvested grapes, extended skin contact, and fermentation and aging occurs in large old oak barrels. According to wine importer, Louis/Dressner Selections, when Stanko Radikon was asked why he made his wines the way he did, he shrugged and replied, “it’s how my grandfather made wine in the 30s.”
It makes sense that ancient white winemaking included skin contact. In order to create wine, you need alcoholic fermentation. In the most basic, low-intervention, natural winemaking, the main components of alcoholic fermentation come from the grape: natural sugar from the grape juice and naturally-occuring yeast from the outer coating of the grape’s skin, called the bloom.
Pro tip: The naturally-occurring yeast on the grape skin is referred to as native, wild, ambient or indigenous yeast. This is an essential element of natural winemaking.
Thousands of years ago, winemakers didn’t have the option to purchase commercial yeast, so if they wanted to ferment grapes, they needed that native yeast. Winemakers crushed the grapes to let the yeast meet up with the juice. During maceration and fermentation, it was unavoidable for another element to enter the wine: tannin. Tannin, a phenolic compound that causes the gum-gripping, mouth-drying sensation you experience when you drink red wine, can also be found in some white grapes. In addition to adding texture to a wine, tannin acts as a preservative, protecting the wine from oxidation. With the help of this natural protectant, the addition of sulfur dioxide (sulfites) is significantly less common with skin contact wines. The inclusion of tannin also increases the ageability of skin-contact wines. Bottles from Gravner and Radikon are great candidates for cellaring.
Pro tip: White wines gain color when exposed to oxygen whether through winemaking processes or extended bottle aging. So, if a winemaker creates an oxidative environment, like crushing and fermenting grapes in an open top or porous container (like wood or clay), the extended skin maceration combined with effects of oxygen exposure will create an even more rich, amber-hued wine.
The red-wine-like structure of some orange wines, combined with their slightly nutty and sometimes sherry-like (oxidative), briney, and ripe stone-fruit aromatic profiles make them a gorgeous candidate for food pairing. There is power and an undeniable complexity to these wines. When I open a bottle from Josko Gravner, Paolo Vodopivec, or Dario Prinčič, I immediately reach for a tin of José Gourmet Small Smoked Sardines, a plate of Prosciutto di San Daniele, or a bowl of tortellini en brodo. With wines from Sicily, like those made by Grottafumata and COS, I love to toss conserva Matiz Gallego Wild Pulpo in Spanish Olive Oil (tinned octopus from Galicia) with pasta like Rustichella d'Abruzzo Tonnarelli al Nero di Seppia (a squid ink pasta) and a simple garlic white wine sauce. Top with a generous amount of Parmesan, lemon, and fresh herbs.
Winemakers around the world have taken inspiration from these ancient practices, and the various interpretations have led to a diverse selection of wines. Orange wine’s name is as vague as the selection is large. Some are pale gold while others are a glowing amber; some deliver exotic, floral aromas, while others are briney, savory, and feel more like red wine texturally than white. Some are even sparkling, like Milan Nestarec’s Danger 380 Volts from the Czech Republic! We love the vibrant wines from Gabrio Bini and Arianna Occhipinti in Sicily, the expressive wines made by Oriol Artigas and Goyo Garcia Viadero in Spain, the experimental wines from Anne & Jean-François Ganevat in the Jura, and the aromatic hybrid wines from La Garagista and Iapetus in Vermont!
If you’re curious about trying orange wine, next time you’re at Dedalus Wine, just ask us: “do you have any skin contact whites?”