Wine Types | Orange Wine: In-Depth Guide

Massimo Vignaiolo
November 27, 2023

Orange wine, a unique and intriguing entrant in the world of viticulture, stands at the crossroads of tradition and innovation. Often referred to as 'skin-contact white wine,' this wine style captures the imagination of connoisseurs and casual drinkers alike. It's a testament to the age-old adage that sometimes, looking back is the best way to move forward.

Rooted in ancient winemaking practices, most notably from the Caucasus region, orange wine owes its distinctive hue and robust profile to the extended maceration of white grape skins. This process, a departure from conventional white wine production, imparts a complexity and depth that challenges and expands the conventional palette of flavours and textures in white wines.

In contemporary viniculture, orange wine has emerged as a symbol of artisanal craft and a banner for natural wine movements. Its production, often characterized by organic or biodynamic practices, reflects a growing trend towards minimal interventionist approaches and a renewed respect for terroir. The resulting wines are not just beverages but stories - narratives of a place, a season, and the meticulous care of the vintners.

In this in-depth guide, we delve deep into the heart of orange wine – understanding its history, production, and the distinctive characteristics that make it a rising star in the wine world.


The wine's origins can be traced back 6,000 years ago to Georgia (the country, not the state) in the Caucasus Mountains. This style of winemaking eventually spread to Slovenia, Croatia and northern Italy. Winemakers in these regions rediscovered the process and began making orange wine. It re-emerged in Italy in 1997 and expanded its reach to other parts of Europe. 

This style of wine owes its popularity to a handful of wine producers, namely Josko Gravner, Dario Princic, Stanko Radikon, Zidarich and many others, in Northeastern Italy, often of Croatian and Slovenian heritage. The Eastern border of Italy was redrawn several times between 1913 and 1954. Thus, it is common to see both Italian and Slovenian or Croatian names on road signs. 

Ancient Caucus winemakers fermented the wine using beeswax and other natural products, in qvevri, giant earthenware vessels, buried up to the neck of the vessel, in the ground. The ground naturally controls the wine temperature during fermentation and aging. The process of fermentation is one of the oldest and most natural processes on earth. Today, some winemakers continue to use this ancient method to produce orange wine.  Modern orange wine can be fermented in barrels or stainless steel. 

Today, this style of wine is widely enjoyed throughout the world and a mainstay on wine menus at wine bars and restaurants with a predilection to natural wines. 

So, where does the orange colour come from?  

Despite its name, orange wine is not made using oranges. This is a misnomer. The wine derives its name from its distinctive colour. Many of the best orange wine producers hate the moniker of “orange” wine. Instead, they prefer to refer to their wines as “amber” wines. 

Orange wines are skin-contact white wines, which means they are made in the same style as red wines, leaving the grape skins and seeds in contact with the juice. This process is referred to as maceration. Hence, the wine is sometimes referred to as macerated wine. Colour is a by-product of 3 variables: 

 where does the orange colour come from? 
  • The grape variety(ies) used in the wine. The colour and thickness of the grape skin and the grape pip will influence the colour. The deep orange colour comes from a substance in grape seeds called lignin but organic chemistry is well beyond the scope of this article. 
  • The time exposure of the skin and the pip with the juice. This could vary from a few hours to several months or even a year based on the style of wine that the winemaker wants to achieve. Time on the skins can rein in the flower notes and provide structure and acidity. 
  • Oxygen or, more precisely, oxidation of the wine. Just like when you have a cut, the blood is initially bright, vivid, and red in colour and with the presence of oxygen in the air, it dulls out and darkens in colour.  

Given its style, it is to be expected that orange wine will have the same tannin content as red wine and a sourness similar to a fruit beer.  

What are the most commonly used grape varietals for orange wine?

Orange wines can be made from various grape varietals. While there are no strict rules governing which grapes can be used to produce orange wines, some grape varietals are more popular and commonly associated with this winemaking style, especially the highly aromatic ones. Here are some of the most popular grape varietals for orange wine production:

What are the most commonly used grape varietals for orange wine?
  1. Ribolla Gialla: Ribolla Gialla is an indigenous variety of grape, native to Italy, with more amber than grey skin. Giallo or gialla means yellow in Italian. This Italian grape variety is the queen of orange wine. Ribolla Gialla is primarily grown in the Friuli Venezia Giulia region. Ribolla Gialla wines often display a rich and complex flavour profile with notes of stone fruits, citrus, honeysuckle notes, spices, and a distinctive herbal character.
  2. Savagnin: Savagnin is a grape variety that is closely associated with the production of vin jaune in France's Jura region. It has also found a place in orange wine production, contributing to wines with nutty, oxidative, and complex characteristics.
  3. Rkatsiteli: Indigenous to Georgia, the Rkatsiteli grape is a staple in traditional Georgian winemaking, including the production of orange wines. Wines made from Rkatsiteli grapes often showcase notes of dried fruits, honey, and a pleasing tannic structure.
  4. Chardonnay: While Chardonnay is more commonly used for producing traditional white wines, it has also been utilized in the production of orange wines, particularly in regions like California. Extended skin contact during fermentation can impart Chardonnay-based orange wines with unique flavours and textures.
  5. Friulano (formerly known as Tocai Friulano): Friulano is another grape variety from the Friuli Venezia Giulia region of Italy that is often used in orange wine production. It offers a blend of floral, nutty, and fruity notes contributing to the wine's complexity. Friulano is also known as Sauvignon Vert B, Sauvignonasse, Tokay d'Alsace, Heunisch Weiss, Muscadet Vert, Herbemont, Clairette Ronde and Feigentraube.
  6. Malvasia: Various Malvasia grape varieties are used in orange wine production, especially in Italy and some parts of Croatia. These grapes bring a range of aromatic and fruity qualities to the wine.
  7. Pinot Gris / Pinot Grigio: Pinot Gris, also known as Pinot Grigio, has been used to produce orange wines in some regions in the United States, such as Oregon. These wines can exhibit a combination of citrus, herbal, and spicy notes.
  8. Kisi: Another Georgian grape variety, Kisi, is often employed in the production of traditional Georgian orange wines. It contributes to wines with a rich texture and a complex flavour profile that includes notes of dried fruits and spices.
  9. Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains: Muscat grapes are used in the production of orange wines in various regions. These wines can display the distinctive floral and fruity aromas characteristic of Muscat grapes.
  10. Gewürztraminer: Gewürztraminer grapes, with their aromatic and spicy qualities, have been used in some orange wine production, adding unique flavours and aromas to the final product. Gewürztraminer is very popular in Canada.

It's important to note that the choice of grape varietal, along with the winemaker's techniques and decisions during the winemaking process, greatly influences the flavour and characteristics of the resulting orange wine. As a result, orange wines crafted from the same grape varietal can vary significantly in taste and aroma based on where and how they are made. The length of time the juice is left on the skin, and the vessels in which it is aged are also important factors. The longer the maceration, the more complex and tannic the wine will be.  In addition to grape variety, the terroir in which the grapes are grown also influences the wine's flavour profile. 

What are the most famous examples of orange wines?

Orange wines have gained popularity for their unique taste profile and intriguing winemaking process. Various regions around the world have embraced this ancient technique, resulting in a diverse array of orange wines. In this section, we will explore some of the best examples of orange wines from notable regions, including Georgia, France (specifically the Jura region with its vin jaune and côtes du Jura), Italy's Friuli Venezia Giulia, and California.

What are the most famous examples of orange wines?
  • Georgia: Georgia, often considered the cradle of wine production, has a long history of making orange wines in clay vessels known as qvevri. One of the best-known examples from Georgia is the Pheasant's Tears Rkatsiteli. This amber-coloured wine is made from the indigenous Rkatsiteli grape variety and offers a rich and complex taste profile. It showcases notes of dried apricots, honey, and herbal undertones, with a pleasant tannic structure. The Pheasant's Tears Rkatsiteli is a prime example of the traditional Georgian winemaking style and a must-try for enthusiasts of orange wines.
  • France, Jura Region: In the Jura region of France, orange wines take the form of vin jaune and Côtes du Jura. Vin jaune, meaning "yellow wine" in French, is made primarily from the Savagnin grape variety and aged in oak barrels for a minimum of six years and three months, resulting in a highly distinctive and concentrated wine. It boasts flavours of nuts, spices, and a pronounced oxidative character, making it a unique and rare treat for wine connoisseurs. One of the best-known Jura producers is Domaine Tissot.
  • The Côtes du Jura appellation also produces remarkable orange wines, typically from Chardonnay grapes. These wines are aged in barrels under a layer of yeast, akin to the Sherry solera system. They offer a range of flavours, including nuts, dried fruits, and a touch of minerality, all harmoniously balanced by their acidity.
  • Italy, Friuli Venezia Giulia: In the northeastern region of Italy, Friuli Venezia Giulia, orange wines made from local grape varieties like Friulano and Ribolla Gialla have gained acclaim. One outstanding example is the Radikon Ribolla Gialla, crafted by the Radikon family. This wine is fermented on the skins for an extended period, resulting in a deep amber hue and a complex taste profile. It exudes aromas of stone fruits, spices, and a delightful earthy character, making it a hallmark of the region's dedication to orange winemaking.
  • California: While not as traditional a region for orange wines as the aforementioned ones, California has seen a rise in the production of high-quality examples. One noteworthy choice is the Donkey & Goat Stone Crusher Roussanne, hailing from the Sierra Foothills. This wine is made using extended skin contact and displays vibrant flavours of apricots, citrus, and a pleasing touch of tannin. It represents the innovative spirit of California winemakers who have embraced the orange wine trend, offering a taste of the Golden State's take on this ancient style.

Natural Winemaking 

The natural wine movement drives this wine. Natural winemaking for orange wine can be a great way to create the unique flavours of this variety. There are no restrictions on the number of grape varietals used, and many producers blend more than one type. For example, the 2020 Island of Souls Skin-Contact White Blend from J. Brix combines three grape varieties: Grenache Blanc, Picpoul and Vermentino. The winery is based just outside of San Diego, and at the hands of an amazing husband and wife team, Jody and Emily Towes.  

Natural winemaking for orange wine emphasizes organic grapes and native yeast fermentation. Minimal additives are used. This helps keep the colour light and tannin levels low. Moreover, it can be paired with a wide variety of foods, including spicy foods and aged cheeses. 

Health Benefits of Natural Wine 

Health Benefits of Natural Wine 

One of the benefits of natural orange wine production is that it is free of chemicals. The wine has a long shelf life and is rich in powerful polyphenols. Orange wine contains resveratrol, a phytoestrogen that has several health benefits. It has anti-inflammatory, cardioprotective, and anti-cancer properties. 

Another benefit of orange wine is that it can reduce bad cholesterol and, therefore, reduce your risk of heart disease. It also increases HDL (the good cholesterol), which helps lower blood pressure. Another benefit of orange wine is that it is low in calories and can help prevent weight gain. However, it is important to note that excessive consumption of orange wine can negatively impact your health. 


Artisanal winemakers produce orange wine in small batches. Vinification of orange wine is the process of producing wine using an ancient technique. The process of making this wine starts with the mash-up of white grapes. The grapes are then placed in a clay or ceramic vessel (typically qvevris (kvevris) or amphorae) and allowed to ferment for up to a year. The wines are typically fermented with wild yeast strains in small quantities. 

During this time, the skins and seeds add tannin and colour to the juice. The skins provide a complex array of chemical components, including tannins and anthocyanins. This extended contact allows the wine to absorb more of the colour pigments. The process also reduces the risk of losing any of the fruit notes. The result is a wine with complex primary, secondary and tertiary aromas of exotic fruits, spices, and almonds.  

The wines are typically bottled unfined and unfiltered. As a result, you can expect to encounter sediment (the dead yeast cells (lees)) at the bottom of the bottle. 

Taste Profile of Orange Wines

Orange wine, renowned for its bold and distinctive character, offers a sensory experience that sets it apart from conventional white wines.

The aroma of orange wine is a fascinating medley of scents, including notes reminiscent of bruised apple, honey, dried orange rind, juniper, wood varnish, linseed oil, and even sourdough. In this section, we will delve deeper into the taste profile of orange wines, categorizing its flavours into primary, secondary, and tertiary characteristics.

But it is its flavour profile that really reflects the united winemaking process. The result is a wine that is rich, spicy and typically dry, which can be reminiscent of honeyed wines.

Orange wine may be characterized by tannins, depth, fruitiness, or a combination of these characteristics. The aging process and the wine's age also contribute to its flavour. Dry wines contain low levels of alcohol but can be complex and flavorful. Some orange wines also have a chalky minerality. 

Taste Profile of Orange Wines

Primary Characteristics:

The primary taste profile of orange wine is dominated by the inherent qualities of the grape varietal used in its production. These flavours are the foundation upon which the more complex secondary and tertiary characteristics are built. Here are the primary characteristics of orange wine:

  • Citrus Zest: Orange wines often exhibit prominent notes of citrus zest, which contribute to their name. The zestiness can be reminiscent of oranges, tangerines, or even grapefruit, lending a refreshing and tangy quality to the wine.
  • Stone Fruit: Many orange wines showcase the flavours of ripe stone fruits such as apricots, peaches, and nectarines. These fruity notes add a delightful sweetness that balances the wine's overall acidity.
  • Herbal Undertones: Herbal nuances like thyme, chamomile, and basil can also be detected, infusing the wine with earthy and aromatic layers that enhance its complexity.

Secondary Characteristics:

Secondary characteristics emerge from the unique winemaking process of orange wines, which involves extended skin contact during fermentation. These traits often evolve as the wine ages and interact with oxygen. Secondary characteristics of orange wine include:

  • Tannins: Orange wines can exhibit noticeable tannins, typically absent in most white wines. These tannins, derived from the grape skins, contribute to a textured and slightly astringent mouthfeel, akin to some red wines.
  • Nutty Notes: Over time, some orange wines develop nutty undertones, reminiscent of almonds or hazelnuts. This adds depth and complexity to the wine's flavour profile.

Tertiary Characteristics:

Tertiary characteristics are a result of the aging process and may vary depending on the winemaker's choices. These characteristics often encompass more nuanced and mature notes:

  • Oxidative Notes: Orange wines can develop oxidative qualities similar to those found in sherry or Madeira. This includes flavors like caramel, toffee, and a pleasant hint of nuttiness, creating a layered and intriguing palate.
  • Aromatics: With age, orange wines can exhibit a wide range of aromatic complexities, from hints of dried flowers to spices like clove or allspice. These aromatic notes contribute to the wine's overall bouquet and elegance.

What are the best food pairings? 

What are the best food pairings? 

Orange wine is best served chilled and in good company. It pairs well with a variety of bold dishes and global cuisines. This is due mainly to the versatility of orange wine taste: it has the acidity of a white but the flavour profile of a red. As they say, acidity is a chef’s best friend as it enables the pairing of the food with the wine. Thus, orange wine can be paired with a variety of foods, including grilled fish and chicken. Orange wines are also delicious with vegetables and fruit. For example, a glass of Giovanni Menti’s Monte del Cuca can be a delicious accompaniment to grilled shrimp. The wine is also a good choice with smoked brisket and roasted vegetables. 

Given the flavour profile of this skin-contact white wine, it is perfect for pairing with food or cocktails. Orange wine's flavours vary, given the almost endless possibilities of grape varietals and terroirs to work with. It can be sweet, dry, or robust. If you prefer a lighter flavour, you can try switching out the orange wine for white or rose wine. It is also possible to pair it with cheeses made from raw milk. 


The retail price of orange wine is typically higher than that of other wines. However, this is to be expected given the longer aging requirements and higher input costs. Orange wine has been on a steady rise in popularity among sommeliers, connoisseurs, and everyday drinkers who want something a bit different. The wine is gaining mainstream attention because of its uniqueness and complexity. 

Those looking for orange wine should check the labels or consult a local wine shop to find out if the wine is natural. 

Final Thougths

Final Thoughts 

As we finish our journey through the world of this style of skin contact wines, we can say that you would be hard-pressed to find a more varied wine. What used to be a specialty wine in small pockets of the world is no longer the case. This type of skin contact wine is like an artist’s canvas. With so many different hues and paintbrushes, the artwork created is one of a kind. So, go on, experiment, and delight your senses with this beautiful wine.  

Book References:

Simon J. Woolf (2018): Amber revolution; how the world learned to love orange wine. ISBN 978-1623719661 .

Legeron MW, Isabelle (2014-07-10). Natural Wine: An introduction to organic and biodynamic wines made naturally