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.
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:
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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:
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:
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.
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.
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