Read on to find out what the new’ish hype is for an old wine! What is orange wine?
What IS ‘orange wine’?
But first, what exactly is ‘orange wine’? You might be seeing more and more wine lists tooting orange, amber, skin-contact, macerated or ramato (meaning ‘auburn’, if you happen to be in the Friuli-Venezia region of Italy that borders Slovenia) wine sections and wondering just what it’s all about.
The technique and process of making orange wine itself is ancient but has resurfaced in the last decade or two and has increasingly gained traction and popularity – albeit sometimes in a polarizing fashion. Drop the terms ‘natural wine’ or ‘orange wine’ amongst wine geeks and just wait for a heated debate to start!
But back to our topic: in a nutshell, it’s white wine where the grape skins (and often the seeds) have been left in contact with the juice to macerate and ferment, resulting in an orange-hued wine. Depending on what side of the fence (or what winemaker you’re speaking with or reference you’re reading) they are usually considered white wines that are made like red wines or for a rare few, are red wines made from white grapes.
Huh. If you want to get all geeky and technical, the lovely orange hues, ranging anywhere from light gold to bright, vibrant persimmon orange, come from the flavonoids in the skins and the lignans in the seeds – the extreme variations in hue depending on how much time the fermentation lasts which can be anywhere from a few hours to a few months.
Orange wine’s ‘Renaissance’ moment – where is it from?
What is really interesting is the renaissance moment that these skin-contact (the preferred term of many a wine person, ‘orange wine’ being considered limiting) wines have been having for the past couple of years, and one that continues to grow exponentially. Far from new, these wines can trace their origins back to Slovenia and certain parts of Northern Italy and even further back, being based on techniques used traditionally in Georgia (the country, not the state!) thousands of years ago, with some wine historians dating it back to 8,000 B.C. and ancient earthenware winemaking vessels containing residual wine compounds having been found dating from 6,000 B.C.! Yikes, now that’s old wine!
Georgia, which many consider the birthplace of winemaking, has been making ‘orange’ wines way before the term ‘orange wine’ was even coined or thrown about in hipster wine bars and used to pepper wine afficionado’s conversations. Traditionally, winemaking there took place in huge qvevri, the wine macerating, fermenting, and ageing with the grape skins in these huge clay vessels, generally buried underground. The resulting white wines gaining the orange hue, structure, body, and tannins that today fall under the ‘orange wine’ moniker.
So much for a new phenomenon!
Are all orange wines natural and where are they made?
While ‘orange wine’ is frequently used synonymously with ‘natural wine’ its important to note that, while many are grown organically or biodynamically and produced with minimal intervention using only native yeast and little or no additives or sulfites, there are exceptions. The term itself, ‘orange wine’, has been credited to British wine importer David Harvey who first used it to describe this non-interventionist style of white winemaking.
With more and more countries making orange wines (from Georgia, Croatia, Moldova, Slovakia, Slovenia, Bulgaria, Austria, Italy, France and Spain to Australia, South Africa, Canada and the United States) you’ll increasingly see orange wine (aka skin-contact wine, aka macerated wine, aka amber wine) on wine lists, in wine shops and popping up everywhere from organized tastings to your trendy grandmother’s dinner table!
Ok… nice theory. But what do they actually taste like?
Orange wine can be made with any white grape varietal (from Chardonnay, Godello and Pinot Gris to lesser-known indigenous ones that are specific to certain countries or regions) and can be plush, sultry, textural, smooth, funky, big, bold or super approachable depending both on varietal used, winemaking technique and time with skin-contact.
Falling midway between whites and reds, these wines are usually dry, have red-wine-like structure, body and tannins (from the skin maceration) much like a lighter red, but are intentionally astringent and retain the acidity of white wines with a plethora of aromas (winemaker Christian Tschida has said ‘I love skin contact because you get these amazing aromas. It’s like traveling to the center of the earth’, ‘With the amber wines, it’s like ‘What’s this party in my mouth?’ says Master of Wine Lisa Granik (1)).
A party in your mouth. Yum, right?
Depending on the skin-contact time and the fermentation process, they can be light and fruity, lightly to overly oxidized (with nutty or cooked fruit flavors), sour (like sourdough bread), or big, bold, and complex. Savory and special when well-made, the best ones let the characteristics of the white grapes being used shine and keep any ‘funkiness’ or sour notes in the background.
Think aromas and flavours that can range from ripe fall fruit (pears, peaches, mandarins, apples, apricots), toasted nuts, bruised apples, oolong tea, lemon or orange zest, honey, warm dry hay, sour (in a good way, like warm fresh sourdough bread or slightly sour dark beer), saltwater taffy, dried flowers, jackfruit or wild savory herbs. ‘A party in my mouth’ seems apt indeed!
Fine, I’ll give them a try. What the heck do I pair them with?
If you’re new to these singular wines and find them slightly quirky on their own, try pairing these often bold wines with umami-savory foods (think mushroom sauces, hard aged cheese, artisanal charcuterie), curries or spicy sauces, Moroccan or Korean food or barbecue grilled meat (yes, even fish on the grill). I personally love them served a bit warmer than most whites and a bit cooler than room temperature (16’ish degrees) and even decant the more complex ones to get the most out of, and coax out, the complex aromas and flavours.
Say what? Hidden health benefits?
Looking for one more reason to try, or drink more of, these wines? Cecilia Diaz, a German food and environmental scientist found in her research on traditionally made wines that white wines made using traditional methods (skin-contact, clay fermentation) ‘have higher antioxidant properties than commercial white wines’ and those produced in amphoras or traditional clay vessels had up to four times more total antioxidant status (TSA), similar tannin levels to red wines and contained more resveratrol (a compound that may have health benefits. (2).
Add this to a buffet of interesting and complex aromas and flavours, body and structure? Yes please, don’t mind if I do pour myself another glass…
- Wilson, Jason. Godforsaken Grapes – A Slightly Tipsy Journey Through the World of Strange, Obscure, and Underappreciated Wine. Abrams Press, NY, 2018.
- Begos, Kevin. Tasting the Past – One Man’s Quest to Discover (and Drink!) the World’s Original Wines. Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, North Carolina, 2018
About the author:
Certified in Wine (Wine & Spirits Education Trust WSET Levels 2 & 3), Champagne (Comité interprofessionnel du vin de Champagne) and a Le Cordon Bleu trained food & wine writer, Alana is a passionate wine writer, blogger, content creator, consultant and ghostwriter for various publications, wineries, agents and events (as well as a Global Senior HR Executive having worked in fashion, retail, technology and hockey industries). She has lived, worked, and written at home (Montreal & Toronto, Canada) and abroad (NYC, Paris, Dubaï, Qatar and Algeria) and is happiest with a glass of wine in hand at one of her favorite wine bars or at home with her pack of rescue animals!