If orange wine is confusing, this sense of misunderstanding comes right at the start, with the name. While many people do call it orange wine, others call it skin contact wine or even amber wine. Orange simply refers to color earned when white wine grapes experience skin contact during vinification. And no, there are no actual oranges involved.
What is Skin Contact?
Let’s set up the framework with familiar products: white wine and red wine. White wine grapes such as Gruner Veltliner, Fiano, or Ribolla Gialla are generally made without skin contact. This means that the winemaker lets the juice run free of the skin before fermentation—the skin becomes a by-product so to speak. This process arrives at the color we associate with white wines.
Wines that are “red” in the glass are made differently—in fact, if they were also made free run they would appear to be white wines, such is the blanc de noirs styles. But when we talk about red wines, we are witnessing a wine made by allowing the juice and the skins to remain in contact, thus imparting the rich color, tannins, and flavors from purple- or black-skinned grapes.
This process is defined as “maceration”, a phase during which tannins, color, and flavor compounds (phenolic characters) are transferred from skins (and stems and seeds, if present) into unfermented juice which is called “must”.
Wines that fall into the orange category are made with white (or green-skinned) grapes, and the juice is allowed to spend time in contact with the skins for a period time, anywhere from hours to multiple months. Skin lends color—generally orange or amber—as well as tannins, body, and flavors.
It’s worth noting that rosé wines also get their color from skin-contact, either from only red grapes or from a blend of red and white grapes. The reason it’s pink instead of red or purple, is because the skin contact time is much less than that of a red wine.
A nuance to note. In Italy’s Friuli, the term “ramato” is defined as a Pinot Grigio wine made in historical skin contact methods, before the more popular style of fresh and crisp Pinot Grigio took hold around the 1960s and beyond. These wines have a color that falls somewhere between orange and pink, and have both texture and freshness.
All in all, more time on skins generally equals more color and tannins in the glass. And there's a huge range in grapes and styles of skin-contact wine out there.
The Influence of Natural Winemaking
Another term that's loosely defined, but means something to the people who love it is: natural wine. These are wines that are made in a low-intervention style in the vineyard and the cellar. And are often crafted with organic and biodynamic methods, natural yeasts, and no additives.
Orange wine and natural wine have walked the same halls over the past few years, rising in popularity among a similar crowd of both winemakers and consumers. While it’s not obligatory by any regulatory standards that orange wine be natural, it’s commonly assumed that it is indeed made with natural methods.
Tannins provide similar antiseptic and antioxidant values as sulfites, which are conventionally added to wine to inhibit bacteria and the impact of oxygenation. Leaving a white wine on skins encourages the natural protection that tannins offer, aligning the method with natural winemaking ethos.
Orange wines are also out of the norm for most of the world’s official growing appellations, so the craft is generally seen as more “renegade,” a deviation from the rules. For this reason they appeal to winemakers and consumers that are interested in products that don’t fit the mold, are interesting, or are an experiment—natural winemaking holds similar value, not following the convention of today’s methods.
The History of Orange Wines
Historically speaking, however, orange-style wines are part of the fabric of the history of winemaking. Turn back the hands of time thousands of years in the land that is now the Republic of Georgia. The snapshot you’ll see is of amphorea (clay urns or egg-shaped terracotta clay pots called qvevri) where wine was left to age on skins. These vessels are in use at wineries today, but in much less force than steel, wood, or concrete, which one sees in nearly every winery in the world.
Amphorea have gained new attention over the past decade or two, and many credit winemakers in Italy’s Friuli region, near the Slovenian border, for the resurrection of this style through revived experimentation. An increased craving for natural wine has caused a parallel ascent in the market for orange wine. Some of the most outstanding leaders in the field include Stanko Radikon and Josko Gravner of Collio in Friuli Venezia Giulia; Paola Bea of Montefalco in Umbria; and in the new world Matthiasson in Napa Valley.
What Does Orange Wine Taste Like?
As it is with all wines, each one is unique, but fans are often attracted to herbaceous and fruity notes delivered with more texture and body than a traditional white wine. Some are vinified to freshness and bright acidity while others lean into rustic, toasty, or dried fruit complexity, and others are outright funky. They can be highly aromatic, with tropical or zesty notes.
Expect to sense tannins and texture, which are two of the most interesting components of orange wines. Remember that orange wines can be made from any white wine grape, so there will be varietal differences. Also anticipate vintage and terroir character to be evident, thanks to the hands-off approach in the cellar.
How to Pair Orange Wines?
We love to put orange wines on the table with meaty seafood, such as salmon, and spiced and savory dishes such as Thai food. Pork, fried chicken, earthy cheeses, and even lean beef are also charming with orange wine.
We expect to see more and more orange wines enter the market, which now includes some of the most food-friendly and crowd-pleasing releases, such as Domaine Du Pelican Arbois Savagnin Ouille ‘Grand Curoulet' 2019 which is born of only one night of skin contact. For orange wines that express more significant skin contact character, we look to Radikon—some of their releases spend months on the skin. Stanislao Radikon Venezia Giulia IGT ‘Slatnik' 2019 spends about 10 days to two weeks on the skins and is an ideal entry into these legendary wines. A portion of Gut Oggau Weinland 'Timotheus' 2020, from Austria’s Burgenland sees about three weeks of skin contact. Try one of each to compare!
This is a category ripe for exploration, and we’ll continue to add to the collection. For a unique lens with which to view the wine world, or to get out there and try something different, get familiar with orange wines.