I first tasted “orange wine” in New Zealand, which I subsequently came to realize was the unlikeliest place in the world to discover these popular wines! Modern orange winemaking originated in Italy and Slovenia, made from Ribolla Galla and Malvasia grapes. Orange wine has gone from ancient and obscure to trendy in the US and mainstream in Europe. Orange wine, perhaps more accurately called “skin-contact wine” or “skin-macerated wine,” is made from white wine grapes where the skins have been kept in contact with the juice for weeks, months or even years…as opposed to being quickly removed. This contact gives added flavor, pigment and tannins and gives orange wine its distinctive color. Most white wines are made by pressing the grapes, separating off the juice and discarding the skins, stems, and pips to produce a wine that is pale in color.
But far from being a new fad, skin-contact wine results from the oldest recorded winemaking process in the world, dating back some 8,000 years. Orange wines originated in Georgia, the mountainous Eastern European country that's been making wine for millennia. Georgians traditionally made skin-contact wine from white grapes in large, egg-shaped terracotta pots called qvevri that were buried underground up to the neck of the pot. They called it “amber wine,” since the color variations can be numerous. Orange wine is a more recent designation—coined by a UK importer—for this ancient winemaking process.
The method was revived by Italian and Slovenian wine makers about 20 years ago, and today many wine regions—from South Africa, to Austria to Long Island, NY—produce a few of these wines.
Orange wines are often categorized as natural wines, which accounts for their popularity with young millennial wine drinkers seeking trendy (or conscientious) beverages, though some orange wine producers do not want to be classified as such. In fact I discovered numerous orange wines at the Raw Wine Festival in New York late last year, an exhibition of producers who avoid chemicals and other additives (fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, fungicides, etc.) in the growth, harvest, and processing of their grapes. Many of these are also certified organic, biodynamic and sustainable. The New Zealand orange wine I enjoyed in Hawke's Bay was the 2013 Green Glow produced by Supernatural Wine Co., a producer of certified organic, naturally vinified, low sulfur white and skin-fermented white wines. I’m told it was the first skin-fermented Sauvignon Blanc in New Zealand.
Orange wines are the product of vinifying white grapes the way red wine is normally made. Instead of removing the skins after the grapes are pressed the juice is fermented in contact with skins. Accordingly, these wines have tannin and body similar to red wines. Most orange wines taste like a bolder, more savory version of wines from the same white grape.
There is no single flavor profile for orange wine – remember, it’s a style of wine making, not a unique grape variety. The taste typically tends toward a rich, spicy tang, with a nuttiness and savory tastiness to them. They are bold wines, and can pair well with bold foods such as mature hard cheeses, spicy stews, curry dishes, spicy Moroccan cuisine, Ethiopian cuisine, Korean fermented kimchi or walnut-based dishes.
It is best to treat them more like reds and not drink them too cold. How long a particular wine was fermented in contact with the skins will affect the taste. The more contact, the richer and deeper the flavor, though often a rougher texture as well. Some tasters like that intensity, whereas others prefer orange wines that were aged with the skins for just a few weeks, making them closer to the taste of white wine. The aromas are bolder and more intense than if the same grapes were vinified as traditional white wine. It’s a bit like the difference between rosé and red wine.
Any white grape can be made with extended skin contact, but these white grape varieties are typically made into orange wines: Chardonnay, Gewürztraminer, Grenache Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc; Malvasia, Trebbiano di Toscana, Ribolla Gialla and Pinot Grigio all from Italy, along with Rkatsiteli and Tsolikouri, among many grapes that originate from the country of Georgia.
Luckily, I met Simon J. Woolf last year, a writer and regular contributor to Decanter and Meininger's Wine Business International magazines, who authored a great book, Amber Revolution, about orange wine being made around the world. It’s a great resource of about these wines and their producers.
My suggestions for wines to try:
• Radikon, Ribolla Gialla, Friuli, Italy: Considered one of the most exciting orange wines being made. Extended skin contact of several weeks and then aging for over 3 years in large oak barrels. Amazing complexity and bold flavor of almonds, marmalade and star anise.
• Batič, Vipava, Slovenia: 2015 Zaria is a blend of 7 varieties; 2011 Angel Batič Rezerva, has up to 35 days of skin contact.
• Frank Cornelissen, Mount Etna, Sicily: His Munjebel Bianco 7, a medium-bodied orange wine, is made from Carricante, Grecanico, and Coda di Volpe.
• Sicilian-based COS’s Pithos Bianco is nutty and has lots of soft, peachy flavor.
• Channing Daughters, located in the Hamptons, New York: Their Ramato Wine has hints of honey, apricots and spices; Ramato means “copper” or “auburn” in Italian, so the wine is named for the color.
• Pheasant’s Tears, located in Sighnaghi, Georgia makes wines from numerous Georgian grapes including Mtsvane and Rkatsiteli using the juice, skins, stems and pips left for six months in qvevri buried underground; the flavor of Rkatsiteli is a big, dense, fleshy, with notes of honey, nuts and apple skin, whereas Mtsvane is floral with integrated, delicate tannins and almond flavors.
• Supernatural Wine Company, Millar Road, Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand: The Supernatural and Green Glow, both made from Sauvignon Blanc Grapes.
• Virginia's King Family Vineyards’ 2017 Skin Contact Viognier is a light-bodied orange wine, using oak barrels.
• Napa’s natural winemaker Forlorn Hope produces 2018 Dragone Ramato Pinot Gris.
• Testalonga, El Bandito, Swartland, South Africa, dry farmed Chenin Blanc, kept in oak on its skins for two years…the longest duration of which I’m aware!