In recent years, an ancient style of white winemaking has been given new life and is seeing increased popularity among wine professionals and everyday drinks alike. Officially dubbed orange wine in 2004 by U.K. importer David Harvey, this variety employs traditional white wine grapes that are processed and fermented in a very similar style to that used for red wines, namely with prolonged skin contact. So what makes orange wine so appealing to consumers and how can adventurous wine lovers spot and shop for a bottle of this trendy style?
Although this method of wine production is currently viewed as inventive and somewhat new, the reality is that white wines were often traditionally processed in this skin-contact manner for centuries before industrialization and refrigeration were made ubiquitous. Allowing white wines to ferment with their skins extracts astringent compounds called tannins that act as a natural preservative to wine. The extended contact also enhances the flavor profile, natural sugars, and color of the wine, allowing for a drier, more pungent taste.
The word “orange” is used to describe the color of these unique wines and help beverage program managers and their patrons differentiate them from the more mainstream white wines on menus. Although the name may be slightly misleading, these wines are not made from oranges, they just appear orange due to the natural hues extracted during the winemaking process. Additional processes often used in tandem while making orange wines may enhance this deep color, such as using an oxidative winemaking process or utilizing native yeast strains, though these additional steps are not required for a bottle to be considered an orange wine.
So what makes orange wine unique from other white wines? In modern winemaking, white wine grapes are usually immediately pressed away from their skins and seeds creating a rich, sweet juice called “must.” The must is allowed to settle in a sealed container, usually concrete, steel, or plastic. After a period of 12 to 24 hours, this must is then racked away from the sediment into another sealed fermentation vessel and inoculated with a prescribed batch of lab-grown yeast to begin a cool, controlled fermentation.
During this process, the fermenting wine is meticulously kept without exposure to oxygen. Oxygen is a corrosive gas and can cause bruising and browning of wines in the same manner that occurs in fruits left exposed to air. Exposure to oxygen also changes the bright, crisp fruit flavors traditionally associated with white wines to more muted or toasty character. Creating a wine without exposure to oxygen, called reductive winemaking, is a somewhat modern method that relies heavily on modern tools.
When it comes to orange wines, the process more closely resembles the red winemaking method. The fruit is often de-stemmed or slightly crushed with stems on, occasionally going the traditional route and using foot-treading to gently break apart the clusters. The wine is then allowed to ferment from a period of several days to several weeks while in contact with the skins. Even after fermentation is completed, some winemakers may choose to allow the wine to age in a vessel in contact with these skins to enhance flavor, texture, and color in the finished wine. Additional processes often used in tandem with extended skin contact include an oxidative winemaking process and the use of yeast naturally found on the skins and stems of grapes.
In red and orange winemaking, the winemaker may choose to allow these natural yeast strains to be the primary mover of fermentation, creating flavor profiles that some wine specialists find to be more true to style, or at least more traditional. Oxidative winemaking is a process by which the fermenting grape must is allowed free exposure to air at the top of the fermentation vessel; a process traditionally reserved for red wines. This oxygen exposure will subtly transform the flavor profile of the white wine juice, producing deeper, nuttier, or riper flavors.
The range of orange wines is vast and diverse and may be made from any white wine grape, though traditionally these styles of wine are often employed for Italian, Slovenian, and Georgian white grape varieties that have expressive and deep-colored skins. Although written texts show this style of wine has been produced for over 6,000 years, this method regained its foothold in winemaking in the late 1990s when several winemakers in northeast Italy and southwest Slovenia began seeking a means to give their white wines made from native aromatic white grapes more body and structure. Looking to their past, these winemakers began to experiment with retired winemaking techniques that include the use of skin contact.
Today, this style is being created by winemakers the world over, though sometimes the preferred means to describe it may change. In some regions, orange wine may referred to as amber wine, ramato, skin-macerated, or skin-contact wine. The white wine grapes employed in this process are also varied, though the vast majority of winemakers prefer to stick to grape varieties typically found in the southeast european corridor where this style was revived and made popular, such as Pinot Gris, Ribolla Gialla, Rkatsiteli, and occasionally Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc.
What can a drinker expect from a bottle of orange wine? Due to the skin inclusion during fermentation and the often oxidative winemaking method used, these wines show deep, layered flavors of bruised apple, pungent melon, and persimmon. They often have a nuttiness or toastiness about them, conveying almond paste, honey, sourdough, or toasted hazelnut. The strangely astringent and tannic nature of these wines may also convey a tarness similar to a sour beer and the dryness is somewhat reminiscent of the finish of some red wines. Some describe flavors of cumin and fennel alongside dried citrus notes as well. All in all, although these wines are often made with traditional grapes, they should be approached with an open mind as a new experience in a whole distinct category of wine.
It may seem obvious due to this wine style’s geographic history, but orange wines are generally a fantastic match for Mediterranean, Indian, and northern Italian flavors. The natural dryness, high acid, and balanced tannin makes this style a great match for an array of foods to include common go-to meals like a flavorful dry-rubbed steak or a big bowl of chili.