First thing’s first – no oranges are harmed in the making of orange wine! We’re still talking about fermented grape juice.
Orange wines, also known as skin-contact white wines, are defined by the process through which they’re made.
With or without Skins – that is the question
Firstly, a note on grape juice: if I have two bunches of grapes, one white (let’s say Chardonnay), and the other red (let’s say Pinot Noir), if I were to squeeze these grapes, the juice from BOTH of my hands would run clear. The juice and pulp of nearly all wine grapes has no pigment. All of the colour in a finished wine comes from contact that the juice has with the skins.
We need to have an understanding of the role grape skins play in winemaking to best understand what orange wine is. When making white wines, we squeeze out clear juice and then most often discard their skins.
This can be done with both white and red grapes.
However, in order to produce red wine, the juice from red grapes remains in contact with the skins, usually during fermentation and beyond, sometimes for hours, or days, weeks, even months, depending on the style the winemaker is after. The skins provide colour, texture (tannins) and flavour. The winemaker also decides how aggressive he wants their interaction to be. All the skins float to the top of the wine, and form what’s called a cap. The next part of the decision-making process is called cap management. The winemaker can choose from minimal intervention to vigorous punch-downs (literally pushing the cap down to the bottom of the tank so that as they float back up, they interact with the juice), pump-overs (pumping the wine from the bottom to spray over the cap) or simply getting in there with one’s hands and move everything around – all of these choices have resounding effects on the final wine and are all employed to create a diverse range of styles in orange wine, because…
…orange wines are produced the same way we produce a red wine, however using white-skinned grapes!
The white grape skins do have some pigment, as well as tannins.
So, depending on how long and aggressive the winemaker chooses to have the white skins interact with the juice we get varying degrees of colour, making the white wines darker shades of yellow or gold, hence “orange”. We also get tannin – this is the mouth-drying sensation that we’re used to from drinking red wines – and we get varying degrees of texture and grip. Ultimately the resulting wine has the flavour profile closely related to a structured white wine, but with the textural elements of a red wine!
The return of an ancestral method
Why are orange wines so popular now? Funny thing is, they’ve been around just about as long as winemaking itself! Back in the day, long before ancient Rome, we have evidence suggesting that grapes were rarely separated from their skins before fermentation. Areas that have some of the oldest evidence of viticulture and winemaking, like the Caucasus mountains in modern-day Georgia, still embrace these early techniques and produce little white wine with the majority of their production being orange wines, i.e. white varieties vinified on their skins.
The world is drinking more fine wine than ever before and we have logistical access to many more styles and regions, which in turn has created opportunities to bring these long forgotten wines into the mainstream. They’ve become so popular that winemakers around the world have embraced orange wine production from almost every white grape variety.
Wanderlust features skin-contact wines from Austria, South Africa and the United States.
Orange wines are particularly attractive to sommeliers who love their food pairing possibilities.
And the options are wide-ranging. They have the texture and the tannins to mate with meat! In terms of flavour profile, they’re as wide-ranging as any other style with a myriad of variables in play. Very broadly speaking, the wines often have a deeper citrus profile, more akin to the skins and pith, thus making the orange wine moniker all the more fitting. Herbaceous notes are also generally common.
As the methodology of production is stripped back, in choosing not to remove the wine skins, the style is often associated with minimal intervention, and some level of organic, biodynamic and natural production. An appreciation for the ancestral style is a common link. Orange wines are ultimately made by producers of every size and of varying production styles. These wines are also often associated with clay vessels, amphorae or quevri, as used in ancient times – but today, orange wines are produced in all manner of vessels.
Expression and versatility
In terms of grape varieties, a popular choice (and personal favourite) for skin-contact wines is Pinot Gris. The ‘gris’ translates to ‘gray’ as a reference to its dark-pink skins, that when fully mature have quite a bit of pigment in them, and so their skin-contact wines are often quite vibrant and alluring with their fruit and herbaceous profile beautifully accentuated. Other popular varieties include, but are not limited to, Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc, Riesling and Malvasia, to name a few. In general, aromatic white grape varieties are quite popular.
These wines are often a great snapshot of a winemaker’s style – the key being balance of flavours and texture. Winemakers often share the length of time the wine spends on the skins – I recommend tasting a flight of orange wines of varying lengths of skin-contact for a better understanding of the impact of the varying approaches and fine-tuning your preferences within this expansive category.
These are exciting wines and are here to stay! Be bold and try new things – saying you don’t like orange wine is like saying you don’t like music – I promise there’s an orange wine out there for everybody! Cheers!
This is a guest-post by Dan Belmont
Dan is your neighbourhood wine & cheese raconteur. A native New Yorker, Dan fell in love with wine visiting the Finger Lakes wine region in New York State and has since worked as a brand ambassador and hospitality consultant for several notable Finger Lakes producers and represents the statewide industry in Europe. He is a former affineur, cheesemonger, & Education Manager of NYC’s famed Murray’s Cheese. He currently lives in London, where he developed the public education program at Bedales of Borough.