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Guide to Orange Wine: Learn What Makes Orange Wine Unique

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Jun 2, 2020 • 4 min read

You’re at a natural wine bar browsing the wine list, and underneath the familiar red, white, and rosé, you see a fourth color of wine—orange. Here’s everything you need to know about this unique and ancient variety of wine.

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What Is Orange Wine?

Orange wine, also known as amber wine or skin-contact wine, is a color of wine produced by leaving the skins of white wine grapes to ferment with the juice instead of removing them—essentially making white wine in the same manner as red wine. Though there is no official designation for orange wine (it's a type of white wine), this style of winemaking produces a unique flavor as well as its striking color.

What Is the History of Orange Wine?

Although the term "orange wine" is relatively new (coined in 2004 by U.K.-based wine merchant David Harvey), the style of wine production is ancient. Traditional Georgian winemaking involves an 8,000-year-old process of fermenting crushed whole berries in clay vessels called qvevri, then sealing the jars with clay or beeswax and burying them underground to keep cool. When made with white grape varieties like the ancient Rkatsiteli, this yields an acidic, golden-hued wine.

In the early 2000s, this ancient wine production technique experienced a resurgence when winemakers such as Josko Gravner of Friuli-Venezia Giulia, Italy, visited Georgia and brought the ancient techniques home. Gravner brought Georgian qvevri home to Italy with him and started selling Italian orange wines in 2001. Orange wine is now produced in multiple regions in Italy, Slovenia, Greece, Portugal, California, France, South Africa, Australia, and more.

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How Is Orange Wine Made?

To make orange wine, whole white grapes are crushed and then macerated (left to sit) with their skins and stems for as little as one week and up to one year. Eventually, winemakers separate out the fermented juice, at which point they may age the wine further.

This is the exact same process winemakers use to produce red wine. The only difference is the grape variety: Orange wine is made with white grapes, like pinot grigio (orange wine made with pinot grigio is known as ramato, or "auburn," in Italy); ribolla gialla, grown in Italy and Slovenia; and Georgian Rkatsiteli, one of the oldest grape varieties. Typically, these types of grapes would be made into white wine, a process that involves separating the grape juice from the grape skins before the fermentation process, which keeps the color light and tannin levels low.

Is Orange Wine a Natural Wine?

Orange wines have become associated with the natural wine movement since their high levels of tannins mean that the wine can be bottled without the addition of sulfur dioxide. The term "natural wine" lacks a clear definition, but natural wines are often unfiltered, contain no (or low levels of) additives, and are produced on biodynamic vineyards using traditional wine production techniques. Many orange wines fall under this umbrella, but certainly not all.

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3 Characteristics of Orange Wine

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There are many varieties of orange wine, and each tastes different, but there are some qualities that most orange wines share.

  1. Orange hue: The first thing you'll notice about an orange wine is the color. Orange wine can be the color of a ripe tangerine, but it can also be amber, yellow, gold, or pink. The color of an orange wine depends on several factors including the variety of grape, the ripeness of the fruit at the time of winemaking, the length of time the wine was fermented with the grape skins, the fermentation vessel, and the extraction method.
  2. Tannins: Orange wines contain more tannins than white wine. Tannins add texture and astringency to wine.
  3. Skin fermentation: Skin-contact wine refers specifically to styles of white wine that are macerated with their skins for a brief period of time (usually just 24 hours) before the juice is separated out for fermentation. This allows some of the flavor and color of the skins to penetrate the juice, but most of the fermentation happens afterward. In contrast, skin-fermented orange wines are fermented with the skins for much longer: anywhere between one week and one year. Shorter skin fermentation usually means lighter flavor, and longer skin fermentation usually leads to bolder flavor.

What Does Orange Wine Taste Like?

Some orange wines taste like a light red wine, while others taste more like a sour beer. There's just as much variation between orange wines as there is between wine varieties of any other color. In general, orange wines are fuller-bodied than white wines. Orange wine tends to have a lot of tannins, which make the wine more bitter. Common tasting notes for orange wines include dried flowers or hay, stone fruits like apricot, and dried fruit.

When choosing an orange wine, ask your sommelier, bartender, or shopkeeper about the length of skin contact (less time on the skins yields a lighter wine, while more time means a fuller-bodied wine), the grape variety, and the fermentation vessel (qvevri-fermented wine might have a more earthy flavor than wine fermented in steel tank).

How to Pair Orange Wine Pair With Food

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When it comes to food pairings, orange wines are versatile, since their flavor falls somewhere in between white wine and red wine. Orange wines have enough body to stand up to flavorful dishes, so don’t be afraid to serve them where you might typically serve a red wine. Orange wine works particularly well with fermented, spicy dishes like kimchi, savory cheese and charcuterie plates, hearty vegetables such as mushrooms and squash, and all kinds of meat and fish.

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