Updated: Jul 11, 2021
photo credit: Shutterstock- Tall glass of rich orange wine
Prior to covid, my wine palate was very much limited to either the creamy, round, full-mouthed chardonnays from California, or their red counterpart, the rich, bold, fruit-forward Napa cabernet sauvignon. That was more or less the extent of my experience with wine, save for the occasional diversion.
Then lockdown struck and virtual wine-tastings proliferated. I signed up and slowly started to discover wines from the many corners of the world, like Argentina, Australia, South Africa and Spain, not to mention Italy, France and Oregon. My understanding of the world of wine expanded and with it, the courage to move away from my comfort zone to try different grape varieties and regions.
On one occasion, Jimmy Smith, founder of the West London Wine School, invited Simon Woolf, author of Amber Revolution, to lead a tasting on orange wine.
I was intrigued and eager to learn. Was orange wine fortified wine like port or madeira? Was it sweet wine like sauternes or moscato d'Asti? I was looking forward to finding out.
What is orange wine?
Misconceptions about orange wine abound. These include that they are oxidized, natural, biodynamic or organic wines, made in amphora (clay vessels), can't express terroir and all taste the same. I even read the misconception that they are made from oranges.
Put simply, orange wine is made from white grapes that are fermented with their skins for an extended period of time (anywhere from 7 days to 9 months +) resulting in a hue that closely resembles amber, hence the term it is sometimes know as: Amber wine.
You will also find it referred to as skin-contact wine, macerated wine, skin-fermented wine, and in Italy, as vino bianco macerato and Ramato.
photo credit: alongthewineroad.com
Most white wines are made by fermenting the juice (after pressing) without skin. Orange wine is made the same way that red is made, by fermenting the juice with the skin, thus extracting additional tannins and flavors. Tannins from the skin provide stability and stop oxidation, which leads some winemakers to hold-back from further correction to the wine. Additionally, macerated white wines age well due to the antioxidants in the tannins which act as a preservative.
photo credit: https://mysa.wine/
Rosé, on the other hand, is made with red grape with skin contact for less than 12 hours before the juice is pressed off and fermentation is allowed to follow- Hence its pinkish hue.
photo credit: The Amber Revolution- Simon J. Woolf
The term "Orange Wine" was coined in 2004 by an English wine importer, David Harvey, who encountered this amber-colored wine in winemaker Frank Cornelissen's cellar in Sicily's Etna region.
In Simon Woolf's comprehensive book, Amber Revolution, Doug Wregg, Sales and Marketing Director of the UK's largest importer of natural and orange wines, Les Caves de Pyrene, notes:
"To make meritorious skin-contact wine you need something worth extracting from the skins. Good farming, preferably organic or biodynamic, is a prerequisite, yielding excellent grape maturity but also balance within the grapes themselves. The extraction itself should be subtle and harmonious, the wine maker judging whether to use the grape stems, how many days to macerate, whether to rack the wine and expose it to oxygen, etc."
One of the outcomes of making wine this way is that the extended period of maceration results in wine that is more characteristic of red wine than white, with more tannic structure and color than regular white wine. The skin extraction also unlocks so many flavors and aromas that give orange wine its distinctive taste.
Orange wine is made in a variety of vessels including steel tanks, plastic tubs, barriques, large oak barrels, cement tanks, clay vessels of all kinds, and concrete eggs.
photo credit: https://www.concretewinetanks.com/concrete-egg-tank.html
With climate change creating seismic shifts in harvests and viticulture, skin-contact wine helps retain balance and freshness.
This tradition of wine making goes back at least 8000 years to Georgia, where pottery fragments decorated with grape patterns and containing chemical traces of wine were found near Tbilisi.
Georgia has over 500 indigenous grape varieties spread across ten wine-producing regions.
photo credit: theblacklabel.com picture of the thick-skinned Rkatsiteli grape variety from Georgia- Rkatsiteli means red stem- a popular grape variety found in all wine regions of Georgia
In Georgia, after grapes are pressed, juice, skins, seeds and often stems are thrown into a clay amphora (Quevri) and allowed to ferment, and then sealed, for up to nine months with no intervention (such as filtration, adding yeast or controlling the temperature).
photo credit: Levan Totosashvili- Quevri above ground
In 2013, UNESCO placed quevri winemaking on its list of Intangible Cultural Heritage traditions, and the Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity (based in Bra, Italy) is also taking steps to preserve this ancient winemaking tradition.
Making wine this way has been an old tradition in Northern Italy and Slovenia for over 180 years, and in Alentejo, Portugal, for over 2000 years.
In the early 1990s, Josko Gravner and Stanko Radikon, two winemaking pioneers from Oslavia, the epicenter of the orange wine revival, in the Friuli-Venezia-Giulia region of North-East Italy, decided to return to the ancient method of skin-contact wine making. They suspected that the flavorsome, thick-skinned grape variety ribolla gialla, native to this region, had more to give and more flavors to unlock if made in the traditional methods of their forefathers. They set aside the stainless steel tanks and cultured yeast in favor of the no-intervention approach that prevailed in this region of Europe, North East Italy, Austria, Slovenia and Croatia, until the 1970's when industrialization took over wineries. Gravner and Radikon began producing exceptional expressions of this style of skin-contact wines after a visit to Georgia in 2000, where they discovered quevri-made wine, and began to produce it this way in their own wineries.
As the late Stanko Radikon's (he died in September 2016) son Saša notes:
"For years it's as if we were just making rosé from the grapes of Château Pétrus", alluding to one of the world's most outstanding and expensive wines from Bordeaux.
In May 2009, sommelier Dalton Levy organized a tasting dinner with 37 orange wines. It was a seminal event at Convivio, a high-end Italian restaurant in New York City, where leading wine and gastronomical professionals working in a competitive market, rallied behind the increasing interest in the category.
Other regions in the world took note and started to revive this low-intervention, ancient wine-making tradition- In 2010, Portugal saw a resurgence in interest in Talha-produced wines, the large squat amphora typical of the Alentejo region.
photo credit: vinhodetalha.vinhosdoalentejo.pt
Similarly, with the pipeňo tradition in Chile (dating back to the late16th century) grapes (white or red) are de-stemmed and left on their skins for fermentation before aging in a rauli barrel (rauli is a type of South American Beech). The result is a gamay-like wine: light, fruity with a touch of bitterness.
By 2020 there were more than 1000 producers of orange wine globally.
Eric Asimov, wine critic for the New York Times, in a 2020 article describes Gravner's and Radikon's wines as:
"Textured with lightly raspy tannins. They are energetic, with aromas and flavors that tend towards pressed flowers and dried fruits rather than fresh ones."
He goes on to add that "they express nuances of beauty and culture in profound and distinctive ways."
As with all wines produced in small batches by artisanal winemakers, this style of wine is inextricably linked to the terroir (the soil, climate, technique) but even more importantly to it's deep history in a region that lost several decades of opportunities following two world wars and oppression from Russia, which radically curtailed the ability of these producers to export more widely and be known beyond the soviet/ east European block. Today, orange wine is being produced globally from France to Austria, Australia to South Africa, USA to Portugal.
Quevri- The Womb for Wine
photo credit: wikipedia- photograph of a winemaker and quevri from1881
Quevri winemaking is practiced throughout Georgia, particularly in village communities where unique grape varieties are grown (rkatsitelli and tsolikouri) in the western Imereti district and Kakheti region (Georgia's most important wine region).
The quevri is an egg-shaped earthenware vessel (the shape allows for a natural filtration process to take place) used for making, aging and storing the wine. This tradition of winemaking is passed down by families, neighbors, friends and relatives, all of whom partake in the communal harvesting and winemaking activities.
After the grapes (in their entirety with seed and stem) go into the quevri, the clay vessel is sealed and buried in the ground to allow the grapes to ferment for up to 6 months, sometimes more. Seals can be made out of stone, wooden lid, plexiglass, or any airtight lid.
photo credit: georgianjournal.ge
Fermentation starts spontaneously with the grape's natural yeasts, which gets the native character out of the grape. Aging continues in oak barrels or stainless steel tanks. Sometimes the wine is bottled straight from the quevri.
This is a very simple winemaking method with zero intervention. All the solid matter and lees (residual yeast) moves to the bottom pointed tip.
photo credit: domainegeorgia.com - Here we see how skin, stem, seeds and pulp (chacha in Georgian) fall to the pointed tip during fermentation- Temperature remains constant at 12-15 degrees celsius while buried in the ground.
Quevris range in size from 1-2000 liters in volume.
A Unesco article confirms that wine plays a vital role in everyday life in Georgia and in the celebration of secular and religious events and rituals. Wine cellars (marani) are still considered the holiest place in the family home.
photo credit: georgianjournal.ge - a marani in Georgia
The tradition of Qvevri wine-making defines the lifestyle of local communities and forms an inseparable part of their cultural identity and inheritance, with wine and vines frequently evoked in Georgian oral traditions and songs. It is still popular to fill a quevri with young wine at the birth of a child where it will stay until the day they get married.
In Amber Revolution, Simon Woolf states:
"Quevris provide excellent temperature regulation, cooling the fermentation but also maintaining a very stable temperature throughout the different seasons....for as many months as the wine remains undisturbed there will continue to be a slow, gentle extraction of tannins and polyphenols- all beneficial to the stability of the wine."
One of the most important wine cellars in Georgia is the Alaverdi Monastery, dating back to the 9th century and rebuilt in 2005-06. It is at the core of Georgia's traditional quevri wine renaissance often producing some of the most profound wines in the country.
photo credit: Tinatin Giorgadze
Georgian wine is undergoing a boom according to the Georgian National Wine Agency, with exports to the USA averaging 31% year over year by volume.
In Amber Revolution, Doug Wregg notes:
"There's a huge range of styles, from wines where you'd barely know there'd been been any skin-contact to those which coat the mouth with tannins and are practically a meal in themselves."
Color alone cannot determine the wine style.
photo credit: tastingtable.com
Tammie Teclemariam, in a winemag.com article points out that:
"There is no one taste of skin-macerated wine. It depends on the grape that the winemaker works with. The wines are made around the world from many different areas using many different grapes."
Orange wines can be light bodied and fresh, to savory and structured. They can also be nutty, and tea-like which comes from the extra oxidation of the wine-making process. Skins of grapes carry a lot of aromatics and flavors so the longer the skin-contact maceration, the more of that flavor and aromatic will be extracted from the skin, the more roughly textured, structured and high in tannins the wine, with possible herbal and savory notes and restrained fruit flavors.
As Eric Asimov says in his New York Times article The polarizing Power of Orange Wine :
"They have been hailed as innovative expressions, and damned as flawed, oxidized, repetitive and dull."
At its best, orange wine will express its hallmark texture and light oxidative influence, along with a balanced, fresh fruity core. At its less optimal, as Simon Woolf put it:
"It will be akin to chewing cold tea leaves".
The best examples have depth, complexity and longevity. They also have tension, lift and power.
It's all in the quality of the fruit, as any defective grape will be amplified with skin-contact.
Choosing orange Wine
A good place to start your adventure into orange wine is to seek the advise of a professional. I learned so much from my conversation with Nathan Smith, sales manager for Rootstock wines, and Brandon Kerne, Director of Operations at Art of Cellaring and The Texas Wine School. I would highly recommend a visit to this local Houston establishment where Brandon will be more than generous with his time and knowledge, making suggestions to suit your palate and budget. Contact information can be found at the end of this article.
Here is what I tasted during a recent visit:
photo credit: Hadia Mawlawi
Click on each for tasting notes.
Radikon, Bianco Slatnik- Venezia Guilia- 2018- Italy
Santa Chiara- Paolo Bea- Umbria Bianco-2017- Italy
Wrath- Ex Dolio- Falanghina - Monterey- 2017- USA
I admit, these are not your easy summer rosé, but rather wines that demand your time, attention and curiosity. I am not used to drinking wines that taste trill and tart (the Radikon 2018) so I needed to stay open-minded. The Wrath was the more approachable one, with notes of candied citrus, dried apricot and nectarine. More release than tension! While I enjoyed all three I was also stretching my palate, as one would stretch their listening ear when exploring new music, like moving from the easy beats of Earth Wind and Fire to the raspy Leonard Cohen! Next time, I look forward to enjoying them with food so I can appreciate them fully.
Orange wines come in categories as varied as white, red, and rosé. Here are some style descriptions to help you make your selection next time you visit your wine merchant:
Lighter, more floral and refreshing
Medium-bodied with soft textures
Full-bodied, tannic, age-worthy
Elegant, complex with delicate texture
Pink skins and shocking colors
Orange bubbles with depth and herby complexity
Orange wines make ideal food pairing because of their tannic structure, texture and lively acidity. They occupy a middle ground between white and red wines and are very much food wine.
photo credit: sundayschoolwine.com
They are versatile and can be paired with almost any food. Try them with spicy food (think Indian or Thai), rich sauces, oysters, charcuterie, cheeses, semi-sweet deserts, and fatty meats.
Serve orange wine at 12-16 degrees celsius, almost at red wine temperature, and allow to warm on the table. Avoid keeping it in an ice bucket which can really dull the flavor profile.
Orange wine today
During my conversation with Nathan Smith and Brandon Kerne, they affirmed that what's old and seeped in tradition has a way of reappearing as something new and trendy. Fashion repeats itself. It's an evolving market, attracting the attention of those who are curious to indulge in new wines, particularly those that fit into the natural wine ethos.
The price of orange wine reflects low yield and volume. Winemakers, like Gravner and Radikon wait 5-7 years before releasing their bottles. Sadly, production economics and storage logistics don't always work in the favor of the grower who needs to consider his bottom line. The majority of producers today release their wines after a year or two. Simon Woolf suggests buying 2 bottles and letting one of them age an extra year to allow the wine to reach equilibrium, complexity and in some cases, drinkability.
photo credit: myfermentation.com
Winemakers today are also more likely to do 4-12 days on average skin-contact versus the 6-9 months of their forebears for the same economic considerations. The results still show extraction of all the phenolic compounds from the skin that give the wine its hallmark characteristics, while also offering gentler, more elegant and balanced wines.
Wineries producing macerated (skin-contact) whites are gaining recognition in the U.S. Here are some I came across:
Channing Daughters- Long Island, NY
Forlorn Hope- Napa, CA
Donkey & Goat- Berkley, CA
Two Shepherds- CA
Scholium Project- Napa, CA
Wrath Wines- Mendocino, CA
I hope my article has inspired you to give orange wine a taste. Send me your comments and any additional discoveries that you make.
To schedule tastings of orange wine in Houston, contact:
Brandon Kerne, Director of Operations at the Texas Wine School and Art of Cellaring, AOC Selections: 2301 Portsmouth, Houston TX 77098- Tel: 713- 828 7767
This is actually a wine store, so anyone can walk in anytime from 10am-6pm Mon-Fri to buy wine.
You can also visit:
Montrose Cheese & Wine- 1618 Westheimer Road Houston TX 77006- Tel: 832- 380 2461
This is a wine bar as well as a retail establishment
Amber Revolution- Simon J. Woolf- the definitive book about orange wine published in 2018
wine-searcher.com - good for tracking suppliers
vivino.com - good for tracking suppliers