What is Orange Wine? A Beginner's Guide

Bridget Reed @ 2022-04-18 09:16:23 -0700

What is Orange Wine? A Beginner's Guide

Orange wine—you may have noticed it by its striking color, which is reminiscent of bottled sunshine. 

This style of wine has become very popular in the last several years. It might seem like a new trend, but orange wine is as ancient as wine itself. Plus, as consumers become more health-conscious and embrace natural wine, orange wine has found itself a place in the modern market. 

Many winemakers have taken up the practice of nodding to orange wine’s unique character through the labeling  “outside the box”—you’ll often find bright, art-centric labels with striking visuals and neon colors. Orange wine is so unusual and unique that it has captivated wine lovers around the globe—but what exactly is it? 

Spoiler alert: It’s not made from oranges! No, orange wine is made from grapes, including many varietals that you’re familiar with. This guide tells you everything you need to know about orange wine. 

What Is Orange Wine?

It’s not red, it’s not white, and it’s not rosé, so what is this tangerine-colored wine? 

Orange wine is also called “skin-contact” wine. This is because it’s made by fermenting white grapes with their skins. The result is a dry, mildly tannic wine with pronounced aromas of apple, papaya, nuts, cheese, musk, and wood. You won’t find this kind of profile in your average white wine. 

This style of fermenting white grapes also imparts a signature hue that ranges from golden to marmalade. These wines are a beautiful sight to behold. And the story of how they came to be is pretty cool too. 

The History of Orange Wine

Orange wine dates back to the earliest evidence of any wine: Georgia in 6000 B.C. 

It’s a style that was born from necessity, not novelty. Winemakers of antiquity didn’t have the technology that we have today, but they knew that their grapes needed to ferment in cool, consistent temperatures. So, they put the grapes in clay vessels and buried them underground, where they would remain protected from the changing seasons. 

The ancients discovered that that process was a brilliant way to keep the grapes nice and cool while they fermented. 

Of course, they didn’t have the technology to remove the skins from the grapes before sending them below ground, so everything went in, regardless of the grape: seed, skin, grapes, and all. And what came out was a funky amber wine. 

Orange Wine Evolves

Eventually, we developed the technology to ferment wine above-ground in temperature-controlled vessels, and the old practice fell out of style—but not for Georgia. Since day one, they’ve been fermenting their wine in clay vessels called qvevri

So, how did we end up with so much orange wine today? In 1998, an Italian winemaker decided to revive this tradition. Before long, the rest of the world caught wind of this exciting style coupled with a newfound love for natural winemaking. As a result, orange wines exploded in popularity. 

How Is Orange Wine Made?

The process of making orange wine, or skin-contact wine, is fascinating. To understand how it works, let’s do a quick overview of how the other main styles of wine are made. 

Making Wine

Red wine is made by fermenting black (aka red) grapes with their skins. 

These skins contain tannins and pigment, which is why red wine is red. However, in the case of white wine, the skins are removed from the grapes before they’re sent to fermentation. This is why white wine is lemon-colored or golden, and it’s also why white wine doesn’t contain tannins. 

This also explains rosé’s light pink hue. Rosé is made by fermenting red grapes with their skins for a brief time, and then they’re removed before fermenting the rest of the way. This is why rosé is lightly pigmented, unlike red wine made from the same grapes. 

What Makes Orange Wine Unique?

Now, let’s look at what makes orange wine so unique. Orange wine is made from white grapes, but the skins are left on during fermentation. 

The result is an orange hue and some unique flavors and tannins, revealed by their drying, astringent mouthfeel. This makes a wine that tastes like nothing else, certainly not its white counterparts. 

Fermentation of orange wines lasts a few days to a year, depending on what the winemaker is going for. Because fermenting the skins extracts flavors and tannins and imparts them onto the wine, the longer they ferment, the more pronounced these characteristics will be. 

As we saw before, orange wine was traditionally fermented in clay vessels. Pottery was the best vessel to transport goods and liquid at the time, and winemakers used it to vinify wine all over the world. Many modern-day winemakers still use amphorae, a type of acorn-shaped clay vessel, to make their orange wine. 

Though a little dated, clay is an excellent vessel for fermenting wine. It allows for slow oxygenation, which develops complexity in the wine that stainless steel and oak just can’t accomplish. 

What Grapes Are Used for Orange Wine?

Common grapes that are made into orange wine are Pinot Grigio, Sauvignon Blanc, Muscat, Riesling, Gewurztraminer, and Sémillon. 

What Pairs Well With Orange Wine?

Orange wine is flavorful and playful and should be treated as such when pairing. 

Because it often has nutty, dried-fruit flavors, it makes the perfect wine for charcuterie, where you can play with the flavors on your board.

For dinner, go for dishes packed with flavor. Orange wine holds up wonderfully with spices, which can be tough to pair. Look to regions like Japan, Korea, India, China, Morocco, and Ethiopia to compliment this traditional wine style. 

Here are some of our favorite orange wine pairings:

  • Lamb Kebabs
  • Orange Chicken
  • Veggie lo Mein
  • Curry Goat
  • Grilled Octopus
  • Stir-Fry
  • Tiki Masala

Who Makes Orange Wine?

Skin-contact wine is made in many regions all over the world. It is often made without additives with indigenous grapes. This makes it the perfect choice for natural wine and organic wine lovers and anyone looking for an adventure of the senses. 

Here are some of the main regions known for making orange wine. 

Orange Wine From Georgia

The earliest evidence of wine-making is from orange wine made in qvevri, a clay vessel that Georgian winemakers would bury underground to ferment in the cool temperatures. Qvevri are shaped like acorns and are very heavy when full of wine! Their history dates back to 6000 B.C.

Believe it or not, Georgia never stopped making their wine this way. They have stayed loyal to tradition and adopted an “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” attitude with their wine. 

Tasting this wine is something special. Nowadays, it’s not uncommon to find a bottle of Georgian wine in natural wine bars. 

95% of Georgian wine is made with indigenous grapes like Khikhvi and Kisi. 

Orange Wine From Italy

We have Italy, the largest wine-producing region in the world, to thank for the resurgence of orange wine. 

In the 90s, an Italian winemaker In Friuli, the region where all Pinot Grigio comes from, decided to revive this ancient tradition. In Italy, orange wine is called ramato, or “amber” wine. Here, much of the orange wine is made from Pinot Grigio.

Friuli is located in northeastern Italy and sits right up against Slovenia, which also makes some outstanding orange wine.

Orange Wines From Slovenia and Croatia

Slovenia, Croatia, and Italy all share a region called Istria.

Istria has been the center of geopolitical conflict for hundreds of years, and the borders have changed many times. As a result, food and wine culture is shared. Both Slovenia and Croatia also make orange wine, primarily from indigenous grapes. 

Orange Wine From Greece

Greece also has a longstanding tradition of orange wine. They vinify from indigenous grapes like Debina, Vidiano, and Kydonitsa. Sometimes, the wine is even made into a sparkling orange beverage reminiscent of champagne.

Orange Wine From the U.S. and Australia

The new world has caught on to the orange wine trend, too.

Winemakers in Australia and the U.S. are experimenting with the style. Australia has made a name for itself by experimenting with Sauvignon Blanc, which gives the wine a beautiful floral note. 

Meanwhile, in California, winemakers are making orange wine from Pinot Gris, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Blanc, Gewürztraminer, and even Chardonnay. 

Why You Should Try Orange Wine

Orange wine is an experience. 

When you drink orange wine, you know the producer cares deeply about their craft. What’s even cooler is being transported back in time through the legacy of the first wine ever made. 

To get the most from your orange wine experience, be sure to have some nuts, cheeses, salumi, and preserves to experiment with the flavor profile. It will be a glass of wine you’ll never forget!

Try orange wine today with Monje, a skin-contact orange with notes of tangerine zest, red bamboo honey, Jamaican pepper tree, and crushed oyster shell. 

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