How It’s Made: Orange Wine

White grapes + red winemaking practices = orange. Explore the world of these varied and diverse wines, which are produced globally.

by Nikki Goddard

Over the last two decades or so, you may have noticed a “new” addition to many wine lists and retail shelves: Orange wine. This trendy, enophile-favorite category, however, is anything but modern. In fact, it is one of the most ancient wine styles in existence. 

In what is now the country of Georgia—the birthplace of wine, in general—orange wine was first produced around 8,000 years ago in the Caucasus Mountain region. Today, many producers continue to use the same traditional techniques of that era to produce deeply pigmented, amber-hued wines which, while made from white grapes, can resemble light red wines in terms of their tannic structure and savory notes. 

In traditional orange winemaking, the invention of oak barrels and stainless steel fermentation tanks was still a long way off. Instead:

  • qvevri
    Georgian winemakers simply crushed white grapes and fermented them whole—skins, seeds, and juice—in large clay vessels known as qvevri.
  • Sealed with clay or beeswax, these jars were buried underground to be kept naturally cool during fermentation. 

Think of orange winemaking as sort of an inverse of rosé production, in which red grapes are processed in a manner similar to white winemaking; in the case of orange wine, white grapes are processed in a way that closely resembles red winemaking. 

The key factor here is skin contact:

  • Rather than separating the juice from the skins prior to fermentation, as in white winemaking, the juice and skins are left in contact for a period of time—several hours, days, weeks, or even, in rare instances, several months, allowing various degrees of extraction of pigment and tannin from the skins. 
  • Shorter maceration times yield fresher, more vibrant wines with greater depth of flavor. These wines have a pale orange tint. 
  • Longer macerations lead to powerful, structured orange wines ranging in color from deep tangerine to russet brown, with intense aromas and flavors of dried apricot, toasted hazelnut, and dried flowers.
  • Sometimes, these wines show a tangy note resembling kombucha or sour beer. 

The modern orange wine renaissance is by no means limited to the country of Georgia; orange wines can now be found in a wide range of styles from all over the world: 

Mouth-watering, tart, and food-friendly orange wines are a specialty of the Friuli-Venezia-Giulia region of Northern Italy, made from varieties like Malvasia, Pinot Grigio, and Ribolla Gialla. 

Southeast of Friuli-Venezia-Giulia, and across the border to Slovenia, similar orange wines are being made in the Goriška Brda region. 

As a point of clarity, don’t let anyone tell you that the Vin Jaune wines of the Jura are orange wines. Oxidation—not skin contact—is a key part of the winemaking that can give them an orange hue, which gives the appearance of being an orange wine. But make no mistake. In fact, the nutty, intentionally oxidized wines made from Savagnin from the Jura are called yellow wines. 

Orange wines are gaining popularity in many other regions, particularly Austria, California, Australia, and South Africa. And the grape varieties used to produce these wines are quite a diverse bunch (pun intended)—frequent choices include Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Gris, Chenin Blanc, Chardonnay, Rkatsiteli (a Georgian variety also popular in New York State), and Muscat. 

The comeback of orange wine is no surprise, considering the category’s characteristic versatility and complexity—these wines are easy to pair with a wide range of foods and effortlessly bridge the gap between red and white wine with their satisfying blend of brisk acidity, gentle structure, and multi-faceted flavor profiles. 

To learn more about the process of winemaking and the many varied styles of wine produced around the world, enroll in a WSET course today.

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