Orange wine explained
Not made from oranges.
Nothing to do with Mimosas.
Simply put, orange wine is white wine made like red wine, in the sense that they’re all about skin contact. So much so that we’ve taken to calling them ‘skin contact’ whites. They’ve become known as Orange wines as a generalisation based on their colour. You may also know them as Amber or even Ramato wines, again because of their hue.
Winemaker Amy Farnsworth of Amoise in Hawke's Bay, kindly took some time (in the throes of bottling) to have a chat with us about this wine style. From her first experience tasting skin contact whites she was hooked. For her “it began with an emotional feeling, and it showed me a whole new path in winemaking”.
The winemaking part….. And it’s all about skin contact
At vintage, the crescendo of the growing season, white grape varieties are harvested and pressed fairly immediately. That way the juice is separated from the skins before fermentation.
Red varieties on the other hand, are fermented with skins and juice together. Grape sugar ferments into alcohol. Colour and aromatic compounds are extracted from the skins. Phenolics, the compounds that give red wine its bitter, firm taste and structure, are also extracted.
The majority of red varieties actually have clear juice, and colour is extracted from contact with the skins. As an aside, it’s therefore possible to make white wine styles from red grapes by avoiding that skin contact - Champagne made from Pinot Noir being the most well known example.
Orange wine is made by giving white grape varieties skin contact during fermentation (and sometimes for periods before and after). Colour, aromatic compounds and phenolics are extracted from the skins, just like in red wine making.
Any white variety can be given skin contact, but Amy at Amoise finds there are certain varieties where “it’s more beneficial to extract phenolics, and to build aromatics and texture in the wine. Aromatic varieties like Albarino, Riesling, Pinot Gris and Chenin Blanc. With Pinot Gris, I honestly just wanted to make something interesting”.
In terms of the process, “you really need good, healthy grapes. If there’s any disease you don’t want maceration. And then you have to watch the temperature of the ferment, and just taste every day. I’m watching that transformation, and thinking about how far I want to push the phenolics”. The extraction can be managed by how much the skins, that float to the top of the ferment to form a cap, get worked back through the fermenting juice. “I look for elegance in my wines, so it’s minimal hand plunging, once a day”.
Amy loves that process and transformation because “you never know, you’re taking a bit of a gamble. But I do know the season and the vineyards, so I work back from there in terms of how much skin contact I give”.
Because of phenolic extraction, these wines are more robust in composition, so producers (including Amy) are able to bottle them with low or no preservative.
So how do they taste?
As well as eye-catching colour, orange wines are pleasingly ‘extra’, having extracted all those extra aromatic compounds and phenolics from the skins. These exuberant flavours can range from florals, to apricot, honey, beeswax, orange rind, tropical fruits, juniper, bruised apple, aromatic herbs, hazelnuts, smoke etc. This range of flavours will depend on factors like grape variety, where it’s grown, and how long the wine has spent on skins.
To taste, orange wines can show a light tea-like dryness, right through to full, tannic firmness. It’s a meeting of dense, upfront flavour with firm, pithy structure. There’s something both generous and robust about great orange wine.
Amy loves that “they make you think about what you’re drinking. You’re searching to work out what’s there. And I love how they pair with so many different types of food. They’re a sommelier’s secret weapon. They’re so versatile”.
Is orange the new black?
Now a feature of wine lists in hip bars and restaurants around the world, you’d be forgiven for thinking that this was a new wine style. But just like natural wine, it’s actually bloody ancient. In what is now the country Georgia, orange wine has been made for about 8000 years. Produced in large earthenware amphorae known as Qvevri, the greater level of phenolics in the wines helped preserve them longer.
The modern revival of skin contact whites came from a curious group of winemaking neighbours in Oslavia, on the border of Italy and Slovenia, in the 1980s. The names of these producers are now legendary, Josko Gravner, Stanko Radikon and Dario Princic. They not only started the resurgence of skin contact whites, but also the whole natural wine movement. Amy describes tasting Radikon for the first time as ‘a game changer, it was ethereal”. And in 2008 she travelled to visit these producers and learn what she could about the style.
The recent rise of orange wine is certainly closely linked with the natural wine movement. That said, we feel the need to clarify that not all orange wines are natural. Not all orange wines are cloudy, or unfined and unfiltered. Not all orange wines are organic or biodynamic. When thinking about these orange/skin contact wines, consider them as a style just like you would white, rosé and red.
Most wine producing countries are now making some form of this style, including New Zealand, and we’ll see more and more producers having a go. Do yourself a favour and try them. Start with our Show Me Some Skin 2 pack, that includes Amy’s very delicious 2021 Pinot Gris.