It’s fair to say we’re on at least the third wave of orange wine—past their initial reintroduction, and past a wave of experimentation.
“Orange” is shorthand for describing skin-contact white wines: allowing white grapes to soak and often ferment on their skins for a period of time, which can add color and texture. Essentially, it is making a white wine the way a red wine would be made. The reappearance of an ancient technique been with us for nearly two decades, and its promulgation as a fad (including by yours truly)—or the proclamation that it has “finally arrived”—has been churning for a good decade now.
It’s not a fad, even if the supermarket chain Aldi has begun selling a £5.99 orange wine from Romania. Skin-contact wines are here with us to stay. Ever more wine lists now include “orange” as a category of its own. Together with rosé, it represents the obliteration of the old white-red taxonomy of wine, in favor of a more diverse spectrum.
That’s all happened pretty quickly; these wines have come of age in less than 20 years. But amid all the hype, it’s interesting how little discussion there has been about their larger purpose.
The modern origins of skin-contact can be traced back to the late 1990s, and to the Friuli-Venezia Giulia region of northern Italy. There, a handful of winemakers, including Josko Gravner, Stanislao “Stanko” Radikon and Paolo Vodopivec, and some counterparts on the other side of the nearby Slovenian border, began a resurrection of ancient but ongoing techniques that they encountered in what’s now the republic of Georgia—namely the use of the amphora-like vessels known as qvevri, and the long soaking of white wines on their skins.
Friuli being one of the few places in the world where white wine is more important than red, winemakers immediately warmed to the notion of such serious treatment for white grapes. And by the early 2000s, these orange wines had become defining for them. This was especially in the case of Gravner, who had already achieved fame as a more traditional winemaker. The qualities of the wines, which not only offered an amber hue—something that was completely new from these grapes—but also deep, robust flavors and dense textures that spoke more of red wine, immediately found fans.
But it was the story itself—of reclaiming ancient ways and bringing them forward into a modern world that had fallen prey to technical winemaking—that turned out to be astonishingly prescient. It was a perfect storm of a precursor for today’s natural-wine movement.
This resonance explains why the orange-wine world keeps expanding. Italy (and by extension Georgia, which only shook off Soviet-era controls in 2003) provided the origin points, but the style has found homes in France, Spain and throughout Europe, plus California, Oregon, Australia, Chile and most everywhere in the New World.
That widespread popularity proves this life beyond fad. But it also brings us to the pertinent question for orange wine, now that it’s not so shiny and new. Yes, the best skin-contact whites are very good. But it’s worth acknowledging they have a more limited palette than, say, rosé, in their use. Rosé can be refreshing and easygoing, and can be drunk with nearly anything. Orange wines are usually a bit more complicated. They’re typically richer and more densely textured than most white wines—this is by design—and that makes them less carefree, more suited to cold weather than warm.
Arguably their ideal time is in fall or winter, when richer flavors feel most at home. And many orange wines step in admirably at moments when you might pour red. It’s surprising how many of their scents and flavors—dried apricots and nuts and autumnal fruits like persimmon—can echo the best of a Thanksgiving table. And the process of making orange wines, plus the minerality many winemakers seek in them (this was essential for the Friulians), lend themselves to a greater perception of umami in the wine. This is why they go so well with things like sea urchin, cheese or the heady flavors of Yunnan cooking.
This move beyond fad suggests that we may soon stop treating orange wines as quirky one-offs and start simply considering them another option within that drinking spectrum. That they’re not curiosities the way they used to be moves us closer to appreciating the far broader world of wine we live in today.
- It’s convenient to think of orange wine as the inverse of rosé. Rosé is, essentially, red grapes made very much in the style of a white wine—pressed without time to fully extract what’s in the grape. Orange wine is treating white grapes as though they were red—extracting far more character than is typical.
- It’s not uncommon to find orange wines sharing traits with red wines; they often exhibit a richer texture, coming especially from the tea-like grip of tannins, which can be found in white grape skins as well as red.
- If at first most orange wines tended to copy the grapes used in Friuli (sauvignon blanc, pinot grigio, ribolla gialla if you could find it), the range of grape varieties keeps expanding, with everything from chardonnay to Savoy varieties like jacquère. Although the technique wasn’t initially intended for aromatic varieties like riesling or gewürztraminer, those are also making good orange wines.
- Leaving aside the retro-cool cred, the real purpose of skin contact is to add depth and character to white wines that might otherwise be a bit neutral or thin. It can show a very different side of grapes often considered lacking in character, like aligoté or melon de Bourgogne.
- The term “orange” can be deceiving, in that skin-macerated wines come in a wide range of colors, which are not always particularly orange. The grape’s original color and the length of maceration both impact the color. The term is really more about the process.
- Not all orange wines are created alike. It’s not uncommon for the wines to rest on the grape skins for many months, as was traditional in Georgia and in the early days of Friuli. But sometimes the maceration is just for a week or two, or even a day or two. These techniques can produce wines that are essentially white wines, but with a bit more texture and density to them. The idea of brief skin maceration for a bit more “oomph” has become a valuable new technique for white-wine makers.
- Not all orange wines fully hew to the Georgian-Friulian storyline—even in Italy. For many years, northern Italian winemakers have made a style of pinot grigio called ramato (“auburn”), less as an overt homage to antiquity than because of the naturally pinkish tint of pinot grigio’s skins, which comes out in the wine when the grapes are soaked with their skins for a while.
The Essential Producers
Josko Gravner: The modern story of orange wine must involve Gravner, who was already famous in Italy when, in the late 1990s, he became fascinated with the old winemaking practices of Georgia—both the use of amphorae and extended maceration of white grapes on their skins. By the early 2000s, these techniques defined his winemaking in the Collio area of Friuli. His wines, especially his Breg blend, are considered templates for the many orange wines that followed.
Dario Prinčič: Prinčič is just down the road from Gravner, in the Oslavje area of northern Friuli, a stone’s throw from the Slovenian border, and he began his exploration of skin maceration around the same time. His pinot grigio in particular is a benchmark for that grape—a deep-orange expression that’s a bit different from those found farther west, in the Colli Orientali.
Scholium Project: Along with Wind Gap, Matthiasson and Forlorn Hope, winemaker Abe Schoener’s genre-defying winery has made California a place for orange wine. The Prince In His Caves, a Sonoma sauvignon blanc fermented on its skins, remains Schoener’s calling card, although he has made numerous skin-contact wines along the way—in part because he was one of the disciples of winery owner George Vare, who focused Californians on what was going on in Friuli.
Domaine Rietsch: The French are still finding their way with this technique—albeit in nearly every region—but it’s in Alsace where some of the most promising examples are found. Winemaker Jean-Pierre Rietsch’s Demoiselle is gewürztraminer on its skins—a fragrant, energetic and game-changing take on a grape that’s often leaden.
Jean-Yves Péron: Similarly, the Savoie in eastern France is an unlikely place for orange wine, but Jean-Yves Péron, in the former Olympic town of Albertville, has mastered the technique. Wines like his La Grande Journée find new depth in usually bracing and acidic Savoy grapes, like jacquère.
See also: La Stoppa, Vodopivec, Radikon, Antoine Arena, Foradori, Occhipinti, Skerk, Sepp & Muster, Edi Kante, Channing Daughters, Matthiasson, Gabbrio Bini, Cos, La Ferme des Sept Lunes, Vignoble du Rêveur, Matassa, BK Wines, Testalonga, Movia, Vinoterra, Jolie-Laide and many, many others.
The Essential Wines
Damijan Kaplja Venezia Giulia White: Damijan Podversic is perhaps less well known than some of the Friulian orange brigade but his story is similar: growing up on the Slovenian border, inspired by Gravner. The Kaplja, a blend of chardonnay, friulano and malvasia Istriana, is quieter than some orange wines—”golden,” if you ask Podversic. It’s a great example of the finesse of these techniques, with a dark, graphite minerality and roasted orange (sorry!) flavors. Decant it.
Celler Frisach La Foradada Terra Alta Garnatxa Blanca: The New Spanish contingent has taken to orange with enthusiasm, and Francesc Ferre’s example, made from grenache blanc on the higher elevations in Terra Alta and aged in steel, is one of the best. Briny and waxy in its texture, it offers a pleasant bit of chewiness that grenache skins can have. This is full of sunny peach and white-poppy flavors.
Paolo Bea Santa Chiara Umbria Bianco: Giampiero Bea arguably was among the first Italians outside the Friulian core to seriously pursue this style of wine. The Santa Chiara is his benchmark, made from five grapes—grachetto, malvasia, sauvignon blanc, chardonnay and garganega. It’s glossy in its texture, with a sweet fruit aspect and black-walnut tannin.
Nestarec Bel Moravia White: Milan Nestarec is quickly becoming a star, both as part of a new generation of winemakers in the Czech Republic, now driven by a new generation, and for his work with white wine on skins, like his Forks & Knives. Bel is his basic white, and is barely skin-macerated—left for a little over a day, just enough to gain a bit more texture and depth. There’s salted peach and exotic herbs in this blend of muller thurgau, gruner veltliner and welchriesling, yet it remains totally fresh and easygoing.
Gotsa Asureti Valley Chinuri: Beka Gotsadze’s winery is high in the hills outside Tblisi, and his wines—all aged in qvevri—are a very good reference point for Georgian wine, even if they aren’t wholly traditional. Chinuri is a relatively common white variety in the region, and there’s a creamy side to the ripe apple and persimmon flavors.
Pinard & Filles Frangine Québec White: This is proof of that third wave arriving. Winemaker Frédéric Simon, with a boost from Montreal’s surging restaurant and wine scene, developed a vineyard in the southern Québec town of Magog, east of Montreal. Frangine is from the la crescent grape, a cold-hardy variety bred in Minnesota, which is soaked on its skins. It’s reminiscent of rose soap in its scent, almost like a bath bomb, plus fresh apricot, bitter almond and a lean, intense brightness.
The Essential Fringe
Everywhere and beyond: As with the Pinard & Filles above, orange wine really is coming from nearly every corner. Recent examples have been found from New York, Vermont and even Virginia, where Stinson Vineyards makes an admirable skin-fermented wine from the rkatsiteli grape, in true Georgian tribute.
Not quite orange: It’s important to differentiate orange wine from white wines made using other related techniques. Most common is aging sous voile, or under a veil of yeast, a traditional technique in France’s Jura and Spain’s Jerez, where it’s an essential part of some sherry. Despite some occasional misconceptions, wines like the Jura’s vin jaune (“yellow wine”) are not orange wines at all, although their winemaking is unique in its own way.