Though they seem new, interesting, and wild, orange wines come from thousands of years of winemaking tradition, most likely first being made in Georgia close to where Vitis vinifera grape vines originated. Practically speaking, it's likely possible that several thousands of years ago most white wines were "orange." Yeasts that jumpstart fermentation are found naturally on skins, and pre-modern winemakers may have had to leave the skins in longer to take advantage of these native yeast populations to get their white wine fermentations going. Now that the industry better understands yeast and temperature, the winemaker has more control than ever before and does not have to make orange wines. Winemakers have the option to inoculate their must with special yeasts and do not need to rely on naturally occurring yeast populations on the skins. In fact, most winemaking courses will not even address extended white grape skin contact. A huge emphasis during the last century on sterile, bright, technically-perfect white wine flooded the market with such wines leaving very little room for these interesting and sometimes rustic gems. They are making a slight comeback-- in part because a younger wine-drinking public is more willing to take risks and try these (sadly) unfamiliar wines.
Another thing that most orange wines have in common is that they are all made by small, artisinal producers. Perhaps this is just because the style of vinification is not mainstream and as such a large company would not want to invest in such an esoteric product. This may change in the future, but I have yet to come across an orange wine made by a large producer.
See below for a few classic/standard orange wines that you can hopefully find in your local market. There are plenty of options, but the winemakers below are sort of spear-heading the orange wine phenomenon and influencing other producers in their areas:
trebbiano (45%) + malvasia (35%) + verdicchio (20%)
long skin contact + lees aging.
made by Cistercian nuns and Giampiero Bea (Paolo Bea's son)
This wine has some extended skin contact, but not enough to elicit that dark orange color. Still, you can taste the heaviness in the wine, and the more intense skin tannins.
trebbiano (45%) + malvasia (35%) + verdicchio (20%)
even longer skin contact than the preivous.
made by Cistercian nuns and Giampiero Bea
By comparing the color of this first photo and the second photo it's easy to see that extended skin contact really does impart an orange color to the wine. These photos demonstrate that the longer the skins are in contact with the wine, the darker the color will become.
grechetto (20%) + malvasia (20%) + garganega (20%) + 2 other types
15 days of skin contact
made by Paolo Bea (Giampiero's father)
This one is super complex: fresh cut apricots, persimmon, citrus, spice, flowers, nectar, oregano.
Definitely decant this one-- the photo shows the sediment all mixed up in the wine (we opened this bottle after traveling with it)
A beautiful specimen. This here is one of the benchmarks of orange wine. It's expensive, but worth the experience if you can find a bottle of this. Made from high-trained vines that echo a vine growing in a tree (hence the name arboreus).
21 days of skin contact
232 days on the lees
skin maceration for 3 months
This one is pretty amazing- ripe pear and fresh cut valencia orange aromas, rich in tannins. truly unique and very special.
A few other iconic producers to look into are Movia (Lunar), Camillo Donati, Gravner, Pheasant's Tears, and The Prince in His Caves.
Personally, I find orange wines to be interesting, refreshing, tart, unique and great food wines-- their heavier weight allows them to be paired with wines that would normally require something like a pinot noir. I also think they go great with-- and I hope it isn't just placebic-- oranges. Imagine one of these wines with cod or aparagus in a tart lemon sauce with orange zest on top-- or even a fresh cut orange. They also require some mental attention-- they are not like quaffing whites that you can just drink on a hot day at the beach and practically forget that you are drinking wine. These wines tend to be brooding and sentimental. You'll want to sit down and really think about what you are drinking. Good wines to drink if you are, say, working on your PhD dissertation and need some philosophical stimulation or sitting on the porch trying to make a major life decision. Also big enough for unique food pairings. Great with cheese.
At the moment orange wines are a minority of production and critics will often frame them as a sommelier's geek-wine recommended for their obscurity. One magazine, for instance, jovially frames them as "a current favorite of hipster sommeliers." Another article mentions that orange wines are a "category gaining favor among some younger, edgier sommeliers." Though I've sensed that this is the current climate I do believe that there could be a larger space for these wines in the world. They are beautiful in their own way. They are also hearty and pretty resistant to oxidation (which means they are great glass pours because an open bottle will not spoil as fast). It's funny how these wines are framed by the media as hipster & edgy, while the winemakers are usually older and mature with a penchant for philosophy. The impetus for producing an orange wine is usually a pastoral desire to create something natural and expressive, an honest and hardworking wine that conveys an almost spiritual message. It's too bad (or maybe good, for marketing?) that they've gained a rep as odd-ball food-fashion accessories, and that this branding may hold them back from gaining any real ground or a serious following. But then again maybe the small market is actually a good thing since the production is relatively small as it is. In any case, I'm a serious follower, and I know a few others, so all is not lost-- even if we are just an army of a dozen!
Now that my allegiances to orange wine are clear, there is still a sticky philosophical quandry to be tackled about them. Some terroirists believe that terroir comes from the soil and the ground, that this voice is transmitted through juice, and they might argue that extended maceration reduces the expression of terroir because the anthocyanins/phenolics/etc extracted from the skin mask the soil flavors in the juice. They see extended maceration as an unnecessary cellar intervention that overpowers the voice of the soil.
But there is another way to frame it. The skins of the grape may well be as much transmitters of what the soil is saying equally as much as the juice inside the grape; after all they both come from molecules that are sucked up from the soil by the vine. In red wines it is rarely argued that skin contact interferes with terroir, why should this not be the case with white wines as well? Perhaps extended skin contact for white wines is merely a different expression (to which we are unaccustomed?) of terroir-- perhaps the definition of terroir could be broadened to include phenolic and anthocyanin shades in white wines as strong but place-specific conduits for what the earth is saying.
Debates/stances/discussions on terroir run deep and cannot possibly be fully explored in the above two paragraphs; but it is a beginning, a conversation starter if you will, and an important issue to be aware of when talking about orange wines-- especially to wine professionals who are likely to have a passionate opinion for or against.
Regardless of your nuanced stances on terroir or "hipster" wines, I believe this breed of wines is too interesting and unique (and delicious!) not to try.
orange wine orange wine orange wine orange wine orange wine orange wine orange wine orange wine orange wine