When it comes to orange wine, nowadays, expect anything.
Orange wines can be made in light and crisp styles with only a hint of tannin, while others are full-bodied and aromatic, or deep and structured like a long-aged red. Some wines are barely more golden than a regular white, while others have a deep color that’s more red than amber—and with so much diversity, the category is becoming a mainstay at natural wine bars and reaching traditional establishments as well.
“Orange wines are made all over the world now,” explains Doreen Winkler, the founder of Orange Glou, a wine club-turned-wine store in New York City’s Lower Manhattan that exclusively sells skin-contact whites. “Recently, we received a small allocation of Japanese orange wines—exciting stuff!” Winkler points out that orange wines are also made in sparkling styles from pét-nat and frizzante to traditional method.
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At Red Hook Tavern in Brooklyn, New York, where awareness of orange wine tends to be fairly high, “we sell way more orange wine than rosé,” says general manager and beverage director Rebecca Flynn. “By the glass, I always have one that’s a little more funky and one that’s a little more restrained—it’s important to offer variety.”
Many of these orange wines are natural, as the recent history of skin-macerated wines from white grapes is closely tied to the natural wine movement. However, the number of wineries around the world now making orange wine has reached into the thousands—and with higher consumer awareness and a wider range of products, the category is reaching well beyond that natural wine niche.
At Nice Matin on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, a restaurant known for a Grand Award-winning, book-thick, classic wine list featuring a wide range of Bordeaux and Burgundies, wine director Aviram Turgeman makes room for a handful of selections for customers who are curious to try orange wines. “[They are] listed regionally, with a note that they are skin-macerated,” says Turgeman. And the choices align with the general spirit of the list: “I personally list the classics like Gravner or Vodopivec because I always go about the benchmarks for my programs.”
“It is a new normal,” sums up Simon Woolf, the author of Amber Revolution, the first book dedicated to orange wines, published not even five years ago. “I’ve lost count of the number of times I sit down in a random wine bar, and the table next to me asks for orange wine. That literally never happened even a decade ago.”
As the orange wine category diversifies and consumer interest increases, sommeliers and wine buyers can benefit from stocking more of these unique wines—and from gaining a firm understanding of the new breadth of styles available in order to best present them to consumers.
One reliable guidepost for determining the style of an orange wine is whether it is made from aromatic or non-aromatic grapes. With an orange wine made from a neutral grape like Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc, or Aligoté, skin contact is more about texture and structure. Tannins and phenolic elements are pulled from the grape skins, but because these grapes have fewer elements like terpenes in the skin, the wine won’t gain much additional aromatic complexity.
With Muscat or Gewürztraminer, skin contact brings on a whole extra dimension. Elements reminiscent of nuts and dried fruit can often jump in, and the overall addition of deeper tones creates a great counterpoint to the exuberant, perfumed character of these varieties—something that also applies quite successfully to a number of North America’s hybrid white grapes like La Crescent or other Muscat-influenced varieties. In such cases, adding skin contact character becomes a bit like putting the bass in the orchestra to balance out the high-pitched notes of other instruments.
The Impact of Vinification
Beyond broad varietal differences, generalizations are difficult to come by. For instance, one might assume that a shorter maceration would generally create a lighter wine with fewer tannins compared to a wine that stayed on its skins for several months, but Woolf and Winkler both say that’s far from being the case. Some white grapes are highly tannic, and if the grapes are macerated aggressively, a few days might be enough to produce something grippy and astringent. At the other end of the spectrum, spending a long time on the skins after fermentation can lead to significant polymerization of tannins, resulting in a silky, refined mouthfeel.
Similar techniques can yield very different results depending on the grapes and how the winemaker works, as illustrated by two skin-macerated wines from Brianne Day, the founder, owner, and winemaker of Day Wines in Dundee, Oregon. Her Vin de Days l’Orange, a blend of Müller-Thurgau, Riesling, Gewürztraminer, and just seven percent Pinot Gris, “is made to drink younger, fresher, and more like a white,” she says. The Tears of Vulcan, a blend of Viognier, Muscat, and 35 percent Pinot Gris, is made with “more body, tannin, and heft.” The reason? “There’s about 30 to 40 percent Pinot Gris in the Tears of Vulcan blend, and the Gris behaves like a red wine when on skins,” she says.
Day also points out that grape ripeness levels need to be managed more like those in red wines than whites: since the juice is in contact with the skins, unripe skins (and seeds and stems) can create harshness, especially if the acid is high—just as in cool-climate reds. She also uses pumpovers, rather than punchdowns, to avoid the harsher side of skin contact.
Indeed, a number of things that will define the styles of red wines are also useful guidelines for orange wines. Whole-bunch and carbonic fermentations tend to yield lighter, easier-drinking wines with less tannic structure, just as they would in similarly vinified Beaujolais. And long barrel-aging after removing the wine from the skins also tends to foster more elegant tannins in orange wines, just as in reds.
“Amphorae generally induce more delicacy out of any given situation,” adds Woolf. “The punchdown regimen also needs to be borne in mind. Radikon, for example, has drastically reduced the number of daily punchdowns in order to arrive at wines that are gentler and more elegant.”
Selling a Diversified Category
A barrel-aged Austrian Pinot Blanc and a deep, dark blend of Pinot Gris and Gewürztraminer can both generally be classified as orange wines. But upon closer inspection, they are as different as a Barolo and a California Cabernet Sauvignon. For restaurants and retailers, it’s increasingly important to start showcasing those differences when presenting the wines to consumers, instead of lumping all orange wines together.
“Since orange wine is as broad a category as white, red, or rosé, it needs to be treated in the same way,” explains Woolf. “Look at the same variables that you’d normally invoke: country, grape variety, producer, price point, vintage and so on. You can apply all the same rules that you would to any other wine.”
In her store, Winkler has drawn up broad categories to help customers along the way. “Our wines are sorted by sparkling, lighter-bodied, medium-bodied, and full-bodied, so that’s where I start,” she says. Red Hook Tavern’s Flynn takes a similar approach when categorizing orange wines on her wine menu, listing them from lighter-bodied to fuller-bodied.
Then comes a similar process as with selecting a white or a red: asking what customers have tasted and liked, what foods they might be pairing it with, or if they’re looking for “tropical, umami, salty, bold, etc.,” says Winkler.
“I try to set them up for guests by three things: flavors, tannin, and level of oxidation,” adds Brent Kroll, the proprietor of Maxwell Park in Washington, D.C., who tends to describe the wine’s adventurousness on a scale of one to ten. Temperature is important, too, especially for bolder, more structured styles: “Do not serve these too cold.”
An advantage of this broad orange wine spectrum? Sommeliers and buyers can find a style that works with almost any beverage program, from what Woolf calls the “take-no-prisoners approach” of traditional Georgian orange wines to the “extraordinarily elegant fruit-forward oranges coming out of Burgenland.” He also points to the unique character of Sauvignon Blanc from places like Styria or the Loire, and exciting development from new hotspots like Slovakia and the Czech Republic.
With such stylistic diversity, lumping all orange wines together seems just as accurate as saying all Riesling is sweet. The way skin-macerated whites are categorized and presented should evolve to showcase style, variety and even terroir. “Anyone still pushing the whole ‘orange wines don’t show terroir or variety’ argument in 2022 really needs to be taken out back and given a severe talking to,” says Woolf. “Honestly, whoever said this about macerated red grapes?”
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Rémy Charest is a journalist, writer, and translator based in Quebec City, Canada. He has been writing about wine and food since 1997 for various Canadian and American print and online publications, including Chacun son vin/WineAlign, Wine Enthusiast, Le Devoir, Le Soleil, EnRoute, Palate Press, Punch Drink, and Châtelaine, and has been a regular radio columnist for CBC/Radio-Canada. He has also judged national and international wine competitions, notably the WineAlign National Wine Awards of Canada, the TEXSOM International Wine Awards, and the International Rosé Championships.