It used to be an easy choice — do you want red wine or white wine? Then rosé grew in popularity and the choice was between red, white or rosé? But now, more and more, restaurants have a new section on the wine list offering orange wines, also called amber wine.
Orange wines are made like red wines. When we make red wines, the color comes from the skins. For rosé wines, the time the grapes spend on the skin is less than for red wines, resulting in a lighter red shade, or pink, wine. Orange wines are made from white wine grapes where the skins are kept on for hours, days, weeks or months, resulting in wines with orange or amber hues.
The practice of making orange wines is not new. It dates thousands of years to the country of Georgia. Considered by many as the birthplace of wine, Georgians have been making wine in qvevri, giant clay vessels lines with beeswax and buried underground to keep temperatures constant since the 6th century BC.
Grapes would be harvested and, regardless of red or white, would be put in the qvevri with the skins, covered and left to ferment. The grape skins macerate with the juice, resulting in red wines for red-skinned grapes and amber wines for white-skinned grapes.
Georgia was not the only place making orange wines. Slovenia and Friuli-Venezia Giulia have also been making orange wines for hundreds of years. Up until the 1950s and 1960s, skin-fermented white wines, were not uncommon in Italy. However, as fresh white wines started to dominate the market, these orange wines fell out of favor.
Starting in 2010, things started to shift. Slovenian winemakers started using traditional maceration methods again, as did producers in Friuli-Venezia Giulia. Georgia began to rebuild its wine industry and wines made in qvervi started to grow in popularity. Producers in Austria, Germany, Croatia, New Zealand and California started producing skin-contact white wines.
Skin contact in white wines adds a new set of flavors to the wines, as well as color and tannins. Typically, these wines are commonly associated with “natural wines” in which there are no additives and natural yeasts. These “natural wines” can be wines that are completely different from regular white wines and many times have a nuttiness and sour taste, similar to beer. But, not all skin-contact wines produce wine’s version of a beer. Orange wines do not have to be oxidized and tannic and at the recent RAW Wine event in Los Angeles, I tasted a number of beautiful and interesting skin-contact white wines.
— 2Naturkinder 2018 Drei Freunde
This urban family winery, founded in 1843, is in the northern part of Bavaria on the river Main. Today, 2Naturkinder is run by Melanie Drese and Michael Völker. In 2012 they turned the winery upside down, shifting to organic farming of their six hectares.
The Drei Freunde is a blend of Bacchus (50 percent), Muller-Thurgau (25 percent) and Silvaner (25 percent). The three grapes undergo carbonic maceration for a week. The wines are then pressed, fermented and aged separately, with the Silvaner and Muller-Thurgau in stainless steel and the Bacchus in a large oak barrel. The resulting wine is refreshing and aromatic.
—Donkey & Goat 2016 Stone Crusher Skin-Fermented Roussanne, El Dorado
Located in Berkeley, Donkey & Goat Winery is owned and operated by Jared and Tracey Brandt who produce natural wines from sustainably farmed vineyards in the Sierra Nevada, Mendocino and Napa.
Tracey first became aware of skin-contact white wines in 2006 and started to play with it to encourage fermentations that were sluggish.
Donkey & Goat produces a few skin-contact wines including a Ramato Pet Nat of Pinot Gris, a skin-contact Marsanne, Ramato Pinot Gris and a hard press Ramato Pinot Gris.
The Donkey & Goat Stone Crusher 2016 is a skin-fermented Roussanne that is destemmed, spends 14-17 days on the skins in an open-top fermenter and is aged in older oak. The wine has a savory nose, as well as notes of peach skin, apple and pear. On the palate, there are lightly drying tannins and a mineral finish.
— Bold Wine Co 2018 Sauvignon Blanc, Arroyo Seco
Seabold Cellars was established in 2014 in the Monterey Bay Region by Master Sommelier Christopher Miller and Peter Figge. Miller took over in 2017 after Figge passed away.
Seabold Cellars produces balanced wines from cool-climate vineyards, showcasing the grape and the terroir. Miller said that skin-contact white wines are a valid category of wine but should be made with intention, not just because it is trendy.
Under the Bold Wine Co label, Miller exposes the Sauvignon Blanc to skin contact to bring out the flavor and accentuate the texture. He first made seven or eight batches, testing four, six, 12, 18 and 24 months. The ultimate choice was for the Sauvignon Blanc to spend six hours on the skins for a resulting wine that has all the tropical fruit notes one expects from Sauvignon Blanc and bright acidity, as well as a mineral texture that lingers on the palate.
— Solminer 2018 Skin-Fermented Gruner Veltliner, DeLanda Vineyard, Los Olivos
Solminer, a name inspired by the idea of mining the “sun”, tending the soil and nourishing the soul, was founded in Los OIivos in 2012 by Anna and David deLaski. The estate vineyard is named deLanda, a play on their first and last names. The vineyard is planted to Rhone varieties Syrah and Grenache and Austrian varieties Gruner Veltliner and Blaufrankisch.
David deLaski first made a barrel of skin fermented Gruner Veltliner in 2016 and loved how it brought out the flavors and colors. A biodynamic farmer, he said that biodynamic grapes respond well to skin-contact and skin-ferments all of his estate white wines. The 2018 skin-fermented Gruner Veltliner is stomped by foot and fermented on the skins, resulting in a bright orange wine with grapefruit and orange aromas and a long savory finish.
— Two Shepherds 2018 Trousseau Gris, Fanucci Vineyard, Russian River Valley
Founded in 2010 by William Allen, Two Shepherds specializes in Rhone varieties. Sourcing fruit from cool climate vineyards, as well as old vine vineyards, Two Shepherds wines are made with minimal intervention.
Allen said that grey-skinned grapes, such as Pinot Gris and Trousseau Gris do best with skin contact. And, he has found that five days is the amount of time needed to extract the right amount to preserve the flavor and complexity of the wine. However, all of the white wines he produces see a little time on the skins as the white wines are crushed, destemmed and then sit on the skins for two to three hours before pressing.
The 2018 Trousseau Gris is destemmed and then spends five days on the skins. The resulting wine has notes of honeysuckle, peach and spice with fresh, bright acidity.
With so many beautifully textured orange wines, it is an exciting category to see on wine lists.
Allison Levine is owner of Please The Palate, a marketing and event-planning agency. A freelance writer, she contributes to numerous publications while eating and drinking her way around the world. Allison is also the host of the wine podcast Wine Soundtrack USA. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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