Ancient Orange Wines

Discover the Caucasus region’s ancient roots of winemaking, the aromatic white grapes grown there, and the fermentation process that gives orange wine it's distinct hue.

Photo by Adobe Stock/Fenea Silviu

Thousands of years ago, orange wines hailed from the Caucasus region, in an area now known as the country of Georgia. Today, they’ve spread from their Georgian birthplace across the globe, and are capturing the attention of many in the wine sphere. Made from light-skinned grapes that are fermented with their skins for an extended period of time, orange wines gain color, tannin, and flavor from those skins, like red wines do. They’re dry, and many have the aromas of stone fruits or the characteristics of strong teas due to their tannic structure. Propelled in part by the popularity of the natural wine movement (see “ ‘Natural Wine’ Defined” below), what was once ancient and obscure has become a fast-growing foodie trend.

An Orange by Any Other Name

The label “orange wine” is something of a misnomer. In a retail setting, for example, there are grape-based wines with fruit flavors added. These add to the mistaken identity and assumed taste of orange wines because, in fact, orange wines contain no oranges. Unlike fruit wines, orange wines are made exclusively from grapes, meaning the “orange” in the name simply refers to color.

Many in the industry would prefer to get rid of the term “orange wine” altogether, and nomenclature is a real issue for many reasons. The particular color of this wine ranges from light-orange to amber-gold, and an umber hue can even be produced after a lengthy maceration. Many makers of orange wine prefer to use “amber” as a descriptor, as that’s more indicative of the wines’ various hues. Even so, the most accurate descriptor is “skin-macerated white wines,” as this verbiage most closely describes how they’re made.

A World of Wine Grapes

Photo by Adobe Stock/maristella94

Any white grape can lend itself to orange wine production, but some respond better than others. According to Amber Revolution by Simon J. Woolf, the ‘Gewürztraminer’ grape is put into orange wine production in the northeastern Alsace region of France, while the south prefers ‘Grenache Blanc.’ Slovenia uses ‘Chardonnay,’ whereas several central regions of Italy make use of ‘Trebbiano di Toscana.’ ‘Ribolla Gialla’ reigns supreme in the northern Collio Goriziano region. Orange wine’s motherland, the country of Georgia, features the yellow-skinned cultivar ‘Tsolikouri,’ as well as the widely planted ‘Rkatsiteli.’



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