Ancient Orange Wines
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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
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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.’
Aromatic grapes lend the fruit-like aromas that typify orange wines, especially scents similar to stone fruits and citrus. Some orange wines have flavors reminiscent of strong tea, such as oolong, while others can have an IPA-like aroma, which may account for beer lovers’ interest in these wines. No matter the cultivar, good acidity is the most important quality of an orange-wine grape, paired with a long maceration period to keep the finished wine lively and fresh tasting.
Orange wines are versatile, and they scream out for food! When choosing an orange wine, it’s helpful to know how extensive its maceration period was in order to determine the weight of the food with which to pair it. A decent retailer would be helpful with this. Orange wines can balance bitterness in foods like no other wine can. Those troublesome vegetables thought to be wine’s enemy, such as asparagus, arugula, and artichokes, can shine at the same table with an orange wine. When a tannic red is called for, as when you’re serving lamb or goat, a cabernet sauvignon or a syrah might be too heavy a choice, but an orange wine can fit the bill.
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The Technicalities of Types
Typically, when making a white wine, the grapes’ free-run juices are separated from the skins. Yeast may be added to jump-start fermentation, or wild yeasts may be employed. For aromatic whites, a long, cold fermentation is preferable to capture that fresh-fruit character, and there’s no finer example of retaining this fresh flavor than moscato, which is made in Asti. In this northern Italian region, the fermenting juice “winters over” in a tank hovering just above freezing. In spring, when cellar temperatures rise, the yeasts wake up to continue their work. The wines are racked off of the lees and bottled, leaving some residual sweetness and a lower alcohol level.
Red wines retain full skin contact during fermentation, and the whole or crushed grapes are often kept at low temperatures prior to fermentation to encourage a gradual, gentle extraction of flavors, aromas, and color. This process is called “cold soaking” or “cold maceration.” The skins contribute most of the flavor in reds, as well as the tannins they need for long aging.
Despite being made from white grape varieties, during the fermentation of orange wine, the juices and skins stay in contact for any length of time from hours to months, depending on the winemaker’s desired results. Wild yeast strains may be used in limited production. When the fermentation is completed, the resulting wines are dry. If they’re then kept in smaller demijohns, or carboys, the flavors develop further before the wines are racked and bottled. They may be bottled filtered or unfiltered.
Rosé isn’t considered part of the orange wine type because, though there’s some contact between the grapes’ juices and skins, rosé is made from red grapes. Some red grapes produce a lovely hue of pink in a matter of hours, whereupon the juice is “bled” from the tank and fermented to dryness without the skins. This is a French technique called saignée.
Orange wines from Georgia have traditionally been aged in earthenware vessels called qvevri. These large, egg-shaped pots are filled with grapes, juices, and skins; sealed with beeswax; and buried underground for 5 to 6 months. The buried pots maintain a consistent, cool temperature.
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This tradition is an integral part of Georgia’s winemaking heritage, and it’s quite common to see wine in vessels aging in home cellars, the families using techniques that’ve been passed down through generations. Though qvevri can be small enough to hold just a few dozen liters, more commonly they’re large enough to hold hundreds, with the largest holding several thousand.
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“Natural Wine” Defined
Orange wines are associated with natural wines, but they’re not always made in the same manner. There’s no legal definition of “natural wine,” but the following list from The Oxford Companion to Wine summarizes what producers adhere to generally:
- Grapes are grown by smaller-scale, independent producers.
- Grapes are hand-picked from sustainable, organic, or biodynamic vineyards.
- Wine is fermented with native yeasts only.
- Few or no additives are included in fermentation, including sulfites.
- Sourcing Orange Wine
When shopping for orange wines, it pays to have a good relationship with a specialty wine shop, as they tend to have more expertise in lesser-known wines from more obscure regions of the world. A good retailer will be able to access their network of importers or domestic suppliers for you. Where you live will determine your selection; orange wines are limited in production, and many may not make it to smaller markets. Below are some suggested producers by country of origin, though it’s by no means a complete list.
Joyce Angelos Walsh is a wine industry veteran of 35 years, both in restaurant and wholesale. She currently represents Vox Vineyards in Kansas City, Missouri. Vox produces American Heritage varieties that were created in the 1800s by T.V. Munson of Denison, Texas.
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