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What is orange wine?

A big question, there is quite a lot to know but basically Orange wine is made from white grapes but in the way they make red wine.  It breaks down this like.  All wine is made from the juice of the grape and virtually all juice is clear (a handful of exceptions have pink pulp like Alicante Buschet, Moscato Rosa and Gamay Chaudenay, we have a beautiful example of that one from Julien Courtois!).  To make red they squeeze out the juice from the red grapes but then add the skins back in to extract the red colour from the skin.  To make white they squeeze out the juice, discard the white skins and then ferment just the clear juice.  To make Orange, they squeeze out the juice from the white grapes but then add the skins back in.  White grapes have a bit of colour pigment in the skins, more or less depending on the grape, (Pinot Grigio for example when ripe has quite a pink hue hence the name, Sauvignon Blanc, much paler) and so the skin contact imparts an orange or rusty appearance to the wine.  But that's not all.....

Some history....

Although the term orange wine is relatively new and the emergence of these wines in the UK has only gathered pace in the last 10-15 years, skin contact white wine is a style as old as the Friulian hills.  Wine production, they reckon originated in Eurasia, places like Armenia, Iran and later in Georgia (where wild grapes still grow in abundance).  Wines were made in Primitive fermentation vessels, the most notable being in Georgia, a kind of ovoid clay pot called a 'Kvevri' which was buried in the ground and filled with the unpressed grapes and closed with a lid before being covered in earth.  Traditionally wines would left 'entombed' in these vessels for years before being drunk.  Both white and red grapes got the same treatment and so the white wines were nothing of the sort, they were a dark, coppery colour with tannin and structure provided from the long skin maceration.

Roll it forward a couple of thousand years into the 1980's and 90's in North East Italy.  In the town of Oslavia in Friuli, two wine producers Stanko Radikon  and Josko Gravner gave this style of wine a re-birth.  They used natural production methods with wild yeasts, long maceration and indigenous varieties like Ribolla Gialla, Friulano and Pinot Grigio.  At a time when clear, bright squeaky clean wines were all the rage, these two mavericks found it hard to convince people that the future was orange.  But they persevered and the style of wine did eventually begin to take hold with many notable wineries in the region following suit.  Today what has become known as, 'Orange Wine', (The term was supposedly coined in 2004 by David Harvey of UK wine importer Raeburn Fine Wines, while working in Frank Cornelissen’s cellar in Sicily’s Etna region) has very definitely arrived and wine makers, Sommeliers and consumers across the world are experimenting and getting excited by the style.

However, despite its success Prejudice and misinformation seem to surround the genre.  Critics and 80's purists thing the wines are too wacky at best, faulty at worst.  Many mistakenly believe the colour comes from oxidation instead of the skins.  Devotees of crispy primary fruit wines and Crystal clear appearance are not big fans, they find these wines just too 'different'.  And different they are, but also delicious.

So what are they like?

Well, orange wines really can differ in style within the genre.  You could define 3 styles.

  1. Very long skin contact, months rather than weeks, eg Radikon's Ribolla Gialla with 3-4 months on the skins.  This style is undoubtedly full, deep colour, has notable tannin, a savoury rather than fruity flavour profile but absolutely doesn't lack freshness or drinkability.  These wines are good with hearty foods, Pork, spices, string cheese and are best served at room temp, approx 15 degrees.  They are made from non aromatic varieties which benefit from the skin contact to gain in character and complexity eg Ribolla Gialla, Trebbiano Toscano, Friulano and Chardonnay.
  2. Shorter skin contact, between 5 days and a few weeks. Eg Ograde Skerk  or the Pinot Grigio Radikon.  These wines tend to be paler, have a little more fruitiness, less tannin good chilled and with lighter foods.  Often made from more aromatic varieties like Sauvignon Blanc, Cataratto and Pinot Grigio.
  3. The third type we call 'Skin Contact White Wine' rather than 'Orange Wine'.  These have just a little skin contact, perhaps even just 12-24 hours or a few days, just enough to extract more texture from the skin and add a slightly darker colour to the wine.  This style is a good starting point if you want to get experiment with orange wines being not too tannic or savoury.  Two good examples are from Ca'Liptra and the Aorivola Falanghina from Cacciagalli.


So there you have it, Orange wine, give them a try, they taste great, are something different and are full of natural goodness being predominantly from natural wineries and low in sulphites.  Don't get bored with your NZ Sauvignon, there is a world of flavour out there, try the orange!

Rob - Orange wine fanatic at Buon Vino

The birth of skin contact wine The birth of skin contact wine










Stanko Radikon, the first in Friuli to revive orange wine! Stanko Radikon, the first in Friuli to revive orange wine!
Orange wine from the South! Orange wine from the South!









Aldo Viola, the Pablo Picasso of wine in Sicily makes orange wine from Catarrato!