Orange is the old white

Orange is the old white

Orange wine, you probably have heard the term casually being thrown around by a wine lover; orange wine has been taking the natural wine world by storm, it's showing up in bars, restaurants and shops all around the world. But what is it, and is it worth trying?

Orange wine is a new category of wine for most people, to be found on wine lists in trendy restaurants along common terms as red wine, white wine and sparkling wine. More and more restaurants and bars offer an orange wine on their list because they know people are curious (or fans) and therefore they sell well.

But slowly now, after its big introduction to the market in the last five years (at least in the Netherlands), the category is becoming mature. We are opening the category to a style of wine that isn’t just different, weird or funky. Orange wines can be beautiful too, serious even.

What is orange wine?

Okay first, what is it? Well, explained in its most clear form an orange wine is a red wine, but made with white grapes. Meaning that instead of pressing the grapes directly after harvesting them, the grapes have been crushed (still commonly by foot) and have been given a number of days or weeks to soak on their skins, also known as skin-contact. By crushing them, the juice comes out and by leaving the crushed grape skins and stems in with the juice, the juice will extract all of the flavors and colors from those skins. And that’s when a white wine turns orange.

Did you know that if you would press most red wine grapes, like Merlot, Pinot Noir or Sangiovese, directly after harvesting, you would end up with white wine too? They only turn into red wines because, again, the grapes have been crushed and grape juice and grape skins have been allowed some time together. That’s for instance why your pale white glass of Champagne often contains a sizeable part of Pinot Noir. The French call this Blanc de Noir, white from black.

Orange wine is basically the opposite, you could say Noir de Blanc, dark (or in this case orange) wine from white grapes. You can also find them on wine lists under names as skincontact whites, skin macerated wines or amber wines.

Different Styles

One important thing we’d like to accentuate is that one orange wine isn’t representative of every orange wine, just as one white or red wine doesn’t show the whole potential of those wines. Styles of the wines can hugely differ from region to region, between different grape varieties or maybe most important; per winemaker. Because, besides the flavors derived from the grapes, the winemaker does have a big influence over the end result; the structure and style of the wines.

That style is mostly determined by the preference of the winemaker: does he / she want to make an intense dark orange wine, prefer lighter styles, a very cloudy orange or one with less sediment, does he / she want to make a still or a sparkling version (almost always a pet-nat)?

Generally speaking, the orange wines often follow the style of the local reds; the further South you go in Europe the intenser the orange wines become. Think of the difference between a German red wine and a Spanish one. However many exceptions exist, you can generally say the same for the orange wines. A Pinot Gris orange from Germany will almost always be lighter and fresher than a Rebula orange from Slovenia or an orange wine from Languedoc.

The History

In the introduction we have mentioned its introduction, it being new to the market, the hype. But that’s not really fair, because orange wines have been around longer than you, me and the country we’re living in. To go one step further, for most of history orange wine was white wine. White wine, like white bread, has always existed but was so hard to make that almost everybody in history had been drinking orange wine (and whole wheat bread). It wasn’t until the industrial revolution and the invention of electricity that winemakers could easily create white wines (and bakers could easily make white bread).

That history started in Georgia, around 8.000 thousands years ago. The ancient winemaking style of making wine in Qvevri has survived here pretty much unchanged from the way wine was made centuries or even millennia ago. Here, big pots called qvevris are buried in the ground in gardens, garages or dedicated wineries and they will be used for the entire winemaking process. Come harvest time the grapes will be picked, slightly foot stomped and added entirely into the qvevri until it's full. What happens then is as easy as can be, the qvevri is sealed with clay for around six months and is then reopened. As a result of refining the qvevris through ages of human culture working with nature; a wine is made. Nothing else has to be done than pumping the wine out of the qvevri and adding them into a bottle, ready to drink. Pure magic, or in a more Georgian fashion: the work of God.

In recent times orange wines (re)made their way into Europe in the early 90's mostly through Joško Gravner and Stanko Radikon in Friuli, Italy. Along the Slovenian border they started, after Joško Gravner had visited Georgia, making orange wines in underground amphora’s (big clay pots) and it wasn’t until long before people started noticing these, then, bizarre wines. However, almost immediately people also started noticing the craftsmanship and quality in these delicious wines. These two winemakers are now considered to be among the top in the world.

A seed was planted by them and it needed a good ten years for that seed to sprout in countries as France, Spain, Austria, the rest of Italy and other countries before becoming the natural wine staple that they are today.

Are orange wines always natural wines?

No, orange wines are not necessarily always natural wines. More and more often we start to see bigger wineries that use the popularity of orange wines to reach a new audience of younger drinkers, something that many wineries are after. The process of making orange wines is, as said before, almost identical to making red wine. So, if conventional red wine exists, why couldn't conventional orange wines exist? Fortunately we are still speaking about only a few wineries, often from the French Languedoc or the bigger Spanish wine regions. Most orange wines are still real natural wines, not in the least because winemakers have found out that orange wines are more stable than white wines and are therefore in lesser need of filtering or sulphites addition.

We believe orange wines have made a necessary comeback and taken their rightful place in the history of wine. The trend might fade and the lesser quality examples will leave the stage, but some of the greatest wines we have tasted were orange and will definitely be here to stay.

Our favorite orange wines at the moment:

  • La Stoppa - Ageno
  • Pierre Frick - Gewurztraminer Maceration
  • Laurent Bannwarth - La Vie En Rose
  • Strohmeier - Cat Silver orange
  • Radikon - Ribolla Gialla
  • Kabaj - Beli Pinot
  • Jonas Dostert - Karambolage


written by Markus Praat