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Alie Shaper inside her Peconic tasting room. (Credit: David Benthal)

So what is this thing, “orange wine”? You may or may not have heard of it, and there’s good reason if you haven’t; it’s an ancient technique that had virtually disappeared from modern winemaking. 

It isn’t a fad, so much as a resurrection of sorts. 

Orange wine has a history that dates back 6,000 years to the area of Eastern Europe now known as Georgia. It was also found for several centuries in northeastern Italy and Slovenia. But only in the past 20 years or so has it reappeared in consequential volume. First embraced only by sommeliers and wine nerds, orange wine is now finding more love — and its way onto nightly dinner tables.  

“Anything goes and it pairs so well with food!”

Alie Shaper

The style has been reemerged across Europe, the U.S., Australia and South Africa, and the proliferating wines are interesting beasts. Doreen Winkler, skin-ferment wine expert and owner of Orange Glou in New York City (the world’s only wine shop dedicated to orange wines), says she’s had a growing number of novice customers visit her store for a curiosity check, who become exploratory repeat clients.  

“I think the word got out, and people realize that the wines are not one dimensional,” she said. “There is such a wide spectrum with orange wine  — from bubbly to light skin contact to very long maceration, and flavor profiles from tropical to umami, from mineral to rich and juicy — anything goes and it pairs so well with food!”

The term “orange” refers to the hue of these wines, which can range from a golden tinge, to pale russet, to sunset orange or a deep coppery amber. They’re alternately called “skin-contact,” “skin-fermented” or “amber” white wine, because their color comes from the mixing and mingling of the skins and juice of white wine grapes.

For that matter, the color of any wine comes from two things: the skins of grapes from which it’s made and the length of contact time between the juice and its skins. There is no color pigment in the flesh or juice of most grapes — all the color of a grape lives in its skins, (tannins live there too, as well as in the seeds). The longer the contact of skins to juice, the darker the color and stronger the tannins of the resulting wine.

I often describe orange wine as the opposite of rosé. To make rosé, we use red-wine grapes, but use the white-wine process in order to minimize juice-to-skin contact time to create a pink juice. The longer that contact time, the darker the juice becomes; if we allow several days to go by, the wine ultimately becomes red.

Typically, the white wine process entails crushing and pressing the fruit right after it’s picked. The juice is sent into the winery to ferment and the skins and seeds are immediately discarded. In the case of orange wine, however, we start with white-wine grapes, but subject them to the red-wine process. The grapes are crushed and then the entirety of juice, seeds, and skins (also known as “must”) is sent to the tanks and fermented for the desired number of days before pressing the must to yield the new wine. Just as in red wines, the longer the contact, the deeper the possible wine color.

But if orange wines had all but disappeared, you might wonder, why did they? And why are they being made again?  I’m glad you asked.  

Since our ancestors lacked mechanical refrigeration, skin-fermenting whites was a technique to extract oxygen-scavenging elements, i.e., color and tannins, to preserve and protect the precious liquid. Electricity made possible the “technically correct” and “polished” white wines as we know them today and so oranges were pushed out of economic favor.

Skip to today, though, and the real benefit of skin-contact is the addition of plentiful texture, body and flavor compounds otherwise thrown onto the compost heap, offering another dimension to the white wine experience. 

I like to say there is a lot of magic in those skins. Each grape variety offers its own kaleidoscope of personality; green-skinned Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc can interpret as a fuller-bodied, heady and tropical big sister of its non-skin-contact siblings, while mauve-y pigmented Pinot Grigio or Gewurztraminer can manifest at the brooding end of the color and aroma spectrum. 

Orange wine can act like both white and red wine in the same liquid, in that it’s got the thirst-quenching acidity that is the hallmark of white wine, infused with a mosaic of aromatics, alongside a structure and mouthfeel that is reminiscent of a red. These hybrid characteristics make skin ferments a nifty playground for the sensory experience and not just for the electric colors to admire in your glass.

If you’re new to skin-contact and orange wines, I suggest dabbling first in paler, shorter-contact versions, as they’ll be more similar to typical white wines. However, if you’re an adventurous drinker and afraid of nothing, by all means, dive right into those orange waters. 

Whatever way you start your experience with them, remember not to expect what you already know and love about wine, but rather, a new avenue for making your eating and sipping just that much more intriguing. 

Serving temperature for orange wines is important, especially the darker it is. I suggest serving it cool, not cold, in the 50-55 F range, to express a good balance of its aromatics and mouthfeel.  

Skin-contact wines really shine next to food too; a charcuterie board, complete with dried fruit, strong cheese, nuts and olives, is the best way to start experimenting matching orange wines with nibbles. 

Gratitude, an orange wine from As If and Alie Shaper. (Credit: David Benthal)

Three local orange wines to try

A taste for beginners: Raphael 2017 “First Label” Semillon

Winemaker Anthony Nappa regularly uses skin contact during harvest season, but he rarely releases a wine to feature it, and only does so in the vintages with the cleanest fruit.  “I like working with Semillon the most, because it adds body and texture, more than flavor, and I especially like it as a blending component, because the grape has a lot of natural body that can really boost a wine’s overall structure.”

Light-skinned Semillon shines a brilliant gold in the glass with sunset orange highlights. It smells like a fine aged Champagne with biscuit and cream on the nose. Meyer lemon meringue pie, buttery croissant, guava, and sweet carrot in the mouth, super dry, and acidity that isn’t sharp but is clearly the string making this violin buzz. Full of ultra-soft tannin texture, it’s one of the fullest-bodied wines I’ve had in a long while.  Get yourself some meaty crab cakes, and count this wine as the vegetable of the meal.

You know you like it: Chronicle Wines 2021 As If “Gratitude” Pétillant-Naturel

This is one of two orange wines I produce, and it crosses categories into sparkling wine (“pétillant-naturel” means “natural sparkling”). The 2021 “Gratitude” is a blend of Pinot Gris and Sauvignon Blanc, fermented on only the Pinot Gris skins for eight days. It expresses a juicy tangelo citrus, pear and nectarine skins, light honey, and meadow blossoms. Since the new wine is pressed from the skins before ferment is complete, there isn’t a strong tannin presence, but there is a pleasing soft backbone of texture and body. Its concentrated fruit is fun, fresh, and will make you swear you’re drinking a secret-recipe mimosa, and seriously crave some baked brie with apricot. 

Jump in the deep end: Channing Daughters 2020 “Ramato” Pinot Gris

Winemaker Christopher Tracy was the first East End winemaker to dabble in skin-ferments in 2004; since then, he’s developed a range of five skin-contact wines, each different from the next – he’s an orange-winemaking machine.  Channing Daughters grows several Italian grape varieties, many of which are ones classically used in Friulian skin-contact wines. “Ramato”, Italian for “coppery”, is in fact a mesmerizing copper hue, obtained from two weeks of skin contact and aging in older oak barrels. If you like some “grip” (translation: tannin) in your wine, this is where I point you.  With a couple years of aging, the tannins have potential to evolve into a velvet nuttiness. It showcases concentrated earthy and dried-fruit qualities of pears and apples, tangerine pith, and a savory baking spice on the top layer, like somehow toasted ginger snaps and graham crackers were part of the recipe. There’s a freshness in “Ramato” that calls out for a Moroccan tagine, though there’s plenty to contemplate upon while drinking it on its own.