Orange Wine: Exploring Tannins and Flavor Saturation

In the vast and diverse world of wine, there exists a fascinating category that stands out for its distinctive color, complex flavors, and unconventional production methods. Orange wine, often referred to as amber wine, is a captivating style that has gained increasing popularity among wine enthusiasts in recent years. In this essay, we will explore the intriguing world of orange wine, its characteristics, production process, and the sensory experience it offers.

Understanding Orange Wine

Just in case anyone doesn’t know: orange wine, despite its name, is not made from oranges. Orange wine is a type of white wine produced from white grape varieties, where the grape skins are left in contact with the juice during fermentation. This extended maceration period imparts a rich amber or orange hue to the wine, hence the name. So, orange wine is similar to red wine but is made from white grape varieties. 

This style of winemaking dates back thousands of years and has its origins in Eastern Europe and the Caucasus region, particularly Georgia, which is often considered the birthplace of orange wine.

A Brief Overview of How Orange Wine Came About:

Ancient Origins: The origins of orange wine can be traced back to ancient winemaking techniques. In Georgia, archaeologists have found evidence of winemaking dating back over 8,000 years, and it is believed that the tradition of fermenting white grapes with their skins and seeds in clay vessels called qvevri (large, egg-shaped terracotta amphorae) is where orange wine production began.

Traditional Georgian Winemaking: Georgian winemakers would press white grapes and then ferment the juice along with the grape skins and seeds in qvevri buried underground. This extended contact with the skins gave the wine its amber color, unique flavors, and distinctive tannins.

Revival of Interest: While orange wine remained a niche and traditional practice in places like Georgia, it gained renewed interest in the early 21st century as part of the natural wine movement. Wine enthusiasts and winemakers around the world started experimenting with this ancient technique, leading to a resurgence in orange wine production.

Modern Production: Today, orange wine is produced in various wine regions globally, with winemakers using different grape varieties and techniques. While Georgian methods remain influential, modern winemakers often use different types of vessels, such as clay amphorae, oak barrels, or stainless steel tanks, to create orange wines with a wide range of flavors and characteristics.

Orange wine is appreciated for its complex and unique flavor profile, which often includes notes of dried fruits, tea, spices, and tannic structure. It offers an intriguing alternative to the more conventional white and red wines, and its popularity continues to grow among wine enthusiasts and those interested in exploring diverse wine styles.

How and when Did Orange Wines Become Popular?

The revival of the tradition of producing orange wines began in the early 2000s, and it was primarily driven by a group of winemakers and enthusiasts who sought to rediscover ancient winemaking techniques and explore new styles of wine. While this revival can be attributed to several individuals and regions, one of the key figures in popularizing orange wine was Josko Gravner, an Italian winemaker from Friuli-Venezia Giulia, Italy.

Josko Gravner started experimenting with extended skin contact for white wines in the late 1990s. He adopted the use of clay amphorae, inspired by the traditional Georgian qvevri, to ferment and age his wines. His decision to ferment white grapes with their skins and seeds for extended periods, sometimes for several months or even years, resulted in wines with a deep amber color, unique flavors, and a distinct tannic structure.

Gravner’s approach to winemaking and his commitment to reviving ancient techniques caught the attention of the wine world. His efforts played a significant role in popularizing orange wine and inspiring other winemakers to explore this style.

The revival of orange wine was not limited to Gravner or Italy. Winemakers in other regions, including Slovenia, Georgia, and parts of France, were also experimenting with similar techniques around the same time, contributing to the resurgence of interest in this traditional winemaking style. As a result, the production of orange wine expanded beyond its historical roots in Georgia and became a global phenomenon.

Today, orange wine is produced in various countries, and its popularity continues to grow, with winemakers and consumers appreciating its unique and diverse flavor profiles. While Josko Gravner played a crucial role in the early stages of the revival, many others have since embraced this style, making it a vibrant and dynamic part of the wine world.

Orange Wine Production Process

The production of orange wine draws inspiration from ancient winemaking techniques. After the grapes are harvested, they are gently pressed, and the resulting juice is transferred to fermentation vessels. Unlike traditional white wine production, where the grape skins are immediately removed, in orange wine production, the skins remain in contact with the juice for an extended period. This prolonged maceration allows the wine to extract tannins, phenolic compounds, and other components from the skins, resulting in a unique flavor profile and color.

Here’s a detailed overview of the orange wine production process:

  1. Grape Selection: The process begins with the selection of white grape varieties. The choice of grape variety is essential, as it contributes to the flavor and aroma profile of the finished wine. Some grape varieties commonly used for orange wine production include Ribolla Gialla, Malvasia, Pinot Grigio, and Chardonnay, among others. It’s important to pick grapes at the optimal level of ripeness to achieve the desired balance of sugars and acidity.
  2. Crushing: The grapes are harvested and crushed to release the juice. This juice is typically white, as with any white wine production.
  3. Skin Contact: Instead of immediately separating the juice from the grape skins, orange wine production involves extended contact between the juice and the grape skins. The crushed grapes, juice, skins, and sometimes seeds are transferred to a fermentation vessel. The choice of vessel can vary and may include clay amphorae, stainless steel tanks, oak barrels, or other containers.
  4. Fermentation: The fermentation process begins naturally with the help of indigenous yeast present on the grape skins or in the winery environment. This fermentation process can last from several days to several months, or even longer, depending on the winemaker’s desired style. During fermentation, the grape skins impart color, flavor, and tannins to the wine.
  5. Punch Downs and Pump Overs: Throughout fermentation, the winemaker may perform regular punch downs or pump overs to ensure that the skins remain in contact with the juice, promoting extraction of flavors, color, and tannins.
  6. Pressing: Once the winemaker is satisfied with the level of skin contact and extraction, the wine is pressed to separate the liquid from the solid grape material (skins, seeds, etc.). This can be done using a traditional press or other modern techniques.
  7. Aging: The wine is then aged, often in the same vessel used for fermentation, but sometimes transferred to other containers such as oak barrels or stainless steel tanks. The duration of aging varies depending on the winemaker’s goals. Some orange wines are aged for several months, while others may be aged for several years.
  8. Bottling: After aging, the wine is typically clarified and stabilized, and then it is bottled. Some orange wines may continue to evolve in the bottle over time.
  9. Serving: Orange wines are typically served at a slightly warmer temperature than white wines but cooler than red wines. The optimal serving temperature can vary depending on the specific wine.

Orange wine production can vary widely from one winemaker to another, and the style of the wine can range from light and fruity to complex and tannic. The choice of grape variety, fermentation vessel, length of skin contact, and aging process all contribute to the final characteristics of the wine, making each orange wine a unique expression of the winemaker’s artistry and the grape’s terroir.

Characteristics of Orange Wine

Orange wines showcase a wide range of characteristics that set them apart from both white and red wines. These characteristics result from the unique winemaking process, which involves fermenting white grape varieties with their skins and sometimes seeds. Here are the key features of orange wine:

Color: The most distinctive characteristic of orange wine is its color, which can range from pale amber to deep orange or even copper. This color is a result of extended skin contact during fermentation, as the grape skins release pigments into the wine.

Aroma: Orange wines often have complex and aromatic bouquets. They can exhibit a wide range of aromas, which may include notes of dried fruits (apricots, figs, raisins), orange peel, spices (cinnamon, clove), floral elements (chamomile, honeysuckle), and sometimes earthy or mineral undertones.

Flavor: The flavor profile of orange wine is typically rich and textured. It often combines the fruity characteristics of white grapes with the tannic structure more commonly associated with red wines. Flavors can include stone fruits (peach, apricot), citrus (orange, tangerine), honey, tea, nuts, and a pleasant bitterness akin to orange pith or herbal notes.

Tannins: Orange wines have noticeable tannins due to the prolonged contact between the grape skins and the juice during fermentation. These tannins contribute to the wine’s structure, mouthfeel, and ability to age.

Acidity: Depending on the grape variety and winemaking techniques, orange wines can display a range of acidity levels. Some may have a bright and lively acidity, while others may show a more mellow or rounded acidity.

Texture: Orange wines are known for their textured and sometimes slightly grippy mouthfeel, which is a result of both the tannins and the oxidative winemaking process. This texture can give the wine a pleasant weight and complexity on the palate.

Ageability: Many orange wines have good aging potential. The tannins and structure allow them to develop and evolve in the bottle over time. Some orange wines may benefit from several years of aging, developing even more complexity and depth.

Food Pairing: Orange wines can be versatile when it comes to food pairing. Their complex flavors and structure make them suitable for a wide range of dishes, including charcuterie, roasted poultry, grilled seafood, Middle Eastern cuisine, and even hearty vegetarian fare.

Serving Temperature: Orange wines are typically served at a slightly warmer temperature than white wines but cooler than red wines. A temperature range of 55-60°F (13-16°C) is often recommended, although it can vary depending on personal preference and the specific wine.

The characteristics of orange wine can vary widely depending on factors such as the grape variety, winemaking techniques, and the region of production. Exploring different orange wines from various producers and regions can be an exciting way to experience the diversity of this style and find wines that suit your palate preferences.

Orange Wine Food Pairings and Versatility

Orange wines’ unique flavor profile and texture make them versatile when it comes to food pairings. They can complement a variety of dishes, including roasted poultry, charcuterie, aged cheeses, Middle Eastern cuisine, and even dishes with exotic spices. The tannic structure and complexity of orange wine can hold up to bolder flavors and enhance the overall dining experience.

Complex flavor profiles, texture, and acidity make orange wines a great match for a wide range of dishes. Here are some food pairings and suggestions for enjoying orange wines:

Charcuterie: Orange wines’ combination of fruitiness, tannins, and acidity pairs exceptionally well with a variety of cured meats, such as prosciutto, salami, and chorizo. The wine’s texture complements the richness of the charcuterie.

Cheese: Orange wines are fantastic with cheese, especially those with some age and complexity. Consider pairing them with semi-hard cheeses like Gouda, aged cheddar, or Comté. The wine’s texture and tannins balance the creaminess of the cheese.

Seafood: The acidity and texture of orange wines make them a great choice for seafood dishes. Try them with grilled or roasted fish, seafood risotto, or shellfish. The wine’s structure complements the delicate flavors of the seafood.

Middle Eastern Cuisine: Orange wines pair beautifully with Middle Eastern dishes like falafel, kebabs, tabbouleh, and hummus. The wine’s aromatic complexity and tannins can complement the diverse flavors and spices in these foods.

Mediterranean Fare: Mediterranean cuisine, including dishes like grilled vegetables, couscous, and roasted lamb, can be enhanced by the depth and structure of orange wines. The wine’s acidity can cut through the richness of Mediterranean flavors.

Indian Cuisine: Orange wines can handle the bold and spicy flavors of Indian cuisine. They can complement dishes like curry, biryani, and tandoori chicken while providing a refreshing contrast to the heat.

Vegetarian and Vegan Dishes: Orange wines are versatile enough to pair with a variety of vegetarian and vegan dishes. Consider pairing them with roasted root vegetables, vegetable tagines, or hearty bean stews.

Savory Tarts and Quiches: The acidity and complexity of orange wines make them a delightful match for savory tarts and quiches. Whether it’s a tomato and goat cheese tart or a mushroom quiche, the wine can enhance the dish’s flavors.

Spices and Herbs: Orange wines can stand up to dishes with aromatic spices and herbs. Think about pairing them with dishes featuring rosemary, thyme, sage, or cumin.

Aged and Smoked Meats: Orange wines’ tannins and texture can complement the flavors of aged or smoked meats, such as aged beef steaks or smoked duck.

Of course, personal taste plays a significant role in food and wine pairings, so don’t hesitate to experiment and discover your own favorite combinations. The versatility of orange wines allows for a wide range of culinary adventures, making them an exciting choice for wine enthusiasts and food lovers alike.

The Most Famous Orange Wine Regions and Producers

As the popularity of orange wine has grown, several countries and regions around the world have gained recognition for producing some of the best examples of this unique style. The quality of orange wine can vary widely depending on the winemaker’s expertise, grape varieties used, and specific winemaking techniques. While it’s difficult to definitively rank the “best” orange wines, some regions and countries are known for producing exceptional examples:

Georgian Orange Wines: Georgia is often considered the birthplace of orange wine, and it continues to be a significant producer of traditional amber wines. The Kakheti region in Georgia is famous for its traditional amber wines made in qvevri. Georgian orange wines are known for their depth of flavor, complexity, and use of indigenous grape varieties like Rkatsiteli and Kisi.

Slovenian Orange Wines: The Brda wine region in Slovenia, particularly around the town of Gorizia, is known for its orange wines. Winemakers like Movia and Radikon have gained international acclaim for their natural and long-aged amber wines. Also, you should definitely pay attention to the Slovenian wine regions of Vipava, Bizeljsko and Istria (the Adriatic coast of Slovenia) and try orange wines Pinela, Pinot Gris and Malvasia.

Italian Orange Wines: In addition to Josko Gravner’s pioneering efforts in Friuli-Venezia Giulia, other Italian regions like Sicily (Azienda COS) and Emilia-Romagna have also produced notable orange wines. Italian orange wines often feature grape varieties such as Ribolla Gialla and Malvasia.

French Orange Wines: The Jura region in eastern France is known for producing Vin Jaune, a type of orange wine made from the Savagnin grape. These wines are aged under a layer of yeast (similar to sherry) and have a distinctive flavor profile.

Austrian Orange Wines: The Burgenland region in Austria is gaining recognition for its amber wines, often made from grape varieties like Pinot Gris and Chardonnay. Producers like Gut Oggau and Claus Preisinger are known for their orange wines.

Croatian Orange Wines: The country’s Istria region has a growing reputation for orange wine production. Producers like Kabola and Clai are known for their quality amber wines.

US Orange Wines: In the United States, particularly in California and Oregon, some winemakers have embraced orange wine production. These wines often feature a range of grape varieties and winemaking techniques, reflecting the diversity of American winemaking.

It’s important to note that the best orange wines can be a matter of personal taste, as they come in various styles and flavor profiles. Additionally, the quality and reputation of orange wines continue to evolve, so new regions and producers may emerge over time as the industry develops. Wine enthusiasts are encouraged to explore a variety of orange wines from different regions to find their own favorites.

Orange wine presents wine lovers with a captivating journey that challenges conventional expectations and embraces the artistry of winemaking. Its distinct amber hue, complex aromas, tannic structure, and fuller body offer a sensory experience that sets it apart from other wine styles. Whether you are an adventurous wine enthusiast seeking new flavors or a connoisseur interested in exploring ancient winemaking techniques, orange wine invites you to savor its unique characteristics and embark on an intriguing gustatory adventure. 

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