The world of wine is ever evolving, and winemakers are constantly trying to challenge themselves – and our palates – with interesting varietals, natural winemaking, and unique styles.

Today’s drinker is more adventurous and increasing popularity for new, cool things in wine involves going back to basics. In a past column, we talked about the popular Petillant Natural or Pet-Net wines which are sparkling wines made from an ancestral or ancient technique of fermentation. What’s old is new again and “orange” or skin contact wines are another perfect example. 

To answer the first question always asked … no, it is not made from oranges! This style of wine is indeed made from grapes – white ones to be exact. Orange refers to the color, and this term wasn’t used until 2004 by British wine importer David A. Harvey. The hues of these wines range from deep amber to copper to a true vibrant orange. 

Let’s go back to the basics of winemaking. Red wine is made from crushed red grapes that sit on the skins for days or up to a month resulting in dense and deeper hues. White wine is crushed white grapes that have little to no contact with their skins before pressing. Rosé is red grapes that when crushed, only sit on the skins for mere hours resulting in a pale to blush pink.

Orange wine is the opposite: white grapes are crushed and the skins then sit on with the juice for weeks, sometimes up to a year. The non-interventionist approach to fermentation takes place during this process from the naturally occurring yeasts that live on the skins. There are little to no additives needed and the result is much different from traditional white wine.

The history of this style can be traced back to the country of Georgia where a fermentation technique still being used dates back 5,000 years. White grapes are pressed and the juice, skins, stems, and seeds are placed in subterranean clay vessels called Qvevri (pronounced Kev-ree), covered with stones and sealed with beeswax for five months or even years allowing the wines to ferment in the natural coolness of the soil. The result is a deep, almost red, amber hue with a nutty nose, grippy tannins, intense floral and apricot flavors. The acidity of the wines is apparent and sometimes can be quite volatile but pairs perfectly with strong cheese or dried fruits.  

Skin-contact wines have been made throughout Europe for thousands of years but fell out of favor in the early 20th century. The Slovenian wine region of Primorska has also been producing skin contact wines for centuries but they didn’t become commercially popular until the 1990’s. When producing orange wine, Slovenian winemakers also use clay pots for fermentation but experiment with barrels as well. In Italy, this style was first utilized in the Friuli-Venezia region that borders Slovenia where winemakers commonly use Pinot Grigio, Ribolla-Gialla and Friulano.  Other regions of Italy have followed the trend, especially in Sicily where wineries such as COS, Frank Cornelisson and Foti have a cult-like following.

Due to the rise of popularity of Slovenian and Italian orange wines, winemakers in both the Old and New World began to experiment. Now, many natural winemakers in the US, Australia, France, Spain, Austria, and South Africa have tried their hand at producing this style.

With conventional wines, we can often know what the flavor profile will be based on the traditions of the region where it was produced – California Pinot Noir is often spicy and fruit driven while French Burgundy is more earthy and bright. When it comes to orange wines, the winemaker’s hand has a prominent role. With the increased skin contact, they drink more like red wine, with complex notes and a richer palate. Often, orange wines have a savory, nutty, and ripe quality, but after prolonged maceration, like Georgian Qvevri wines, they can become so intense that they are best enjoyed in smaller servings. Orange wines should be served cool, but not super cold. the best advice is to chill in the fridge and pull out around 30 minutes before drinking.

Katie’s Favorite Orange Wines

2021 Division Wine Company L’Orange from the Pacific Northwest, US

This blend of Roussanne, Gewurztraminer, Riesling, Pinot Gris, Müller-Thurgeu, Chardonnay and Sauvignon comes from plantings throughout the Northwest. Winemakers Tom and Kate have been experimenting with skin-contact wine for 10 years and this is the best vintage yet. The Roussanne and Riesling are co-fermented and spend 30 days on their skins.  The other grapes ferment from 2 to 20 days resulting in a beautifully aromatic wine with notes of floral and citrus and a well-integrated set of tannins. 248 cases produced.

2020 Nine Oaks Kisi from Kakheti, Georgia

VinoTeca has the honor of being one of the first to taste the Nine Oak wines in the US. Five years ago. co-owner Anna Addison came into the store looking for a supplier and serendipitously we were tasting with a local wine importer. We sampled the wines, they exchanged information, and the rest is history. Nine Oaks is a modern organic estate that produces both traditional Qvevri and conventional wines. The Kisi is fermented naturally in Qvevri for 28 days, racked on the lees for several more months and then half of the wine is finished in Qvevri for around 9 months and the other in stainless steel tanks.  The result is a conservative style to the traditional Georgian wines. The nose is reminiscent of herbal tea, lemon balm, and dried apricots with flavors of mango and citrus.  Tannins are grippy but not overpowering. 300 cases produced.

Sarah Pierre

Sarah Pierre owns 3 Parks Wine Shop in Atlanta and is a regular contributor to Atlanta Intown.

Katie Rice

Katie Rice owns VinoTeca, a wine shop in Atlanta and is a regular contributor to Atlanta Intown.