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orange wine definition le social academy
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What Is Orange Wine?

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From wine shops to bars menus, they all feature the 5 categories we all know and love - Sparkling, Rose, White, Red, and Fortified. However, now there is an extra style that has been going from strength to strength and can now be found on the wine list of your local restaurant… Orange. This extra category in some people’s eyes is a passing trend, but for others, it is a style here to stay. So, where did these amber/orange/skin macerated wines come from and how are they made?

Three main countries have ancient traditions of skin macerated white wines – Friuli Collio, Slovenia, and Georgia. Each has their own history surrounding this diverse category. Friuli Collio has long made Ramato (translated to Auburn in Italian) wines from Pinot Grigio, with its pink hue skin giving way to copper coloured vinos. While Slovenia’s traditional techniques have been relatively bound until they became independent in 1991, with many winemakers shunning modern tech in favour of traditional methods. Both countries have had huge struggles at keeping their ancient traditions of winemaking alive after nearly losing them due to war and modern methods taking over the industry. With many for-going history in favour of the new, it was legendary producers like Josko Gravner and Stanko Radikon that continued these techniques and put skin macerated wines back on the menu.  

Heading over to Georgia next and this countries wine history is a long one that can be dated back to around 6000BC. But like Italy and Slovenia its traditions were also at stake and near extinction due to the influx of modernisation. The traditional clay pots known here as Qvevri’s are a key component and great skill to make, in this regions skin macerated wines. These pots are buried in the ground up to the necks and lined sparingly with bees wax, though are not 100% airtight. Although the word Orange (first suggested in 2004 by UK wine importer David A. Harvey) has been chosen for this style, Amber wine is commonly used in Georgia for Qvevri macerated whites instead.    

Now trending, orange styles of wine were not always an easy sell. A category that is by no means new and was available commercially in the 1990’s, but only to be made in small quantities by producers and bought by a select group of niche drinkers. Fast forward to today and consumers are asking about Orange wines everywhere with many producers now featuring an orange amongst their portfolio with amazing success.

Orange wine is made like a red wine but from white grapes. It is this contact with the grape’s skins during the maceration period that a range of components are naturally extracted. This includes phenolic compounds like colour and tannins that provide the mouth filling sensation and texture we all know and love from this style. Like with all winemaking techniques each winemaker is different and will treat their grapes depending on the type of wine they want to produce. Orange, like all the other categories range in depth - from a light lick of skin contact to full on tannic structured wines that will coat you mouth like a rich and powerful Bordeaux.

The spectrum of colour is a good indication of how much skin maceration your wine might have gone through. Orange wines can range from golden yellows all the way to the deepest of ambers. However, this will also be impacted by factors like vintage, grape variety, harvesting times, and quality of the maceration.     

To make an orange wine you must start with white grapes (it includes pink hued varieties like Pinot Grigio also). After harvest and transportation to the winery grapes are pressed, and instead of separating the juice from the skins like you would normally do in white winemaking. The skins and sometimes stems are left in for the fermentation. The ferment will then take place over days or even months depending on the winemaker’s choice and the vessel may or may not have a lid. By using an open top fermenter, you can carry out regular punch downs. This is when you either by hand or machine push down the cap (grape skins) this is to aid the extraction of phenolic compounds from the skins. After the fermentation is finished many winemakers will press and rack off the wine from the skins. The wine can then be bottled and sold or aged further without skins in various vessels like oak or concrete depending on the style of wine being produced. Oranges that have experienced intense skin maceration will often benefit from bottle age to truly show off it's potential just like a tannic red would.

Some producers however will keep the wine on the skins after fermentation. This is common in traditional Georgian winemaking where winemakers will leave pips, stems and all in qvevri with no intervention for 3-9 months. The length of skin contact will affect the overall colour and tannin structure of the final wine and this contact with the skins will also provide stability in the winemaking process by protecting the juice from over oxidation.

The aromas of orange wines will vary depending on many factors like the grape type. Using an aromatic grape like Muscat or Gewurztraminer will provide bouquets of blossom and tropical fruits that leap from the glass. The amount of time spent of the skins will also impact the aromas and structure of the wine. Some palates will produce refreshing citrus and delicate blossoms, from only days on the skins. Whereas a wine with months of skin contact will show serious tannin structure and bitter textures. Bottle aged oranges will start to develop into dried fruits and nutty aromas that often need to 'open-up' prior to being drunk. It is a remarkably diverse category with a host of different aromas and flavours on offer.  

Sitting on the fence between a white and a red it may be daunting about pairing food with an orange wine. However, it is a wine style that matches amazingly with food! Hummus and a glass of orange wine… yes please! Spicy Asian dishes or soft cheeses work beautifully alongside aromatic styles. Or try harder cheeses and hearty Moroccan stews with orange wines that showcases bigger tannins and fuller structures.   

Lighter Oranges – serve chilled 11-12 degrees.

Heavy Oranges – serve 14-16 degrees.

If you are new to the orange scene and are not sure where to begin, I would recommend starting off with a semi-aromatic grape that has seen lighter skin maceration. Asking instore or reading vinification information on the wine can offer advice on how much skin contact it has seen but you could also use colour as a guide by picking a lighter hued bottled.