Orange Wine

The Fourth Wine Colour

Red, white, pink – and now, orange: the fourth colour in the wine spectrum has been around for a very long time, but has only recently started getting mainstream attention.

Orange wine is a niche category, easily mistaken for rosé, upon first glance, as it can have a similar hue, ranging from pale gold to deep amber. Essentially, orange wine is a white wine that’s made like a red:  rather than crushing the grapes and fermenting just the juice (as in white wine production), the grapes are crushed and the entire mixture (juice, pulp, skin and seeds) is allowed to macerate for a period of time–from a few days to a few years–just like red wine.

That prolonged skin contact gives orange wine its signature rusty colour as well as its unique flavour profile: dried citrus peel, apple cider, sourdough bread, marmalade, walnut skin, and raw almonds are common descriptors. Orange wine often has a slightly oxidative note and sourness on the palate, and is tannic like red wine – sometimes significantly so. Also like red wine, orange wine should be served slightly chilled, but not cold.

Orange wine should not to be confused with wines from Orange, a wine region in New South Wales, Australia. As well, sometimes people include other amber-hued wines, like Vin Jaune and Tokaji, in discussions about orange wine, but that’s a misnomer.

Orange wine is heavily linked to the natural wine movement and many (but not all) orange wines also fall into the natural wine category. Natural wines are made in a very traditional winemaking style, with little to no additives or intervention; many orange wines are also made in a similar manner.

In fact, this is the original style of winemaking. Archaeological evidence shows that the oldest wines came from the Black Sea region and were fermented in clay vessels. The area in and around Georgia is the only place in the world that continued this tradition: many Georgians still use qvevri – huge clay fermentation vessels buried in the ground – to make wine. However, outside that area, this technique fell into obscurity and was virtually unknown by the end of the 20th century.

That changed in the late 1990s when an Italian winemaker from the Friuli-Venezia Giulia region, Josko Gravner, became disillusioned with the increasing use of chemical additives and various technical manipulations to make wine. He set out on a quest to learn how to make wine in a more “natural” manner and was inspired by Georgian qvevri wine. In 1997, Gravner released an orange wine; in 2001 he switched his entire production to qvevri.

Since then, orange wine has occupied a small, but slowly growing, corner of the wine world. A few other producers in Friuli-Venezia Giulia also make orange wine, mainly from the Pinot Grigio and Ribolla Gialla grape varieties. Orange wines are also made in Slovenia, just over the border from Friuli. Georgia is home to the greatest number of orange wines, most commonly made from the Rkatsiteli variety.

Outside of Italy, Slovenia and Georgia, however, orange wines are still quite rare – though a few enterprising winemakers are experimenting with the style in the US, South Africa and Australia.

Orange wine is often a hand-sell item, as it’s fairly obscure and most average customers won’t be familiar with the style. They can also be difficult to identify from the label alone: Italians sometimes label orange wines ramato, the Italian word for auburn; others refer to them as amber (instead of orange). There are no appellations for orange wine – it’s officially labelled as white wine.

The history and quirkiness of orange wine, combined with the growing natural wine movement, can help steer customers towards giving them a try. Rosé is another category that has experienced a big boom in popularity, and orange wine offers an interesting alternative to rosés.

Because of its unique flavour profile, orange wine has the potential to make some very interesting food pairings. Its astringency, sourness and distinctive flavours must be taken into account, as these wines can easily overwhelm lighter dishes. As with so many classic food pairings, some of the best matches to orange wine are dishes from (or inspired by) the same regions in which the wine is historically made: Georgian cuisine, with its sweet-tart flavours and predominance of roasted meats, fresh walnuts, pomegranate juice, pungent cheese, and aromatic flowers and herbs, is a great inspiration. Choose similarly bold dishes to pair with orange wine, such as lamb stew infused with olives and dried fruit, roasted meat served with sour plum sauce, or perhaps even a simple garlicky hummus and flatbread.