If orange wine sounds like the latest in the Boone’s Farm fruit-flavored lineup of apple, mango and melon, you may be delighted to learn that that is not the case at all. Nor is this “it” orange wine macerated with orange peel or made from orange juice. And, thankfully, it has nothing to do with “blue” wine: wine made from a combination of white and red grapes.
To a sommelier, orange wine is a white wine made the way red wine is: with extended skin contact. Originating some 6,000 to 8,000 years ago in Georgia—the country, not the state—these skin-contact wines have been rediscovered in the last couple of decades but have only been making waves far more recently. Skins lend not only color, but also tannins and flavor compounds. Using any white grape varietal, fermentation with the skins and seeds of a few days to many months produces wines across a spectrum from yellow to amber, copper or jewel-toned orange.
They are quite lovely and a bit trendy, but are they tasty? That depends on who you ask. Typically, the acidity we associate with white wines is preserved with orange wine while the body is bigger, the flavor bolder and the tannins more pronounced, not unlike red wine. These wines are credited with being more complex and savory than white wines made from the same grapes. And some say more bitter or sour too. Hence, they play especially nicely with spicy and fermented foods. But wine-and-food pairings—and serving temperatures—are always a matter of personal taste. So bring on the vegetables, seafood, meats and more. As with other wines, the flavor of orange wine is more subtle when served cool (50 degrees Fahrenheit) and more “expressive” when served somewhat warmer (60 degrees Fahrenheit).
Two in Virginia to seek out are the King Family Vineyards “Small Batch Series” Orange Viognier 2017 (available spring 2019) and the Flying Fox Vineyard Skin Fermented Pinot Gris sold under the Sly Fox 2017 First Edition label.
Available for $34.95, the King Family Orange Viognier skews toward the paler end of the orange spectrum. This 100 percent viognier wine is touted for its tannic structure and aromatics, the result of daily punch-downs (submerging and breaking up the caps of grape solids that have risen) during an initial three-week fermentation period in oak barrels before being pressed off the skins and aged in neutral oak barrels.
The Sly Fox Series embodies the outside the box—or bottle—approach to experimental wine making: “where we can do whatever we want unencumbered by convention or tradition.” They describe their Skin Fermented Pinot Gris as possessing a “rose petal hue as well as light delicate tannins and stone fruit aromas.” This is the softer side of orange wines, the result of a two-week initial skin-contact fermentation in T-bins—for $30 per bottle. And there is at least one more on the way from the 2018 vintage.
Whether you are, or become, an orange wine apologist or detractor, one thing is for sure: skin contact makes more than a surface contribution to the character of a wine.