Having tasted thousands of wines in dozens of wine regions across the globe, I have heard some really strange (my husband says “dumb”) questions. For example, upon hearing a wine server refer to the blackberry and blueberry flavor notes: “When do they add the berries to the wine?” The same question has been asked about the wide range of aromas and flavors: floral, other fruit (apple, citrus, stone fruit), chocolate, coffee, leather. “Does that mean the wine has caffeine?”
The latest strange (dumb?) question is inspired by the latest hipster hot trend: orange wine. Before you step your foot in it . . . orange wines are not made from oranges. In fact, in many cases the wines aren’t even orange in color. So what is an orange wine? If you are a wine geek, please skip a paragraph or two, I don’t want to be accused of insulting anyone’s intelligence.
Okay, let’s start really basic. With very limited exceptions, both red and white wine grapes produce clear liquid. No, really, it’s true. If you crush a Pinot Noir, Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon or Tempranillo grape, the resulting liquid is clear. Why did I say “with limited exceptions”? Because I know some of the wine geeks didn’t follow instructions and they did not skip this paragraph. “What about Teinturier?” they are shouting into their screens. I am going to ignore them; that will be the subject of another article. But if you are too distracted to move on, Wikipedia has a decent entry. Go ahead and look it up. I’ll wait. Okay, welcome back.Where were we? Oh, right, almost all grapes produce clear juice when crushed. I have had several interest 100% white wines made from Pinot Noir, Cabernet Franc, and Merlot. Don’t let the wine geeks hear you admit it, but some of you have had White Zinfandel too (shame!).
So . . . Red wine is, well, red, because after the grapes are crushed the juice sits with the skins (and often other parts like the sticks and stems, as Snoop Dogg might say). When this resulting mixture is pressed, red juice comes out. So how do white wine grapes create an “orange” wine? Basically by being fermented in a similar way to red wine: after the grapes are crushed, the skins are not removed. When the juice is left “on the skins” for hours, days, or even longer, the juice takes on a deeper hue as a result of the skin contact. Often, the hue is orange; other times, more of a deep golden color. If you want to keep your hipster wine credentials, keep calling it “orange” wine. Most winemakers, though, do not embrace the “orange” label as it can be misleading for wines that have a different color – and because of all the dumb questions whether the wine is made with oranges. What do winemakers call it? They prefer the more literal and technical descriptor: “skin contact wine.” Get it? Because the juice stayed in contact with the skin for a while.
The Instagram wine influencer will want you to think that orange wines are a cool new trend but the reality is that orange wines (er, I mean, skin contact wines) are as old school (and old world) as you can get. For instance, in Georgia they have been making skin contact wines for literally thousands of years. No, not the state of Georgia – the country in Eastern Europe’s Caucuses region. For generations they have made skin contact wines from the indigenous white grapes that grow in Georgia. As you move around the Caucuses and the Balkans, you find the same things – centruries of history making skin contact wines. Croatia. Slovenia. Armenia. Hungary. In many of these countries, skin contact wines were aged in a variety of unique vessels – concrete tanks, clay pots, amphorae, and large wooden vats. For this reason, some skin contact wines have unique aromas and flavors that are often described as “funky.” Some people enjoy funk, but many do not, and skin contact / orange wines have too frequently been saddled with the reputation of funkiness.
If you have not tried skin contact wines yet but are intrigued and would like to, I have some suggestions for you. Even if you have been initiated, some of my recommendations might be appealing as some of them are quite interesting in terms of how they are made (including some really long skin contact and long ageing periods).
Donkey & Goat Winery (Berkeley, California). This Bay Area winery sources grapes from all over California and has a series of orange wines that have become all the rage with wine geeks and hipsters alike. I have tasted most of them and love them all, but if there is one that really catches my fancy it would be their Vermentino-based skin-contact wine, “Stems and Skins.” Here’s a link to the winery webstore: https://www.donkeyandgoat.com/shop
Two Shepherds Winery, Sonoma County, California). This winery has an amazing selection of orange wines from several different varietals including Trousseau Gris. If you are planning to dive into the orange wine pool, this is a safe way to get started. https://www.twoshepherds.com/Wines/Skin-Fermented-Orange-Wine
If you want to dive into the deep end of the orange wine pool – with a double flip and a half twist – I have some real gems for you to try. These wines I have hand-curated from Europe and import them to the United States to share with all of you. You’re welcome. These wines are delicious but what drew me to them was the unusual winemaking and grape blends included. I guarantee that you have not had a wine made from these grape combinations. My lawyer / husband advises me to mention that this guarantee does not apply to any of our readers that are also customers that have actually bought this wine. I’m just trying to say, these are unique wines!
Ahearne Vino “Wild Skins” (Hvar, Croatia).
Jo Ahearne is an English woman who makes wine on one of the smallest islands off the western coast of Croatia. She is one of less than 300 people on the planet that holds the certification “Master of Wine.” Her Wild Skins wine is a skin-contact blend of three grapes most of you have never heard of: Bogdanuša, Kuč, and Pošip. I’m willing to bet most people will struggle to even pronounce them. While many orange wines ferment on skins for a few hours, days, or even weeks, Jo Ahearne’s juice sits on the skins for up to 350 days! The resulting wine is a cross between orange and deep gold and has amazing texture and body as well as powerful aromas and flavor. In addition to its long maceration on skins, the wine was aged “sur lie” – on the lees – for 9 months which contributes to its texture and color. If you don’t know what “sur lie” means, it’s another quick Wikipedia trip. $30.00 a bottle for this beauty – you can get it here: https://topochines.com/purchase-2/detail?item=2017-wild-skins-white-blend
The other favorite skin-contact wine that I import is also from Croatia but from a bit farther north in the region of Istria.
Roxanich Winery “Ines u Bijelom”
This wine is a tribute to the winemaker’s wife, Ines. “Ines u Bijelom” means “Ines in White.” Techically this should be called “Ines in Orange,” but I digress. The winemaker also has an “Ines u Crevenom” which means “Ines in Red” – which is of course a red wine. And once again, I digress. Back to the orange wine. This Roxanich offering is a blend of 7 different grapes: 14.3% each of Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Gris, Friulano, Verduzzo, Glera, Riesling, Pinto Blanc. You can’t imagine how much fun it was getting this label approved by the federal government’s Trade and Taxation Bureau. “The percentages for the grape compositions have to add up to 100% exactly.” Anyway, I have digressed a third time in just one paragraph. Anyway. The color of this wine is most accurately orange with a brilliant sheen to it. $30.00 a bottle – it can be purchased here: https://topochines.com/purchase-2/detail?item=2009-roxanich-white-blend
My goal today was not to exhaust the subject of orange wines or to give an exhaustive list of the best, or every country they come from. It was mostly to introduce the topic to those that are less familiar and to let you know you’ll still get scurvy if this is all you drink. There are so many great resources on orange wines and I’ve linked to several of my favorite articles below.
March 30, 2021