OK, first things first: There are no oranges in orange wine. And no tangerines, tangelos, mandarins, clementines, ponkans, blood oranges, Buddha’s hands, or sumo citruses (citrii?) either. Not a one.

Orange wine instead is the popular way of referring to what’s more technically, albeit clumsily, called “skin-contact white wine.” When it comes to most wine grapes, the flesh of the grape isn’t pigmented; cut a Cabernet grape open next to a Chardonnay grape, and the insides of both look more or less the same (pale green, essentially). Red wines get their colour when the juice from crushed grapes is allowed to macerate on the grape-skins. White wines are typically made by crushing the grapes and then immediately removing the skins. Make a white wine the way you normally make a red wine—by keeping the juice with the skins as it ferments—and you get a wine that’s anywhere from pale gold to ruddy amber to actively, inarguably orange, and which also has some of the tannins and mouthfeel of a red.

This approach is actually far, far older than making white wines without the grape skins. In the country of Georgia—where many of the best orange wines hail from—people have been fermenting white grapes on their skins for over 8,000 years, using earthenware vessels called qvevri. In the modern era, starting in the 1990s, winemakers in Italy’s Friuli region, inspired by these ancient traditions, began experimenting with this approach, and now orange wines have spread to practically every winemaking region in every country. (Similarly, Friulian Pinot Grigio was traditionally made with skin contact—the style is called ramato, from the Italian word for copper.)  Orange wines can be an acquired taste, but I find that if you think of orange wines as neither white nor red, but their own distinct category, they start to make more sense to a modern palate.

Of course, some sommeliers and wine experts object to the term orange wine. The more technical “skin-contact white” is far more accurate, they’ll say, and point out that a lot of orange wines—shocker—aren’t necessarily even orange. To that, I offer a resounding “whatever.” Because, oh experts, tell me this: When was the last time you had a white wine that was actually white?

what is orange wine and which are the best orange wines
Image Credit: Jennifer Causey / Food Styling by Emily Nabors Hall / Prop Styling by Lydia Pursell

The best orange wines to try now

2020 Mas Théo Ginger

Rhône biodynamic vintner and polyculture farmer Laurent Clapier makes this pretty bronze-hued wine from Marsanne, Roussanne, and Grenache Blanc. It’s got peppery flavours recalling ripe apricots and a grippy tannin finish.

2020 Orgo Dila-O Rkatsiteli-Mtsvane

Winemaker Gogi Dakishvili has been instrumental in the ongoing revival of Georgia’s traditional qvevri-fermented, skin-contact style of winemaking. This example of his work is pale amber-orange, with citrus and stone fruit flavours; the fruit is so appealing, it’s easy to overlook the wine’s firm tannins.

2019 Teliani Valley Amber Blend

From Georgia, the homeland of skin contact white wines, this excellent example is a gorgeous, burnished copper in colour. Made from the local grapes Rkatsiteli, Kisi, Khikhvi, and Mtsvane—there will be a quiz later—it’s all mangos, pears, black tea, and earth, with firm, gripping tannins.

2020 Sun Goddess Pinot Grigio Ramato

Maybe it’s a celebrity wine, sure, but hip-hop star Mary J. Blige’s lightly rose-hued Pinot Grigio ramato really is very good. (Her secret weapon is Friulian winemaker Marco Fantinel.) The generous fruitiness recalls ripe nectarines, focused by a very faint edge of tannins.

2020 Herdade do Rocim Amphora Branco

Pale gold and with the distinctive scent of wildflower honey, this palate-whetting Portuguese white blend—or orange blend—offers bright acidity and tart citrus and green apple flavours. It’s fermented and aged in talha, the clay amphora used in Portugal’s Alentejo region since Roman times.

2020 Les Vins Pirouettes Eros by David

Deep orange in colour and intensely fragrant (it reminds me of Italian chinotto sodas, a kind of spicy bitter orange scent), this is a rich, amply tannic Alsace blend of Riesling, Gewurztraminer and Muscat from winemaker Christian Binner.

2019 Anapea Village Kvareli Kisi

Pure transparent amber in colour, with earthy, citrusy, almost resinous flavours, this is an ideal introduction to traditional Georgian winemaking. It spends six months in earthenware qvevri on its skins, then an additional six months ageing off the skins, with zero intervention by the winemaker as it develops.

2020 Weingut Sybille Kuntz Organic Riesling Trocken

Sybille Kuntz makes brilliant dry Rieslings from her small organic estate in Germany’s Mosel River valley. Recently she also started producing this skin-contact Riesling; it’s the hue of chamomile tea, with green apple and peach notes and light tannins that dance across the palate.

NV Valentina Passalacqua Progetto Calcarius Frecciabomb

Lighty fizzy, deep cloudy marmalade orange in colour, tangy, chewy and tart, this Puglian pet-nat made from the Bombino grape is low in alcohol, appealingly bizarre (seriously), and lots of fun. You want conversation around the dinner table about the wine? Pour this.

2019 Vignoble de Rêveur La Vigne en Rose Sec Alsace

An unusual blend of 85 percent Gewurztraminer and 15 percent Riesling, this Alsace orange wine has unusual papaya-lychee-apricot fruit and a tannic grip that intensifies as it goes. It’s quite rich, and lightly off dry; a wine for full-flavoured spicy foods—a vindaloo curry, maybe, or some mouth-numbing mapo tofu.

orange wine
Image Credit: Jennifer Causey / Food Styling by Emily Nabors Hall / Prop Styling by Lydia Pursell

2020 Division Winemaking Co. L’Orange

More hazy amber than actual orange, this Oregon kitchen-sink blend of Roussanne, Riesling, Chenin and other varieties frames its bright citrus and green apple fruit with toasty spice and light, appealing yeasty notes.

2020 Aphros Phaunus Loureiro

“Fragrant and crazy” was what I wrote as I tasted this very natural-leaning orange wine. Pale hazy gold, made in clay amphora “without electricity” from the Portuguese Loureiro grape, and given six months of skin contact, it isn’t a beginner orange bottle but it is undeniably compelling in its floral, lemony, grassy, energetic way.

2019 Gönc Harvest Moon

Such a gorgeous colour, the rose-tinted amber of this Slovenian skin-contact Pinot Grigio—you’d be lucky to find a sunset as beautiful. It’s lightly bitter (in a good, savoury way) with tangy citrus and fragrant honey notes.

2020 Milan Nestarec Okr

Milan Nestarec started making wine in Czechoslovakia when he was just 16, and has gone on to become a star of the natural wine world. This amber blend of Chardonnay, Gruner Veltliner, and other grapes is crisp, earthy, and tangerine-scented.

2020 Deovlet Wines This Time Tomorrow Pinot Grigio Ramato

Winemaker Ryan Deovlet makes his home in the new San Luis Obispo coast appellation, making excellent Pinot Noirs and Chardonnay, as well as this sunset-hued, earthy but also citrusy Pinot Grigio.

2020 Domaine Loberger Horizon Gewürztraminer

Deep orange in colour, exotically floral, and full of tropical flavours recalling lychees, pineapple, and mango, this Alsace wine is unabashed in its flamboyance, and also delicious. “Joyful” was the word that one taster used to describe it.

2020 Montinore Estate L’Orange

Pinot Grigio left on its skins plus a percentage of the fragrant Muscat Ottonel variety gives this pale orange wine plenty of floral, sweet citrus character, bolstered by light spiciness. If an orange wine can be a crowd-pleaser, this is it.

2019 Donkey & Goat Stone Crusher Skin Ferment Roussanne

Donkey & Goat has been at the forefront of the natural wine movement in California since it was founded in 2004. And while not all natural wines are orange, nor all orange wines natural, this one takes the best of both approaches with its dusky pear and stone fruit flavours, hazy gold hue, and tongue-coating skein of tannins.

2017 Movia Sivi Grigio Ambra

Slovenian winemaker Ales Kristancic was an early adopter of skin-contact white winemaking. (His Lunar white was a game-changer when it first appeared in the US in the early 2000s.) This amber-pink Pinot Grigio recalls earthy apricots, and has a lightly tannic, palate-coating texture.

This story first appeared on www.foodandwine.com

(Hero and featured image credit: Jennifer Causey / Food Styling by Emily Nabors Hall / Prop Styling by Lydia Pursell)

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