Despite its name and deep golden hue, orange wine is not made with the sunny citrus, nor does it taste like one. Beyond the novelty factor—including a brief resurgence in the 1950s and ’60s, and the tag of “the next rosé” more recently—orange wine is, in fact, a drink of the ancients. Traced back to Eastern Europe and Eurasia, specifically to Armenia and the Republic of Georgia, it has been made for thousands of years through the process of macerating and fermenting white grapes with the skin still intact.
“Making a white wine in much the same way as you would a red (with the skin) is one of the oldest techniques, revived from an era when wine was fermented in clay casks that were then buried in the ground,” explains Imbibe magazine senior editor Tracy Garton. The method allows the tannins, color pigments and phenols to infiltrate the wine, producing a distinct orange color and full-bodied flavor. (On the opposite end of the spectrum is a rosé, which is made by processing red grapes, sans skin, like a white.)
Most commonly made in small batches and from small harvests, orange wine is now sought-after by a generation of young and pioneering chefs who want to offer unexpected pairings from lesser-known vintners. “You’re forced to pause and really think about what it is you’re drinking,” says Garton. “There’s an earthiness and a tannic structure that usually isn’t present in white wines. It’s a taste that’s relatively unfamiliar to modern wine drinkers—and therefore exciting.”
With a renewed popularity, orange wine is now produced across Europe, New Zealand and the west coast of the U.S. Tracy Garton gave us a few of her favorites for enjoying on a summer day. Serve with salty, smoky, meaty fare, such as a plate of charcuterie and cheeses, for the ultimate pairing.
Gravner Breg “Anfora”
Often considered the modern day godfather of skin-fermented whites, Josko Gravner’s Friulian wine estate is dotted with buried, giant clay amphorae, the perfect vessel for fermenting this blend of chardonnay, pinot grigio, sauvignon blanc and riesling. Bone dry and unapologetically tannic, this amber-hued wine costs a pretty penny, but for wine geeks it’s worth every cent.
From another boundary pushing producer in the Friuli region of northern Italy, this chardonnay-tocai friulano mix ferments with its skins for three weeks prior to a year of barrel aging. Tannic and slightly oxidized, this wine interweaves notes of briny seawater (think manzanilla sherry) with dark caramel and stone fruits.
Paolo Bea Chiara
Consider this orange wine from Italian Paolo Bea your baby step into the skin-fermented whites category. Comprised of hand-harvested garganega, malvasia, grechetto, chardonnay and sauvignon, and fermented for two weeks on the skins before being transferred to stainless steel vat for a year of aging, this wine is pure velvet on the palate. Expect honeyed notes of dried apricots, toasted almonds and spice.
Scholium Project Prince in His Caves
Napa-based Abe Schoener has never been one to follow the norm, and this single-vineyard Sauvignon Blanc drinks in a class all its own. Fermented on its skins with some stems included, it’s dense, dynamic and almost smoky, with an increasing tart fruit- and herb-driven lightness that cuts through with each sip.
Big Table Farm Pinot Gris “Wirtz Vineyard”
Nestled in Oregon’s bucolic Willamette Valley, Big Table Farms produces some of the favorite wines of the region. For this pinot gris, Big Table sources fruit from nearby Wirtz Vineyard and lets it ferment on the skins for a little over a week before pressing off the juice and sending to neutral oak for aging. Bottled unfiltered, this wine produces aromas of bright red berries that give way to flavors of toasted nuts and a dry, sherry-like finish.