No country in the world drinks more wine than the United States, and that seemingly unslakable thirst has made us more receptive to wine styles and production methods that might have once been considered, well, a bit unusual. Orange wine is one of those styles.
If you’ve ever wondered what “orange wine” actually is, you’re not alone. While this type of wine has risen in popularity and prominence over the past few years the term can be a bit confusing. For instance, orange wine as a style originated in the geographical area that is now the country of Georgia, but is currently made in multiple other countries as well. Not all “natural wines” are orange wines, but orange wine does have conceptual ties to the natural wine movement (more on that later). And while the name “orange wine” is descriptive, not all orange wines are actually orange in color.
Orange wines are white wines made like red wines, which these days is a much weirder idea than you might realize. The biggest difference between the production of white wine and red wine is that reds are made by fermenting grape juice (and sometimes seeds and stems) along with grape skins, while whites are made without the grape skins. Skin contact is what imbues wine with color; the skins also contribute tannins and flavor, and they carry naturally occurring yeasts and bacteria.
Orange wines are made with white grapes that, after being crushed (which extracts their juice), are fermented with their skins, stems, and seeds. This results in wine that can range from being really, truly orange in color to yellow, gold, amber, and even pink. And because orange wines have prolonged skin contact they can be dry and tannic (like reds), but also crisp and acidic (like whites). Their hybrid nature makes them complex and great for pairing with food, but still light and relatively easy to drink.
“Natural wines” are so named because they typically involve sustainable, organic, or biodynamic viticulture (winegrowing) and favor less industrial production methods. Some of those methods happen to coincide with how orange wine is traditionally made. Like natural wines, orange wine is typically made without added sulfur dioxide (aka sulfites). This is a big deal, because sulfur is added to grapes during the crushing phase in order to prevent oxidation and to neutralize undesirable native yeasts, like brettanomyces (which is sometimes just called brett). You know how sour beers can have a funky, microbial tang to them? That’s from yeasts like brett, and that’s a flavor you really don’t want in your wine unless you planned for it to be there.
As is common with natural wines, orange wines also aren’t filtered, but rather remove sediment through settling. In Georgia, orange wines were (and still are) traditionally fermented in enormous clay vessels known as qvevri, which are buried underground. Burying the vessels helps to keep them cool (which is important for controlling fermentation) and their design aids in the natural settling of sediment, which clarifies the top layer of wine, meaning it’s free from floating bits of grape and dead yeast. You can expect modern orange wines to be generally free from sediment, but not totally crystal clear.
As for why orange wine is having such a moment, you can thank the growing popularity of Georgian foods; a U.K. wine merchant named David Harvey; and an Italian winemaker named Josko Gravner. According to The Oxford Companion to Wine, it was Harvey who first coined the term “orange wine” in 2004, and it was Gravner—based in the northeastern Italian region of Friuli—who helped to spread the style beyond Georgia and the Caucuses. In 2018, wine influencer Amanda Claire Goodwin launched National Orange Wine Day to help promote the style.
Because orange wines can be funky, a little cloudy, and a bit of a cross between whites and reds, people tend to have strong feelings about them. But bear in mind that the final composition of a wine depends on the skill of the producer and the characteristics of the fruit. If you try an orange wine you don’t like, don’t write off the entire style!