While orange wine has been popping up in its own dedicated sections on wine lists in recent years, the style itself goes much farther back. As in, at least 5,000 years back.
“It may be trending now, but it’s an ancient way of making wine,” Ricardo Zarate Jr., a Level 2 Court of Masters Sommelier and Wine Director of Leucadia Co. restaurant group in Encinitas, says.
From its distinct color, to how it’s made, and its typical flavor profiles, orange wine is sort of like a white wine (it’s made from white grapes) but performs like a red wine. If that sounds intriguing, or confusing, help is on the way. For those unfamiliar with this traditional style, consider this your primer for all things orange wine, including a brief look at its origins, and who is making it in San Diego and Baja.
What exactly is orange wine?
As mentioned, orange wine is what happens when you take white grapes and apply red wine-making techniques to it. Meaning, instead of removing grape skins and seeds in the method used to make white wine, winemakers leave them in contact with juice for a matter of weeks or months.
“Orange wine also starts with white grapes, but instead of immediately pressing, the grapes are usually destemmed and/or crushed, and then fermented on the skins,” Emily Towe, San Diego-based producer of j. Brix, says. “This is also how red wine is made, and just as with red wine, the skin contact during fermentation extracts color, texture, and flavor.”
Additionally, the length of time juice is left in contact with skin influences orange wine’s various orange shades. “Depending on the grape variety and the number of days on the skins before pressing, the hue of the finished wine may be anywhere from light peach to coppery bronze.” Towe says.
As a result of extended maceration, or the amount of time grape juice and skins are fermented, orange wine typically offers more depth, complexity, and structure than white wine. “There are really cool nuances and textures that develop out of letting white wine sit in contact with the skins and seeds that are worth exploring,” Zarate Jr. says. The style is also known as skin-contact or amber wine.
Put another way, and more poetically, “Orange wine is white wine with red wine sensuality,” Zarate Jr. says, though he credits another hospitality professional for that one.
What does orange wine taste like?
Compared to white wine, orange wine’s tasting notes will vary.. The individual palate is subjective. “The biggest difference is due to the skin contact, the body of the wine is different,” he says.
That’s because tannins present in orange wine (thanks to skins and seeds) offer more textural grip on the palate. As such, these wines can hold up against foods that one might instinctually pair with red wine, like lamb. “There’s more of an earth-driven tone that shines through the wine and body on the palate,” Zarate Jr. says.
How did we get here? A brief history of orange wine
This ancient method of winemaking dates back thousands of years to Eastern Europe, and specifically the area known as present-day Georgia. According to Wine Folly, a wine education site, back then, grape juice, skins and all, were stored in traditional clay vessels, called qvevri, and buried. Leaving skins with juice helped preserve the wine, and storing it underground served to regulate its temperature.
By the 19th century, refrigeration was invented. And having annexed Georgia around that time, the Soviet Union’s push for ways to produce wine in mass took over. The traditional style fell out of favor as a result.
Decades later, the tradition trickled back in the 1990s throughout Georgia (from producers like Pheasant’s Tears, and Alaverdi Monastery), Slovenia, Croatia, and Italy’s Friuli region. Much credit is given to winemakers like Friulians Josko Gravner and Stanislaus Radikon, who helped revive the style throughout Italy, and eventually Europe and the U.S.
Today, orange wine is produced all over, including in California, South Africa, and Australia, to name a few. In California, producers like Field Recordings in Paso Robles and Sonoma-based Old World Winery were some of the first to make and sell orange wine in the state.
Traditionally, orange wine was often made from Georgia’s Rkatsiteli grape. These days, winemakers are using a range of varietals, from Pinot Grigio, to Malvasia, and Chardonnay, Zarate Jr. notes.
Where to find orange wine in San Diego and Baja
In San Diego, local producers like j. Brix, and Charlie & Echo make orange wines with minimal intervention. J. Brix’s Island of Souls is a skin-contact white blend of Grenache Blanc, Picpoul, and Vermentino; while its Sunrise Over Skin is made with Riesling that’s been in contact with skins for seven days. Charlie & Echo’s Encounter sees 10 days of contact and is made from Sauvignon Blanc.
And in Baja, Bichi, Pouya, and Mina Penelope are doing similar things with the age-old style. Bichi’s La Gorda for example is a skin contact Chenin Blanc. Grapes are hand-harvested in Tecate and left to ferment with skins for three months. Pouya also makes an orange wine with Chenin Blanc, while Mina Penelope’s Ambar features Sauvignon Blanc.