Crib Sheet: An Updated Guide to Orange Wine

There’s a visceral reaction the first time you taste an orange wine. It doesn’t fit into all the boxes your wine brain has organized—too rich to be white or rosé, but clearly not red. It’s not quite like sherry, although a lot of people make that connection, given sherry’s inherent weirdness; and even if you know the oxidative whites of the Jura, that’s not quite it either.

I think that’s why orange wine—aka, skin-fermented or skin-contact white wine—has become a category of its own in the past few years. The concept is ultimately quite simple: You treat white grapes more or less as though they were red, leaving the juice in contact with the grape solids for a while—maybe a day, maybe weeks. The result is richer and more intense flavor and texture than in a typical white wine.

Less than a decade ago, these wines were largely a novelty—an obscure resurrection of ancient techniques (primarily in what’s now the republic of Georgia) taken up by a handful of curious Italian winemakers, in particular the Friulian stalwarts Josko Gravner and Stanislao “Stanko” Radikon. But their concept—that there was more flavor to be extracted from white grapes than tidy modern winemaking had accomplished—was irresistible to many wine lovers. Even amid deep skepticism, orange wine found a growing fan base.

Gravner arguably caused the biggest shock, when he began switching to the style around 1998. He’d tired of his previous fame as a more conventional winemaker and began using amphorae for his fermentations—reviving an ancient Georgian technique that has since become a mark of cool in cellars worldwide. Others, like Edi Kante and Paolo and Valter Vodopivec, followed shortly after.

Initially these wines were largely made using the family of grapes found in Friuli and across the border in Slovenia: friulano, sauvignon blanc, the little-known vitovska and especially ribolla gialla, an indigenous variety so pronounced in its minerality (one winemaker described it like “licking rocks”) that skin fermentation was one way to tame its severe edge.

But the idea has migrated, and expanded. Today that original generation of orange wines now feels canonical, as evidenced by the widespread grief at Radikon’s death in September. And it’s easy to locate their descendants in nearly every corner of the wine world. The concept quickly migrated to the rest of Italy, and also to other corners of Europe—carried by a wave of interest by the natural-wine posse, which appreciates the lo-fi charm in skin contact. The New World similarly fell enamored, and today orange wines can be found in various corners of the United States, along with Australia, Chile and beyond.

In fact, when assembling the wines for our recent tasting, I was reminded that, while the creation tale traces back to Friuli (and from thence to the Caucasus), in fact a hardy band of Californians, led by a former wine executive named George Vare, was exploring orange wine in the early 2000s. Early California examples like Scholium Project’s The Prince in His Caves debuted just a few years after their Italian counterparts, and have been around for a decade. And today you can find skin-contact wines like Keuka Lake’s Dry Amber, a vignoles from the Finger Lakes; or La Garagista’s Vinu Jancu, from the la crescent hybrid grape; or a rkatsiteli from Stinson Vineyards in Virginia, which harnesses a grape often used where this style began: the republic of Georgia, which today exports its own growing set of skin-contact wines.

It would be too much to say orange wines are mainstream, but they’re not far off. Just a few years ago, the wines were quietly tucked into the “unusual whites” corner of the sandbox, in case anyone inquired. And in many places they’re still officially labeled as white wine, as bureaucrats haven’t quite figured out how to classify them. But fashionable restaurants today increasingly segment a portion of their wine lists specifically to them, or clearly denote “orange” next to those wines. That a publication like Glamour is touting orange wine makes clear: that it has become a known and accepted thing.

And yet the gripes of skeptics continue—arguing, for instance, that these wines taste only of the process, and not their origins (it’s a complicated argument, and one for another day). Some have simply been annoyed by their seeming faddishness, even enlightened critics like wine expert Hugh Johnson, who recently decried them to the Washington Post as “a sideshow and a waste of time.” It was an odd condescension from a usually inquisitive writer with a deep knowledge of wine history. After all, orange wine isn’t just about treating white wine like red. It’s also a meditation on how wines were made before the benefit of refrigeration or technology that allowed tidy pressing of grapes. But more than anything, most people really like them once they get used to the weirdness.

At the same time, it’s worth recognizing the limits of the form. Subtle maceration can give a white wine extra amplitude and texture while preserving its herbal and fresh side. But the more truly orange of the orange wines gravitate toward a particular spectrum of flavors: dried fruits, toasted nuts, iodine. While those flavors make them perfect for this time of year, they don’t often have the anytime charm of their inverse, rosé, which has successfully made its case for year-round appeal.

It’s also worth noting that this is still a nascent style. A lot of winemakers have mastered the technique, but it is particularly detail-intensive, even more than making red wine. Like reds, white grapes also have tannins that come out in a soak and need to be kept in control. Plus, the idea of skin contact lends itself to winemakers who want to tinker with amphorae (tricky in their own way) and who often have a contentious relationship with sulfur dioxide. All that yields, at times, some uneven and unpleasant results. We found quite a bit of that in our tasting, including from some wines, like La Stoppa’s Ageno, that have proven to be an exceptional example in the past.

Those are growing pains, though. The fact that orange wines are found around the globe, from a diversity of grapes and climates, makes it clear that this is no longer about paying tribute to Friuli or the Caucasus. It’s a form unto itself that no one region can claim anymore. And when done right, it can provide great insight into flavors and textures that, until about 15 years ago, none of us had experienced.

The O.G. | Tie

Radikon, along with Gravner and Kante, essentially defined that first wave of pioneers in the technique of skin maceration and helped draw attention to the odd borderland between Slovenia and northeast Italy where this style of wine found its modern home turf. The Oslavje is a mix of chardonnay, pinot grigio and sauvignon blanc, named for Oslavia, the Radikon family’s small village. It always takes a while to come around (hence the 2008), and it can be a rollercoaster, which is why this wine always should be decanted. This bottle took a while to open, but when it did, it showed that the first-gen talent is still hard to beat: Full of salted orange and the umami of fish paste, it offers an intensity and tannic mouthfeel that’s unapologetic but also masterful.

The Bea family was already well known for reds made from the local sagrantino when Giampiero Bea decided to follow the same path as Gravner and Radikon and leave Umbrian whites—in this case, a local cultivar called trebbiano spoletino—on their skins for several weeks. It’s a technique Bea has repeated, including in the now well-known Coenobium wines from Lazio. But Arboreus remains his masterwork: Aged in steel tanks for two years or more, it has a depth and weight not often associated with this grape. Packed with flavors of iodine, blood orange and chutney, its richness has long made this one of the wines that attracted people to the category.

See also: COS Pithos Bianco (Sicily), Vinoterra, Damijan, Vodopivec, Coenobium (Lazio).

The New Old World | Tie

Though often lumped together under the “Friuli” banner, there are many differences between Radikon and Sandi Skerk. For one, Skerk inhabits the Carso region just north of Trieste, about an hour south of Radikon but likewise at the edge of the Slovenian border. And Skerk’s wines are far more defined by grace than intensity; the Ograde continues to be one of the classiest and most refined skin-fermented wines around, combining numerous parcels and a quartet of Friulian grapes: vitovska, malvasia, sauvignon blanc and pinot grigio. The floral shimmy of malvasia comes first, along with the mineral freshness of vitovska, but the wine itself is deep orange—meaty, hearty and yet alpine and minty, with complex layers of flavor.

Based in Patrimonio, Arena has long been one of the masters of Corsican wine. And while he has nothing to prove, his sons keep pushing him to innovate. Hence this, from his steepest parcel of vermentino, planted by sheer will into hard limestone. Fifteen days of skin contact does great things to this grape (also as evidenced by the version made by Ryme Cellars in California), in this case taking the vibrant, soapstone-like mineral aspect in white wines from Carco and adding a black-tea sort of tannin, plus flavors of dried apricots and poppy seeds. It’s subtle and just a bit marine—Carco is about three miles from the ocean—and astonishing in its depth.

See also: Terroir Al Limit Terra de Cuques (Priorat), Foradori Fontanasanta (Trentino), Pheasant’s Tears (Georgia), Jean-Yves Péron La Grande Journee (Savoie), Ancarani Santa Lusa Albana Secco (Romagna), La Foradada de Frisach (Terra Alta), Kabaj (Slovenia).

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