The term orange wine can be confusing, leading people to believe it is made from oranges. In fact, it is just a simpler name for the obscure wine style also known as skin-contact white wine, skin-fermented white wine, or even amber wine. Orange wine is made from white wine grapes where the grape skins are not removed prior to fermentation, as they are in normal white wine production, and stay in contact with the juice during fermentation and sometimes beyond, for days or even months before being pressed off. This process is typical of red wines but not white wines. In conventional white wine production, the grapes are crushed and the juice is separated from the skins prior to fermentation, so only the juice ferments.
Grape skins contain pigments, phenolic compounds and tannins, which are normally considered undesirable for white wines. However, for red wines skin contact and maceration of the juice and skins during fermentation is considered a vital part of the winemaking process that gives wine its color, flavor, and texture. The process of fermentation helps extract these compounds from the skins.
When white grapes are fermented in contact with the skins the result is a wine that takes on an orange or copper hue instead of a pale yellow one, the depth of which depends on the amount of time of skin contact. In addition to color the wines take on additional body, tannic structure, aromatics and flavors, making them unusual in the modern world of wine, neither a white wine, a rosé wine, or a red wine!
To be clear, orange wine is not a new style. Over thousands of years of winemaking history there are regions where this style has been produced, including in Slovenia, Georgia, and Friuli-Venezia Giulia in Italy. Before modern winemaking equipment it was actually likely the norm in many regions to fermented white grapes with the skins and seeds. It has simply fallen out of favor in more recent times for what is often considered the crisper and fresher style of non-skin-fermented white wines.
We’ve been experimenting with skin-fermented white wines for a few years now, producing them from a handful of different grapes and with skin contact of anywhere from a few days to several months. We’ve produced the style with Riesling, Pinot Grigio, Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier, Picpoul, and Vermentino. From a winemaker’s perspective these wines are intriguing; we learn more about the true character and potential of each varietal than we do when we stick to the rote methods of conventional winemaking.
Of course, all that matters in the end is that these wines are fun to make, they are delicious, and we’re excited to share them with you! We now produce a set of them each year called Skinny Dipping. These wines are an adventure for your taste buds. Take a sip!