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There’s a whole new hue of wine out there for wine lovers to explore. In this episode of “Wine 101,” VinePair’s tastings director Keith Beavers introduces listeners to orange wine, a style of white wine that is made through a process more similar to that of red wines.
As this wine — the result of an ancient style of winemaking — makes its way onto the modern U.S. market, Beavers explains why it’s unique and what gives it the rich, amber color that helps set orange wine apart.
Tune in to Episode 6 of the bonus season of “Wine 101” to learn more about orange wine.
OR CHECK OUT THE CONVERSATION HERE
Keith Beavers: My name is Keith Beavers. Have you listened to the “Cocktail College” podcast by VinePair yet? I don’t drink cocktails, but now I want cocktails.
What’s going on wine lovers? Welcome to Episode 6 of VinePair’s “Wine 101” podcast bonus season. My name is Keith Beavers. I am the tastings director of VinePair. How are you? Today, we get to talk about orange wine. I know you’re excited because I’m excited. I’m feeling your excitement. It’s a new hue, if you will. Let’s get into orange wine and understand it so we can actually enjoy it. Let’s do this.
Back in Season 1, we talked about how white wine was made. I mentioned orange wine briefly towards the end of that episode. Since that mention back in the day, I’ve been wanting to do an episode dedicated to this style of wine. For us, as an American drinking culture, the style or category of orange wine is fairly new to us. Being new, it’s exciting. It’s this new, exciting style of wine that’s trending in our culture. I don’t think it’s going anywhere, either. It’s also a little bit confusing and maybe a little bit frustrating. You might be thinking, “Wait a second. We have red, white, pink, and now we have orange? What’s up with that?”.
This wine journey that we’re all on is all about finding out what you like, experiencing new things, and exploring. Orange wine is just a next level of exploration, from aroma, to texture, to how we interact with it with food. It’s a very cool category, but we have to break it down and understand it to really get a sense of what it is so that we can actually enjoy it.
Here’s the first thing we have to get out of the way. We’re currently in what is being called a “natural wine” movement. The category of orange wine sometimes gets swept up into that category. There is no such thing as natural wine. There is no definition for it. There’s no idea behind it. Every interpretation of this term is different from person to person. So, when you think of orange wine, don’t think of it as natural wine. Think of it as just a new wine to explore. Not all of them are going to be your jam, just like any other hue of wine. You’re not going to like all of them. They’re all different.
Something else to understand is that, just like white wine actually isn’t white, red wine isn’t necessarily red, and rosé looks pink but sometimes it’s a little bit salomon-y, orange wine isn’t really orange. It’s more of an amber color, but we use the word orange because it’s easy. It helps us move into the category and enjoy it. Amanda Claire Goodwin, who has an Instagram account called The Real Housewine, created National Orange Wine Day for the U.S. It’s on Oct. 6 every year. It’s awesome.
As far as who came up with the word orange or decided it should be called orange wine, we don’t really know. There is a guy, David Harvey, who’s a wine importer from the U.K. In 2004, he was hanging out with a winemaker in Italy who was making this style of wine. He says that he’s the one that created the term, and it started to be used after he used it so much. Who knows?
What is orange wine? Simply put, orange wine is white wine made like red wine. That’s about as simple as it gets, but there’s so much more to it. If you think about it, it makes sense, right? If you listen to “Wine 101,” you know two things. You know that when red wine is made, the grapes are crushed and put into a vat with the skins. You also know that white wine is commonly made without the skins. It’s vinified with just the juice. There’s a term in winemaking called skin contact. That means that the juice is interacting with the skins of the grapes during the fermentation process and extracting things from the skins because it’s a constituent of the wine and wine product. Red wine is in the category of skin-contact wines. This idea, or category, of orange wine is also in the category of skin-contact wines. Because of the emerging popularity of orange wine, when you hear somebody say skin-contact wine, they’re going to be talking about orange wine. Red wine isn’t often called skin-contact wine, even though it actually is. Rosé is also skin-contact wine, am I right?
Even though the orange wine category is new for us, it is an ancient winemaking style, meaning if a wine was made with white wine grapes in antiquity, there’s a really good chance it was this darker amber, orange, brick-ish, rusty color because there wasn’t the technology that we have today, or the standardized idea that white wine grapes need to be separated from the skins. It’s a very ancient way of making wine. It’s also a point of pride for certain cultures that have been making wines in the style for a very long time, specifically in the countries of Georgia, Slovenia, Croatia, northeastern Italy — specifically in, you got it, Friuli — and to an extent in Hungary. Depending on the culture, their relationship with the style of wine is kind of intense. It either defines their culture in a way, like in the country of Georgia. Or, in places like Friuli, it was originally a survival wine that was eventually put aside for more international styles. It is now coming back into the culture, which is awesome.
It’s from these cultures that we get the common vessels that are used to make this style of wine. They’re clay earthenware vessels that have been used since antiquity. The Greeks called them amphorae, the Romans called them dolia, Spain and some parts of Chile called them tinajas, and in Georgia, they called them kveri. The benefit of using these vessels throughout history is the controlling of the temperature. Sometimes they’re actually buried underground and they retain that coolness to help the wine not produce all the tartrates and bitter notes. Of course, this is modern day, so not all of these orange wines are made in these vessels, but it’s very popular to do so.
In this style, white wine grapes are de-stemmed, they’re crushed, and then we have the must. That must is put into a vat, skins and all, for the fermentation process. This is where things get interesting. The must of skin-contact wine — red, orange, rosé, and all that — it reduces the must acidity and increases the pH. If you were to separate these white wine grapes from the skins and vinify the juice itself, it would have a higher acidity because the must isn’t there to reduce it. What you’re doing already is creating what will be perceived as more body in the wine. Although the skins in the maceration process are only extracting a minimal amount of anthocyanins, because white wine grapes don’t really have a lot of anthocyanins, you’re still extracting what tannin is available in the wine. You’re going to get a wine with more body, and there’s going to be tannin.
Now, because this is an oxidative environment, it does have skins and tannin to protect it from browning agents, but it will brown because it’s just all white wine. That’s where the dark hue comes from. Skin-contact must or skin-contact wine increases the amount of amino acids in the wine. This is science-y, but bear with me. Amino acids are the building blocks of protein. Yeast cells actually have the ability to create their own proteins to feed off of and do the work of converting sugar into alcohol and all that. When there’s an abundance of amino acids in addition to what they’ve already made, it actually helps the fermentation process. It helps the rate of fermentation to happen a little more seamlessly. We’re talking about an oxidative environment. The faster the fermentation can process, the better for the wine. This fermentation process produces certain kinds of amino acids, three of them specifically. The one I want to concentrate on is an acid called glutamic acid. It translates to what we perceive as umami, a more savory vibe. Once the yeast cells are dead, the yeast cellular walls break down, which adds even more of that stuff into the wine, bringing even more character.
What’s happening here is a wine made from white wine grapes that has been denied color, pigmented tannins, and all of the other things that give structure to a red wine, but has other stuff that red wine has to help give it body. It has a little bit of savoriness to it. It has tannins to it. The acidity is a little bit low and a little heavier on the palate, but it still has enough acidity to be refreshing. Isn’t that crazy? Also, it looks beautiful. It’s a dark orange or amber color, and it reflects the light so wonderfully. If it’s done right and the bitter notes have not been extracted, what you have is this beautiful, almost full-bodied, amber-colored, white-ish, red-ish wine that has a tannin structure that makes you want food. These wines are excellent food wines.
Like I said, no orange wine is really alike. They have a similar structure and style to them, but some skin-contact whites don’t even look orange. Sometimes they’re just skin-contact whites and the work has been done to not allow the wine to oxidize so much. Those wines are awesome as well; they just have a little bit of a different style to them. They may be a little bit lighter, but they have a little more depth to them. This is a very wide-ranging category. The varieties that are used to make these wines often are very high in acidity and low in tannin to compensate for what they have lost. Even though skin-contact must is high in acidity, you still want a high-acid grape so you can have some refreshment when the process is over. For tannins, you want the tannins to be extracted, but not overly so. You want that tannin structure to be part of the underlying body of the wine. That’s what makes orange wine so unique.
Some of those high-acid whites are Pinot Grigio, Riesling, a grape called Gros Manseng — which is a blending varietal in southwest France that is now being made very well in Virginia — and Sauvignon Blanc. Now, this isn’t a hard and fast rule. There are no appellations for orange wine. There are no rules. You do what you need to do to make this wine orange and that it’s a healthy wine. The grapes are healthy. The environment’s healthy. Even though you’re making something cool, it doesn’t have the protections that a red wine has, so you have to monitor it a little bit and make sure that when it comes out, it’s not bitter, it has savoriness, it’s full-bodied, and it’s awesome and ready for food.
Now, I’m not really sure why or how this category of wine gets wrapped up into this sustainable thing. I don’t know if all orange wines are sustainable. I don’t know that all of them are organic or biodynamic. For some reason, though, the popularity of it grew out of this biodynamic, organic movement. Part of me believes it’s because of the tannin structure and how the tannin can actually do the work to minimize the amount of SO2 that you have to apply to these wines. I’m not really sure.
What’s apparent to me, though, is what I said in the beginning of this episode. The American wine drinker is always looking to explore. We want to understand wine. We want to try all the wines in the world and all the different styles. In America, we’ve struggled throughout our history to make wine. Sonoma and Napa are not old. It’s very new. We have a lot of what Europe would call “neutral varieties” out there. These are varieties that have high acid, low tannin, and not a ton of fruit character. These are white wine grapes that were normally meant for blending to give backbone to white blends with more acidity. That’s not true of all of them. Pinot Grigio is pretty famous and pretty popular, but there’s Gros Manseng, Ugni Blanc, and all these white wine grapes you can find in southern Italy, southern France, and southwest France. Even the grapes that are used to make Cognac make really interesting orange wine. Isn’t that crazy?
One last thing about this white wine made like red wine. You don’t always have to drink it chilled. Orange wine is good chilled. Orange wine is also great at cellar temperature, meaning 55 to 65 degrees Fahrenheit, because it does have tannin, and it does present itself sometimes like a red wine in ways. Try it different ways. Try it at cellar temperature. Try it with a bit of chill on it. If you start with it a little bit chilled, it’ll warm up to room temperature. That actually might be really cool.
That is orange wine in a nutshell, wine lovers. If you dig what you just heard, go out there and find some orange wine. Find the one that you like at the temperature you want. It’s not always going to be easy. Orange wine is just emerging on our market. It’s just starting to trend, but it’s going to be out there. If you have a wine merchant that you trust, talk to them. Follow The Real Housewine on Instagram. She’s always talking about the orange wines that she likes. She doesn’t like the bitter stuff, so she really finds the balanced stuff. I’m always looking for good orange wines as well, so if you get one you like, tag me on Instagram. I want to see it.
@VinePairKeith is my Insta. Rate and review this podcast wherever you get your podcasts from. It really helps get the word out there.
And now, for some totally awesome credits. “Wine 101” was produced, recorded, and edited by yours truly, Keith Beavers, at the VinePair headquarters in New York City. I want to give a big ol’ shout-out to co-founders Adam Teeter and Josh Malin for creating VinePair. Big shout-out to Danielle Grinberg, the art director of VinePair, for creating the most awesome logo for this podcast. Also, Darbi Cicci for the theme song. Listen to this. And I want to thank the entire VinePair staff for helping me learn something new every day. See you next week.
Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity.