“It’s common to get wine-style-fatigue at the end of a season,” says Michael Kennedy, founder of Component Wine Company in Napa Valley. He’s also managing partner at Chandler Hill Vineyards in Defiance, Missouri. “I start tiring of my Bordeaux and Rhône reds by the time March rolls around, even though it is still quite chilly out. When I want a white [wine] with some guts to bridge me through, orange wine can do that job perfectly.”
Orange wines, also known as skin-contact wines and amber wines, are made from white grapes. They possess both the flavors of white varieties with the texture and tannins common to red wine. It’s the result after the grape skins are allowed to ferment with the pressed juice.
“The skins contribute color, body and an impression of some tannin that changes the wine’s texture, as well as changing the flavors of the wine from fresh, fruity notes to more complex, developed aromas and flavors such as nuts and dried fruits,” says Mary Ewing-Mulligan, MW, president of the International Wine Center in New York City.
Fueled by changing trends, the age-old style is being revived by winemakers. Many sommeliers, who previously found skin-contact wines difficult to pair, now embrace their distinctive characteristics.
Historically, orange wines were simply referred to as “white wines made using grape skins,” says Ewing-Mulligan. The style remained popular in the countries of Georgia, Greece and Slovenia. The process was thought to result in less waste and greater shelf life.
“This style gave preservative properties to the wine through extraction of compounds from the skins, which allowed the wine to last longer,” says Ashley Guertin, certified sommelier and beverage director for the Barbara Lynch Collective in Boston.
Advances in technology during the 20th century saw a shift away from these wines. The crisp qualities of modern white wines overshadowed skin-contact offerings.
“In recent times, several producers in Friuli pioneered a return to this ancient way of making white wine,” says Ewing-Mulligan. “Besides fermenting the juice on the skins, they eschewed modern practices such as temperature control of the fermentation, the use of sulfur dioxide, and filtration.”
These hands-off methods align with the trend toward natural wines. As demand for natural wines increased, skin-contact bottlings regained a space in the market.
“Many producers would characterize orange wines in that [natural wine] category,” says Ewing-Mulligan. “Wine drinkers who are keen to explore something different, wines with individuality, even to the point that others might consider flaws, are finding what they crave in orange wines.”
The intricacies of skin-contact wines both helped and hindered their mainstream appeal, something Kennedy experienced firsthand as head sommelier for chef Eric Ripert’s Blue at The Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman.
“I found them difficult in pairings,” he says. “Texturally, they would beat up on [Ripert’s] delicate seafood.” Kennedy now says the style “can be so exotically perfumed and confusing to the palate, that I keep going back for more.”
He expects to release an orange wine in June, the Chandler Hill Vineyards 2019 Marigold Orange Estate Vignoles. “It was a bit of a risk, but the wine is super floral, tropical and zesty,” says Kennedy.
Guertin recommends that skin-contact white wines be served cool, not cold, to display their range of flavors.
“Many of these wines are made in a more noninterventionist style, which can include no filtration,” says Guertin. “The resulting wines can have some sediment [and] be cloudy. This is intentional and adds to the character of the wine. If it really bothers you, allow the wine to stand up for 24 hours and decant it, leaving the sediment behind.” She adds that it will also soften the wine.
The natural qualities and fresh flavors allow skin-contact wines to accompany dishes from charcuterie boards to Asian cuisine.
“I love the orange wines of Sicily paired with a pasta with uni butter sauce,” says Guertin, who points to Il Censo’s 2016 Praruar Catarratto as an accessible bottle.
Ewing-Mulligan recommends beginners sip Grenache Blanc bottling from South Africa. Advanced palates should try a 2016 Dario Prinčič Ribolla Gialla from Italy. Regardless of the bottle, she suggests pairing it alongside soft-ripened, earthy cheeses.
Kennedy chooses either Donkey & Goat or Gravner Breg Anfora with crispy-skin chicken. “Like the kind you get at an amazing French bistro served in a cast-iron saucer with salty-savory chicken jus,” he says. “Not all pairings have to be exotic. In fact, the best ones are not.”
Kennedy says to approach orange wines with enthusiasm and an open mind.
“Don’t try to put orange wines into a box of what you know, expecting it to be white wine or rosé,” he says. “Doing this will hinder enjoyment. Allow it to be what it is, an aromatic, textural and genre-expanding wine that will take time to get to know.”