Having enjoyed a glass of the luminous amber liquid while journeying through a limestone cellar, author Simon Woolf was left with one question: Where had this strange, complex, and unusual wine been all his life?
“I was struck by how different it was. It wasn’t a white wine. It wasn’t red wine. It was clearly its own thing,” Woolf recalls.
The “it” Woolf refers to is an orange wine and one of his most memorable glasses of it at the Azienda Agricola Skerk winery deep within the Carso region — once part of imperial Austria-Hungary, but now, technically, a part of the Friuli-Venezia Giulia region of Italy. The experience happened during a trip to the country in 2011. Woolf was so hooked on orange wine that he was inspired to write an entire book dedicated to the category, “Amber Revolution: How the World Learned to Love Orange Wine.”
“I was really curious about why people would make a wine like this. Where did this tradition come from? And how come I hadn’t heard about this before?” Woolf says. “It really prompted quite a deep exploration of the history of winemaking in these parts of the world where this style has always been popular.”
Though it seems like a relatively new thing in wine for drinkers in the U.S., orange wine is a product of a winemaking technique that has existed for centuries.
Orange wine explained
Woolf describes his first glass of orange wine at the Skerk winery as “vino bianco macerato,” Italian for macerated white wine.
Any white grape can be used to make orange wine. However, the winemaking process is a bit different. To make orange wine, the grapes must remain in contact with the skins during fermentation, unlike the standards for white winemaking, in which grapes are pressed to separate the juice from the skins before fermentation.
Letting the grapes sit on the skins gives the wine its color and provides tannin, body, and texture to the wine.
“Mainstream white wines rarely have the same kind of textural interest that you can get from an orange wine,” says Woolf. “You can get this sort of body and complexity that people may be more familiar with in a red wine, but it’s wrapped around the freshness and some of the varietal character that we’re used to in a white wine.”
Many winemakers will ferment the wine with the skins for about two weeks before the grapes are pressed, racked, and aged in vessels like the traditional oak barrels or stainless-steel tanks. However, some winemakers may take a more historical approach and age orange wines underground in clay vessels called qvevri, also known as amphorae.
The use of a qvevri relates to winemaking practices that go back more than 8,000 years in the Republic of Georgia, where orange wines have long been made.
When using a qvevri, the skins, stems, and pips of the grape remain in contact with the wine during fermentation — sometimes for as long as three to nine months with no intervention, Woolf notes in “Amber Revolution,” resulting in a richly colored wine.
An ancient winemaking technique, the use of a qvevri was adopted by winemakers like Paolo Vodopivec and Josko Gravner, in Friuli-Venezia Giulia, in Italy’s northeast corner, along the Slovenian border.
This method of fermenting wine was not immediately well received. Josko Gravner’s winemaking reputation took a particularly brutal hit after he released his first batch of amber-colored wines in the late 1990s, according to “Amber Revolution.” However, over time, it caught on.
“Twenty years ago, everyone said it was completely verboten to keep the skins in contact with white grapes. And now suddenly, it’s not just allowed, it’s something to embrace. It’s like suddenly there’s a new tool, a new color to paint with,” says Woolf.
He adds, “There’s a new way of making complex age-worthy wine out of white grapes that doesn’t involve using barrels. Winemakers have become very receptive to this and realize that this is an interesting technique to make wine and have fun with.”
“Twenty years ago, everyone said it was completely verboten to keep the skins in contact with white grapes. And now suddenly, it’s not just allowed, it’s something to embrace. It’s like suddenly there’s a new tool, a new color to paint with.”
Where to look
Orange wine is made in various styles, just like red, white, and rosé wines.
Some producers make it still and dry. Others opt for light and sweet. Some people make orange sparkling wines and frizzante, or gently sparkling varieties. While orange wine is often pegged as natural wine, it doesn’t have to be.
“There’s much variety within the orange wine sphere,” says Woolf. “It’s not a style. It’s not a flavor. It’s not an aroma. It’s a winemaking technique with a huge and limitless range of possibilities.”
Woolf suggests drinkers search for orange wine from specific regions, given the mood and the structure they’re looking for at that moment.
“I look to Eastern Georgia or Western Slovenia if I want more of a heavy, full-bodied, darker-hued, amber-colored experience, like the Gravner style that uses a qvevri for six months. These are rich, complex wines that you need to sit down and think about a bit,” Woolf explains. “If I’m in the mood for something more fruit-driven and easygoing, I may look to somewhere in Austria, like Burgenland.”
Orange wine is now made in wine regions around the world, from California and Oregon in the U.S. to France, Greece, South Africa, and Japan, among others.
With so many winemakers in more regions exploring the possibilities of the category, now seems like the perfect time to give orange wine a taste.
4 bottles to try:
Weingut Edelberg Das Bronze 2020 (~$15)
This wine comes from the Nahe wine region of Germany by brothers Peter and Michael Ebert of Weingut Edelberg. It is made with Pinot Gris grapes and undergoes about six weeks of skin contact. The result is an approachable style that is “ideal for people trying out orange wine for the first time,” says Charles Springfield, a sommelier and wine educator in New York City who wrote the book “The Less is More Approach to Wine.” A fresh and food-friendly wine, this bottle has “bright acidity with moderate tannins and pairs well with a variety of meals,” Springfield says.
Klinec Medana Malvazija Slovenia Malvasia 2017 (~$34)
There are a few orange wines Woolf keeps returning to, like this one made along the scenic landscape of Goriška Brda in Slovenia. Made with organic Malvasia Istriana grapes, the wine spends 36 months maturing in acacia oak barrels. It displays a concentrated structure with aromas and flavors of dried fruit, honey, caramel, and a hint of spicy cinnamon.
Azienda Agricola Skerk Carso Malvasia Bianca Orange Wine 2018 (~$42)
“They are the people who opened my eyes to this way of making wine. They’re the classics — the grand cru producers, if you like,” Woolf says of Sandi Skerk and the rest of the team behind Azienda Agricola Skerk, along the Slovenian and Italian border. This bottle is made with Vitovska grapes and spends 10 days macerating with the skins in wood tanks to produce a wine that sings with notes of apricot, orange peel, floral nuances of chamomile.
Radikon Slatnik Venezia Giulia IGT 2019 (~$46)
Winemaking at Radikon has primarily focused on orange wines since the late Stanko Radikon first experimented with Ribolla Gialla grapes in the mid-1990s. While the winery produces a range of orange wines, this one — made with Chardonnay and Tocai — is lighter in style, signified by the one to two weeks grapes spend macerating on the skins. However, the aromas and flavors are quite pronounced, fresh, and rich with complex fruit.