Before white wine came orange—in fact, you might think of the latter as ur-wine, or what fermented grape juice was like prior to modern technology such as grape-crushing pneumatic presses and engineered yeasts. Today in winemaking, whites are generally intended to be bright, light, and fresh. Vintners must work fast, separating the juice from pigmented skins. The wine must also be kept cool and away from oxygen, which can turn the juice amber and nutty.
In ancient times, however, there were no refrigerated stainless-steel tanks for wine. Grape growers simply shoveled the fruit, skins and all, into clay amphorae and sealed them, letting wild yeasts start fermentation. These “white” wines turned orange in hue, with rich, full textures and flavors.
Now with an increasing number of winemakers seeking more sustainable ways to work in the vineyard and winery, these early techniques have inspired a revolution. Josko Gravner, a winemaker with a cult following in Friuli, Italy, was one of the first to take the plunge: Disappointed by what he saw as a global glut of standardized, commercial wines, Gravner traveled to the Republic of Georgia in 2000, crossing paths with several vintners crafting wines in giant earthenware pots called qvevri.
Gravner was so impressed that he returned home, replaced all of his own stainless-steel tanks with qvevri, and left the skins on his white-wine grapes. His resulting amber pours were a world away from Northern Italy’s bright, sharp whites, and they’ve encouraged winemakers around the world to follow suit.
Even in New World countries such as the US, Chile, and Australia, where “natural” wine has been slower to gain footing than in Europe, wine-makers are experimenting with skin-contact whites—and finding distinct advantages. Not only does time with grape skins give orange wines a warmer hue, but it opens up a new realm of flavor, more savory than fruity, with notes ranging from flowers and spice to beeswax, meat, and herbal tea.
The process also adds tannins, those scratchy, astringent elements we’ve been conditioned to believe belong only in red wine. Tannins add breadth and texture to skin-contact whites and also protect the drink, keeping it fresher longer. Open an ocher-colored wine, and chances are it’ll last for well over a week, with flavors developing continually.
The variety of orange wines available is as diverse as the world of white-wine grapes. One characteristic they all share, however, is that they’re best with food. On their own, orange wine’s tannins and strong flavors can be shocking, but at the dinner table, those attributes become advantages.
While the wine isn’t purposely matched with accompaniments in its homeland—“Georgia is so not a wine-and-food pairing culture,” says Alice Feiring, who spent extensive time in the country while writing For The Love of Wine: My Odyssey Through the World’s Most Ancient Wine Culture (Potomac Books, 2016)—the region’s robust cuisine seems naturally inclined toward powerful bottles. Think of khachapuri, fat, boat-shaped breads brimming with molten cheese, or lobio, beans baked slowly with garlic and herbs.
Even when it comes to cheese, Feiring says, Georgians tend to layer on seasonings; fresh cheese is typically showered with mint, for example. Orange wine’s full-bodied flavors and tannic structures make it particularly versatile with hard cheeses—even salty, aged examples that normally put up a fight with whites.
“A wine like 2011 Kisi from Pheasant’s Tears goes beautifully well with pecorino, feta, kashkaval, and aged gouda,” Feiring says. Whether or not you bake them into khachapuri is up to you.
Five to Try
- Channing Daughters 2013 Long Island Ramato Pinot Grigio (New York, US)
- Donkey & Goat 2014 El Dorado Sluice Box (California, US)
- Gravner 2004 Venezia Giulia Breg Anfora (Italy)
- Kabaj 2013 Goriška Brda Sivi Pinot Grigio (Slovenia)
- Pheasant’s Tears 2011 Kakheti Kisi (Georgia)
Feature Photo Credit: Settaphan Rummanee | Shutterstock